In the financial services industry, advising people to spend money is like being a doctor encouraging ice-cream consumption. There is a good reason why investment firms recommend setting aside as much as possible for retirement: many people in or approaching retirement fall short of what they need to be comfortable, according to the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia standard for a comfortable retirement, so the adequacy question is real enough.
But it is a discussion with two sides, and increasingly data and research is pointing towards an unexpected issue which is that people in retirement appear to be being unnecessarily frugal.
While it is generally not smart (or sustainable for most people) to go out and spend at will (or to eat nothing but ice cream), a good way to view the spend / save relationship is through an "everything in balance" approach.
A comfortable retirement is a long-term goal, and you need a plan to achieve it. Consistent contributions via a diversified, low-cost portfolio are a good place to start. Ideally start young so that compound interest can help you across the finish line. Avoid unnecessary debt. Do all these things, but if you also love model railroads, crave a baking career, or just want to visit Coober Pedy before you die, isn't that part of the reason you are saving today?
Ideas for matching your financial planning to your personality abound. You are no longer locked into logging every dollar you spend into a spreadsheet, unless you like doing it that way. There are lots of neat new online tools to help with budgeting, saving and keeping track of spending that can work for you.
One of the strengths of the Australian super system is its mandatory contribution regime but when it comes to drawing down those hard-earned savings in retirement the system is still immature, so it is not surprising that people are conservative about drawing down from super when they (a) don't know how long they will live for (b) what investment performance they can expect or (c) what provision they need to make for health and aged care costs as they grow older.
Government regulations dictate that we have to withdraw minimum amounts from our super pensions each year – for those aged under 65 that starts at 4% a year, rising to 5% for those between 65 and 74 and so on until it reaches a maximum withdrawal amount of 14% for those over 95.
The government rules are designed to ensure that savings that benefited from super's tax concessions eventually come out of the system. So these rules are driven by tax policy and were never intended to be the recommended way for retirees to spend their super.
But in the absence of any other guidance, it is hardly surprising that many people treat these as recommendations and only withdraw the minimums, just as many people only save the mandatory 9.5% in the savings phase.
So while there is understandably a lot of focus on saving enough in super to pay for retirement, perhaps the next focus needs to be helping people develop lifestyle spending plans.
Remember too, that many of the personal finance numbers you see are averages and may not be relevant to your situation. Some of you may inherit a portion of the estimated $2.4 trillion in wealth expected to be transferred from Baby Boomers to the next generation. Longer lifespans also may mean you can work and earn for more years than previous generations did.
Now, sit down, scoop yourself a healthy-sized portion of ice-cream, and start planning.
Robin Bowerman, Vanguard Australia