In many cultures, to live a long, presumably happy, life is the very definition of success. But in the realm of retirement planning, living a long life can be a mixed blessing. As life expectancies in the U.S. continue to increase as a result of medical advances, so, too do the chances that retirees who have not saved enough will outlive their money. Many seniors who assumed they were financially set for life have learned the hard way that a retirement plan based on a life expectancy of 85, for example, may require serious cutbacks to avoid running out of money as they approach and surpass that age. At the same time, most retirees would prefer not to have to pinch pennies throughout their golden years just because it is possible they might live much longer than life-expectancy statistics would suggest. In some ways, estimating how much they will have saved by the time they stop working is the easier part of the retirement-planning equation; it is figuring out how long that money will have to last that is the real challenge. Of course, it is impossible to know years or decades in advance just how long each of us will live, and most people would just as soon avoid the subject entirely. But estimating how long each of us will live is just as important as other key retirement-planning variables such as savings rate, rate of return on investments, and withdrawal rate. In attempting to answer this question, many people will look no further than government statistics about average life expectancies for men and women at various ages, but as we will see in a moment, those can be of limited value.

One of the first places many people turn to estimate their longevity is the Life Expectancy Calculator found on the Social Security Administration’s website. The calculator estimates life expectancy based on the user’s gender and birthday, and the results show the number of additional years the user can expect to live on average based on current age, at age 62 (when first eligible to receive benefits), at full retirement age, and at 70 (the latest age to start benefits).

The tool is good as a starting point, but the problem, as with most life-expectancy estimates, is that it is too general to be of much use. Life expectancy is typically forecast as the SSA calculator expresses it: as an average for a given population. For example, current life expectancy for 65-year-old males is 19.2 years, or to age 84.2, according to the SSA calculator. That means that 50% of 65-year-old males can expect to live longer than that and 50% can expect to die sooner than that. This average figure may be useful for the SSA, which has to project the program’s future costs while helping seniors estimate their benefits, but it tells us nothing about a 65-year-old male’s odds of reaching 90 or 100. The average acts as a blunt instrument when what we really need is a more comprehensive picture of life expectancy—one that is more effective for retirement-planning purposes.

Fortunately, the SSA does far more actuarial work than what is represented by its online calculator. In fact, its actuaries also produce tables that estimate a broad range of life expectancies for people born in various years. Using one of these tables, we have created the adjacent chart, which shows how long those who have turned or will turn 65 this year are expected to live by the percentage reaching various ages, expressed as “age at death.”

By showing the full range of projected life expectancies for today’s 65-year-olds, the chart illustrates that many men and women in this group are expected to live well beyond the average. For example, 29% of 65-year-old males and 39% of 65-year-old females are expected to live to 90 while about 3% of males and 5% of females from this age group are expected to make it to 100.

Looking at figures for younger age cohorts suggests even larger percentages of people living beyond these thresholds. For example, among current 45-year-olds, 30% of males and 41% of females are expected to live until at least 90 while nearly 4% and 7%, respectively, are expected to live until at least 100. For current 25-year-olds the trend toward longer life expectancy continues, with 34% of males and 45% of females projected to live to at least 90 and 5% and 9%, respectively, expected to make it at least to the century mark. With around one third or more of each of these age groups expected to live until at least age 90, using an average life expectancy that reaches only into the mid- to late 80s for each age group would leave a substantial portion of new retirees without enough to live on in their later years, to say nothing of the increasing number who will reach 100.

For individuals who want to be as certain as possible of not outliving their money, planning a retirement that lasts well beyond 100 may be a worthy, if unrealistic, goal. The longer the money needs to last, the less you can afford to withdraw each year along the way. Trying to preserve your nest egg on the remote chance that you will live longer than almost anyone else of your generation involves a trade off in terms of quality of life. You may find that planning based on a life expectancy projection that puts you in the 80th percentile for your age and gender—in other words, with just a 20% chance of outliving your money—strikes a better balance between guarding against longevity and not depriving yourself of the lifestyle you envisioned for your golden years.


© Morningstar 2013. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.