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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation, I'm Neal Conan in Washington. For millions of Americans, the financial crisis moved from the abstract to the very, very real when they open the envelope with the quarterly report on their 401(k). Years and in many cases, decades of retirement planning seem to evaporate before their eyes. For some older workers, the financial crisis could be a double whammy. A lot of companies are laying people off and many begin with their older higher paid employees. Obviously, we don't know how long this crisis will last or how deep it will be. It's possible the market could zoom back up just as fast as it fell but that's not what most analysts expect and it's probably not prudent to bet on it.

So how has the financial crisis changed your plans for retirement? Our number here, 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Later in the program, no matter how bad that 401(k) gets, we'll find out why 2008 is 1929. But first, rethinking your retirement and we begin with Wanda Annette. She's a regional coordinator for a pharmaceutical company in Denver, Colorado and joins us on the line from her office there. Nice to have you on the program today.

Ms. WANDA ANNETTE (Regional Coordinator, Denver, Colorado): Thank you.

CONAN: And how has the crisis affected your retirement plans?

Ms. ANNETTE: Well, I guess as succinctly as I can place it, probably as little as four months ago, we were obviously always monitoring how we're doing against the plan and what the goals are. And we were within $50,000 of our low-end number and so we felt that we were tracking and we were doing well. We had hoped to be able to retire at the age of 62 and a half. We're now $350,000 away from that low-end goal number.

CONAN: Wow! What was your reaction when you notice the $300,000 change?

Ms. ANNETTE: My daughter had worked on Wall Street for a number of years and she says to catch it when it's declining it's like trying to catch a falling knife. And to me, it was like razorblades. I mean, where do you try to stop it at? It was - it's mind-boggling.

CONAN: And you say we, I assume you mean you and your husband?

Ms. ANNETTE: Correct.

CONAN: And you had planned to retire at 62 and a half which is when you can start collecting Social Security.

Ms. ANNETTE: Correct.

CONAN: And now, what are your plans that have been moved upward I expect?

Ms. ANNETTE: Well, yeah, clearly it's until 65 and that is of course with great hopes that we both can stay employed. Our company has recently announced that it's going to be continuing to do some downsizing. I've already weathered two downsizings with this company so it's unlikely I'll be able to weather this one because it looks like they may close some offices.

CONAN: And like other companies in the past, have they laid-off the older and generally higher paid workers first?

Ms. ANNETTE: Certainly, they go after where the money is, right? It doesn't do a lot of good to lay-off the people that are making the lower income numbers, and so it's not unusual for them to lay the more senior people off.

CONAN: And do you and your husband work for the same company?

Ms. ANNETTE: We do not.

CONAN: That's a relief.

Ms. ANNETTE: That is truly a relief.

CONAN: Is there a possibility for - I don't know what sector of the economy you're working but is it a robust sector? Would you be able find another job, do you think?

Ms. ANNETTE: Well, big farm is, you know, I think, across the board. That's an industry that's going through a regeneration of how they're doing business and rethinking their old paradigms and so I - the entire sector, I believe, is contracting.

CONAN: And what looked to be on track and steady as she goes all of a sudden looks very - like you're steering into rocky waters, indeed.

Ms. ANNETTE: Well, the thing that was so devastating is that it was so quick. I mean, literally, four months ago, we were with as I said $50,000 and now it's - we're way far away and of course, all of the prognostications right now are very well could be years.

CONAN: Well, we wish you the best of luck.

Ms. ANNETTE: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Wanda Annette works for a pharmaceutical company in Denver. She's joined us the line from her office there. Well, with us here in Studio 3A is Jean Setzfand. She's the director of financial security at AARP here in Washington D.C. She joins us. Thanks very much for coming in.

Ms. JEAN SETZFAND (Director of Financial Security, AARP): My pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: And I assume you've heard a lot of stories like Wanda Annette's.

Ms. SETZFAND: Unfortunately, we have. And for Wanda's situation and I didn't hear clearly enough how far away she is from the 62 and a half ideal retirement age, but it seems like she's pretty close. Those are the one who are most vulnerable. And the reason being they have the largest nest eggs that they've grown, and with the downfall, they're going to take the biggest hit.

