Monday, April 23, 2007

Loneliness and the Single, Urban Dweller

It's Friday night. You arrive home late and exhausted from another week of demanding, stressful work and long hours that have left you no time for even thinking about the week-end, let alone planning for it. So, here you are, tired, alone and already anticipating the boredom, isolation and catch-up errands and housework that are to come. Sound familiar?

Unlike generations past, singles today are delaying marriage while pursuing advanced education and demanding careers, often in places far away from where they grew up. The 2002 census data tells us that the median age for first marriage has risen to 25.3 for women and 26.9 for men. This marriage delay has led to a long period of single years in which individuals who have often relocated for school and/or work must find new ways to meet their needs for familial intimacy and sharing.

This new lifestyle has been on the rise for over twenty years, as societal norms have shifted due to divorce, the new sexuality and a desire on the part of singles to marry after they have reached an age in which they know who they are and what they want out of life. Older singles, (late 30's to early 50's) were the pioneers in this new way of life. The role models available to them were primarily limited to early marriage after high school, some college or upon completion of a college degree. Marriage was the (expected) next step and the route that marriage-minded people felt they had to choose.

For those who didn't marry early, the single life has not lived up to its promises. Yes, they have been successful in their careers and many singles own their own homes and have reached a certain level of financial stability and freedom, but the lifestyle issues can be huge. They believed the right person would happen along after they had met their educational and professional goals. Instead, many singles in this age group report that they struggle with a loneliness that has resulted from an imbalance in their lives. Time passed, friends married and moved away and their families of origin were no longer able to function as they once had due to aging or deceased parents. They often refer to themselves as workaholics who attempt to meet needs primarily through success in their careers, while neglecting their social and personal lives.

Younger singles in their twenties to mid-thirties express similar issues, yet there are differences that are significant and worth taking a look at. These younger singles had somewhat different role models. Education and career were placed at the top of their lists from childhood. Many had working mothers, who raised their daughters (as well as their sons) to focus on becoming strong, independent adults who could "have it all" if they followed these rules for success. Putting off marriage was encouraged as a way to help them achieve their own personal goals first. Therefore, these singles embrace the belief that you shouldn't marry until you know yourself first and have learned to meet your own needs.

How has this difference impacted the quality of the lives of these two groups of singles? Younger singles began their independent lives with the expectation of more single years ahead and an attitude that they must build a complete life for themselves and not DELAY (amongst other things), building strong peer support systems. This gave rise to the close-knit, family like groups that are now often referred to as Urban Tribes. A writer named Ethan Watters first used this term in 2001 in a magazine article he wrote about the "tribe" that he had belonged to for a number of years, and how it had nurtured and sustained its members with friendship, emotional support, financial help and family-like bonds.

These tribes were often started with a core group who went to school together, worked in their first jobs together and/or lived together in order to share expenses. As time went on, the bonds deepened and many "tribers" report that they have many of the advantages of family without the responsibility and commitment of marriage. Many have marriage as their goal but are living "full and satisfying" lives until that time.

How can the tribal experience benefit older singles who have found that many of their old friends have moved away or married? They can begin (wherever they are in their lives) to create communities that can meet their current needs and lifestyles. This of course, will be more challenging at this stage of life. So, where should they begin? The following is a rough list of ideas:

* friends from work
* old friends who still share a similar lifestyle
* new friends they meet through volunteer work, social groups, other friends, leisure time pursuits and church
* internet searches for local singles

Every metropolitan area offers a wide range of groups for singles. Some are hosted by for-profit companies as well as singles groups/clubs that are affiliated with religious and other private organizations. You can find them on the Internet by typing in key words such as "singles activities" along with you specific region of residence. Then you can go through the listings, looking for activities and pursuits that you feel would attract singles with whom you would have things in common. A great resource for all singles looking to meet new people is There you can search for friends (as well as many other categories) who are located in your neighboring region.

In order for a community like this to take hold, members must be willing to set limits on their work lives and make themselves available for "family style" dinners, nights out, shared leisure time and structured outings and/or vacations, and support as needed to individuals within the group. Just as everyone within a family has their defined role, so will these emerge in tribes. Some will be the organizers or leaders, others will handle the details, while the rest will contribute as needed and as their strengths and interests allow. Over time, friendships and bonds will grow. Individual members will be provided with the support, caring and security they need in order to live a happy single life, which is the foundation on which all healthy intimate relationships are built.

