Kate Hughes: Afraid you'll run out of cash? It's time to take control of your life

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The Independent Online

It would appear we are a nation of split personalities. First, the long-standing lament that we're not taking retirement planning seriously enough was reinforced this week with research from HSBC, which suggested that it drops to the bottom of the list of priorities for couples with families.

Around 44 per cent of couples with children are failing to save for retirement because other needs come first, the bank found, compared with 33 per cent of childless couples. But more emotionally charged figures suggest that we are, in fact, dreading our retirement years, suffering sleepless nights and daily fears that the money will run out.

As a High Court battle to protect public sector pensions from being linked to a lower measure of inflation hots up this week, research from the online retirement planning service RetireEasy found that far from looking forward to an idyllic retirement, the majority have overwhelmingly negative views of post-work years to the point of being consumed.

The study of 50- to 70-year-olds found that while almost 80 per cent worried about their financial future, for 14 per cent it was a daily preoccupation. Women in this demographic worry more about retirement income than men; even though the vast majority of women are in a relationship, men have a wider range of assets under their name.

The fear is well founded, as women are far less likely to have been involved in any long-term financial planning, with fewer than a third saying they took responsibility for managing the "bigger" financial decisions while married, according to data from Tesco Bank. Prior to divorce, a quarter of all these over 50-something women admit that they had never considered savings options, a third had never applied for a mortgage and one in 10 had no financial products or accounts in their name.

Worryingly though, Friends Life recently found that just 61 per cent of women agree that "getting your own financial advice is a good idea, even for people who are married". Not that anyone is suggesting that women should only engage more with their money for fear of being without a husband.

"Both women and men have to take more responsibility for their retirement planning," says Dr Ros Altmann, director general of Saga and government adviser on savings, pensions and retirement. "But while women have tried to look after themselves, the hits they are experiencing now with government policies, annuity rates and high inflation has had a greater proportional effect on their relatively smaller pension savings."

When this age group started their careers, they were disadvantaged by a system that assumed they would rely on a husband's pension. But with current divorce rates, women must engage in financial planning. The simple reality is that the norm will have to change. "The closer people get to retirement, the greater the sense of realism about their position," says retiree Richard Collinson, who has launched the RetireEasy tool with his wife, Naomi. "The expectation is lower than for previous generations, but people just don't know when the money will run out. To take the fear away, people need better knowledge of what their retirement will look like and be able to manage their assets to achieve a more comfortable figure."

If their future was financially secure, the majority of people would spend more, RetireEasy found, while four out of 10 would divide their extra cash between spending more and giving more to their families. "Those sleepless nights are right if you are relying on a pension – if you're relying on markets to deliver performance that you know in your heart of hearts isn't realistic," adds Altmann.

Does this need to be a negative story? "Retirees really need to think about a more flexible approach, and more need to consider options like a part-time job. But this is actually a positive message," she adds. "At 65 you're no longer old, and you may live another 35 years, so take control of your life."