It's official: we're retiring later. Here's how not to.
Another day, another gloomy survey into the parlous state of the nation's pensions provision. And according to research released today by Prudential (LSE: PRU), almost half of us now believe that we won't have enough for a comfortable retirement.
The anticipated retirement incomes of men and women have been plummeting, in short, and have now reached a five-year low. Taken together -- and including private, company and state pensions -- retirees' anticipated income is just £15,500. Put another way, that's over £1,000 lower than expected income levels this time last year.
Chiefly to blame? Plunging annuity rates -- which have been affected by factors including the credit crunch, low gilt yields brought about by the government's quantitative easing programme, and longer life expectancies. Oh yes, and the demise of the 'final salary' pension scheme, government cutbacks, and state pensions linked to the Consumer Prices Index, not the (more realistic) Retail Prices Index.
Welcome to the treadmill
All of which means, of course, that for many the dream of early retirement has turned to dust.
Indeed, earlier this year, another survey from Prudential revealed that more than one in ten of the 550,000 people who were due to retire this year had changed their plans. While some had done so because they enjoyed working, the vast majority were putting it off because they couldn't afford to retire as planned.
What's more, official figures from the Department of Work and Pensions showed that in 2010 -- the latest year for which data is available -- the average age at which men left the labour market rose to 64.6 years, up from 63.8 years in 2004. For women, it rose from 61.2 years in 2004 to 62.3 years in 2010.
Put another way, across the two genders, people are retiring almost a year later than they were just six years earlier -- with the charts showing no sign of the trend reversing or slowing down.
Don't do this
What to do? Clearly, if you hope to retire early, you'll need to do more than just hope. You'll need to put in place hard, concrete plans.
And to my mind, here's what those plans shouldn't entail.
Private pension plans, for instance, often have high charges. Even stakeholder pensions still take a slice of your money -- and in a low-return environment, 0.6%-0.7% of your fund value is quite a hit. Cash ISAs? Well, net real interest rates are currently negative, so no joy there then. Property? Popular, yes, but illiquid. And so on.
In fact, as far as I can see, there are only two sensible courses of action if you're looking to seriously improve upon the date at which you could ordinarily expect to retire.
* Save for retirement in a stocks and shares ISA, benefiting from the higher returns that the stock market offers.
* Save for retirement in a SIPP. A low-cost SIPP offers tax relief, currently at your highest marginal rate. Which is especially attractive if you're a higher rate taxpayer now, but likely to be a basic rate taxpayer in retirement.
What to buy?
Either way, though, those looking for early retirement need to think about a lot more than just the choice of wrapper. Frankly, the choice of investments will be much more important.
A selection of funds, perhaps? Fine if you can stomach the charges, or don't feel up to managing things yourself. But the charges, let's face it, will soak up a fair-sized slug of your investment gains.
A low-cost index tracker? Again, there are charges, although tracker providers HSBC (LSE: HSBA) and Vanguard are driving these down. And I've several trackers in my own retirement-planning portfolio, to be sure.
But these days, the bulk of the new money that I put aside for retirement goes into what to my mind is an altogether superior investment -- individual shares.
Several, as it happens, are companies that appear in a special free report from The Motley Fool -- "Top Sectors Of 2012" -- although in some cases I bought the shares some years ago. But in the last month, I've bought into two further companies, directly informed by reading the report. Why not download a copy yourself? It's free, and there's no obligation.
Now, shares aren't for everyone. Some people, frankly, are nervous about taking matters into their own hands, and prefer the world of advisors, high-cost funds, and wishful thinking.
Others, thankfully, take a more rounded view. And while I wouldn't counsel anyone to splurge their pension savings on a raft of resources picks such as Dragon Oil (LSE: DGO), Xcite Energy Limited (LSE: XEL), or Soco International (LSE: SIA) -- even though they've done the business -- I'm much more sanguine about extolling the merits of solid FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 shares with decent managements and equally-decent prospects.
How to find such companies? As I wrote last week, here at The Motley Fool we regard that as our mission. From our discussion boards to articles like these, our goal is to educate and enrich.
And with an eye to being enriched, you'll certainly be able to retire earlier if you've got a million pound portfolio. An unattainable dream? Not necessarily, as a special free report from The Motley Fool -- "10 Steps To Making A Million In The Market" -- explains.
There's no guarantees that you will end up with a million, of course -- but heck, even with half that you could still quit work early. So if you've not yet read it, why not take a look? It's free.
Want to learn more about shares, but not sure where to start? Download our latest guide -- "What Every New Investor Needs To Know" -- it's free. The Motley Fool is helping Britain invest. Better.
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Malcolm doesn't hold shares in any of the companies mentioned.