I was shocked to learn from a recent Employee Benefits Research Institute survey that only 58% of Americans are currently saving for retirement and 30% of workers say they have less than $1,000 in savings and investments. In addition, just 14% of American workers in this survey said they were very confident that they'd have enough money to live comfortably in retirement.
Clearly, Americans are not saving enough for retirement. Of course, anyone who talks with their friends and family about this topic knows this already. Many people I chat with say they'll just work "forever." Unfortunately, that's one of those ideas that sounds perfectly reasonable, but turns out to be completely delusional upon further examination.
According to the above-mentioned study, half of current retirees surveyed left the work force unexpectedly as a result of health problems, disability, or just losing their job. Do you really want your odds of a comfortable retirement to be the same as a coin flip?
Of course you don't. That's why each of us needs to save more, and then have a smart plan in place to invest those savings for the long haul. Finally, one of the best things you can do for your retirement is take better care of your health. The financial costs of poor health are significant, so living healthily is a key part of planning for a happy retirement.
A Social Security czar?
One of the first things we must do to strengthen our retirement system is shore up Social Security, which remains a key part of most people's retirement strategy. In his recent book Clash of Cultures, John Bogle argues that it wouldn't be terribly difficult to fix Social Security, though he recognizes that gridlock in Washington, D.C., makes almost everything right now politically complicated. Bogle feels all we'd need is some combination of slight increases of revenues and other tweaks, while also gradually increasing the retirement age to, say, 69. He even offers up his services to Congress as a "czar" to implement those reforms. I think we should take him up on it.
Another retirement savings tier
In addition to Social Security reform, there are currently several initiatives designed to provide some sort of retirement plans for those who aren't currently covered by 401(k)s or other work-related plans. President Obama has introduced a plan for "Automatic Individual Retirement Accounts" while Sen. Tom Harkin has put forward "Rebuilding Pensions: Promise Funds."
According to the Center for Retirement Research, Harkin's plan would provide coverage for those workers who don't have access to an employer-sponsored plan. Both the Obama and the Harkin plans appear to address the need to increase savings for those who don't have employer-sponsored coverage. Anything that increases savings for all workers is something that should be carefully considered right now.
You're the boss of your financial future
At the individual level, there are a lot of things that everyone can do to improve their retirement savings. My colleague Sara Murphy, in an article for this series, mentioned several suggestions for a fabulous retirement. People need to know how much money they'll need to retire comfortably, and then they need to devise a sound plan for achieving that goal.
This is where John Bogle's advice can be very helpful as well. In Clash of Cultures he laments the short-termism he sees when it comes to retirement savings. He notes that, within 401(k)s, there is too much turnover of fund investments, and too much gambling that certain fund managers can outperform the market. Most importantly, he believes the principle cause of inadequate returns is excessive costs that result from investing in actively managed mutual funds.
It should come as no surprise that one of the leading advocates of index funds recommends them highly for most individual retirement portfolios. But just because he's biased doesn't mean he's wrong. Personally, I think all of us could benefit by holding some index funds in our retirement portfolios. I also believe that almost all of us would benefit by increasing the percentage of our salary we devote to our 401(k) or other retirement plan. Increasing your savings and lowering your costs over a long time horizon is a pretty good recipe for growing your wealth.
Just say yes.
We're facing a huge crisis in retirement savings in this country. Our government may or may not be able to address it sufficiently. Fortunately, there are things each of us can do on our own to take control of our financial futures.
This isn't just hypothetical for me, either. I'm turning 50 next month, and I'm woefully behind in my own retirement savings. I also have two children to educate, so clearly, I have some pretty serious financial challenges ahead of me.
Being in denial about those challenges isn't really an attractive option. I tried that approach already for approximately two decades, and found that it wasn't a particularly successful strategy. Instead, I've taken steps this past year to increase the amount I contribute each month to my 401(k). We also refinanced our house, and are tucking the savings away into investments for our kids' educations. Finally, I'm trying to do better when it comes to health and nutrition.
In 20 years, we just might be OK. Like a lot of folks, I intend to work forever. I'm just not betting the house that I will be able to work forever.
To read all of the articles in this series, click on the following links: