Baby boomers may be headed down the homestretch for retirement, but many will have to keep right on working.
The typical boomer household has just $35,000 saved for retirement - far too little to fund the lifestyle most plan - according to a recently released survey sponsored by mutual fund company Scudder, Stevens & Clark.
"This is going to become a crisis if something doesn't change," warns Christopher Hayes, executive director of the National Center for Women and Retirement Research at Long Island University in Southampton, N.Y., which conducted the survey.
A lack of thrift is not unique to the baby boom generation, currently between 33 and 51. But for this horde of 76 million Americans, it signals that retirement may be redefined to include at least part-time work.
"It's sort of like planning a trip with no destination in mind," says Paul Yakoboski, a retirement specialist at the Employment Benefits Research Institute in Washington. "The overwhelming majority have never sat down and tried to calculate what they need to save."
It's not too late to start. Most boomers have two decades or more to go.
But a 45-year-old couple with the median savings - $35,000 - must get busy.
That amount, invested for 22 years at an 8 percent annual return, will fund only five years of retirement at $35,000 annual income, according to a planning kit developed by Scudder.
To fund another 15 years of retirement (excluding Social Security and traditional pensions), the couple would need to save 15 percent of their income, the Scudder kit suggests.
Conclusion: This boomer couple can meet their goal - with big sacrifices.
But many households fall ahead or behind the curve. About 20 percent have less than $10,000 saved. Others are on track.
Jack Warren, a mechanic at a Ford assembly plant near Clevelend, plows some of each paycheck into the automaker's voluntary 401(k) plan for a retirement that is 10 years away.
And his wife commutes 65 miles each way to a low-paying school job. It doesn't make much financial sense for the present, he says, but it gives her a pension to combine with his.
Despite a mortgage and a home-equity loan to pay off plus a daughter just finishing high school, he is optimistic about retirement income.
"Hopefully it'll be reasonable," Mr. Warren says.
People with a savings shortfall can draw several lessons from the Warrens and other successful savers.
Save. "What's my most important bill? It's myself, my future," says Dudley Ladd, a managing director at Scudder. If possible use automatic withdrawal from your paycheck to fund a tax-deferred retirement plan.
"People really have more vehicles at their disposal now to plan and save for retirement than their parents did," says Mr. Yakoboski. Among the most important: 401(k) plans, with matching contributions from your employer.
Make a plan. The Warrens talked to a financial planner. You may want to simply use a guidebook from a retirement-plan sponsor, such as a mutual fund. But set a target, and figure out the savings required to reach it.
Start early. A little money saved in your 20s or 30s may go farther - because of investment gains compounded over time - than a much larger sum set aside later.
Be disciplined. Half of boomers currently tap into savings and investments to meet current expenses, according to the recent survey, which excluded households with incomes below $30,000. A small sacrifice - skipping a take-out dinner every week - can bring a huge sum to the retirement plan.
"You don't have to be making $75,000 a year" to save for retirement, says Fidelity spokeswoman Leslie Bonnyman.
Know what you have coming. Find out from the Social Security Administration (800-772-1213) what you can expect your benefit to be. Check how much fixed pension you will get from your employer.
Watch inflation. It's not enough to ensure a given income in today's dollars. Your income will need to keep growing during retirement to match inflation.
Use stocks. What you end up with is a factor of not just how much you save but what returns you make. A bond-heavy portfolio is likely to underperform an equity-rich portfolio.
Which Are You?
Eighty percent of Americans fall into one of the following groups, say researchers at Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington.
* Planners. 26 percent
They are three times more likely than the rest of the population to say they have good savings habits; least likely to have credit card debt.
* Strugglers. 21 percent Three times more likely to say that whenever they start getting their finances in order, unpredictable expenses set them back.
* Deniers. 20 percent
Almost three times more likely to say they don't want to worry so much about saving for tomorrow that they don't enjoy today.
* Impulsives. 13 percent More likely to say shopping makes them feel good and to face monthly credit-card finance charges.