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Congratulations on taking the first step toward reaching your retirement goals by making this timely purchase and finding your way to the starting line. My commitment to you is to “tell it like it is” without sugarcoating the message and yet deliver the message with a strong sense of encouragement and a touch of humor. Granted, your retirement is no laughing matter, but I've always found humor to be a great source of realism and perspective in life, so let's get to work. We can solve some problems and share a laugh or two. I promise that some will be at my expense.

I think it's important for you understand why I'm writing this book and what you can expect from it. My primary reason for writing Retirement Countdown is a fairly simple one: I feel that with all my experience in the financial services investment industry, I have something to say that could help you achieve your retirement goals. That's why I hope that as you read this book, you feel the sincere spirit in which it is offered. I've seen a lot of good and bad over the past 25 years, and my fear is that 77 million Baby Boomers and a lot of others are heading into a harsh winter retirement storm.

For me to be successful, I need to convince you that I have something of value to offer, and if you don't trust the advice I've provided, I will have failed in my goal. I need your trust to be able to help you. You need to know that I don't sell financial planning services, nor do I provide individual advice to anyone for a fee—the occasional apple fritter or a new-release DVD, perhaps, but never a fee. Not that there is anything wrong with fees or commissions; I think that the role for professionals is a vital one in helping you meet your goals. However, I've always enjoyed leveraging my skills, and writing, speaking, and building businesses create the kind of leverage that I love and have excelled at over the years.

You also need to know I haven't spent the majority of my years in a corporate ivory tower and that my experience is not purely from teaching others. The experiences I reflect on in this book are the result of thousands of meetings I have had with financial planners and their clients to discuss the benefits of retiring on their terms. I have worked with people of all ages, and I've conducted seminars in luxury hotels, trailer parks, schools, and conventions. One of the books I co-authored has been used in research for a Supreme Court decision and was quoted by Justice Ruth Ginsburg in her majority opinion. But what I've found is that people are simply people—some more informed, some less informed, some more trusting, and some less trusting. And the reason that I have to tell it like it is in this book is that so many people lack the information necessary to develop a dialogue of substance with a professional who truly engenders trust in a relationship. And the result of that lack of trust is likely to be procrastination or a splintered approach to financial planning without balance, without vision, and without a plan.

I can also say that financial planning in general and retirement planning specifically are difficult subjects to speak broadly to because we all have unique goals and obstacles to deal with. So, as you read this book, keep in mind that you'll have some work to do along the way—actually, a lot of work, because it's your retirement and no one else's. I hope that Retirement Countdown becomes the most tattered book on your bookshelf, and I hope that my supporting Web site, www.retirementcountdown, is saved as one of your favorites.

You'll need to be introspective and honest with yourself about where you are in your own planning cycle and how much time and effort you have to devote to fostering the kind of retirement that will make you happy. You need to approach saving for retirement or managing income in retirement as a task. I always find it helpful at the outset of any task to establish the game plan. That means:

  1. Define the need or task.

  2. Set reasonable goals and expectations.

  3. Create a framework for achievement.

  4. Establish a methodology for assessing progress and modifying your game plan.

  5. Execute, do it, and don't quit. This is not a failure you can afford!

Let's talk about the game plan briefly before we move on. Successful people come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. They share certain common attributes such as determination, a desire to succeed, a natural or time-honed talent, and a sixth sense that guides them to the right shot at the right time or the right strategic decision at the right time. They also know that as good as they are, they need to have a game plan and others to assist them in achieving their task or goal. It's no secret that less gifted people can outperform those more gifted than if they have a better game plan or a stronger will.

I can't tell you how important it is for you to plan your retirement and make it a priority in your life. Reviewing your retirement plan needs to become second nature to you. Throughout this book, you will run across all kinds of statistics, but look at the message carried by the words and not the implication of the statistic itself. Although statistics can be impersonal, I'm asking you to look inside and see if they might apply to you or your situation. You cannot be successful in achieving your retirement goals without a plan, and most of us cannot do it without help from a professional. So many of us feel that we can do it ourselves, but in the end, we simply do nothing. We lack the same commodity that drives our ability to meet the retirement challenge—time. This book will help you sort through the financial and emotional issues and establish some guidelines for selecting and working with a financial planning specialist if you choose to enlist help.

Choosing the right professional or professionals for your needs is perhaps one of the most important decisions that you'll make. In Chapter 13, I'll help you find someone who has the right skill sets and a complementary style, and most important, I'll help you find someone who understands that meeting your needs is the number one goal.

You will find a variety of professionals, from stockbrokers to insurance agents to attorneys and accountants. Virtually all of these professionals are also salespeople, so you have to make certain that they have properly balanced your needs with their needs. If it's not a win-win proposition, someone is will be unhappy. To borrow a line from one of my favorite musicals, Man of LaMancha, “Whether the pitcher hits the stone or the stone hits the pitcher, it's going to be bad for the pitcher.” You don't want to be the pitcher in this analogy.