CONAN: And with the least time to allow for a recovery.

Ms. SETZFAND: Absolutely. Absolutely. That's probably the reason why they're the most in danger.

CONAN: And they're also, as she suggested, in danger of maybe losing their jobs, too.

Ms. SETZFAND: That's what you said in the beginning about it, double whammy. And that's the worst situation, obviously to be in. What everybody's been saying so far in terms of how you recover from the situation is try to prolong your job as long as possible, delay retirement. But in the circumstances with the downturn in the economy, this is the biggest dangers for the short-term, you may not be able to keep your job or find another job very quickly.

CONAN: So if you're complaining about your new boss, maybe you ought to go take another class in computer skills.

Ms. SETZFAND: That's exactly right. That's exactly right.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Elizabeth. Elizabeth with us on the line from Detroit in Michigan.

ELIZABETH (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: How are you?

ELIZABETH: Hi. I'm like 5 and a half years away from - well, I had hoped to be a retirement. I have worked at a number of places that have gone out of business, and I was trying to like do freelance, work part-time to put things together but with the way things are going now, I mean, I have to go into my retirement, into the money I've put aside just to pay for like health care, regular things. Jobs are fewer and far between - (unintelligible) things are few and far between. And I mean, that 5 and a half years now more is looking more like 50 and a half years before I could even think about retiring.

CONAN: And if you're taking money out of your retirement funds here, I mean that's pushing it even further into the future.

ELIZABETH: Oh yeah! I mean I can't put in. I can only, you know - and when certain things come up, I had a medical emergency, I can't put in. I can only take out. I mean, I don't see anywhere I can find a way now to put that savings aside that I always was able to do and especially, because I can't find another job to where I even a match. So it's like whatever I had and now, it's like standing still or going down.

CONAN: Well, we know that the hard times hit the state of Michigan, in particular the City of Detroit before they hit the rest of the country. So maybe the recovery will start there.

ELIZABETH: I sure hope so.

CONAN: We wish you luck, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And again, a lot of people like Elizabeth are dipping into their retirement funds. There are proposes, I think, by both presidential candidates to allow to people withdraw some money from the 401(k)'s without penalty but nevertheless, that pushes their retirement plans even further.

Ms. SETZFAND: That's absolutely right. Elizabeth's situation is a very similar to a lot of what we're hearing from our members. We just did a survey, a little bit, in the month of September and we heard from our members, 1,600 of them, 45 and above working, where 30 percent of them are actually stopping their contributions into their 401(k), and the main reason is because of current cash needs. They want to pay for their gas. They need to pay for their medical expenses like Elizabeth referred to. And it's not as if it's frivolous anymore. People are just trying to make ends meet so they're trying to just meet the needs of today and therefore, prolonging or putting off the decisions for tomorrow. It's not the best thing that you want to do but right now, I don't think we're talking about what's best. It's a matter of just need and the basics.

CONAN: And this reflects the switch. I mean, years ago, most people got pension plans from - well, certainly, in Detroit, the auto companies most notably which guaranteed a certain amount of money per month from the company, and over the years, so all of that has been largely transferred over to 401(k)'s, which are put into stock investments programs. This risk is entirely on the hands of the employee.

Ms. SETZFAND: That's absolutely right. And that's a major shift and that's a major issue right now. What we see in retirement is that there are no guarantees anymore. And how we see retirement is really a balanced responsibility with the government with the employer and the employee. But as a shift, as you mentioned, with the pensions going away from the defined benefit or the traditional pension plans to a 401(k). That shift between the employer and employees is really moving over to individuals. And so, like it or not, you're in the driver seat.

You have to make some really hard decisions for yourself. And in many ways what we're seeing in the environment today is that people, either not so much falling at the wheels but, don't have the capability of making the right decisions. So one of the things that I've been thinking about was, especially Wanda's situation like is, what was she invested in that actually took her down that sort of steep decline. If she's so close to retirement, was she still heavily invest in the market that it really took a bigger toll than it should of.

