A recent study from the TIAA Institute reports that longevity literacy is just as important as financial literacy and that retirees with strong longevity literacy tend to experience better financial outcomes in retirement. An important challenge to ensuring a financially secure retirement is that most older Americans underestimate how long they could live.

“Longevity literacy is an overlooked factor in addressing retirement preparedness,” said Surya Kolluri, head of the TIAA Institute, in a recent press release. “If you don’t have a realistic understanding of how long you are likely going to live, you are missing one of the most foundational components of any plan: a time horizon. If we can improve people’s longevity literacy, we can help create better retirement plans and increase their confidence.”

For example, the TIAA report shares that retirees with strong longevity knowledge are more likely to report that they typically find it easy to make ends meet compared to retirees with weak longevity knowledge (40% vs 23%). Similarly, retirees with strong longevity knowledge are more likely to report that their lifestyle meets or exceeds their pre-retirement expectations (83% vs 63%).

So how can you improve your longevity literacy? Let’s take a look.

Start by Estimating Your Life Expectancy

The TIAA report shares that less than half of older Americans have a good understanding of how long they might live, and they often underestimate their life expectancy.

There are tools that can help you estimate your expected lifespan. A respected, free source to do so is the Actuaries Longevity Illustrator. By answering a few simple questions, you’ll be able to see estimates of your expected lifespan. If you’re married or have a partner, you can also see how long at least one of you might live.

Here are a few important observations based on the Longevity Illustrator:

  • Your estimated lifespan isn’t your destiny—it’s entirely possible that you might live for a shorter or longer period compared to your estimated lifespan.
  • If you’re married or have a partner, there’s a good chance that one of you might be retired for 25 to 30 years.

One downside to the Longevity Illustrator is that it doesn’t take into account your income level or educational attainment. Recent research on longevity has demonstrated that people with higher levels of income or educational attainment are likely to live longer than the averages shown by typical longevity estimators. If you’ve enjoyed above-average income and/or have completed a college degree, you’ll want to factor increased lifespans into your planning.

Build On Your Knowledge

It can be very sobering to reflect on the implications of a potentially long retirement. Not only do you want to make plans to be financially secure for all your life, you’ll want to reflect on what you’ll do during the remaining time you have on Earth. And these issues are related—people with rich social lives and meaningful activities tend to be healthier and more financially secure in retirement compared to people who are isolated and unengaged with life.

Your financial security should start with satisfying the common-sense formula for retirement security:

  • I > E, or income greater than living expenses.

To address the income portion of the formula, you’ll want to make plans to develop a portfolio of retirement paychecks from Social Security, annuities, and systematic withdrawals from invested assets that will last the rest of your life, no matter how long you’ll live. Then you’ll want to manage your living expenses so that your retirement paycheck portfolio has a comfortable margin of comfort to handle unexpected expenses and so that you can enjoy your retired life.

You’ll also want to plan ahead for events that could upset your carefully-made plans. A lot can go wrong during a 25- to 30-year retirement when you consider stock market crashes, inflation, health issues, unexpected house repairs, and family disruptions. Many retirees make the mistake of only planning for a few years down the road, ignoring risks that commonly impact retirees at some point during their retirement.

Nobody promised that living well for a long time would be easy. But it’s well worth your time to plan for a long retirement. You’ll be grateful when you reach your mid- to late 80s still going strong–financially secure, satisfied with life, and as healthy as possible.