Dog Days Revised

There's a dog on the cover of Money magazine. A market-tested dog. He's cute -- he is, after all, a dog -- but he's also rather plain and generic, neither too foofy nor too tough, too mutt-like nor too well-bred, wholly unlikely to offend.

His owners are similarly nondescript, walking him on the beach with their standard-issue khakis rolled up and their boring button-downs hanging loose, headed perhaps for that double set of bathtubs that always pop up in Cialis ads.

They are retirees -- we know this because it's the Money Retirement Guide 2012 (hence, the beach) -- and their blandness seems entirely intentional. Because the theme of this year's edition is -- wait for it -- "Live well on less."

Yes, that's right. Money magazine, which for decades has been pushing stock investing as a means to a rich retirement filled with luxurious homes, exotic travel and maybe a second career as a vineyard owner, is changing its tune. "The seven-figure target you've been aiming for increasingly feels like a long shot," Money offers. But don't worry, "You can enjoy a fulfilling retirement with a smaller-than-hoped-for portfolio." The key is to simply live smaller.

Apparently, that is what the people on the cover, with their non-pedigreed pooch and their Dockers wardrobe, are doing. Inside, we learn that living smaller means, among other things, cutting cable in favor of Hulu; dumping the gym in favor of walking; traveling every other year instead of annually; and regularly cooking in your new, downsized home, preferably located in a low-cost town like Danville, Ky. And of course, you'll love it. "We thought our life would be filled with cruises and month-long vacations," one retired couple tells Money. "Not much of that happened. But we're not missing anything. What makes us happiest is much closer to home."

That's nice. We're glad this particular couple, who were unable to achieve the $1.2 million nest egg they were aiming at, have found fulfillment spending time with their grandchildren, volunteering and getting involved with their church. (Though with $850,000 saved, this pair inhabits a totally different universe than the 35 percent of Americans over the age of 65 who rely almost exclusively on Social Security, but that's another story.)

What really rankles here is Money's apparent about-face on what you need to comfortably retire. "You've probably heard that once you stop working you'll need 70 percent to 80 percent of your pre-retirement income to keep up your standard of living," it says, forgetting to mention that you've "probably heard" it from Money magazine. But don't fret. "That high bar, however, doesn't match up with what many retirees report -- and what the data show."

(Note to Money: If that's the case, you might want to remove the 80 percent figure from your online Ultimate Retirement Guide, where it currently resides.)

So now it tells us? Money and its personal finance brethren have spent years convincing us that not only do we need at least seven figures to retire comfortably, but that investing in stocks, mutual funds, 401(k) plans and other instruments -- aka their advertisers -- will help us get there.

Of course, the recession has made dishing out such advice seem increasingly fantastical. But for the most part, the personal finance mags stuck to their guns, admitting only that -- oops! -- we might have to work longer than we originally planned. But we would love it, because we would feel more engaged and fulfilled.

Now, mindful of everything from the housing crisis to various market crashes to high unemployment, it's taking a different, more laid-back tack. "Are your retirement fears overblown?" a graphic in the magazine asks, before reassuring us that "despite the bad news, pre-­retirees with high incomes are okay." Why?

Because older people have significantly lower expenses than their working counterparts, says Money, with the rather large exception of healthcare. They no longer buy work clothes, pay for a commute or send kids to college.

Money treats these facts like a revelation, although they have long been apparent to anyone who has ever witnessed an early bird dinner. It just goes to show how out of touch the personal finance mags have been with retirement reality, whether they have been pushing the fantasy of nonstop, round-the-world travel or flaming the fears of ending up old and broke.

Perhaps this retirement guide, with its standard-issue couple and their standard-issue dog is an attempt to get more real -- up to a point. After all, the cover still features a beach. Clearly, we're not in Danville anymore.

Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of "The Deal" magazine.