Perfectionism ~ Dangerous Lifestyle Trap

Just when I have something figured out, along comes another how-to-article telling me how to be or do something better or even change my entire life. No matter where I turn, I am constantly reminded that I am not good enough in more ways than one. I am not smart enough, not rich enough, not slim enough, not efficient enough, not attractive enough, not powerful enough, not “with it” enough and probably “out of it” altogether.

That’s me and it gets worse. In line with our education economy, yesterday’s perfect diet is banned today and my car of the year was just recalled. My time-management is out of date and my writing achievements fade against the big authors. Yes, I am my own worst critic. Growing up with perfectionist parents didn’t help either. It wasn’t until their seventies, that my father could tolerate fingerprints on his freshly washed car and that my mother learned to enjoy a meal without matching table decor.

Perfectionism is driving us up the wall or around the bend and neither direction is desirable. Far too many reach for anti-depressants or cope on some other crutch. We live under constant pressure to be perfect and expect nothing less from others. Intensely glued to information that helps us conform to some perfect ideal, we learn less about ourselves. Detached from the core of who we are, we show up with fabricated selves to gain approval.

There is quite a difference between aiming for a successful life and trying to achieve perfection. Contrary to popular belief, perfection is not required to succeed in love and life. In fact, the perfectionism-trap has serious negative consequences:

  • We feel our accomplishments are never good enough.
  • We value people based on their achievements.
  • We believe doing our best doesn’t cut it.
  • We take mistakes personally and hesitate to try again.
  • We are vulnerable to rejection.
  • We do what we should, not what we want.
  • We set impossible to reach goals.
  • We are hard on others and ourselves.
  • We expect perfection of others.
  • We develop a obsession with perfectionism.
  • We feel we never measure up.
  • We fear failure in relationships and have difficulties being intimate.
  • We don’t pursue a relationship out of fear it might not be perfect.
  • We become critical of our partners.

To sum it up, we believe that unless we are perfect success and love will evade us. The biggest cost of perfectionism is our neglect of the humble core within and our failure to claim a life in alignment with our true self. Instead of focusing on our qualities and all that is right with us, we are busy fixing everything seemingly imperfect. Driven to live up to the perfect ideal we become pretentious, self-promoting, critical human beings. Because of our focus on achieving goals, we never enjoy the journey of getting there. As a result we lose the irreplaceable moments of relating to people and doing things.

Webster defines perfectionism as "a disposition, which regards anything short of perfect as unacceptable." The torment for perfectionists is that they never find anything perfect, simply because perfection does not exist. Instead they suffer from social and personal anxiety and strained relationships. To find peace, accept ourselves and nurture the best in us, we have to overcome perfectionism and:

  • Use our mistakes as opportunities for growth.
  • Set goals in line with who we are and what we want.
  • Accept ourselves as human beings with flaws.
  • Give less than 100% and still experience success.
  • Enjoy the journey instead of focusing on the goal.
  • Recognize that anxiety arises when we set unrealistic goals.
  • Understand that we get more done and feel better about ourselves if we don’t strive for perfection.
  • Give up the irrational belief that relationships must be perfect.
  • Stop second-guessing ourselves.
  • Be compassionate with our partners and ourselves.

Thousands of people give less than 100% to a goal, but 100% to the journey and succeed. Everyday people don’t give all they’ve got, but still get done what they need to. If we try to give 100 % to everything we do, we never get enough done. Perfectionists operate on the assumption that unless they can give 100 % to a task, they won’t even start. As a result, they become occupied with trivial details and put off tasks until they can make a 100% effort. Perfectionists tend to be procrastinators with endless to-do lists and dreams put on hold until "some day. "

When it comes to relationships, perfectionists don’t do that well either. Single perfectionists keep on dating without making a choice, thinking someone more perfect will be around the corner. When they are in a relationship, the fear that it might not be perfect, keeps their relationships from progressing. Even when they finally settle with a partner, second-guessing their choice and being critical of their partner ensures frustrating relationships. Compromise in love as well as in life is difficult for them. Perfectionists pay a high price for the misguided belief that choosing the right love partner will guarantee a perfect relationship.

