MICHELE NORRIS, HOST:
By some counts, fewer than half of all Americans have tried to calculate how much they'll need for retirement. And those who do? Half tell pollsters they just guessed. This week, we've been hearing about how retirement is proving more difficult than many expected, so we sent NPR's Jennifer Ludden to ask how much should we save?
JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: First, another question. What's the biggest threat to a good life in your golden years?
DALLAS SALISBURY: Living too long.
LUDDEN: Dallas Salisbury heads the Employee Benefit Research Institute and tried to drive this point home with his own parents. They were already mid-80s, but he pulled out his computer to show they had a 50 percent chance of living until age 99.
SALISBURY: And they looked at me and they just shook their heads and they say, you are the most depressing person we've ever met.
LUDDEN: Well, they did make it to 94, which proves Salisbury's warning not to base retirement savings on your average life expectancy. Here's Salisbury's rule of thumb, and you might want to be sitting down here.
SALISBURY: I use something that I call the rule of 33. You need 33 times what you want to spend in your first year of retirement.
LUDDEN: Now, you subtract what you'll get from Social Security. Still, it's a daunting sum. Another way of figuring it, save 15 percent of your income every year. If you don't start 'til your 30s or 40s, make that 20, 30 percent or more. So, for a middle-earner, making, say, 46, $47,000, Salisbury pulls out a calculator.
SALISBURY: That individual's going to need savings of about $900,000.
CINDY HOUNSELL: Well, I think he's right. That's what you should have, but nobody's going to have that, so - very few people are gonna have that, so you have to calculate it in a different way.
LUDDEN: Cindy Hounsell heads the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement. She points out more than half of Americans are at risk of not having enough money for basic expenses when they retire. She offers a kinder, gentler formula for figuring a nest egg.
HOUNSELL: I think what people need to do is take their W-2 form, look at the beginning of every year and see, like, what did they spend last year.
LUDDEN: Subtract taxes, insurance premiums and so forth, then subtract what you'll get from Social Security and any 401(k). Again, taking that median income, say this number comes out to $15,000.
HOUNSELL: And then you think you're going to live 20 years. That would only be $300,000.
LUDDEN: Sounds better. But Hounsell admits this does not account for inflation, health care, or living longer. She worries people will just give up if they're too discouraged by the little amount they have saved.
HOUNSELL: So we want them to treasure it, and preserve it, and feel good about it. And that maybe you're going to have to cut out a lot of things.
LUDDEN: There is good news for younger workers. More companies are now automatically enrolling them into 401(k) plans. That will have a huge payoff, says Mary Beth Franklin of Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. The challenge, she says, is that younger workers are likely to change jobs a lot, allowing them to cash out that 401(k).
MARY BETH FRANKLIN: The temptation is, maybe it's not a lot of money. Maybe it's 2 or $3,000, and you think, hey, I'll pay off a credit card bill. That is really dangerous.
LUDDEN: Back away slowly, she says, and just roll it into your new plan. Another common mistake - collecting Social Security too early.
FRANKLIN: Seventy-five percent of retirees grab those benefits at 62, as soon as they can, some of them not realizing they're taking a 25 percent cut in their benefits for the rest of their life.
LUDDEN: Mostly, Franklin and the other retirement experts all advise, just keep saving all you can, month in and month out. Sure, it's depressing now, they say, but you'll thank them later. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.