Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Cost of Living

At a recent conference, our luncheon table got to talking about savings trends and the unique challenges of Millennials, specifically the impact of graduating with so much college debt.

While several at the table had graduated with (and since paid off) college debt, the sums paled in comparison to the kinds of figures bandied about in recent headlines — or did, until I loaded up an online calculator that allowed us to see what our college debt at graduation amounted to in today’s dollars. To the collective astonishment of the retirement experts at that table, the totals, adjusted for inflation, were very much in line with the figures reported for today’s graduates.

Factoring in those kinds of cost-of-living adjustments is, of course, a crucial aspect of retirement planning. Unlike Social Security, there is no annual cost-of-living “adjustment” for retirement savings—no systematic means by which those accumulated savings are increased to offset the increased costs of things like heating fuel, food and medicine. After all, managing to replace a targeted amount of preretirement income is of little consequence if, 10 years into retirement, that amount isn’t sufficient to provide for life’s necessities.

The bottom line is this: We’re well advised as savers to take into account the inevitable cost-of-living increases that occur over time, even in a period of low inflation. To their credit, most retirement savings calculators retain an inflation assumption that can help those future projections reflect potential realities (though you often have to provide that rate).

However, those adjustments are also often incorporated in a projected annual increase in pay (and deferral) that, for a significant number of American workers, may be little more than a quaint anachronism. Unfortunately, the cost of living moves on without our proactive involvement — unlike our rate of savings (in the absence of design changes such as contribution acceleration).  

Every generation has its own challenges, of course. And even if this newest generation of workers lacks the promise of a defined benefit pension (as noted previously, the realities of those promises were often something else altogether), a growing number will find themselves enrolled automatically upon hire and invested in a diversified asset allocation portfolio. Some will also find that their initial deferral is raised automatically each year.

Certainly the level of college debt is daunting for many, and may well dissuade some from saving for retirement, at least until some of that obligation is “retired” — as it did many of their parents.  Doubtless this newest generation of workplace savers feels that they are dealing with a set of extraordinary financial constraints, though those constraints may not be as unique as they may think once one takes the cost of living into account.

Not to mention the costs of living — in retirement.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

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