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You Need a Retirement Makeover. Start With These Six Steps. Nearly half of Americans are projected to see their standard of living fall in retirement. Here's how to safeguard your standard of living.

By Pamela Yellen

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Despite the run-up in the stock market and housing prices, half of American households are still projected to see their standard of living fall in retirement. Today's workers should be socking away more for retirement because the decks are stacked against them in ways they weren't 30 years ago, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

According to the report, the retirement landscape is shifting dramatically, making the outlook for retiring Baby Boomers and Generation Xers far less sanguine than for current retirees. The only solution offered? Work five years longer.

But there's a problem with the "work longer" recommendation for today's workers nearing retirement. Nearly half of all retirees were forced out of work earlier than they planned due to layoffs, poor health or the need to take care of a loved one. So working forever may not be an option you can count on, even if you were okay with saying, "And would you like fries with that?" 100 times a day.

Another problem is that people often count on paper profits in their retirement planning calculations, when the only true value their portfolios have is whatever the market says on the day those assets are cashed in.

We've been seduced into believing we have real wealth by eye-popping numbers on pieces of paper.

Whether that's your brokerage account or 401(k) statement, a home appraisal, or the price of an ounce of gold, those numbers are meaningless unless you sell the asset, and hopefully, lock in a gain. That's called market timing, and most people and experts fail miserably at it.

When it comes to market timing, three words can have a huge impact on whether you enjoy a comfortable retirement, or you have to struggle and forego life's luxuries - and even life's necessities. Almost no one is talking about these three words, yet they could be more devastating to your retirement security than living longer than you expected or than being forced to retire sooner than you planned.

The three words are: sequence of returns, specifically, the unfavorable kind.

It's a fancy way of saying that pre-retirees and retirees, who have a big portion of their assets in equities and mutual funds, face the very real risk that the market will fall as they are preparing to or are withdrawing money from their accounts.

An unfavorable sequence of returns means you have to cut back significantly on your retirement lifestyle, or it could force you to work longer than you had planned. And of course there is no way to accurately predict when the next market crash will happen or where the markets will be when you're ready to retire.

With all the hurdles Americans face in planning for a secure retirement, it's understandable that many people put off facing the problem. It's also clear that following the conventional wisdom of investing in Wall Street through 401(k) and other government controlled plans won't increase your financial security. Instead, many people need a complete retirement makeover. Start with these six steps.

Related: Freelance Workers Have a New Way to Save for Retirement

  1. Acknowledge the problem. Putting off saving for retirement, or dealing with the inadequacies of your savings method, only makes matters worse. The sooner you get started the better. And don't wait until all debt is paid off before you begin saving.
  2. Increase savings by one percent to two percent every year. This modest goal can help people significantly boost their long-term results without feeling a pinch.
  3. Realistically plan for how long you'll live. One in four people turning 65 today will live past 90, making it critical to save for the long haul. Many people plan how much they need to save based on the widely recommended four percent rule, which advises retirees to take out no more than four percent of the value of their retirement accounts (adjusted for inflation) each year. However new studies reveal that a 2.8 percent withdrawal rate is a safer bet for making your money last as long as you do.
  4. Don't underestimate the impact of inflation. Many people don't take this into account. Even if inflation remains low for the next 30 years (it won't), the impact can be devastating.
  5. Don't count on working longer to make up for your savings shortfall. Almost half of today's retirees were forced to leave the workforce earlier than planned.
  6. Prioritize building an emergency fund equal to two years of household income. Life happens, and we should all expect the unexpected, so everyone needs more than a few months of savings socked away.

Related: 4 Things Small Business Owners Must Do to Retire Comfortably

Building an emergency fund equal to two years of income may seem like a daunting task, especially when you are trying to save money for retirement. But what if you could build a retirement fund that doubles as an emergency fund? After researching more than 450 financial products and strategies, I've found only one that can do that and help people meet the retirement challenges outlined above.

This method, which I call "Bank On Yourself," allows families to grow real savings predictably and safely without the volatility of stocks and other investments. The returns are actually locked-in and not subject to wild market fluctuations. The numbers on annual statements represent real wealth that doesn't disappear when the markets crash.

Related: Retiring at 27: Ambitious, Lazy or Crazy?

Each plan is guaranteed to grow by a larger dollar amount every single year, even if the market tanks. Added bonuses include liquidity, tax advantages and the ability to be your own source of financing.

Instead of risking most of their retirement assets in volatile investments and shaky schemes, more than 500,000 Americans are using this predictable, secure savings method that's delivered positive annual growth for more than 160 years. So if you want a real retirement makeover, consider one that will allow you to bypass Wall Street; fire your banker; and take back control of your financial future.

Pamela Yellen

Financial security expert

Pamela Yellen is a financial security expert, a two-time NY Times best-selling author and President of Bank On Yourself. Pamela's latest book is "Rescue Your Retirement: Five Wealth-Killing Traps of 401(k)s, IRAs and Roth Plans – and How to Avoid Them."

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