The entire perfectionist-trap becomes a vicious cycle in life and love. The more we attempt to be perfect in every area, the more anxious we get. This anxiety is coupled with a feeling of always falling short or behind. Consequently we concentrate on what is wrong with us or what we didn’t do. While doing our very best is admirable, more often than not, doing a good job is enough. The truth is that we are always half-cooked human beings in transition. Nobody will love us any more just because we are more perfect. We are being loved for the passion and spirit we bring to the table as genuine human beings.

Survive The "Alone For Holiday" Blues

No one wants to be alone during the holidays and sometimes being single doesn’t allow you to change the circumstances. However, you can do things to help focus on making yourself “merry” during the holidays.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Have a “Holiday Feast” for other single friends. To make sure everyone gets involved, have everyone bring a favorite dish to share. Even if you know only one or two people to invite, have each of them invite a friend, and have their friends invite a friend and so on, and before you know it, it’s a rousing good time.
  • Exercise and keep those endorphins pumping, especially if you have a tendency to avoid your feelings of loneliness by sleeping too much.
  • Choose healthy food. Pick food that will stabilize your blood sugar when you know you might be sampling lots of sweets during the holidays.
  • Decorate your house or apartment with lots of holiday lights. Do it for YOU. Often the moods of the seasons are affected by shorter days and longer nights during November and December. Our biological body recognizes these signals and often people react in extreme ways and can’t seem to stop eating, gaining weight and sleeping excessively.
  • If visits from certain people during the holidays in the past have affected you in a negative way, it’s time to assert yourself. Let them know that “This is not a good time for me to have guests,” or “I have other plans this year, but thanks for asking.” You do not have to make excuses or defend yourself. They may expect you to give an excuse, but you don’t have to do it. Make your own choices. Assert your right to say, “No, and thanks for asking.”
  • Practice gratitude. Be thankful for all the things you DO have and avoid focusing on what you lack. Count your blessings. Make a list. When you really look, you can find many positive things to focus on.
  • If you have children or loved ones who come to visit, do your best to create an atmosphere that focuses on “doing” rather than “having.” Plan lots of holiday activities together; bake some cookies together; read a story out loud; make your own holiday decorations; give homemade gifts.
  • Read a good book; one that will help you focus on being the very best person you can be; one that will help you understand that the only relationship you have total responsibility for is the one you have with yourself.
  • Visit a nursing home. Statistics show that many elderly people are often forgotten during the holidays. Your visit will ALWAYS be appreciated! Give them a small homemade gift or a holiday card. Spread some holiday cheer!
  • Avoid alcohol and party drugs. If you are already feeling down, alcohol depletes the brain of serotonin, a chemical it needs to maintain normal mood. Party drugs can only create additional relationship stress. Just say, “No.”
  • Go to one of the many holiday parties that are given specifically for singles. You can find some of them at the Social Calendar.

  • Don’t depend on someone else to make your season bright. You alone must do whatever it takes to do that.

Have fun. Create some new memories. Defy tradition and start your own. Have a brainstorming get-together with a few of your friends and together create a list of fun things to do this December.

Then … have a Happy Holiday!

Getting The Hang Of It

Installing artwork in your home can be confusing. How high should the picture be hung on the wall? How do you decide what goes where? What does symmetry, line, and balance mean?

Oft times artwork is brought into the home as the finishing touch. It is the element that can instantly create warmth in a space, and, make the space expand visually, while creating a point of interest in a room.

When getting started keep in mind the following guidelines:

1. Artwork should be installed so that the picture’s center point is at eye level for the average person.

2. Choose smaller pictures for narrow walls and larger works for larger walls.

3. When installing more than one piece of art (in a grouping) remember it should be thought of as one unit.

As a trial run for installing more than one picture, layout the artwork on the floor or, lay each piece out on brown wrapping paper. Next, trace each piece to determine where the picture hanging hooks should be installed. Tape the paper up on the wall as a template for each picture hanging hook. This will make installation a breeze and will aid ascribing the boundaries of a picture grouping.

4. When installing art over a piece of furniture the artwork should not be longer than the furniture. As a general rule it should not be more than 75% of the furniture’s width and, the bottom of the artwork should be within 4-8 inches of the top of the furniture.

5. Artwork with horizontal lines will elongate or widen a wall. It will also draw attention to the focal point of the room.

