It's probably not a secret to anyone reading this, but far too many Americans aren't saving enough to retire comfortably and on their own terms. No matter what study you analyze, the reality is the same across the board: Americans are poor savers, and many are facing a money shortfall in their retirement years if they don't adjust their present course.
Different studies, same result
According to Bankrate's Financial Security Index from August 2014, not inclusive of defined-saving accounts such as a 401(k), about a quarter of respondents didn't have any emergency funds saved up. Another quarter had enough in emergency savings to cover up to, but not more than, three months of expenses. Most experts recommend six months of emergency savings, at minimum.
The story was similar in the 2014 Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking, which was conducted by the Federal Reserve. Close to a third of the more than 5,800 respondents in its survey answered that they had no retirement savings or pension, including a quarter of people ages 45 and up who've lost a lot of the ability to use time and compounding to their advantage.
Yet, a savings shortfall by workers may not be the scariest retirement statistic. That, in fact, may go to a data point to come out of the 2015 Financial Mindset Study conducted by Aon Hewitt, a division of Aon, that surveyed in the neighborhood of 2,000 workers at large companies with at least 1,000 employees.
This could be the most terrifying retirement statistic yet
According to the Financial Mindset Study, only 40% of respondents have created a financial plan. This means 60% of American workers are essentially closing their eyes, throwing a dart, and hoping that everything works out OK. Furthermore, just one in six (17%) admitted to using financial tools or resources that were provided by their employer to aid in their ability to save. In other words, a majority of Americans potentially have nothing saved for retirement because they lack the skills to understand where to start and how to effectively deploy the capital they've saved.
The remainder of the study was pretty much in-step with prior surveys. About two-quarters of individuals affirmed that they're saving regularly for retirement, although 37% of respondents admitted that they can't really afford to save any money toward their retirement. Additionally, an overwhelming number of respondents (91%) suggested that they want help saving for retirement and covering their long-term needs.
The retirement shortfall is really an education problem
Aon Hewitt's study would appear to suggest that the biggest barrier standing between workers and their retirement number is a lack of education concerning how to save and where to invest. This isn't an issue that's going to be solved at the snap of a finger, but being proactive and open to new ideas can make a big difference in determining whether or not you can retire comfortably.
The first issue that needs to be tackled is savings. A full 32% of Aon Hewitt respondents admitted to not saving, and more than a third said they really couldn't afford to save. What this tells me is that far too many people are living their life without a budget.
Without properly understanding your cash flow (income via wages minus expenses such as bills) you'll more than likely not be able to optimally save for retirement. Getting a bead on your spending habits over the course of two or three months should give you enough of a baseline to formulate a workable budget that'll give you an opportunity to save for the future. Also, budgets can be adjusted to fit your changing financial needs, so don't feel as if the budget you've created will dictate your life for the next 20 years. You'll always be in control of your own destiny when it comes to retirement.
Another point worth mentioning here is that the days of arduous expense logging are nearly gone. You can typically find budgeting software online, or can input your expenses into something as simple as Excel. Long story short, you really have no excuse not to spend 15 minutes each month examining where your income goes and how you can improve your savings rate.
Lastly, employers have been doing a better job of automatically enrolling their workforce into employer-sponsored retirement plans such as a 401(k). Statistics have shown that auto-enrolling workers into a defined-savings plan instead of relying on them to opt into the plan is more effective at moving the savings needle for workers. I'd encourage businesses to continue adopting an auto-enroll feature for their workforce and suggest that workers pay close attention to the matching contribution level employers offer. Employer matches are free money, and you don't want to leave free money on the table.
What to do with the money you save
The second aspect that needs attention is what should be done with the money workers are saving.
One of the smartest moves workers can consider making is to open up, or contribute to, a Roth IRA. Though Roth IRA's do have contribution income limits that you'll want to familiarize yourself with, tax-advantage retirement accounts like a Roth IRA can allow your investments to grow completely tax-free for life as long as you don't make any unqualified withdrawals. Because there are penalties in place to discourage unqualified withdrawals before age 59.5, a Roth IRA is also an excellent tool to encourage a long-term mind-set.
Another option is to consider opening an automatic investment plan, such as the kind you'll find from Capital One Investing, formerly known as ShareBuilder. Capital One investing has no minimum deposit requirement to get started, will allow you to purchase fractional shares (meaning you won't have to put up $500 just to buy a single share of a high-priced stock), and most importantly allows you to set up automatic withdrawals for investment purposes every week, two weeks, month, or quarter. Investing regularly always helps remove your emotions out of the investing process and once again allows you to maintain a long-term mind-set.
Finally, you can always consider consulting a financial advisor. These are people whose sole purpose is to help shape the path to retirement for their clients. It's important to note that financial advisors are human just like you and I, and their advice can sometimes result in investment losses. The smartest way to approach working with an advisor is as a collaboration rather than as one person (the advisor) dictating the moves of the other (the client). This means you still need to be an active participant in the path your retirement takes.
As noted earlier, getting America's workers back on track isn't going to happen with the flip of a switch. We're going to need workers to proactively seek out how to better their financial future, and we'll need businesses to take a more active approach than ever in their employees' future. It'll be tough, for sure, but changing things for the better isn't out of reach.
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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