Balance is incredibly important in everything that we do and is a consistent theme throughout the book, as are references to musicals and movies as my personal passion bleeds into the book's character. One final note on the planning aspect of this book relates to setting reasonable goals and not giving up. I believe in reaching for the stars, so using the word “reasonable” can make my stomach knot up. Overachievers don't like the word reasonable, but I have to say that for the vast majority of us, if we don't set reasonable goals, we create an environment in which failure becomes easier than success to achieve. Once we establish reasonable goals, it's easier for us to get some wins and feel good about the planning process.

The greatest challenge to achieving your goal will not come from bad investments or from bad advice, though these can certainly contribute to an unwanted outcome. No, the greatest challenge will come from within, from procrastination. People procrastinate for all kinds of reasons, but as it relates specifically to retirement and money management, most people procrastinate because the subject is simply too much to digest and too much to manage. It can often be too difficult to face issues like mortality, possible loss of personal health, and the fear that you may not have sufficient assets to support the retirement of your choice. Procrastination thrives on the adage “Ignorance is bliss.”

So let's get down to work and set expectations. Retirement Countdown is not your everyday book on retirement; it is an action-oriented book designed to get you to recognize the importance of being an active participant in the retirement process. There are dozens and dozens of books on retirement that focus on everything you wanted to know about retirement and investment products. These books tend to be offerings that appeal to the “do-it-yourself” investor. Although a do-it-yourself investor can certainly gain great value from reading this book, Retirement Countdown is designed to hit you right between the eyes with the harsh realities associated with reaching your retirement goals and managing your retirement assets. And one important fact is that a very small percentage of Americans have the right combination of time, skill, and discipline to manage their own retirement assets effectively. Think of how many times you have started a project on your own only to abandon it before completion. That may be fine if you're building a doghouse or knitting a scarf, but if it's your retirement, your procrastination can have a catastrophic impact.

Retirement Countdown will take you on this journey in small steps, separating the concepts from the actual investment products so that the issues at hand don't suffocate you or leave you feeling helpless and paralyzed. Most people don't understand that managing your retirement is a three-dimensional task requiring great focus and discipline. The first two dimensions are time and performance, but the third dimension is represented by all the external forces that play on your goals, such as risk, market volatility, and life events. These are all defined and discussed in later chapters. Retirement Countdown is all about process, not products, and about empowerment, not procrastination. In reading this book, you can expect a splash of drill sergeant and a dash of humor woven into my concept of “chicken soup for your retirement.”

You will find that the book is divided into three basic sections. In the first section, we take a broad look at the problems associated with accumulating assets for retirement and managing assets to create and sustain retirement income. Perhaps the greatest challenge facing retiring seniors and aging Baby Boomers today is the lack of adequate financial resources to support their retirement choices. People want to enjoy their retirement at a standard of living that does not compromise their preretirement lifestyle. Unfortunately for many Americans, that is not an option. In this section, I want to lay the groundwork for you to be one of the fortunate Americans who do not have to compromise their lifestyle after retirement. At the end of this section, we will begin to plan for retirement and set up the “goal-oriented” approach to retirement planning.

The second section of Retirement Countdown takes a look at the various investment products available to you in your quest for retirement security. But what is much more important, this section looks at the risks associated with any investment and discusses your options relative to these risks. This section also does a thorough job of looking at what the financial services industry refers to as packaged products, including mutual funds, annuities, and insurance products.

Many of the current texts on retirement gloss over the issue of risk management in general and insurance as an option to protect assets in particular. My own belief is that many of the authors of these books just don't have the depth of knowledge in this area to be comfortable in making insured risk management a part of the retirement process. For better or for worse, I have worked with insurance companies, banks, and stock brokerage firms for the past 25 years, and I understand how these products work and how they can be of benefit to you in your retirement planning. I also can help you understand the difference between products that are properly designed to meet your needs and those that might be better suited to someone else. I can also show you the products to avoid and products that lack the balance of being good for you and for the company that sells them.

The final section of Retirement Countdown is about action and resources. In this section, we review the need for action, provide additional resources, and prepare the road map that will guide us to success. I don't think that many of you have the time or discipline to climb this mountain without a guide and without a safety rope. This section of the book will help you to find the right safety rope (professional) to assist you in your planning, and I have strong opinions on what you should be looking for in such an individual or company. That said, if you have the time and discipline and want to do it yourself, I'll provide you with resources and tools, including the Web, that will aid you on this retirement climb. Be aware that the Internet has made so much information available that you can easily overload and become paralyzed by having too many options and too little time to effect change. To aid you on an ongoing basis, you're welcome to visit www.retirementcountdown.com and enjoy the Web site that I have set up to provide you with an ongoing kick-in-the-butt and the latest information on retirement trends and products. You'll find that some of the tasks you will have to perform to develop and monitor your plan are better accomplished through use of a computer and not pen and paper. On the Retirement Countdown Web site, you'll find helpful calculators and online tools to aid in developing your goals.

I hope you're ready to join me on this journey. With the protracted bear market at the start of the century and the movement away from income-oriented defined benefit retirement plans, people are searching for answers and too often can be misled into believing that they can climb the retirement mountain with no guide and no ropes. Let me help guide you up the right path and encourage you to stay on that path. No one else can do this for you; you have to be the climber and you have to take charge of your path to security in retirement. We're about to head up the mountain, and we won't stop until we've reached our goal, so turn to Chapter 1, and let's get started.

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