CHICAGO - Through a combination of procrastination and bad timing, many baby boomers are facing a personal-finance disaster just as they're hoping to retire.
Starting in January, more than 10,000 baby boomers a day will turn 65, a pattern that will continue for the next 19 years.
"The situation is extremely serious because baby boomers have not saved very effectively for retirement and are still retiring too early," said Olivia Mitchell, director of the Boettner Center for Pensions and Retirement Research at the University of Pennsylvania.
There are several reasons to be concerned:
The traditional pension plan is disappearing. In 1980, some 39 percent of private-sector workers had a pension that guaranteed a steady payout during retirement. Today that number stands closer to 15 percent, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, based in Washington.
Reliance on stocks in retirement plans is greater than ever; 42 percent of those workers now have 401(k)s. But the last decade has been a lost one for stocks, with the Standard & Poor's 500 index posting total returns of just 4 percent since the beginning of 2000.
Many retirees banked on their homes as their retirement fund. But the crash in housing prices that began in 2007 has slashed almost a third of a typical home's value. Now 22 percent of homeowners, or nearly 11 million people, owe more on their mortgage than their home is worth. Many are boomers.
Michael Vanatta, 61, of Vero Beach, Fla., is paying the price for being a boomer who enjoyed life without saving for the future. He put a daughter through college, but he also spent plenty of money on indulgences such as dining out and the latest electronic gadgets.
Vanatta was laid off last January from his $100,000-a-year job as a sales executive for a turf company. And with savings of just $5,000, he's on a budget for the first time. In April, he will start taking Social Security at age 62.
"If I'd been smarter and planned and had the bucks, I'd wait until 70," says Vanatta, who is divorced and rents an apartment. "It's my fault. For years I was making plenty of money and spending plenty of money."
Vanatta is in the majority. Some 51 percent of early-boomer households, headed by those ages 55 to 64, face a retirement with lower living standards, according to a 2009 study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
Too many boomers have ignored or underestimated the worsening outlook for their finances, said Jean Setzfand, director of financial security for AARP, the group that represents Americans over age 50.
By far, the greatest shortcoming has been a failure to save. The personal savings rate - the amount of disposable income not spent - averaged close to 10 percent in the 1970s and '80s. By late 2007, the rate had sunk to negative 1 percent.
The recession has helped improve the savings rate - it's back above 5 percent. Yet typical boomers are still woefully short on retirement savings. Even those in their 50s and 60s with a 401(k) for at least six years had an average balance of less than $150,000 at the end of 2009, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute.
Signs of coming trouble are visible on other fronts, too:
Mortgage debt. Nearly two in three people age 55 to 64 had a mortgage in 2007, with a median debt of $85,000.
Social Security. Nearly 3 out of 4 people file to claim Social Security benefits as soon as they are eligible at age 62. That locks them in at a much lower amount than they would get if they waited. The monthly checks are about 25 percent less if you retire at 62 instead of full retirement age, which is 66 for those born from 1943 to 1954.
Medical costs. Health-care expenses are soaring, and the availability of retiree benefits is declining.
"People cannot fathom how much money will be needed to simply cover out-of-pocket medical-care costs," said Mitchell of the University of Pennsylvania.