401(k) plan not on track? Look in the mirror.

401(k) plans increasingly come with advice. But few 401(k) investors take advantage of it.

John Minchillo/AP/File
News of a massive stock sell-off rolls around a ticker in Times Square in New York in this file photo taken last month. Many Americans with 401(k) plans have seen them shrink this year, but they're not taking advantage of the advice that many plans now include.

Driving on the freeway one morning, I spotted a billboard that declared: "Retirement Needs a New Plan."

The message, promoting financial services from Prudential, was right on the money and probably applies to thousands of the drivers who pass the sign knowing exactly where they are going each day but have no idea where they are likely to end up in 10 to 20 years.

Some people have never had a plan. Others need an entirely new one given the recent volatility of the stock markets, slumping home values and the pitiful job situation.

"It starts with that financial look in the mirror," said Catherine Collinson, president of the nonprofit Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.

Let's face it: Too many people stopped looking years ago.

But people do have some options. About 60 percent of 401(k) plans offer some sort of advice, according to David Wray, president of the Profit-Sharing/401(k) Council of America in Chicago.

"There was no advice back in the 1990s," Wray said.

In late August, Ford began offering online investment advice through Financial Engines, an independent financial adviser, at no cost to its employees.

Ford's plan also has target-date retirement funds that — for employees who don't want to pick their own — offer an appropriate mix of stocks and bonds based on one's age and expected retirement date.

If you want a new plan, you have to take time to get advice.

Charles Schwab said about 81 percent of 1,200 plans in its database offer advice to workers. But depending on the plan, just 10 percent to 20 percent of the people actually take advantage of the advice.

"I think that number should be much higher," said Catherine Golladay, Schwab vice president for 401(k) Participant Services.

The warning sirens are blaring on a generational storm that has been brewing for decades. But you get the feeling that all most baby boomers have done about retirement is the equivalent of stashing a few rain bonnets.

Even with some backup from Social Security, how does anyone stop working completely and live — for 15-20 years? Perhaps for 30 years or longer? What is it they say: "As long as you have your health ... "

But you still have to eat.

The summer-long economic slump and political turmoil only add to the uncertainty many boomers are feeling. "Is it a good time?" asked Angela Blue. "I don't think it's over."

Blue, 62, a servicing representative in the United Auto Workers union's civil rights department, worries about the volatility of Wall Street and wants to help her granddaughter pay for college. She thinks she may have to work until age 65. "I had always planned to retire way before (that)," said Blue.

For many, the new retirement strategy appears to be: keep working.

About 44 percent of baby boomers expect to work longer and retire at an older age than they figured before the recession and 54 percent plan to work in retirement, according to the 12th annual Transamerica Retirement Survey, which was conducted among 4,080 American workers.

Only 23 percent have a backup plan in the event that bad health or a bad economy keeps them from earning an income in retirement.

"Our country faces a huge retirement insecurity crisis," said Hank Kim, executive director and counsel for the National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems. "We, at a minimum, need to have a serious adult conversation about retirement security."

The conference, the largest trade association for public sector pension funds, unveiled a plan Wednesday for a "Secure Choice Pension" for workers at private companies.

Yes, public workers are worrying about private pensions — because they know they will face resentment over their checks when workers at private companies that scrapped pension plans are getting by on Social Security, savings and duct tape.

The public systems proposal calls for each state to develop its own Secure Choice Pension Plan with contributions from employers and workers into a fund administered by a board of trustees.

But rather than waiting for some new idea or new system, individuals should have their own family discussions about retirement security. Far too many people are doing nothing at all.

"They haven't taken the steps to figure out what they need for retirement," said Pamela Hess, director of retirement research for Aon Hewitt, a human resources outsourcing and consulting company.

"What people need to do is take a look at what their employer has available," Hess said.

Employers are adding new features to plans, such as managed portfolios, target-date retirement funds or even free online advice.

Schwab, which oversees plans at various companies, said its free consultations run about 45 minutes on the phone. Information includes reviewing how much should be saved for retirement and determining what kind of a monthly income could be generated out of savings.

One-too-many wild rides on Wall Street, of course, do not help matters.

"Volatility comes into the equation quite a bit," said Scott Heise, senior wealth management adviser for TIAA-CREF.

"The danger is that people will react and lose sight of the long term."

And your retirement may indeed be a long-term proposition.

Todd D. Knickerbocker, senior vice president of investments at Raymond James in Northville, Mich, said he tells clients all the time to consider that they could be retired for as many years as they work — age 25-55 on the job and 55-85 afterward.

For that reason, he said, investors need to hold onto dividend-paying stocks as part of their portfolio. "Remember this, for the rest of your lives, it will cost you more every year to live — just like it has since you were born," he said.

How do you retire and pay the bills for two or three decades? Putting a tiny bit of money into a 401(k) plan — and forgetting about it — won't get you out of the storm.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.