Retirement Boot Camp now begins

To spend or not to spend? Do we enjoy life to the fullest and accept what it costs, or do we save for retirement? We can try to build up those retirement coffers still further, but what if we get hit by a bus?

All that parsimony and grinding self-sacrifice might be for naught. Maybe there's a case for instant gratification and then letting the chips fall where they may when real retirement rolls around. On the other hand, if we create a self-imposed Retirement Boot Camp of sorts for at least some period, rigorous discipline for a few years may allow us to eventually have it all.

We can start by making a list of what we want to do that costs money. It may turn out that a "bucket list" for the Simple Life just won't cost that much. For the rest of us, there are things we want to do with our spare time plus a few extravagances we have denied ourselves for many years. With a handle on some of this pre-retirement discretionary spending, we can then calculate how much of it we can afford at the expense of our future retirement nest egg.

Now for the money part: We review our spending obligations and anticipate what they will be in retirement. Then, setting aside the equity in our homes, we calculate how much we currently have in IRA's, 401(k)s and other retirement accounts. Add up all after-tax (non-retirement) investable assets. Combine the two numbers and recognize that if the total grows at a rate of 7.2 percent per year it will double every 10 years.

Then, if we are dollar-cost-averaging at a rate of $10,000 per year from this point forward, and earning 8 percent on the money, we should accumulate an additional $150,000 in 10 years; $500,000 in 20 years, and $1.2 million in 30 years. If we're contributing, say, half this much then the accumulation numbers are half of the above. At double, or $20,000 per year, the numbers all double. It's a low-tech planning approach, crude but effective.

If a combination of your present money compounded plus your future contributions add up to $500,000 by a hypothetical retirement date, we could at that time start safely spending 6 percent per year without eating into the principal. This would be $30,000 of annual income. Coupled with Social Security, our income would be in the $50,000 range. If we decide we want more, we can decide to work longer or save more.

Another option is to refinance or downsize the house and add the cash to the lump sum above. This is a great time to get a fixed rate 30-year mortgage at historically low rates. The mortgage cost will be fixed for a lifetime, but inflation will increase future Social Security income.

For retirees, the experience of having no job income rolling in can be traumatic even for those with plenty of money. One way to prepare is to determine future income based on the above projection, and see what it feels like to live on that amount today. For most people, it would be substantially less than their current spendable income and would create tough budget requirements. We can all spend less money if we try. The way to enforce discipline would be to go to the maximum on all retirement plan contributions.

The valuable by-product of this exercise will be a lot more money in the kitty to fund whatever eccentric personal lifestyle the "bucket list" demands.