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Columnist updates retirement advice

Journalism school's Fred Brock enjoys success of book's new edition

 

Fred Brock can't be accused of not following his own advice.

In 2004 he took early retirement from The New York Times. Then he and his wife, Evelyn, sold an expensive house in a New Jersey commuter city and moved themselves and their equity to a small inland college town: Manhattan, to be specific.

Here Brock continues to work; he holds the R.M. Seaton chair at K-State's A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications. But his ultimate goal is also the title of his most successful book to date: "Retire on Less Than You Think: The New York Times Guide to Planning Your Financial Future." (Times Books/Henry Holt)

The second edition of this best-seller is in stores and available at The New York Times store and on amazon.com. For a time, the book was the No. 1 seller under the "retirement planning" section of amazon.com, and after the first week, the book had sold out at The New York Times store, Brock said. The cover price is $15.

"Everybody falls into this trap of believing Wall Street and the financial press, that you need 70 percent to 80 percent of your pre-retirement income," Brock said. Such thinking may fuel the mutual-fund market, but it doesn't clarify issues facing those contemplating retirement.

"People become convinced that they can't retire," he said. "What you need to look at is your expenses, not your income. They're going to drop dramatically after you retire."

Particularly if you can shed your mortgage. "That is a humongous cut in your expenses," Brock said. Clothing, commuting, cafe lattés; all those work-related expenses should diminish as well.

Moving to a smaller town usually brings lower taxes and insurance costs, too. For those already in small towns, Brock suggests outlying areas, or "downsizing in place." Consider a smaller house or a condo instead of the empty-nest but equity-rich family home.

In addition to updating its statistics, the new edition tackles the housing slump and "the elephant in the room of American society": access to health care.

Sagging prices in overheated housing markets won't prevent someone from following Brock's advice, he said. For example, most retirement-age San Francisco homeowners have built up more than enough equity to cash out and move to Oxford, Miss., or Bloomington, Ind., two other college towns popular with new retirees.

"One of the things that's happening to the housing market is that speculative 'flippers' are being forced out," he said. "That's a good thing, because they had driven prices artificially high in some areas."

But lack of health insurance is not a good thing. Brock still writes for The New York Times, where for years he worked as a business editor and writer. His other books include "Live Well on Less Than You Think" and "Health Care on Less Than You Think." His reporting has taught him that many would-be retirees are staying at their desks to keep group health coverage.

Medicare kicks in at 65. Retire earlier, and your health insurance options are few and expensive. Even in states that mandate universal access to insurance, premiums can turn a nest egg into a goose egg.

"What I really recommend is that people not retire if they can't figure out how to get insurance," Brock said. "You run the risk of bankruptcy."

As free-spending, BMW-leasing baby boomers head into retirement, Brock sees reason for optimism, despite their oft-cited lack of savings.

"Four things will save boomers from their bad habits," he said: Their equity in expensive homes, willingness to move, skills in juggling finances, and a desire to keep working, at least part time, during the traditional retirement years.

"As a generation, they're amazingly flexible," Brock said. "And they're going to change the rules of the game."