6. Artwork with vertical lines add to the illusion of height in a room.

7. Positioning artwork in diagonal lines creates a dramatic look and works especially well when hung in a staircase.

8. Symmetry means that when an installation is divided in half, each half is a mirror image of the other. This adds balance and creates a formal cohesive statement.

9. Always use picture hanging hooks rated for the weight of the artwork, (5lbs, 20lbs, etc) they can be purchased at your local hardware store.

10. And finally, artwork can be lost visually unless it is properly illuminated. Light Art Well! It will give the artwork importance.

Making Your Money Last Over The Years

Nest eggs now have to be bigger as life expectancy lengthens.

Financial planners ALL tell a version of the same story. A moderately prosperous couple, not quite retirement-age empty-nesters, wants to leave the workaday world. Do we have enough money, they ask, to see us through our senior years?

That depends on the comforts and lifestyle they want, the planners say, and on just how long they'll live in retirement -- which, of course, no one can know. Most folks understand that those huge stock market gains are history and have tempered their expectations. What clients don't often realize is that life expectancy has even a greater impact on the adequacy of a nest egg. In planning today, it's prudent to assume that a healthy 60-year-old will make it to 90 or even 95. The money that seemed sure to see someone to 80 or 85 then falls short. The inescapable conclusion: The price we pay for living longer is working longer.

Take John and Linda Porter, a fictitious couple who want to retire a year from now, when he's 60 and she's 59. They have a combined annual income of $200,000, money in 401(k)s, individual retirement accounts, and a taxable investment account. We also assumed they would make $500,000 in tax-free profit by selling their house. (Federal tax law provides a $250,000 capital gains exclusion per person when you sell a house in which you've lived for two of the past five years.) They plan to move into a retirement home in North Carolina that they own and on which they still have a $100,000 mortgage. Depending on whether they pay off the mortgage, their nest egg comes to a not-too-shabby $1.3 million if they don't -- or $1.2 million if they do.

We asked four financial planners to assess the Porters' prospects. Their answer: The Porters could count on annual income of $60,000 to $90,000 in current dollars, indexed 2.5% to 3% for inflation, for up to 37 years of retirement. That amounts to 33% to 45% of their pre-retirement earnings, far short of the 70% to 100% planners say is needed to maintain your pre-retirement lifestyle.

The differences in income estimates depend on many factors, only some of which the Porters can control. The couple has made two decisions: when to stop working and where to live. Other controllable factors, on which the planners generally agreed, were that they should start taking Social Security as early as possible, when each turns 62, and should pay off the mortgage on their retirement home. The Social Security benefit -- indexed annually for inflation -- will account for $16,200 of their income if John starts at 62 and an additional $10,800 from Linda a year later. That's 25% less than each would receive by waiting until their full retirement age of 66. But, says Jean Sinclair, a planner in La Jolla, Calif., if the Potters did wait until 66 to receive Social Security, it would take them 12 years to reach the "breakeven point" when they would make up for the Social Security income lost between ages 62 and 66.

Three of the four planners recommended that the Porters use $100,000 of the house-sale profit to pay off the mortgage on the retirement home. The rationale: The value of the tax deduction on the mortgage interest would wane as their income falls and those monthly payments are increasingly devoted to principal.

Besides social security, the Porters' only other income will come from their investments. The advisers suggested rolling the 401(k) money into a traditional IRA (with no tax consequences) because it gives them more control and investment options. They also recommended putting the remaining $400,000 from their house sale into their taxable investment account.

Early retirement takes a big bite out of anyone's capital. Social Security won't kick in for a few years, and Medicare doesn't begin until they turn 65. That means the Porters might have to cover $600 to $800 a month in medical insurance for five or six years. People who wait until they get Medicare before retiring might not have such high costs.

So how long will the money last? Suppose the Porters' portfolio earns a 7% average annual rate of return. At a 7% withdrawal rate, it will last 20 years, according to a table used by Deena Katz, a financial planner in Coral Gables (Fla.). Drop the withdrawal rate to 6%, and the money should last 25 years, and at 5%, 36 years.

All these figures can differ significantly depending on the planners' assumptions. Steve Merkel, a financial planner in Coconut Grove, Fla., figured on 2% inflation, not 3%. So even with a 5% withdrawal rate and a 4% return on assets, he figures that in 35 years, when John turns 95, the couple would still have nearly $749,000 in their account. That would still be roughly $375,000 in current dollars, assuming a 2% inflation rate.

