The majority of Americans have a goal of one day retiring comfortably, but for many, that remains nothing more than a dream.
The reality is that a substantial number of Americans are ill-prepared for their eventual retirement, and the latest study from Financial Finesse, a financial education and counseling company, only reinforces this notion.
Financial Finesse's study involves first establishing the most important criteria for financial success and then questioning respondents on how successfully they've met these criteria. The cumulative score for a respondent is displayed as their Financial Wellness Score. After Americans were questioned again in 2013, one thing is clear: While minor improvements have been made in some aspects of financial preparedness, we as a nation still have a long way to go.
Here are seven of the most stunning findings from Financial Finesse's study.
No. 1: Market conditions beget retirement preparedness
If there was good news from Finance Finesse's study, it's that the percentage of people who reported being on track to reach their income-replacement goals upon retirement rose for a second straight year to 19.7%, up from 17.4% in 2012 and 16.6% in 2011. This boost in retirement confidence was attributed to improvements in the U.S. economy and stock market, higher home values, increased consumer spending, and an improved job market, which saw a six-year low in the unemployment rate. Further, more respondents said they had taken a risk tolerance assessment and actively rebalanced their investment accounts.
Of course, caution was still thrown to the wind by Financial Finesse as recent weakness in the stock market compounded with little to no real wage growth is projected to lead to a stagnant or slightly downward move in retirement confidence moving forward.
No. 2: Overall retirement preparedness in America is still terrible
Although retirement confidence rose for a second year, the grim reality is that the majority of Americans aren't prepared for their retirement. If 19.7% of respondents are prepared, then a whopping 80.3% of Americans are not prepared -- or at least are not confident that they are.
Based on Financial Finesse's 2013 data, of the 80% of respondents who are unprepared for retirement, 76% haven't run a retirement projection, which is the first step toward understanding how much you'll need to save in order to retire the way you want. This data probably comes as no huge surprise, considering that Bankrate's June release of its Financial Security Index showed that half the nation has no emergency fund or has only enough in their emergency savings to cover three months of expenses or less.
No. 3: Millennials aren't as prepared as they should be
As a nation, we are quite the group of procrastinators, but none lagged more in retirement preparedness than millennials. Just 83% of respondents under the age of 30 who completed a financial wellness assessment contributed to their employer-sponsored retirement plan, compared to 89% of 30- to 44-year-olds, 93% of 45- to 54-year-olds, and 94% of those aged 55 and up. Even more glaringly, just 29% of people under age 30 have used a retirement calculator, and only 17% believe they are on target to retire comfortably.
Perhaps the most interesting find, based on the cited Vanguard "America Saves" report, is that in instances where millennials were automatically enrolled in employee-sponsored retirement plans, their participation was markedly higher than in instances where they had to voluntarily enroll. For those under 25 years old, it was 68% compared to 29%, while for 25- to 34-year-olds, it was 83% compared to 56%.
Time is the greatest ally of the younger generation, and it would appear that far too many young adults are missing out on this wealth-creating tool.
No. 4: Women continue to fight an uphill battle
The gender gap is unfortunately making it considerably tougher for women to prepare for a comfortable retirement relative to their male counterparts.
Financial Finesse notes that just 17% of women are believed to be on target to retire comfortably, versus 26% of men surveyed. This gap is especially worrisome because a higher percentage of women do part-time work (which makes it harder for them to save a substantial amount of money), women are more prone to be single parents, and women have longer life expectancies than men, meaning their money has to last longer.
Perhaps the one silver lining we looked at recently is that more women than men are heading to college these days, which could allow women to use time and compounding gains to their advantage and ultimately close the wealth gap in retirement.
No. 5: Lower-income households are struggling
You probably wouldn't be surprised to learn that fewer households earnings $60,000 per year or less are prepared for retirement than those earning $100,000 or more. However, what is disconcerting is that the retirement plan participation rate of these lower-income households fell from 85% in 2012 to just 82% in 2013. As the study goes on to note, only 33% used a retirement calculator in 2013 compared to 36% in the previous year.
But the silver lining, as the study notes, is that Social Security will come into play for these lower-income households and supplement a significant portion of their income, thus allowing them to theoretically save less in order to continue living as they previously were prior to retirement. For example, a low-income retired worker at age 65 could, on average, replace 56% of their prior income with Social Security benefits. For a 65-year-old in the maximum taxable wage range ($110,100), Social Security benefits would only replace 26% of pre-retirement income.
No. 6: Practice makes perfect
The phrase "practice makes perfect" may be a bit cliche, but the proof is in the pudding for Financial Finesse that individuals who completed multiple financial wellness assessments made significant progress in their retirement planning preparedness. There was a 76% improvement in respondents who believed they were on target to reach their financial goals in retirement, a 37% increase in the proportion who actively rebalanced their investment accounts, and a 52% jump in confidence from respondents that their investments were allocated properly.
Even though we at The Motley Fool believe in a long-term approach to investing, we also believe investing is a lifelong process that you need to stay involved in, so this particular finding speaks volumes about being proactive when it comes to your retirement.
No. 7: Certain behaviors go hand in hand with a successful retirement
Lastly, Financial Finesse points out that those respondents who are best-prepared for their retirement shared a number of common behaviors and traits.
Specifically, more than 73% of those who were on track had an emergency fund to adequately cover their expenses for a few months if they lost their job, had taken a risk tolerance assessment, felt comfortable with their non-mortgage debt, and had a grip on their monthly cash flow. Conversely, of those persons not on track for their retirement, only about half were comfortable with their non-mortgage debt, just 59% had a handle on their cash flow, and a mere 35% admitted to rebalancing their investment accounts to keep their retirement goals in view.
There's a lot of work to be done
If this study has demonstrated anything, it's that there's a lot of work left to be done.
Americans need to get back to the basics of formulating and sticking to a monthly budget in order to save money and control expenses, as well as focus their efforts on investing as early as possible in order to allow time and compounding gains to work to their advantage. It's clear that additional financial education needs to be provided to the American public, but with the stock market no longer looking as untouchable as it has in prior years, getting this message out to the remaining 80% of Americans who are unprepared may prove difficult.
Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
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