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PERSONAL FINANCE

Ben Stein Puts His Money on Planning

The TV personality, an economist by trade, counsels future retirees to save and diversify

October 12, 2003|Kathy M. Kristof | Times Staff Writer

The fact that sometime comedian Ben Stein is the newly appointed spokesman for National Retirement Planning Week doesn't mean retirement planning is a joke.

To the contrary. Stein, who has become famous for playing a droll economist on television, actually is a droll economist in real life. And he passionately believes that Americans need to do more to save for their golden years.

"I have become almost obsessed with the inadequacy of most people's retirement planning," Stein, 59, said in his characteristic monotone. "I think retirement planning is a terribly important cause."

So too do a wide array of political and business leaders, who are watching the graying of America with increasing apprehension. Whereas Americans, on average, lived to age 67 when the Social Security system was launched in the 1930s, nowadays life expectancy is about 75 for men and 80 for women. Academics and actuaries predict that life spans will continue to lengthen, with about 5% of today's baby boomers expected to live past 100.

Longer, healthier lives are certainly enviable, but they also strain public retirement and health-care systems, experts note. Longer lives also vastly increase the chances that individuals will run out of money before they die -- the predicament that is the focus of Retirement Planning Week, which begins Nov. 17.

Retirement Planning Week, which was launched by financial services and pension groups with a presidential letter of support, has a simple aim: calling attention to the need for retirement planning.

Retirement experts particularly worry about Americans who believe they have a workable blueprint for financing their post-working years but make the mistake of planning for the "average" life span, said Jack Luff, an actuary with the Society of Actuaries in Schaumburg, Ill.

"The problem with the averages is that some people die sooner, but others live much longer," Luff said. Those who plan based on average life expectancies have a good chance of running short too soon.

"It's a terrifying prospect to be old and have no money -- to be old and desperate," Stein said. "People need to save in a systematic, assiduous and highly disciplined way."

Stein comes to financial planning advice naturally. He studied economics at Columbia University and has a degree in law from Yale. Stein was a speechwriter for Richard M. Nixon -- claiming non-authorship of the then-president's famous quote "I am not a crook" -- then taught economics at Pepperdine University in Malibu. It was there that he was "discovered" by director John Hughes, who happened to attend one of his economics classes.

Hughes asked Stein to give a lecture on supply-side economics in the 1986 film "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." The comic effect of Stein's dry wit won him a regular spot on the television series "The Wonder Years" and later his own show, "Win Ben Stein's Money." He continues to act and lecture as well as write both financial tomes and screenplays.

"I love being thought of as funny, but I also have something meaningful to say," Stein said.

Right now, that message is all about saving for retirement.

"Saving is a miraculous thing," he said. "Saving is what gives people independence. It gives people freedom. It is a great, great word."

The trickier question is how much to save when planning for a such a far-off goal.

Stein believes that most people will need nearly 100% of their current income in retirement because, although they'll no longer need to save, they may have higher expenses for health care and travel.

A simple calculator on the National Retirement Planning Week Web site at www .retireonyourterms.org makes the same assumption and provides visitors with a quick view of whether their current savings strategy will keep them on track.

Most other retirement calculators figure that retirees will need 60% to 90% of their pre-retirement income, depending on how much the individuals are currently saving and what their particular retirement plans might be.

Those who want to create a personalized guesstimate can do so by simply looking at a current budget and adding or subtracting big items as appropriate, such as the cost of private medical insurance or the savings from no longer paying the mortgage.

How much must be saved each month before retirement to come up with that monthly income figure? Again, it depends on a variety of factors, including how much is already saved, time until retirement and investment returns.

Stein's final advice: Diversify.

No matter how aggressive or risk-averse, he said, everyone should have some portion of savings in stocks, some in medium-term bonds, some in real estate, some in international securities and some in cash.

"Diversification will carry you through almost any crisis," Stein said. "But you have to have the money to diversify."

Kathy M. Kristof, author of "Investing 101" and "Taming the Tuition Tiger," welcomes your comments and suggestions but regrets that she cannot respond individually to letters or phone calls. Write to Personal Finance, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012; e-mail: kathy .kristof@latimes.com. For past Personal Finance columns, visit The Times' Web site at www.latimes.com/perfin.

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