All of the advisers recommended the Porters allocate 60% of the portfolio to stocks and 40% to bonds or divide the portfolio evenly between stocks and bonds. To minimize risk, they suggested investing in mutual funds and creating a "laddered" bond portfolio -- a strategy of buying short-term bonds that mature in 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 years, reinvesting the proceeds in the five-year bonds as each group matures. None of the counselors thought buying a fixed-income annuity now was a good idea. Harry Scheyer, a planner in Marlton, N.J., said interest rates are too low to lock in a long-term investment, even one that offers an inflation adjustment. He suggested the Porters reconsider an annuity in 10 years, when their lifestyle is more settled and their needs more predictable.

The porters can improve their situation with some savvy tax planning, too. Guy Holman, a financial planner in Denver, suggests the couple vary the asset allocation within the different accounts. He recommends that they invest both their taxable account and their Roth IRA funds 100% in stocks. Holman also says the taxable account should be managed to generate long-term gains, which will be taxed at just 5% if the Porters can keep their taxable income to the 15% marginal tax bracket and 15% if their income is higher. The gains in the Roth IRA won't be taxed because the Porters already paid tax on the money. Holman would invest funds in a traditional IRA -- which is taxed as income when withdrawn -- of 80% fixed-income securities and 20% stocks.

Making your money last depends mostly on devising a financial plan and sticking to it, reviewing the plan at least once a year, and correcting it when necessary. Katz suggests retirees withdraw a little less than what they think they'll earn, such as taking 6% if you're making 7%. That provides some buffer against a turndown in the market.

Can the Porters plan on retiring in 12 months? Sure, if they're willing to live on $60,000 at first. But Scheyer says the best strategy for the Porters would be to make an up-front "adjustment" by continuing to work for a few more years. That would allow them to keep their employer health insurance, put more money aside, and possibly boost their future Social Security benefits.

It's probably not what they want to hear. But the strategy would give them a better shot at cushier golden years.

No Need To Hit The Panic Button

Sure, saving for retirement seems daunting. But follow a few basics, and you'll have enough cash to bring your dreams to life.

Baby boomers are seen as spendthrifts, credit-card addicts unable to deny themselves any pleasure, blithely ignoring the need to save for old age. "The boomer culture doesn't lead to saving for retirement," says Ann A. Fishman, president of New Orleans-based Generational Targeted Marketing. The vision of an aging group of 76 million heading toward financial catastrophe is deeply disturbing. Yet it could well be wrong. An impressive body of economic research paints a far more benign picture of the graying generation that makes up more than a quarter of the U.S. population. Many of those who rocked at Woodstock 35 years ago have accumulated more real wealth and earn more real income than their parents did at a comparable age. Boomers are also saving at roughly the same rate as their parents, suggesting they'll have more to tap after saying goodbye to their workmates. This generation is also expected to inherit at least $10.4 trillion, though most of that money will be highly skewed toward the rich.

As for those who come up short in their budgeting, working even a few years past traditional retirement age can dramatically boost a household's bottom line. A projected shortage of younger workers over the next two decades means that sixtysomethings should be welcome in the labor force. "There is no need to live in fear that you are going to be penniless in retirement," says Meir Statman, finance professor at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif.

If that's the case, why is it that conversations about retirement at work and neighborhood barbecues so often turn into litanies of woe and dark humor? Certainly, some segments of society are vulnerable, such as poorly educated, low-skill workers. Concerns persist about the long-term financial stability of Social Security and Medicare. But for most people, from the worker on the factory floor to the professional with a corner office, the apprehension stems largely from not knowing how much is enough to fund a lifestyle, let alone medical bills. Feeding those worries is the financial-services industry, which in large part is designed to lure your retirement dollars. The Wall Street marketing machine is adept at boosting its bottom line by stoking concerns about poor saving habits.

Yet most people should find themselves with room for maneuvering later in life. All they need to do is follow some basic savings strategies and take a broad perspective on investment, including building skills employers value. Most important, by carefully thinking through "What really matters to me?" future retirees will devise sensible answers to the question of how much is enough. "People are very creative at coming up with solutions that work for them," says Ralph Warner, author of Get A Life: You Don't Need a Million to Retire Well.

