What does "comfortable" mean?

Comfortable can mean many things – could be a warm blanket on a comfy couch or a well-worn pair of hiking boots – but for our purposes here we'll limit the scope to financial security.

Even then, `comfort' is difficult to define because it's largely a matter of personal preference.

A guaranteed roof over your head, a balanced diet and the odd camping trip to Yackandandah may be more than adequate, or `comfortable enough' for some, but your picture of a comfortable lifestyle may be quite different. Maybe you'll only be truly comfortable if you can afford to do and buy whatever you want, whenever you want.

According to MLC funded Australia today research published in 2016, three quarters of Australians think ‘comfortable' means “having enough money to do what I want, and buy what I want”.

The report found when Australians think about a comfortable lifestyle, we think about regular overseas holidays, having a nice car, living in a nice house and paying private school fees. Almost half of us believe we need more than $150,000 in annual household income to live comfortably in Australia.

What's the super “standard” for comfort?

Google the phrase “comfortable lifestyle” and you'll get a lot of results about retirement and superannuation; most of it referencing the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia (ASFA) and its retirement standard.

According to the ASFA standards – the most widely used estimate for retirement income adequacy in Australia – a comfortable retirement lifestyle comes with an annual price tag of $43,538 for singles and $59,808 for couples; a far cry from the $150,000 “buy and do what I want” kind of comfort many of us apparently have in mind.

The association estimates a single person would need $545,000 in retirement savings to generate their recommended income while a couple would need $640,000.

The standard assumes you own your home and you're in reasonably good health. With that pretty significant caveat, ASFA's budget would allow you to:

  • Eat at restaurant regularly
  • Have private health insurance
  • Own a reasonable car and a range of electronic equipment
  • Buy good clothes and have regular haircuts.
  • Afford one annual holiday in Australia and “occasional international travel”.

ASFA's ‘modest' retirement standard – $24,108 per year for singles, $34,687 for a couple – is considered better than the Age Pension, but still only able to afford fairly basic activities.

You can check out ASFA's detailed budgets for comfortable, modest and pension-dependent retirement lifestyles at superguru.com.au

How much do we actually spend in retirement?

While the ASFA standards are widely used and even more widely quoted, not everyone thinks they've got it right. Many critics say the ‘comfortable' standard is overly generous while others say the exclusion of rent and mortgage debt means it's not nearly enough.

A recent report, commissioned by the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees (AIST) and conducted by Monash Business School's Australian Centre of Financial Studies, suggest most retirees spend much less than ASFA's comfortable standard would indicate they should – regardless of their available income.

The Expenditure patterns in retirement report is based on 12-years of data (2002-2014) from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics (HILDA) survey of about 8,000 households.

It found 80% of retired households reported spending levels at ASFA's ‘modest' standard of living. Less than 7% of retired households were found to be living at or above the ‘comfortable' standard of $43,538 for singles and $59,808 for couples.

That's quite the discrepancy, some of which is likely due to the different items included in the ASFA standard and HILDA survey – ASFA includes things like travel and household goods while HILDA surveys do include rent and mortgage repayments.

So how much do I need?

Both the ASFA benchmarks and insights provided by more than a decade of HILDA studies are useful guides to how much you'll need in retirement.

Just to complicate matters there's the concept of income replacement rates; the OECD, for example, suggests the target retirement income for a median income earner should be 70% of their final earnings, while the World Bank suggests 78% of net average lifetime wage.

But just how much you need depends on the lifestyle you're accustomed to and the future life you imagine for yourself. It also depends on your personal circumstances now and at the time you retire.

For example, going into retirement without owning your own home is not ideal. The Expenditure patterns in retirement report found the approximately 15 per cent of retirees who do not own their homes spent an average $11,500 on rent in 2014 – 40 per cent of their total annual expenditure and well above the maximum government rent assistance available at the time.

The bottom line

However you define it, if you want to live your comfortable life in retirement, now is the time to start thinking about what that life looks like and how you'll pay for it.

A good way to start calculating your own benchmark is to work out exactly what you're spending now and identify the expenses that are likely to continue in retirement – then subtract the costs that don't think you'll need.

Your super is likely to make up a good proportion of your retirement savings and making small changes now can have a big impact on your final balance; things like consolidating multiple super accounts into one, considering making extra contributions – before and/or after tax – and making sure your money is invested in the most appropriate option.

Try using our retirement income simulator to see the difference these small changes can make.

Non-super strategies, like property investments or shares, could also contribute significantly to your income.

This article first appeared on the website of Mercer, our superannuation partner.