By Geoff Colvin, senior editor-at-large
FORTUNE -- England's blustery Dorset coast seems an unlikely setting for retirement planning lessons, but actually it's perfect. That's where this summer's Olympic sailboat races will take place, and viewers new to sailing will learn a surprising fact: You can sail into the wind. You need to tack in ways that aren't necessary when the wind is behind you, but do it right and you'll move bracingly fast.
That's retirement planning today. You're feeling virtually all the financial winds right in your face. Strapped governments at every level will be giving you fewer services and taking more from you in taxes and fees. Inflation may be creeping up. Employers will continue the long-term trend of whittling retirement security by freezing or abolishing the few remaining defined-benefit pension plans and reducing company contributions to 401(k) plans. As for your investment portfolio -- forget those reassuring historical stock market returns of around 11% annually and note that recent years have been far grimmer: The S&P 500 (SPX) is right where it was more than 12 years ago, in January 1999. Warren Buffett assumes Berkshire Hathaway's (BRKA) pension plan will earn a modest 7.1% a year.
One more fact: You'll probably live longer than you expect, a wonderful thing in every way except financially. New research from the Society of Actuaries finds that 57% of pre-retirees underestimate life expectancy from their current age, while only 28% overestimate. Your nest egg may have to last much longer than you thought.
Those are formidable headwinds. Yet as the Olympic sailors will remind us, you're not condemned to being blown backward. The right tactics will propel you ahead even now. Think of your practical next steps in three categories.
In today's low-yield environment, most of us must salt away more. Easy to say, hard to do. If your employer hasn't adopted the Save More Tomorrow program, urge it to do so; and if it won't, then follow the program on your own. Developed by UCLA business professor Schlomo Benartzi and behavioral economist Richard Thaler, it lets employees pre-commit to saving more every time they get a pay raise. It works -- participants save much more than nonparticipants.
In choosing your saving rate, face the new reality of inflation. Experts debate whether years of monetary loosening in the U.S. and other major economies will push up prices significantly, but ignoring the risk would be foolish. Suppose you'd like your portfolio to pay you $100,000 a year (in constant dollars) for 30 years. With an after-tax return of 6% and inflation at 2%, a nest egg of $1.82 million will do the job. But if inflation turns out to be just one point higher than you assumed, at 3%, you'll need another quarter million dollars.
Back when we all thought we'd get 11% long-term annual returns, we could maybe afford to ignore fees and expenses. No more. It's time to get tough on the "helpers," Buffett's sarcastic term for the intermediaries who take bits and pieces of our investment returns. As he and Vanguard founder John Bogle constantly preach: Over decades, tenths of a point matter. Some helpers, such as the best fee-only advisers, are emphatically worth their cost. But in today's environment, investors must know exactly how much they're paying and for what.
Investing smarter may also mean cleverly using your natural biases in your favor. Behavioral economists have found that we think of our spending in buckets -- one for dining out, say, another for travel, another for car expenses. The tendency isn't always rational, but Carnegie Mellon economist George Loewenstein has proposed that retirees harness it by setting up separate "pay the rent" and "spoil the grandkids" accounts. The rent account could be invested conservatively; the grandkids account could be invested aggressively for growth.
It's a hard reality that many people will be living a bit less large than they had hoped in retirement, and maybe before. Don't fight that thought. Embrace it. We're living through the first era in history when significant numbers of people are being made unhappy by having too much rather than too little. The term is "affluenza," now the subject of books and academic research.
Why are you planning to retire at all? It isn't to maximize income. It's to be happy. Millions of people are finding that having less makes them happier. Spending less and saving more is kind of like sushi: You have to be made to try it, but then you may find you love it. That's also the potential exhilaration of sailing into the wind. As conditions change, reaching our goals demands a new course. With the right strategy you can still find your way to a great retirement. It could even be a happier one than you'd expected.
This story is from the July 12, 2012 issue of Fortune.
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