NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- Retirees are fretting over money issues in retirement - no surprise there, right? But the issues they're worried about may not be what you think.
That's the big takeaway from a new Merrill Edge survey, which states that the chief reasons for financial anxiety in retirement may not be guaranteeing adequate income; instead, the root of the uncertainty might primarily be shaving down personal debt and curbing household spending.
The positive upside is that 70% of Americans surveyed (1,300 overall) say that "paying off debt" and "spending less" are the twin paths that lead to an "ideal retirement." It also shows a divergence in attitudes about money and retirement between Americans still working and Americans now in retirement, Merrill edge reports.
"The survey shows a significant difference in the way retirees planned for and perceive their golden years compared to those who are not yet retired and planning for this key life milestone," notes Aron Levine, director of preferred banking at Merrill Edge. "As the financial landscape of retirement becomes more complex with rising healthcare costs and uncertainty around Social Security, survey respondents predict they will be stressed in life after work and recognize they will likely need to rely on their own savings and investments in their golden years."
It's that complexity of financial issues in retirement that vexes current retirees and has them worried about debt and spending issues.
"There can be no retirement savings without current financial stability," says Brian Cosgray, cofounder and CEO of DoubleNet Pay. "Paying off debt and spending less are all about gaining the financial stability necessary to adequately save for retirement."
Cosgray says employers have historically done a pretty good job helping employees with retirement planning and saving. "But what the results show is that employees need help managing their finances today - balancing payment of bills with saving for necessities, such as emergencies and loss of income, and having a clear understanding of disposable income both for current spending and retirement savings," he adds.
Andrew McFadden, a certified financial planner and founder of Panoramic Financial, points out that a lot of retirees are pursuing these ends, because they have to, not necessarily because they want to. "There are so many reports that surface on the news on how many Americans have done a poor job saving for retirement," he says. "So it's no surprise that cutting spending and reducing debt are top priorities for retirees, because those are really the only options to some of those at retirement age."
McFadden advises retirees to take two big steps to help on both fronts - downsize their homes and use the money saved to pay off high interest debt, like credit cards. "Not only will you have a lower mortgage, but you will also eliminate your credit cards payments," he notes.
One other tip on saving and spending is for retirees to buy discounted gift cards at places they regularly shop, says Randall Reinwasser, a certified financial planner at Solitude Canyon Investment Advisors and author of the book Underground Savings (Create Space, 2015). "For instance, if a retiree has pets, they can cut down on their pet food costs by 30% just by purchasing discounted Petco gift cards at a place like Gift Card Zen."
Just because you're focused on spending and debt, that doesn't mean you can't have great experiences in retirement -- you just need to plan smartly for them.
One good idea - save up for luxuries. "Once retirees have identified ways to save money, they can put that money towards their priorities - which can and should include savings," says Scott Smith, president of CreditRepair.com. "However, those special expenses - the ones [for activities] people actually dream about spending their retirement doing - are still within reach."
"A vacation fund is a perfect example," he added. "As retirees cut down on expenses, they can put a little bit toward their dream vacation each month, and before they know it, they'll have a sizable fund raised."
Some retirees are taking extreme measures to tackle credit and debt issues. Richard Pawlowski, a 70-something retiree who, along with his wife, spent two years in a tent to cut expenses, advises retirees to take a new mental approach to post-career living. "You have to rearrange your thinking, which means living within your means," he says "The best way to do that is to cut debt down to nothing."
Pawlowski, who chronicled his tent adventure on the website 2Yearsinatent.com, says he and his wife cut their household expenses down to almost zero by camping, an admittedly extreme measure to most retired folks. Applying even some level of this abstemiousness can be beneficial for retirees.
Of course, in Pawlowski's case, you can't argue with the results.
"Plus," as Pawlowski notes, "we were getting sick of city life, anyway," he adds.
Spoken like a real retirement revolutionary.