Preparing for a retirement is best looked at as running a marathon rather than sprinting a 100-meter dash.

It turns out that just like with professional athletes, most of us can improve our performance with practice and coaching.

“I have yet to meet somebody who has retirement completely thought through,” says Cindy Crean, managing director of Sun Life Global Investments Private Client.

She finds that people typically fall short in 2 critical areas: envisioning – picturing the kind of retirement they really want, and monetary – whether they’re actually saving enough for the lifestyle they envisioned.

In particular, Crean recommends that couples have serious discussions about what they each want and how they see their lives in retirement. She recalls a couple nearing retirement who found out they had wildly divergent dreams.

“She wanted to stay in the city and buy a condo and have an urban life,” Crean says. “He wanted to go up to their farm and live off the land. Clearly they had never sat down and talked about it.”

Financial realities can also shape this discussion. People may want to live their lives as they have been doing, but find out that they have to sell their home in the city to fund their retirement.

These discussions have become more important for Canadians contemplating retirement now, especially because the margin for error is less than it was for their parents. Many looking towards retirement today cannot count on a defined benefit pension plan, while historically low interest rates mean the fixed-income investments that were the bedrock of their parents’ retirement provide meagre returns today.

“Life is really changing and you have to take control of your financial future to make sure that you have a level of guaranteed income that is going to sustain you through retirement,” says Crean. “A lot of people might think that the government will look after them, but they don’t really know what that looks like.

“Can you actually live on OAS and CPP? And how much is it? You really have to think through how much you need for retirement and try to map out what you are saving and what is going to provide you with that income for the basics and income for discretionary spending.”

According to Ted Rechtshaffen, president and chief executive of TriDelta Investment Counsel, reliance on CPP is worrying, despite the recent enhancement slated to start taking effect in 2018.

The changes will see the maximum CPP benefit eventually increase nearly 50%, but Rechtshaffen would prefer that Canadians place greater emphasis on saving for their own retirement.

“For the vast majority of people who are worried about retirement at the moment, they are not the ones that are going to be fully implemented in the plan,” he says.

“I find it hard to get excited about something that is barely going to move the dial.”

If anything, Canadians can count on the government making retirement harder, by pushing retirement ages later and downloading spending for such things as healthcare more and more onto individuals.

According to Kelley Keehn, a personal finance educator and author based in Calgary, one of the most alarming statistics in the field of retirement planning is the fact that so many Canadians try to plan for retirement alone, without the help of a professional, be it a financial planner, broker or investment advisor.

The problem, she says, is that Canadians are bombarded with immediate and short-term decisions each and every day. Decisions about retirement can seem nebulous and far away, making it easy for those just struggling to get through the week to put them off.

With the exception of committed do-it-yourselfers, those trying to plan for retirement without expert help run the risk of spinning their wheels and wasting valuable years of compound savings.

“They haven’t crunched the numbers and who wants to do that,” Keehn says, adding that in addition to avoiding dealing with complex figures, people are also prone to wildly overestimating or underestimating their financial needs.

“The obvious thing is that not enough people are reaching out to a qualified financial planner.”

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