CONAN: And you might have one to invest in safer kinds of securities - bonds, or something like that.

Ms. SETZFAND: Right. One of the new inventions and I think what we're kind of - what we've seen today is some movement to make the 401(k) system better. So that there are some automated features both in terms of participation, automated enrollment, and then also products like the target date funds, where you actually just aim for the retirement date and then it sets itself on a course where it becomes more conservative as you reach closer to the time where you actually need the funds.

CONAN: And one other question, I can understand from a company's point of view why they might want to lay off their older and more highly paid, for the most part, employees. Is that legal?

Ms. SETZFAND: I am not an expert in the area of age discrimination but it certainly isn't legal because from the stand point ADEA, protect the class for workers is 40 and above. So, what we're looking at, the experienced and older workforce, and there is a reason why that's in place.

CONAN: Nevertheless, people can find inventive reasons. You know, lack of modern skills or something like that.

Ms. SETZFAND: Right. Right and I think there are business reasons that's fair to say, as you mentioned. There are skills that are needed in order to keep the business going. And a lot of the reasons of the rational that the businesses give to us, is we have to keep the doors open. We have to make sure that we have a fighting chance to more -all of the workers in place not just a few.

CONAN: And you said no guarantees for retirement anymore, social security.

Ms. SETZFAND: Absolutely.

CONAN: That's guaranteed.

Ms. SETZFAND: Thank goodness, we still have social security, that's the foundation but that isn't enough to leave on, unfortunately but we do see that over 60 percent of individuals rely on social security for more than half of their income. Close to 30 actually, rely on in almost entirely for the retirement income and that's not what we want to see. That should be a basis. It should be a good foundation because it is an income for life. But beyond that right now, there is little else.

CONAN: We're talking about how the financial crisis has changed people's plans for retirement. We'll get back to your calls in just a moment. 800-989-8255 or send us an email. The address is talk@npr.org. Our guest is Jean Setzfand, a director of financial security at AARP with us here in Studio 3A. I am Neal Conan, stay with us. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Two trillion dollars, that's how much money Americans lost in their retirement account over the past 15 months by one estimate. And many of you are now rethinking retirement. How is the financial crisis change your plans for your golden years? Give us a call 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org. You can also check out our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. We're talking with Jean Stezfand, director of financial security at AARP with us here in the Studio 3A in Washington.

Here's an email we have from Gail in San Jose, California, "I'm a 67-year-old grandmother raising a 10-year-old who has high hopes of going to college. My IRA is now half of what it was six months ago. Worst of all, there seems to be nothing I can do to make it better. My backup plan was that when the IRA ran out, get college money by selling my house when she is ready." And of course we're talking about people in double whammy situations. Well that IRA is plunging and, well, so is the value of her home almost certainly in San Jose, California.

Ms. SETZFAND: In this brings up an interesting issue. If she wasn't explicit about what she's doing about the college tuition but it sounds like or at the implication was that she was hoping to fund the college tuition of her grandchild. That's the worst thing that you could possibly think of quite honestly. Whether in good times or bad, retirement funds are for your retirement. And you should think about that first before you actually think about college tuitions. College tuitions can be supplemented with loans but your retirement can't so you should really think about that first. If you have anything left over then think about the college support.

CONAN: Let's get to Bill, Bill with us from Flint, Michigan.

BILL (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi Bill.

BILL: I'm a retired General Motor's worker. I retired three years ago. And early so I don't know if I have any pension. My wife is retired and she and I both are now teaching, substitute teachers.

CONAN: And substitute teachers are not the most highly paid workers in America.

BILL: No. No, they're not. And her health, I choose to her health care because her health care was better than mine. But now, they changed the plans so we don't know what we're going to do.

CONAN: And in terms of retirement?

BILL: We are already retired.

CONAN: You're already retired and working full-time, it sounds like.

BILL: Yes.

CONAN: And that looks like it's going to continue into the foreseeable future?

