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That retirement calculator is lying to you and your clients

Anyone who puts even minimal elbow grease into retirement planning is well aware of “the number,” the anxiety-producing seven-figure sum online calculators and financial advisers say you’ll need to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle after your career ends. There’s a far smaller number that deserves more attention now — the rate of return at the heart of that calculation.

According to Ibbotson data, the long-term annualized gain for the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index dating back to 1926 is 9.9 percent. For bonds, it’s 5.4 percent. (From 1970 to 2010, the Barclays Capital Aggregate Bond index average was 8.3 percent.) Plug those numbers into a portfolio of 60 percent stocks and 40 percent bonds and the return is about 8 percent, which is precisely the number most financial planners — and retirement calculators — were using up until recently.

With bond yields at record lows and stock dividend yields less than half their long-term norm, however, expecting portfolios to deliver returns in line with those historical averages may be a dangerous assumption. Using lower return numbers and seeing a higher savings target emerge may be a harsh reality check, but better to grapple with it now than be shocked when there’s less time to ramp up savings or cut spending to remedy a shortfall.

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