In the 2004 edition of BusinessWeek's Retirement Guide, we'll help you organize your thinking about your next stage in life and develop strategies to make it happen. We'll show you how to know whether your nest egg will be adequate and introduce you to mutual funds that can help you accumulate it. If you would like some new environs for your next stage, we'll suggest some intriguing places.

The standard yardstick for retirement is that households need to generate around 80% of their preretirement income to maintain their standard of living. In a study by John Karl Scholz and Anath Seshadri, economists at the University of Wisconsin, and Surachai Khitatrakun of ERS Group, an economic consulting firm based in Tallahassee, Fla., 80% of households were found to be saving enough. The latest studies on retirement preparedness take a broad measure of wealth, incorporating homeownership, projected Social Security income, pensions, and nonretirement savings, for example, as well as the impact of financial setbacks such as an unexpected illness, a job loss, or a divorce.

Similarly, Barbara Butrica and Cori Uccello of the Urban Institute forecast that current retirees (those born 1926-1935) should have a median wealth of $448,000 at age 67, measured in 2003 dollars. That compares with a projected $520,000 for near-retirees (born 1936-1945), $589,000 for early boomers (born 1946-1955), and $609,000 for late boomers (born 1956-1965).

Not surprisingly, the well-heeled households are doing much better. The wealthiest 20% of current retirees, near-retirees, and early boomers can count on about 127% of their preretirement income in their golden years. The late boomers should have retirement income that's about 117% of their working years' income.

Those who regularly set aside money in retirement accounts are emerging from the turmoil of recent years in reasonable financial health. Workers' nest eggs did better than the stock market, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute/Investment Company Institute 401(k) database. The database includes 15.5 million active 401(k) plan participants in more than 46,000 plans with $619 billion in assets as of 2002 (latest available data). From yearend 1999 to yearend 2002, the value of the 401(k) plans of workers in their 50s dropped by 15%. That compares with a 38% plunge in the benchmark Standard & Poor's (MHP ) 500-stock index. And since the S&P has delivered a 25% total return since then, those accounts should be in even better shape.

One factor shoring up portfolios was the flow of new money into 401(k)s with every paycheck. Equally important was that employees have also crafted well-diversified portfolios with 62% of the money invested in equities and the remainder parked in fixed-income securities. Diversification pays.

The sizzling home market has been a boon to household wealth, too. Median home prices have surged some 32% from the first quarter of 1999 to the same period this year. The long-term outlook for residential real estate plays a critical role in judging the adequacy of retirement savings. For example, Scholz, Seshadri, and Khitatrakun estimate that the 80% of households who are doing well shrinks to 58% when the scholars include only half of home equity. That suggests a generation's retirement prospects could sour if home prices crash.

Still, the fear of a collapse in residential real estate seems overblown. The strongest single predictor of the direction of home prices is household income growth, and in 42 states that growth explains all the price increases in housing of recent years, says Karl E. Case, economist at Wellesley College. The spectacular price spiral that dominates the headlines is confined to eight states, including Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, California, and Florida. Markets in those states risk a plunge in prices, he adds, but everywhere else prices are more likely to simply stall for a considerable period. Overall, taking into account long-term forecasts of income growth, the housing market should appreciate at a 4% annual rate, or 2% after adjusting for inflation, figures Mark Zandi, chief economist at

But what if savings are less than hoped for, maybe from a lifetime of bad habits, bad luck, or bad timing? For many people the answer to any deficit is, "Yes, I will work longer," says Laura Tarbox, president of Tarbox Equity, a financial planning firm in Newport Beach, Calif. Smart move, since the impact of earning a paycheck into the traditional retirement years is financially dramatic. The main reason is that an investment portfolio has more time in which to grow before you start drawing on it. The idea of working in their golden years is attractive to boomers, too. According to the latest baby boomer retirement survey by the AARP, 80% of respondents said they expect to be gainfully employed full- or part-time, or even start their own business, late in life.

In the Information Age, work should be less of a physical burden, especially with the population better-educated and healthier than previous generations. And demographic pressures should encourage employers to welcome older employees. Anthony Carnevale, a job expert at Educational Testing Service, predicts a skilled labor shortage of some 5 million in 2010 and 14 million by 2020. "Many of my clients expected to work part-time in retirement," says Marc Collier, a certified financial planner at Wellesley Financial Architects in Wellesley, Mass. "They've been surprised at how much they are in demand for consulting work."

