Bank of America recently released its latest Merrill Edge report, and it confirmed some alarming trends going on with Americans' saving and spending habits.
Specifically, even though lots of people are afraid of running out of money in retirement, many are unwilling to cut their spending level and sacrifice their lifestyle in order to obtain financial security.
If you are one of the many who can't figure out how to cut spending and get your retirement plans on track, there may still be time to fix the problem, and the sooner you get started, the better off you'll be.
An alarming attitude toward saving
The Merrill Edge survey examined the saving and spending habits of 1,000 Americans who have between $50,000 and $250,000 in investable assets.
More than half of those surveyed (55%) say they're scared of running out of money in retirement, which is a legitimate concern and isn't necessarily a bad thing by itself. What's surprising and alarming is the unwillingness of many people to do anything about it. About a third of respondents said they wouldn't even consider cutting back on entertainment, eating out, and vacations.
Even more frightening is how more people (63%) said having enough money for "here and now" is a priority than saving for the future (48%). Even if they received a hypothetical million-dollar windfall, less than one-fifth of respondents said their priority with the money would be to set the money aside for their retirement savings.
Finding money to save could be easier than you may think
The challenge here is learning how to cut down on expenses and save money without sacrificing current lifestyle. First of all, maxing out your 401(k) at work to take full advantage of your employer's contribution doesn't cost much, is taken out on a pre-tax basis, and since it comes out of your check before you ever see it, you probably won't miss the small percentage of your income.
As far as cutting expenses is concerned, you might be amazed how the little things can add up. Well-known author David Bach called this the "latte factor" in his books. Essentially, his point was that by giving up the $4 gourmet cup of coffee every morning and brewing your own at home, you could save more than $1,000 throughout a year. Invested at 7% annual returns for 30 years, that $1,000 would mean an extra $7,600 in retirement savings, just for changing your coffee habits.
Apply this to other expenses where there is a less-expensive alternative. Maybe instead of the latest and greatest LED TV, last year's model would do just fine. Without cutting back your lifestyle too much, it could be easier than you think to set aside several thousand dollars each year.
To put this in perspective, check out this calculator that will show you how much of an impact your unnecessary current expenses could have on your future finances.
Where to put it
Another thing the survey revealed is most investors either don't know how to choose different investments or can't handle the swings in the stock market. In fact, 76% of survey respondents said one of those things is the most complicated part of investing.
Investing doesn't need to be complicated, or gut-wrenching. Funds that track an index like the S&P 500 take the guesswork out, and have actually produced pretty nice returns over long periods of time. In fact, over the past 50 years, the S&P has produced total annual returns of almost 10% on average.
Or, invest with the best.
One of the investments I always discuss with friends who don't want to constantly watch their portfolios is Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A). Buying shares of Berkshire is like giving Warren Buffett, the most successful investor of all time, your money to invest. The company is extremely diverse and has produced excellent returns for its shareholders.
And it's perfect for investors who dread market fluctuations. Berkshire Hathaway has beat the S&P in every single losing (negative return) year since Buffett has been at the helm.
Your greatest weapon
Whatever expenses you decide to cut, and whatever you decide to do with your investments, the sooner you do it, the better off you'll be. If you can build up a $200,000 portfolio by the time you're 20 years away from retirement, it could grow to more than $770,000 by then assuming conservative 7% annual returns. However, if you only have a 10-year timeframe, your ending value would be under $400,000.
Time is your greatest ally as an investor, and every one of your investment dollars becomes more valuable the earlier you decide to put it to work. If we as Americans can learn to adjust our attitudes about saving and investing, there may be hope for a long and financially secure retirement for more people than the experts are predicting.
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Matthew Frankel has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.