BILL: At least for a while.

CONAN: And we could go back to the GM thing, you are an hourly worker there so basically you were a temp and therefore not a full-time worker.

BILL: No, no. I retired 30 years.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

BILL: And I was production as opposed to salary. So we fall under different plans, my ZUAW plan. And it's a guaranteed pension but if General Motors is in trouble as it is, is there going to be anything there?

CONAN: Oh, that's a good question. And because a fair number of companies have gone to courts to have those pension plans lifted out of their, you know - appeal to the courts to have the pension plans abolished effectively.

Ms. SETZFAND: I think what Bill - Bill, I think what your concern is if GM goes bankrupt what then happens to your pension. We do have one guarantee, the pension - PBGC, Pension Benefits Guarantee Corporation, which is established by the government to do exactly that. So that should you work for a company your whole life, and then the bank - company goes bankrupt, you're at least assured that you're - some portion of that pension is going to be paid to you. So rest assured that even if you're not going to get all of it, you will get a good portion of it. Though I think I don't remember the exact limits but it's close to $50,000 of your annual - of your pension income that will be guaranteed. So it's more of the higher paid employees that will probably lose more than those who are at the middle income.

BILL: Well, that's a help. Thank you.

CONAN: Good luck Bill. Bye-bye.

BILL: Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: Let's see if we can now go to - this is Bob, Bob with us from Scottsdale, Arizona.

BOB (Caller): Yes, Neal. I'm right in the cross hairs of your discussion today. This morning, I closed out my IRA account that I fed for 35 years. And I had the money, the remaining money transferred to a Well Fargo HIRA(ph) account. I'm 66 in November, I decided to close a small business that I had, and take a thousand dollars a month out of the IRA account until I could discover another business that I could start. Since I've been taking out a thousand dollars a month, the accounts have been dropping and additional $2,000 a month for the last six months.

CONAN: Because of the market prices.

BOB: Because of the market drop. And my broker continuously insist that I should be in a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds, and some small cash, and I kept insisting that I should be in cash and solely protected and she just didn't change that and in the last couple of weeks I lost close to $8,000 and so I was between a rock and a hard spot and I simply had to take the money out and basically buy the loss and get out of the stress and take a look at what I've got left next week and then make a plan based on that. I would say for people that can continue to invest this market will come back someday, but for people in my situation at my age we can't take that risk anymore, we can't watch those funds disappear.

CONAN: Jean Setzfand, he's right about the people in his age group?

Ms. SETZFAND: Yes of course risk is really an individual perspective and I think from Bob's perspective he's - it sounds like he's having a hard time sleeping at night. This is something that is really worrying him, and he's made the decision for himself to do what he did just to give you some perspective in terms of what the adviser sounded like he or she was telling Bob is the balanced portfolio is probably half invested in the market, half invested in fixed income or something a little bit less risky and from their standpoint I think they are thinking about trying to think of a longer time frame believe it or not because a lot of people think about retirement as the end goal, it's not. You actually have to manage your assets until the rest - until the end of life quite honestly.

So, there is still a longer time frame that you do want to consider again your risk tolerance is what you can bear and if it's keeping you up at night, you should do what Bob has said is to pull it out, but some things to keep in mind one of the things that happens when you pull your money out is you're actually realizing the losses that are just on paper and one of the things that I loved was an op-ed from Warren Buffet last Friday where his, I guess wise advice was be fearful when people are greedy but be greedy when people are fearful. So a lot of people are saying that it's a good time to buy when the prices are low and the worst thing you can do is actually buy in and out market and then sell when it is this time. But again, risk is individual. If it's keeping you up at night, it's not worth it.

CONAN: Bob, what business you're hoping to go into?

BOB: Well, I'm not sure. I've owned a map publishing business, a dating services school and a painting contracting business, and I'm probably not an employable person because it's been four or five years since I've actually had a job. So I'm sort of trying to decide what business is viable to go into in this market. And so I'm exploring, you know social work because I have a master's degree. And otherwise just a nice, gentle small business like my painting business, but that was getting to be too stressful at my age to do.

