For Americans, the dream of retirement seems to be drifting away.
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Institute on Retirement Security, 57 percent of U.S. workers (approximately 100 million people) have zero dollars in either an employee defined contribution plan, an IRA, or a company pension.
In addition, the data shows the median balance among all working Americans is $0 and that 80 percent of working U.S. adults have less than one year’s worth of income saved up for retirement.
Diana Oakley, NIRS executive director says this fact isn’t just a few Americans, it’s the majority.
“The facts and data are clear. Retirement is in peril for most working-class Americans,” said “When all working individuals are considered — not just the minority with retirement accounts — the typical working American has zero, zilch, nothing saved for retirement,” said Oakley.
Any dream U.S. workers have for a comfortable retirement has gone up in smoke. Even those middle-class Americans who do have a retirement savings, don’t have nearly enough.
“What this report means is that the American dream of a modest retirement after a lifetime of work now is a middle-class nightmare,” Oakley said. “Even among workers who have accumulated savings in retirement accounts, the typical worker had a low account balance of $40,000. This is far off-track from the savings levels Americans need if they hope to sustain their standard of living in retirement.”
Bad, But Not Broken
As bad as these numbers look, do they suggest the American retirement savings system is collapsing?
Not quite, says Joe Ready, head of Wells Fargo Institutional Retirement and Trust, based in Charlotte, N.C.
“The US retirement system is not broken,” he said. “In reality, there are over $7 trillion in 401(k)-type assets and over $11 trillion in IRA assets, much of which came from rollovers from defined contribution plans.”
That doesn’t mean the system can’t stand some much-needed improvements. “The improvements needed are a shared responsibility between the private sector, government, companies and individuals,” Ready said.
One idea is to ensure retirement savings policy is focused on helping participants solve the many retirement journey complexities from the first day on a job through retirement.
“We can do this by expanding access to education and advice that improves outcomes as the objective (versus today's standard which is largely focused on cost),” said Ready. “We also need to focus on proven concepts such as auto programs, expand access to advice, increase coverage to small business and implement regulatory policy that is focused on outcomes that improve retirement security.”
Overcoming other personal financial burdens, and clearing the way for some real retirement savings, is also a priority for American workers (especially younger ones), but U.S. adults don’t seem to be paying attention.
Chelsea Hudson, personal finance expert at TopCashback.com says she sees the obstacles preventing retirement savings every day.
“Now more than ever, planning for retirement has taken a back seat for most Americans due to student loan debt, rising living costs, poor financial literacy and the need to live in the moment,” Hudson said.
Younger workers with college debt are struggling. According to a recent report by Student Loan Hero, the average college graduate graduates with more than $37,000 in student loan debt.
“The amount of debt a person holds when he or she graduates increases every year, making it more challenging to pay off,” said Hudson. “After paying rent, bills, student loan payments, there’s often nothing leftover to put towards retirement savings. Most Americans struggle to stay afloat, while others simply work to survive.”
Taking Action Steps
Hudson, who also says that the U.S. retirement system is “not broken,” says Americans who are way behind on retirement savings shouldn’t get overwhelmed – just take action in small, concrete steps.
“Whether you live paycheck to paycheck or don’t have a steady income, you should be
saving for retirement little by little,” she said. “Even if all you can save is a few dollars a week, it will add up. Stop stressing over how much you’ve saved so far for
retirement and focus solely on how much you could save.”
Training Americans in the fine art of money management should be prioritized, too – even though that’s really not the case right now.
Steve Jablonski, a financial planner at Informed Family Financial Services, in Norristown, Pa. thinks financial education should be part of school curriculum.
“Basic financial education should be taught at home and at school,” Jablonski said. “Unfortunately, we are an American Society that likes to spend, with about 70 percent of U.S. gross domestic product comes from personal spending.”
If Americans don’t have a firm grasp on personal spending and debt, it can be too late to make any real progress saving for retirement.
“My own theory is that if a person becomes sick or has a negative health condition, they may not know about it until they feel symptoms,” said Jablonski. “This is the same with saving for retirement, because people don’t realize they aren’t going to be able to retire until well past their traditional retirement age.”
Can Government Lead The Way?
The NIRS report concluded with a call for Uncle Sam to step up and take more responsibility for the lack of Americans’ retirement savings.
“Public policy can play a critical role in putting all Americans on a path toward a secure retirement by improving Social Security, expanding access to low-cost, high quality retirement plans, and helping low-income workers and families save,” the study noted.
It said the government should focus its efforts in the following areas:
- Social Security, the primary underpinning of retirement income security, could be strengthened to stabilize system financing and enhance benefits for vulnerable populations.
- States across the nation are taking key steps to expand access to workplace retirement savings, with enrollment in state-based programs this year starting in Oregon, Washington and Illinois.
- Other proposals to expand coverage are on the national agenda but universal retirement plan coverage has not become a national priority.
- Expanding the Saver’s Credit and making it refundable could help boost the retirement savings of lower-income families.
A Different View On Retirement Savings
Training American workers to adopt a different mindset for money, savings and retirement will need to happen, too, says Robert Johnson, professor of finance, Heider College of Business, at Creighton University.
“Individuals need to be taught to invest for retirement and not to save for retirement,” said. “The surest way to build true long-term wealth for retirement is to invest in the equity market.”
Mistakes begin early in life and the biggest financial mistake people make today is taking too little risk – and that’s where stocks come into play.
“In fact, a recent UBS study showed that millennials and the World War II generation have similar asset allocations - low allocations to equities and inordinately high allocations to cash,” Johnson said. “Both generations were shaped by cataclysmic financial events in their formative years - the WWII Generation with the Great Depression and millennials with the financial crisis of 2008-09.”
Retirement savers need to begin compounding early, and let that compounding work its patient magic over decades, Johnson said. “Patience in investing works. That is a message that our U.S. population needs to take to heart.”
Brian O'Connell is a former Wall Street bond trader, and author of the best-selling books, The 401k Millionaire and CNBC's Guide to Creating Wealth. He's a regular contributor to major media business platforms. Brian may be contacted at email@example.com.
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