You're driving along rather smoothly on the yellow brick road, also known as retirement, but to many the question arises as to whether the Golden Years are really that or are they tarnished?

There's the exit sign right ahead--what you've longed for from the time you started putting in those 9 to 5 hours. Or is that exit sign simply another route to the Twilight Zone?

According to the people at Social Security (which seems to be where everyone puts their marbles), there are three specific "rules of the road" in order to reach your destination in one piece.

For one, you must know right down to the penny what Social Security will provide. Of course, with what is going on today, many people on the softer side of 40 aren't quite sure whether there will be any money in the pot in another 30 years.

Keep in mind that to most individuals in this country, Social Security is looked upon as the bedrock of retirement planning. More than 95 percent of workers here are covered by Social Security and more than 30 million Americans already receive monthly retirement benefits. So, what can you expect? If you're 25 or older and you work, you already are receiving a statement in the mail each year, usually around three months prior to your birthday, about what you paid into Social Security thus far and the expected benefits you might receive at various retirement ages. If you need to know more about that statement, visit www.socialsecurity.gov/mystatement.

Next, you must understand what it is you have to put away. One critical factor is that Social Security was never intended to be your only source of retirement income. I emphasize that word "never." It was meant to be coupled with private pensions and savings--in other words, as one part of the so-called "three-legged stool" that is supposed to support your financial future.

Ask financial planners and they will tell you that you must compute how much money is needed in retirement, and that may not be at age 65 as more and more people are working later into the twilight of their lives--or as my friend Bill Carlino, editor-in-chief of Accounting Today, likes to put it, "On the back nine."

Most financial planners look at approximately 70 percent of pre-retirement incomes. That means the Social Security payments usually replace only some 40 percent of what people earn before they retire.

Now, the clinker. Statistics show that only 50 percent of American workers even have private pensions and a third have not even set aside any money whatsoever earmarked for retirement. Guess what? If you are in that category, you best be saving quickly now as much as possible or you will come up painfully short. 

Finally, keep health insurance at the forefront of your thoughts. It's no secret that as people age they tend to have more health problems, so if you plan to retire at an early age and you haven't hit the lottery for zillions of dollars, then you better be sure that you have either employer-provided or private health insurance in hand. This is especially true for those under age 65 who are not yet eligible for Medicare.

Naturally, if you intend to pack it in at age 65 or older, you must understand how Medicare Parts A and B coverage work. This involves understanding that you are responsible for Medicare premiums, deductibles, and coinsurance. Here's what I mean. The monthly premium that is paid by those enrolled in Medicare Part B which covers physician services, outpatient hospital services, certain home health services, durable medical equipment, and other similar items, is now pegged at $78.20 although it increases each year. However, there is some good news here. All Medicare beneficiaries can now participate in a new prescription drug program that starts next January. Those who meet income and resource limits (and you can find out more about this by going to the Social Security Web site) can receive some additional help in meeting the monthly premiums, annual deductibles, and prescription co-payments. If you need to know more about Medicare generally, visit their Web site at www.medicare.gov.

Clearly, it doesn't seem to get any easier for those approaching retirement age but a little planning can usually get you on the right road and keep you there.

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