On Retirement

Checking one off the bucket list

Contributing editor tests a long-held dream for her retirement and finds it lacking

Jun 25, 2018 @ 11:04 am

By Mary Beth Franklin

For years, I dreamed about taking a European river cruise, salivating over television ads showing luxury cruise ships floating past ancient castles and iconic windmills. I finally convinced my husband Mike that a river cruise would be the perfect way to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary and "test the waters" on our retirement travel dreams.

We spared no expense booking an eight-day Viking river cruise on the Rhine, including upgraded airline reservations, a stateroom with a balcony, and a couple of days in Amsterdam at the end of our trip. I figured the eye-popping price tag would become a standard feature of our future retirement budget, but it looks as if we may be able to save some money.

Apparently, I'm in good company. A new study from MassMutual finds that pre-retirees often overestimate their retirement income needs.

Overall, 60% of pre-retirees expect to need at least two-thirds or more of their pre-retirement income to live comfortably in retirement, compared with only 44% of current retirees who say they spend that much, according to the MassMutual Retirement Income Study.

Pre-retirees worry four times more often than retirees about not having enough money to enjoy themselves, by a margin of 28% to 7%. Meanwhile, the biggest concern among retirees is health care costs, which were cited by 29% of retired participants. The internet-based study, conducted by Greenwald & Associates in January, polled 801 individuals who have been retired for 15 years or less and 804 who plan to retire within 15 years.

Overall, pre-retirees worry more than retirees about not having enough income in retirement (78% vs. 51%); changes in Social Security benefits (81% vs. 69%); and low interest rates hurting income (69% vs. 57%). When asked whether their retirement income would last for the rest of their lives, 91% of retirees but only 56% of pre-retirees said yes.

"While we're working, many of us think about retirement in terms of our leisure pursuits, a kind of permanent vacation that requires more disposable income," said Tom Foster, head of retirement plans practice management at MassMutual. "Retirees' experience tells us that health concerns become increasingly prominent, especially as many retirees begin experiencing health issues and their subsequent costs."

I plead guilty to the "permanent vacation" syndrome. Like so many pre-retirees, I envision that travel will be a major goal during my retirement years. The river cruise was a great — albeit expensive — way to learn about our leisure travel preferences.

As the ads promise, unpacking just once is a great feature of a cruise. The staterooms and public spaces were beautiful and the staff was superb. The added appeal of a river cruise, in my opinion, is the smaller size. There were about 180 passengers on our Viking river cruise compared to the 5,000 passengers on a Mediterranean cruise that I took several years ago aboard the Costa Concordia. (Yes, the same ship that later sank off the coast of Italy.)

I knew that river cruises tended to attract an older crowd. I just didn't realize how old. Mike and I were largely surrounded by our 60-something peers, but I was astounded by the number of truly elderly passengers, some who relied on walkers and a few who were wheelchair-bound. It produced some interesting transportation challenges during our daily sightseeing excursions.

Speaking of sightseeing, Mike and I realized that we don't like being herded through popular tourist destinations. While we enjoyed learning about the history of the many castles and cathedrals that we saw, we missed the opportunity to wander on our own, always worrying that we would miss the bus — or the boat — if we dallied too long.

The food on board was great. There was just too much of it. Having dieted since January to be fit for our cruise, we struggled to curb our appetites so we didn't gain it all back. And although we walked an average of 20,000 steps a day according to my FitBit, Mike really missed his daily gym workouts.

On the plus side, most of the passengers were delightful. They were well-educated and well-traveled. Few talked about their careers. Most expounded on their travels: where they had been and where they planned to go next. It was a refreshing change from the typical Washington social event, where one is defined by job title and often political party.

Bottom line: Our river cruise was a great experience that helped us define how we would like to travel in retirement — and how much we are likely to spend. We prefer wandering through museums and historic sites at our leisure, sipping wine in sidewalk cafes and boarding an occasional hop-on, hop-off bus to get the lay of the land. We hope to make the most of our initial "go-go" years of retirement and probably will save our next cruise for when we reach the "slow-go" stage.

(More: The worst possible time to retire)

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