CONAN: Bob, we wish you the best of luck.

BOB: Thanks, sir.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Here's an email from Connie in Mesa, Arizona. I was laid off after 21 years as a copy editor at The Tribune newspaper. I was one of 142 people, I'm scrambling to look for a job and as you may know, journalist like me are not necessarily high wage employees. I'm 51, I've lost a $100,000 for my 401(k), I am looking for another career that I can hopefully work for another 20 years. I cannot afford to retire. And again, these are people in businesses. Well, the newspaper business is well just terrible right now.

Ms. SETZFAND: That's right. One thing to consider - one thing that I wanted to point your listeners to is a resource that we have at AARP, it's called the National Employer's team. And it's a group of employers from different industries, retail, staffing companies, health care, financial institutions that have signed on with AARP to actually look for mature workers. They know and they value, experience in the older staff that they can recruit. So, something to consider is if you do want to maybe move out of the line of business that you're in whether you're in journalism or starting a business or what not. Even if it's a temporary thing where you can actually bring in some income just as hold off from actually tapping in to your 401(k) accounts or IRA accounts. That can still again give you the time to let things recover. So, something to consider.

CONAN: I think we have a question on that point from Delaine. Delaine with us from Cedar Falls in Iowa.

DELAINE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

DELAINE: Yeah. I'm a 35-year old male, self-employed and I have an IRA and that's really my only - going be my only thing to fall back on when I retire. And my question is if your guest thinks that - is there any other better place I should be putting my money. I mean, I don't have any kind of an employer match or anything like that. I'm strictly on my own.

CONAN: I think you got two other choices: Serta or Tempurpedic?

(Soundbite of laughter)

DELANE: There you go. That's good.

CONAN: Any advice for him, Jean Setzfand?

Ms. SETZFAND: One of the things that you have is the possibility of going to a SEP IRA as a self-employed individual for a regular IRA, the contribution limits are far less than what you get in a 401(k). In a 401(k), your limits are 15,500 if you're under 50 and then in an IRA, it's 4,000, if I remember my numbers correctly, but for SEP IRA, you actually increase that limit all the way up to, I think, $40,000. So you do have a much broader range to actually put your money in.

So that's something to consider and I'm so proud of you to actually take the initiative to go save money for yourself because one of the things that we actually see, what we've been talking about are traditional pensions, 401(k)'s, and only half of the workforce has access to it. The other half, 75 million like yourself, Delaine, don't have access to that. And when you don't have access to a facilitated savings through your workplace, more often than not, people don't save. So you're doing the right thing. I just wish you the best of luck because you're on the right track.

DELAINE: Sure, and you said it, what's the one, what's it called. I am sorry. I want to write it down.

Ms. SETZFAND: SEP. SEP, S-E-P. It's Self Employed - I think it's for the Self-Employed program IRA.

DELAINE: Yeah. OK.

CONAN: Would that take effect if for example, you have a salary job and made some money on the side, could you get a SEP-IRA for that separate income?

Ms. SETZFAND: It's interesting because my husband is in that boat. As long as you're meeting the IRS rules in terms of the limits, so if you have a 401K at work, more likely than not, it has to do with the total amount contributed on your behalf. So if you have an employee contribution as well as an employer contribution, you have to look at how much more can you add on top of that in order to maxed out on the tax contributions. And I think the overall is $40,000.

CONAN: OK. Delaine, thanks. Good luck.

DELAINE: Yeah. Thanks very much. Appreciate it.

CONAN: Here's Jeff in Syracuse, New York with an email. Why retire at all? I am freelance trumpet player. I chose this line of work partly so that I would never have to retire unless I was physically incapable of playing the instrument anymore. Why would I ever want to retire from something I love doing. My retirement plan, they will have to pry the trumpet out of my cold dead hands when I kill over at the end of my final gig. And that's, well, obviously, some people love to do what they do and plan to do it forever.

