Exercising can be a pain when we're way out of shape (I know because I was 44 pounds overweight once). But that's exactly when we need to do it, starting slowly if we must and as part of an overall, well thought-out plan to improve our health and fitness.
The same is true about our finances, with today's tough economic times demanding - but not always receiving - a greater commitment on our part to sound financial planning, even if we start with just baby steps.
I thought about this after reading the sobering 2009 "Retirement Confidence Survey," the 19th in a series of annual studies about Americans' readiness and attitudes about retirement. The survey has been co-sponsored each year by the Employee Benefit Research Institute and the research firm Mathew Greenwald and Associates.
This year's main findings have been duly reported by the major media: A record low 13 percent of American workers, down from 18 percent last year and 27 percent in 2007, are very confident of having enough money for a comfortable retirement. Among retirees, confidence also fell to a new low, with only 20 percent saying they are very confident, down from 29 percent in 2008 and 41 percent in 2007.
"Our survey first picked up the drop in retirement confidence last year," said Jack VanDerhei, research director at the not-for-profit, non-partisan Institute. "Given the uncertainties that exist about the economy, it is no surprise the downward trend has continued."
Besides this drop in confidence, a little-noticed section of this year's study reveals an understandable but disquieting change in attitudes about financial planning.
For example, 21 percent of American workers now say preparing for retirement "takes too much time and effort," up from 11 percent in 1998, when the stock market was going gangbusters. Just 48 percent say they enjoy financial planning now, compared to 62 percent in 2000, about the time the tech bubble began to burst.
Only 63 percent believe now that "anyone can have a comfortable retirement if they just plan and save," compared to 71 percent in 2002. I consider the drop significant considering the 2000-2002 period was a terrible year for the stock market (although without the massive job losses of the current recession).
As to good news, at least more Americans are recognizing reality. A recurring theme I found in many previous surveys, particularly during the late 1990s, was one of false confidence. Millions of Americans somehow expected a comfortable retirement despite meager or no savings and, in many cases, not having a clue how much retirement would cost.
This year, "more people are taking a more realistic view of what they need to do," said Mathew Greenwald, president of the research firm that bears his name. "Maybe they know enough to know their situation has worsened. That's the silver lining in a very dark cloud." Besides cutting expenses, many workers expect to work longer (21 percent until their 70s) and 72 percent plan to work for pay at least part-time after retirement.
But one thing most American workers still don't do - and it could help them tremendously - is at least to estimate how much money they will need in retirement. In this year's survey, only 44 percent of workers said they or their spouse have tried to make the calculation, down from 47 percent last year. The highest percentage ever was 53 percent in 2000, after a big run-up in stock prices. For help with the calculation and other savings tips, see Web site www.choosetosave.org.