The road to retirement was clear for members of the Greatest Generation. Turning 65 was the gateway to the Golden Years, and along with the gold watch from work, many had the security of defined-benefit pensions, a paid-off home and a sizable nest egg. For those born in 1937 or earlier, turning 65 also meant they were eligible for full Social Security benefits.
Those nearing retirement today typically find a much trickier path. Many 50- and 60-somethings have seen their assets fall and their debts rise. And then there's a generational difference. Many in the Greatest Generation knew what they needed for a happy retirement, while many baby boomers still want it all.
"Going through the Great Depression made boomers' parents much more frugal and able to determine needs versus wants," says Emily Guy Birken, a financial blogger and author. Birken's latest book, "The Five Years Before You Retire" (Adams Media, $18), lays out a road map that helps boomers plan for retirement.
Birken's five-year plan begins with finding a financial adviser, a process that may take time. "Because there are so many types of people who can put out a shingle and call themselves a financial planner, it's up to you to make sure you do the interviews, do your due diligence," she says.
You should also try to lower your debt, even if it means scrimping while you're still working and have ample cash coming in. If you have a mortgage, Birken says crunch the numbers to see if you can get it paid off before you retire.
Perhaps most important, avoid taking Social Security until you reach the age for full benefits, which is currently 66. Taking Social Security early means reduced benefits for the rest of your life.
Another problem for boomers: Some have reduced their nest eggs by helping their kids financially, especially with skyrocketing college costs. And kids who have had their college tuition covered may also expect Mom and Pop to spring for postgraduate costs or a down payment on a house. Birken says parents should let their kids know their love is limitless, but their spending cannot be.
"I have seen money cause a great deal of resentment, and even ugliness, because of unmet expectations," Birken says. "It's not going to be a pleasant conversation, but it will ultimately be better for the relationship if you make it clear what your kids can expect."