Ms. SETZFAND: That's great. And I am happy to hear it from Jeff and his great trumpet playing. One thing to consider for Jeff though, is when he's actually going to tap in to social security because he has the freedom, I would say, try to - and then also thinking about what his life expectancy is. The longer you wait to tap into your social security, the more will it will grow. And again, it grows with the lifetime. It maxes out at 70 but if you're eligible beginning at 62 and then it continues to increase until you get to what they call a normal retirement age which is kind of what they call the full benefit. But even above and beyond that it still increases by about eight percent a year until it reaches its limit at 70. So the longer you wait, the bigger that really guaranteed lifetime income will be.

CONAN: We're talking with Jean Setzfand, director of financial security of AARP about, well, how people's retirement plans have changed given the financial crisis. You are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's go to Paul. Paul with us from Ogden, is this Ogden, Iowa?

PAUL (Caller): That is correct.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

PAUL: Well, you know, you made a statement a while ago that is not entirely correct. In that you were indicating that bonds were relatively in risk-free. And right now, I am facing the fact that I lost a good sum because I had bought some AA, Lehman Brothers bonds, and they are in default.

CONAN: Yes, indeed. Bonds are less volatile, let me put it that way. I apologized if I mislead and certainly people with those Lehman Brothers funds, well, and maybe some other banks too. They're going to be in trouble, aren't they?

PAUL: Yeah. And you know there's are two other levels that which bonds are risky. One is that the other bonds that I hold in my portfolio are all trading below par. They're all trading well below what I paid for them on the market. I know that because I've been down to my broker's office and talk to him about. And the other reason is, if you happened to buy a bond at three percent in a period of rising interest rates. And their interest rates, to make the arithmetic easy, interest goes to four percent on the market and you have to sell a bond in order to get a crown put on a tooth. You want a thousand dollars, you sell a bond, you'll only get 750.

CONAN: Right, so because the change in the interest rates and, on the other hand, Paul at least for me arithmetic is never easy.

PAUL: Well, when you get into my predicament, at age 81 and wondering, where in the world in this little town I would get a job that would keep body and soul together. You know, I've got my money spread out over cash and annuities and mutual funds. And my mutual funds, I am going to get some reports here right after the first of the month, and I know they're going to be down about 60 percent of what they were not very long ago.

CONAN: It's difficult, Paul. Thanks for the call and good luck.

PAUL: Well, I sure need it. Thank you.

CONAN: We all do. And let's see if we can get one last caller in and this is Greg. Greg with us from Shelbyville in Michigan.

GREG (Caller): Hi, good afternoon. You know, one of the things that I'd like to say is that people that are our situation that last gentleman, I mean, similar situation. I am 60. In the last three weeks, I lost a job and about 40 percent of my meager retirement savings. But I like would to stress that people need to stand up and realized that everybody is in this boat. Weeping and gnashing of teeth and feeling bad isn't going to do anything. I used to tell people that my retirement plans were to work full time until I was 85 and then live one year and party hard.

That was optimistic. Now I would say it's more like, work part time with a variety of three or four part-time businesses, live till 90 and party hard the rest of the time. So, you know, seriously, if it weren't so widespread, I could see that people would really be bothered but we're all in the same boat and nobody necessarily made the worst moves, I mean, so, you know, I just like to suggest to people that we need to think of ourselves more like cockroaches, you know? They can't stamp us out.

CONAN: We got an email on that point from Marjorie in Sacramento in California. Due to the loss of my job I've had to cash in my retirement savings in order to make my house payments. It's a recession when the other guy losses his job. It's a depression when you lose your job. Listening to Talk of the Nation has help me to know that I am not alone. If there is any comfort in that, and Greg, I guess, there is.

GREG: Yeah, I think so.

CONAN: All right, Greg. Thanks very much and good luck to us all.

GREG: Bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Thanks very much for your time today, Jean.

Ms. SETZFAND: Thank you.

CONAN: Jean Setzfand, joined us here in Studio 3A. She is director of financial security at AARP. Coming up, why 2008 may not be 1929? Stay with us. I am Neal Conan, it's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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