It used to be that many Americans worked for a company for decades and looked forward to the time when they could retire and collect a pension. Your pension was a guaranteed stream of income that would come faithfully until you died.

But increasingly we see pension promises broken.

And it’s sad and troubling.

Think Detroit. This summer, Detroit retirees voted to accept cuts to their pensions.

“As the public pension debacle in bankrupt Detroit shows, we may never find a solution that completely eliminates the risk of your money running out,” Dan Kadlec wrote recently for Money/Time.

“The deal still left the city’s 32,000 current and future retirees with diminished benefits and no certainty that they won’t be asked to give up more down the road,” Kadlec said. “Their fate is largely in the hands of the markets — as is the case for millions of workers saving in 401(k) plans, and even many of those still covered by a private pension.”

Then in more pension news this week, congressional leaders struck a deal that would allow cuts to retiree benefits in some struggling multiemployer pension plans. It would for the first time allow the benefits of current retirees to be severely reduced, The Washington Post’s Michael Fletcher reported.

“If passed, the change would apply to multiemployer pensions, where a group of businesses in the same industry joins forces with unions to provide pension coverage for employees,” Fletcher wrote. “As many as 200 multiemployer plans covering 1.5 million workers are in danger of running out of money over the next two decades. Half of those are thought to be in such bad shape that they could seek pension reductions for retirees in the near future.”

There are a number of reasons why the pensions are going broke — membership declines, an aging workforce and downturns in the stock market.

Not surprisingly, retirement security advocates are worried that opening this door will lead to cuts for other retirees, too.

Joyce Rogers, a senior vice president for AARP, said in a statement: “After a lifetime of hard work to earn their pensions, retirees don’t deserve to receive a bad deal, in which they have had no say, cut behind closed doors and secluding the very people who would be impacted the most.”

The truth is we’ve lost our say long ago.

As I’ve told so many who ask how much they should save for retirement: Save as much as you can because, folks, not much is guaranteed anymore.

Color of Money question of the week

Do you have a pension, and if so, do you feel it’s secure? Send your comments to Please include your name, city and state.

In a debt trap

There are a lot of people in debt who think they will never be able to pay off their loans, according to a survey released Wednesday by

As The Washington Post’s Jonnelle Marte reported this week, the credit card comparison Web site found that nearly 1 in 5 consumers with loans said they think they will never be able to finish paying off their debt. “polled more than 1,000 people in early December and asked them what age they expected to be debt free, after factoring all of their consumer debt, including credit card bills, car loans, student loans and other types of loans like mortgages,” Marte wrote. “On average, people said they didn’t expect to be done paying off those loans until they were 53.”

She continued: “Some people may expect that they’ll be paying off debt for a while simply because some loans just take a long time to pay down. Mortgages are commonly issued as 30-year loans. People who consolidate their student loans also expect to be paying them for decades. And people are even stretching their auto loans.”

Even if you have a long time to pay off a debt, such as a mortgage, don’t lose hope. And do what you can, when you can, to apply extra payments to get out of your debt trap.

Live online chat today

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No gifts for you

A Utah couple decided to teach their three young boys a Christmas lesson. In a blog post “Why My Husband and I Cancelled Christmas,” Lisa Henderson explained why they banned Christmas gifts for their kids this year. They said: “We are fighting a very hard uphill battle with our kids when it comes to entitlement.”

The money the couple would have spent on presents for the boys will instead be used to give to others. They’ve also been doing various community service projects with the boys.

So I asked you: Do you think canceling Christmas is a good way to teach children about gratitude?

Here’s what some of you had to say:

“I think the Hendersons are on the right track,” wrote Dani from Atlanta. “I have small children who are preschool age and younger, and they have yet to receive Christmas gifts from Mommy and Daddy. It’s not because they have the wrong attitude, but because, as Christians, we don’t want them confused about what Christmas is really about.”

Debra Paschall of Washington, D.C. wrote: “I can embrace the family values they want to teach their children. While I overindulged my only daughter for 11 years, I’m a lot mellower in how I raised my son, and he’s grounded and grateful. It is important to teach our children about gratitude!”

“Canceling the gifts this year makes a bold and positive statement, but the way they handle future years of Christmas and birthday presents will determine the lasting effect on their children’s sense of entitlement,” wrote Cainna Browning of Boynton Beach, Fla. “If the lack of gifts is framed solely as a punishment, I worry they will reward with excessive shopping again once the children are better behaved. To be successful in the long term, they must commit to dismantling the materialistic culture they’ve created in their family.”

Love these comments from Debra Coleman of Northfield, Minn., who wrote: “This year at Thanksgiving we had started talking about Christmas and decided, as a family, that our Christmas had gotten way too commercial. What were we teaching our little ones? So this Christmas, there will be much fewer gifts. They will receive one or two gifts from their parents and pajamas from the grandparents, but that is it.”

Coleman continued: “Our grandchildren are from ages 1 to 9 years. Last year, we noticed the children were completely overwhelmed when opening their mountain of gifts. We realized we had created this frenzy, and it made us sad. So this year, we’ve decided to make Christmas about giving instead of receiving. We will build on this theme to hopefully make our children grow in healthier ways as individuals.”

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20071, or Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to