Working longer can give a retirement plan a powerful boost. Take an executive who's 46 today, with nearly $600,000 in retirement and nonretirement accounts. At age 60 with more than $1.6 million, he would be able to take out $115,000 a year (in constant dollars) from his portfolio, according to Financial Engines, a Web-based financial planning firm. Staying on the job until age 65, though, could boost his take by more than 50%, to $178,000.

Earning money in retirement certainly works for Fred Henry. By the early 1990s, he had worked for Bechtel Corp. for three decades, lately as a project manager in the power plant business -- and he was itching for a change. When he read a magazine article about a financial planner, he knew immediately what he wanted to do. He enrolled in financial planning courses at University of California at Los Angeles, left Bechtel, and earned a number of critical licenses and certificates in the financial-services business. Now 68, he works full-time as a certified financial planner in Torrance, Calif. Says Henry: "I wanted to get out of corporate life, and do something I'm interested in, and be independent."

While the overall trend in retirement savings is positive and work provides a crucial safety valve, how does anyone figure how they're doing right now? Are you putting enough into retirement savings? Do you have too much in stocks or too little? What if you only started saving in your fifties? The short answer is there is no magic number, no infallible rule of thumb that solves the retirement savings equation.

But there are good strategies. Start asking yourself what kind of life do you want to lead? What do you want to do? Do you intend to stay in your community, or do you dream about moving to another state or county? Is traveling the world your vision of the good life, or is it making a career shift? Later you can total your 401(k) statements, mutual-fund quarterly reports, mortgage payment schedules, savings simulations, and other financial figures.

Most people find that in the end, their vision of a good retirement is a variation on the life they've lived and the activities they've enjoyed all these years. "If you're given to T-shirts and blue jeans, you won't want to hang out at the country club," says Ross Levin, president of Accredited Investors, a financial planning firm in Edina, Minn. Adds Carl Goodin, a certified financial planner at Financial Planning Associates Inc. in Chesterfield, Mo.: "I have clients who have planned and retired comfortably on an amount of money that, for another client, would hardly pay the country club dues."

The basic financial planning guidelines kick in once you have developed a lifestyle road map. Own your home. Keep debt under control. Fund your 401(k) or similar retirement savings plan to the maximum and, assuming you meet the income requirements, an individual retirement account. The new law that put a lid of 15% on taxes on dividend payments is a powerful incentive to establish a taxable account for long-term savings, too. "You don't get anything better than this," says Christopher Wolfe, managing director and global head of equities for JPMorgan Private Bank. "High-quality companies, dividend payers, are an efficient way to save for retirement."

The mantra of financial planning is diversify, diversify, and diversify. The strategy of spreading money among stocks, bonds, international securities, cash, and other assets limits downside risk. Many investors are adding to their portfolios securities that safeguard against inflation, since rising prices erode the value of a dollar. The U.S. Treasury sells two fixed-income securities specifically designed to compensate holders for inflation as measured by the consumer price index. One is the Treasury Inflation-Protected Security, better known as TIPS. The other is a kind of savings bond, called I-bonds. Neither will produce dazzling returns, but they guarantee your capital will not be lost to inflation.

Managing money well is important. But for many people the most important investment they can make during their working years is in gathering the skills, education, and contacts they need for the work they want to do in retirement. And even though there are legitimate concerns about the financing of Social Security and Medicare in coming decades, most economists agree the elderly can rely on both safety nets being there to help out. Higher productivity growth will make paying the bill easier than anticipated only a few years ago.

Most Americans can afford to grow old. Along the way, individuals will be forced to make adjustments to portfolios, savings strategies, and expectations. Lots of things can go wrong, too. Some retirees will face enormous financial hardship from a lack of money, ill health, or both. But for the vast majority of society, old age is simply another stage of life with its own challenges and rewards.

Always Apologize, Always Explain

Why the two words, "I'm sorry" can be the most rewarding.

I was a mere child when the classic tear gusher Love Story hit theaters in 1970, but I wept along with the adult audience as the dying Ali MacGraw told the darling Ryan O'Neal, "Love means never having to say you're sorry." Two years later, I saw another movie, What's Up, Doc?, in which Barbra Streisand's character repeated the very same line to the very same actor. This time, however, O'Neal had an answer. "That's the dumbest thing I ever heard," he said.

