WASHINGTON — The go-to strategy to encourage people to save for their retirement years has been to frighten them with the numbers.
The average cost of retirement is more than $700,000, according to a study released this year by Merrill Lynch. If you want a swanky retirement, you’ll obviously need more. Fidelity Investments estimates that health care and medical expenses alone will total $275,000 for the average 65-year-old couple retiring in 2017.
And then there’s the scariest number of all. If you retire at 65, you could live another 25 years. The horror: You could outlive your savings.
This scared-straight approach is supposed to make us save more. But as television host Phil McGraw likes to say, “How’s that working for you?”
Despite dire reports of a looming retirement crisis, many households have little if anything saved. A GoBankingRates survey found that 55 percent of Americans have put away less than $10,000 for retirement.
“Ninety-two percent of working families have retirement account balances that do not meet recommended savings targets,” wrote researcher Nari Rhee in a report for the National Institute on Retirement Security. “The ‘American Dream’ of retiring after a lifetime of work will be long delayed, if not impossible, for many.”
Don’t be, says Chris Hogan, a former debt collector, banker and now financial coach for Ramsey Solutions.
Hogan’s tactic is to motivate not intimidate. His book “Retire Inspired: It’s Not an Age, It’s a Financial Number” (Ramsey Press, $24.99) is the Color of Money Book Club selection for this month.
“If you’re like a lot of the people I’ve coached over the years, the very word retirement might give you the same shivers you’d get from watching a Stephen King movie,” Hogan writes. “That fear might get your attention for a moment. And while fear can be a wake-up call, it is also a negative emotion. Fear doesn’t create energy, and it doesn’t really cause lasting change.”
So what causes enduring change?
A retirement dream with a plan, Hogan says.
He says to ask yourself: “What is that one dream you have for your future? That one thing that would make you wake up every day and think, ‘I get to do this?’ ”
I’d like to travel for months at a time. And when I’m not on the road, I want to continue working in the financial literacy field, volunteering at my church and in prisons. But to make my dream come true, I can’t be worried about money. My house has to be paid off. I need financial security to free me up to serve.
Here’s the thing. A secure retirement isn’t accidental.
“People generally don’t enter retirement with no savings because their plan didn’t work; they retire broke because they didn’t have a plan in the first place,” Hogan writes.
Here are Hogan’s five fundamentals of an inspired retirement.
■ You’ve got to dream. “Dreaming is an action.”
■ You’ve got to have a plan. “Let the plan be your GPS to get you to your retirement dreams.”
■ You’ve got to execute your plan. “It involves investing, budgeting, avoiding debt.”
■ You have to commit to the plan. “Commitment means embracing the sacrifices necessary to get you to your dream.”
■ You’ve got to be vigilant. “Vigilance means knowing that ‘stupid’ is always lurking around the corner. It is the admission that someone is always trying to sell you something you really don’t need. It is watching out for people trying to get you to invest in a risky, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will most likely leave you broke and embarrassed.”
You also have to watch out for the happy dance in retirement. Hogan tells the story of one couple who decided to upgrade to a bigger home. With the move came more expenses they hadn’t planned for.
The couple had to go back to work. They had to “un-retire,” Hogan said. “So at a time when they should’ve been simplifying life, they actually complicated everything with one bad financial decision.”
Here are three of my favorite quotes from the book:
■ “Debt is a thief.”
■ “The word deserve puts you on the fast track to stupid.”
■ “Taking personal responsibility for your own retirement is the first step toward success.”
Fear can be a powerful motivator. But frighten people too bad and they give up. They see their retirement number as unattainable.
Hogan doesn’t ignore the scary statistics. He just turns them around to inspire people to work toward the best retirement they can afford.Michelle Singletary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SingletaryM.