The recent legislative changes in social security will force Americans to become more self-reliant and in better control of their personal finances. Individuals are increasingly realizing that the government can no longer be the sole caretaker of retirement and postretirement. As a result, we must think about financial retirement needs long before actual retirement.
Retirement plans such as Individual Retirement Accounts, Keoghs, standard pensions, and the new 401K ''tax advantaged'' compensation plans are all excellent opportunities to accumulate significant sums of money for retirement. A retirement plan also can significantly reduce federal income tax liability during the working years. Saving taxes now, and building tax deferred, compounded funds over the years ahead, squarely places the tools at our disposal.
Individuals need to consider more aggressive investment strategies to make their money work harder. This includes all aspects of personal finance - investments, taxes, education funding, retirement, insurance, and personal legal matters (e.g., wills, ownership, etc.). The objectives outlined in the plans should be very specific - not ''I want to retire comfortably and travel,'' but rather, ''We will need 70 percent of our current income.'' Planning to spend all of our time ''on the golf course'' is not only naive but impinging on financial disaster - at a time when there is a certain lessening of the safety nets.
At the same time that social security benefits are just beginning a long trend of cutbacks, we are facing an entirely different set of economic and social pressures:
* With high inflation likely to return with economic recovery, it will cost consumers more each year to maintain their standard of living, particularly after retirement. While social security benefits are adjusted to inflation, retirement income from other sources (corporate pensions, personal investment) generally is not indexed to the cost of living.
* An increasing number of families depend on two incomes to meet their needs.
* The tax-bracket ''creep'' is putting many families in the 40 percent tax bracket . . . eating away at net take-home pay.
* With the general ''aging of the population,'' more people over 40 are being affected by pressures in the economy and everyday life. They have increasing financial responsibilities for others in the family.
* Individuals are experiencing higher personal stress related to meeting the demands of family finances.
* Corporations will be having to cut back on liberal pension increases of the last two decades reflecting their own profitability pressures and efforts to contain costs.
As a result of these pressures, we can no longer take a passive role in planning our retirement. Instead of pointing our finger at the government in the form of social security or the corporation in the form of pensions, we must take charge in developing our own financial strategy for retirement. This strategy must provide for the postretirement years, when inflation will eat away at fixed income.
To build a framework for an integrated, sound retirement plan, individuals should begin thinking about financial needs long before actual retirement. The major benefit to early planning is that savings will earn compound interest over time - letting this powerful phenomenon do the work for you.
It is easy to be lulled into inactivity today with some of the lower inflation rates reported in 1983. Beware. This is reflective of the deepest recession since the depression and a recovery will almost certainly bring a resumption of 6 to 9 percent inflation over the long run, according to experts.
Postretirement income sources are an important consideration in developing a financial road map. Besides receiving additional income which would most likely increase with inflation, many individuals find that part-time employment during retirement is psychologically valuable as well. Thinking about this now, in advance, as a positive career option, can be invigorating in addressing the future.
To reemphasize, as April's social security legislation begins the process of providing ''less, not more,'' and as pressure mounts to contain costs in the corporate pension sector, it is up to the individual to develop a personal financial retirement strategy. The more we save and invest, and the earlier we begin, the better the chances are for a truly happy, financially secure retirement. The handwriting is on the wall - there is no mistaking it - we must become increasingly self-reliant for our own well-being and financial health.