For me, that was a lightbulb moment. I'd been swept along by the romance of Love Story, but even as I'd watched it, I'd felt an uncomfortable tickle in my brain. Young as I was (practically fetal, I swear), something was telling me that real lovers say they're sorry quite often. Sincerely. Fervently, even. This is not because dismal feelings like shame and regret are necessary components of a relationship, but because without apology no relationship would be free of them. Everyone does things that bother or hurt others; a bit of inconvenient procrastination will do it, or a grumpy comment made in a stressful moment. When we lack the ability to say we're sorry, minor offenses eventually accumulate enough weight to sink any relationship. But the simple act of apologizing can reestablish goodwill even when our sins are much, much graver. Of course, it must be done right. A lame, badly constructed apology can do more damage than the original offense. Fortunately, the art of effective apology is simple, and mastering it can mean a lifetime of solid, resilient relationships.

When to Apologize

I've heard many clients discuss and anticipate the "perfect moment" for an apology, claiming that premature contrition would just be too darn hard on the person they've wronged. Here's what I think: The perfect moment to apologize is the moment you realize you've done something wrong.

This seems obvious when we're contemplating somebody else's sins, but in the harsh light of our own guilt, we often try to protect ourselves from shame or censure by waiting for the heat to blow over. We may try to postpone apologizing or avoid it altogether by lying, blaming others, making excuses or justifying our actions. The impulse to go into such a stall is a big ol' signal. When you really don't want to say you're sorry, it's almost certainly time to do so.

On the other hand, you may be one of those people who apologize when they haven't done anything wrong. This is as false as failing to say you're sorry when circumstances warrant it. If you frequently apologize, it's time to stop. This kind of pseudo-apology may ease awkward conversations, but it's a form of crying wolf—it distracts attention from real issues and weakens meaningful apologies when the time for them arrives.

How to Apologize

Apologizing is rarely comfortable or easy, so if you're going to do it at all, make it count. Aaron Lazare, MD, a psychiatrist and dean of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has spent years studying acts of contrition in every context, from interpersonal to international. He has found that, to be effective, most apologies need to contain the following elements:

1. Full acknowledgment of the offense. Start by describing exactly what you did wrong, without avoiding the worst truths. Once the facts are out, acknowledge that your behavior violated a moral code. It doesn't matter whether you and the person you've hurt shares the same ethics: If you've broken your own rules, you're in the wrong. Accept responsibility.

2. An explanation. A truthful explanation is your best shot at rebuilding a strong, peaceful relationship. The core-deep explanation for your behavior is your key to changing for the better. Explanations help you and your victim understand why you misbehaved and assure both of you that the offense won't recur. Excuses merely deflect responsibility. Leave them out of your apology.

3. Genuine expression of remorse. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of the comment "I'm sorry you feel that way" knows the difference between sincere regret and an attempt to avoid responsibility for bad behavior. Few things are less likely to evoke forgiveness than an apology without remorse.

4. Reparations for damage. An apology includes real repair work—not just saying "I'm sorry." Often there will be nothing tangible to repair; hearts and relationships are broken more often than physical objects. In such cases, your efforts should focus on restoring the other person's dignity. The question "What else do you want me to do?" can start this process. If you ask it sincerely, really listen to the answer and act on the other party's suggestions, you'll be honoring their feelings, perspective and experience. The knowledge that one is heard and valued has incredible healing power; it can mend even seemingly irreparable wounds.

After Apologizing

When you really apologize, you should feel good about yourself. An effective apology is, as Lazare puts it, "an act of honesty, an act of humility, an act of commitment, an act of generosity, and an act of courage." But there's no guarantee that the other person involved will share your warm fuzzies. The final gallant act of apology is to release your former victim from any expectation of forgiveness. No matter how noble you have been, he will forgive—or refuse to forgive—on his own terms. That is his right.

Anne Lamott refers to forgiveness as "giving up all hope of having had a different past." The same words apply to apologizing. An apology is the end of our struggle with history, the act by which we untangle from our past by accepting what it actually was. From this truthful place we are free to move forward, whether or not we are forgiven. Apologizing doesn't make us perfect, but it shows our commitment to be honest about our imperfections and steadfast in our efforts to do better.

It reminds us of what Ali MacGraw's Love Story character died too young to learn: that love means always being willing to say you're sorry.