Many companies featured on Money advertise with us. Opinions are our own, but compensation and
in-depth research may determine where and how companies appear. Learn more about how we make money.

Maybe it’s a sign that recession really is easing: Once again we’re hearing arguments that you can save a lot less for retirement than the financial services industry would have you believe.

The last time this argument got much traction was in early 2007, when the housing market was still bubbling. Now John Rekenthaler, the well-respected vice president of research at Morningstar, has re-introduced this notion in a recent blog post entitled “The 80% Myth.” Writes Rekenthaler, “The financial services industry misleads the everyday investor by selling the notion that an 80% replacement rate of pre-retirement income is required for a successful retirement.”

As proof, Rekenthaler cites own parents, who retired at age 50 and have lived contentedly for nearly 30 years on just 50% of their pre-retirement income. They don’t eat out often or drink Starbucks, but they have traveled the world over. If his parents had aimed for 80% of pre-retirement income as the prerequisite for retiring, he notes, they might have had to work until age 70.

A modest income may work well for his parents. And it’s certainly true that the average retiree makes do with not that much. The median income for households headed by retirees is just $25,000 a year, according the Federal Reserve’s 2007 Survey of Consumer Finances (the most recent data available). That’s just about half the median income for all families, which is $47,000.

But does that mean aiming for an 80% income replacement ratio is really excessive? Consider that the past three decades have been extremely kind to retirees (2008 aside), who have benefited from strong GDP growth, low inflation, lower taxes, and bull markets in both equities and bonds. That’s undoubtedly helped many of them get by, along with a big boost from Social Security -- the largest single source of income for people 65 and older, accounting for 40%.

Future retirees, however, face a very different economy than earlier generations. The problems with funding Social Security are serious. Moreover, given the trillions of dollars in debt being racked up by the U.S. government's bailout efforts, many economists say higher tax rates are inevitable. Meanwhile, forecasts for economic growth and investment returns are lower.
And then there’s the problem of soaring healthcare costs. A recent study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that a typical 65-year-old male retiring in 2009 would need savings of anywhere from $68,000 to $173,000 to cover health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket expenses in order to have a 50-50 chance of affording those bills. To have a 90% chance, you would need to set aside $134,000 to $378,000. Women, who tend to live longer, need even more. The current healthcare reform efforts in Washington may slow the rate of increases, but that remains to be seen.

In the end, 50% or 80% of pre-retirement income targets are only rough rules of thumb. The only way to be sure you’re setting aside enough money for your needs is to draw up a realistic retirement budget -- something that only becomes possible when you’re actually closing in retirement. But if you add up the economic challenges ahead, it seems pretty clear that it’s better to set your savings target high rather than low. The consequences (and the likelihood) of saving too much are small, while the consequences of saving too little could be disastrous. And by saving a lot now, we can all learn to live on less, which looks to be good practice for the years ahead.