It was about time Linda Tramel got a lucky break.
The 54-year-old Missouri native had already had plenty of unlucky ones, including a broken back from a recent fall down her kitchen stairs. Without health insurance, she and her husband — who were already caring for aging parents and paying for two kids' college tuition — quickly found themselves in a debt hole.
So the $50,000 grand prize she won in July, by playing AARP's spring Retirement Sweepstakes, could not have come at a better time.
"Honestly, we've lived hand-to-mouth for a long time," Tramel told AARP after she won the prize. "We save — and then something big comes up and there that goes. We're like a lot of other people; we don't know what we're going to do about retirement. But when the time comes, things usually work out."
In this case, things worked out nicely for a very nice couple. Opportunity knocked, and Tramel answered by entering our educational sweepstakes, even though the "game" wasn't exactly Candy Crush Saga or mah-jongg. Instead, it was a retirement-saving personality quiz, which graded you on how well you were planning and saving for your retirement.
Like the new fall sweeps, which launched Sept. 1, you could take the quizevery day. (The new sweeps is a more entertaining — but still educationally rich — retirement-smarts trivia quiz.)
"That contest made you face a few things you don't want to face," Tramel says. "But sometimes you need to be smacked in the face with this stuff. I'd rather see the truth right smack in front of my face than say later 'Why didn't you tell me?' "
Next page: The hard truth about retirement planning. »
So here's the hard truth about retirement planning (and our sweepstakes):
1. Retirement is eventually going to happen to you, whether you welcome it or not.
The Tramels plan to work as long as possible, in part to let their Social Security benefits grow. "It's wearing on my husband to work — standing on his feet 10 hours a day, his shoulders and elbows — but we're healthy and can still go," she says. "A lot of our friends, we don't talk about retirement because we don't want to admit we're that old!" But half of people who are retired today say they left the workforce early and unexpectedly, usually because of health problems or major workplace changes, like downsizing, according to a survey by the Employee Benefits Research Institute.
See also: Think you're saving enough to retire?
2. Not nearly enough people are planning for retirement.
More than half of people surveyed by EBRI have not even tried to figure out how much money they'll need to save to live comfortably in retirement. Tramel says they can now put some money away for retirement, but until now, she says "Our retirement plans were 'Well, hopefully I'll win a contest.' "
3. Lotteries are not retirement plans.
Tramel doesn't play any lottery that requires a fee to collect your winnings (hint: they're scams), but she does enter sweepstakes frequently. Before she won the AARP sweeps, her winnings consisted of a $25 gift card and a bag of Skittles. (Fine, she also won a 42-inch TV one time, but that wouldn't fund her retirement, either.)
4. Even when you do plan, reality has a way of intervening.
The mother of a friend of mine thought it made sense to retire to an inexpensive island in the Third World. It did make sense — until corrupt officials threw her husband in jail on made-up charges, just to try to extort a little money out of them. Have a contingency plan!
5. It's never too late to start saving.
Most people don't get serious about saving and planning until the kids are out of the house — usually in their 50s. But one of the benefits of turning 50 is that the government makes it easier for you to close the savings gap by allowing you to divert extra money to a retirement account at work, or an IRA, or both. With two sets of aging parents and two sons to raise, "We haven't had time to think about ourselves at all," Tramel says. "But this prize will cut our credit card payments out completely, and our medical and college debt down to nothing practically, so we'll be able to put away some money for the future."
This is your opportunity. This is your life, your retirement and your money. Play the sweeps and learn more about how to build the very best retirement you can. Who knows — maybe you'll even win a bag of Skittles.
Jean C. Setzfand is vice president of the Financial Security issues team in the Education and Outreach group at AARP. She leads AARP's educational and outreach efforts aimed at helping Americans achieve financial peace of mind in retirement. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow her on Twitter @JSetz.