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BABY BOOMERS ARE FEELING THE SQUEEZE COLLEGE, RETIREMENT, AND PARENTAL CARE COSTS SCARE STRAPPED COUPLES

We baby boomers are in trouble -- triple trouble.

We spent our 20s and too much of our 30s playing and spending before settling down to spouses, houses and kids. Now many of us are looking at a bleak future of bills that will converge when we are in our 50s: We'll be funding college for our kids, support for our parents and retirement for ourselves at the same time. And we're scared.

"Americans overwhelmingly view the 1990s as a decade of decreasing economic opportunities and increasing financial responsibilities," the International Association of Financial Planning said in releasing a Gallup poll that confirms those fears.

"By far the most pessimistic are those heads of families, age 35 to 44," the planners said. "These 'triple squeeze' boomers were more apt than the rest of society to say that shouldering these financial responsibilities would adversely affect their lives."

Spokesmen from the trade group concede that they are not telling most of us anything that we didn't already know.

"It's important it be confirmed," said the trade group's chairman, Robert Hewitt. "These are legitimate concerns. If we can identify them we ought to be able to find a way to solve or mitigate those concerns."

To some extent, Hewitt believes the concerns will only be eased when the baby-boom generation comes to terms with limited expectations.

"Maybe your daughter won't go to Princeton," Hewitt said. "Maybe she'll go to a state school. Or maybe she'll go to a community college for a year while you save more money. Maybe you won't be able to retire at 65. So you'll work until you're 70."

Once baby boomers accept that they may not be able to afford the best option for every aspect of their future, they can begin planning better for that future, says Hewitt.

As head of the trade group, Hewitt recommends better financial planning. But the problem for the "worried, aging baby boomer" is not that he or she lacks financial advice.

The problem is that for most middle-income, middle-age Americans, there aren't very many options available for improving their financial future. And the options are pretty straightforward -- spend less and save more.

Hewitt says he tells his clients to cut back on credit card purchases and save the money they would otherwise pay on their charge cards. And he tells them to save half of every pay raise they receive.

"Slowly but surely, you will get your savings dollars higher and higher and your assets accumulating bigger and bigger," he said.

Hewitt's advice is sound, and it represents a new effort by the planning industry to reach out to middle-income Americans.

Previously, the financial planning group spent a lot of energy spreading alarming computer-driven estimates of college and retirement needs that frightened more consumers than they attracted. Now the association seems to be saying that any savings program will help and that it isn't mandatory for everyone to save upward of $250 a month per college-bound child.

But Hewitt's sensible advice also carries risks for his industry: It doesn't take a highly trained and often costly professional to tell you to trim your charge bill and save more money.

"Spending a couple of thousand dollars on a financial planner is probably not a good investment for a middle-income person," said Barbara Roper, a financial planning specialist with the Consumer Federation of America.

"There's not all that much you can do," she said. "Don't make it more difficult than it needs to be. Institute a regular savings plan, cover your basic risks and try to have some kind of discipline in terms of deferring gratification and setting up some goals."

Financial planning has not penetrated the middle-income market, Roper suggests, in part because of its cost. Planners can't afford to give away advice; middle-income consumers can't afford to buy it. In addition, the financial problems of middle-income consumers respond more to simple budgets than the types of specialized tax and investment strategies that planners devise for their wealthier clients.

Roper and Hewitt both say that the future might not be as bleak as members of the postwar generation fear. There is a fair amount of validity to the concept of the "Sandwich Generation" squeezed by college-age children and aging parents, they say. But there are other mitigating circumstances.

In many cases, the parents of baby boomers are much better off financially than their parents were and may be in a position to help their grandchildren through college.

Baby boomers who started saving for their retirement early with individual retirement accounts and company-run 401(k) plans probably can switch to a college savings mode for a while without jeopardizing their golden years.

If all else fails, the generation that has so embraced credit can transfer that value to their offspring -- by teaching them to love student loans.

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