Are you saving enough for retirement? Odds are, probably not

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Are you saving enough now for your eventual retirement? The odds are that you probably aren’t.

The latest Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances for 2019 found that the median amount of savings in Americans’ retirement accounts was $65,000. To say the least, that nest egg will not provide you with a very comfortable retirement.

The figure, however, applies to Americans of all ages. When broken down by age groups, Americans between the age of 55 and 64 held a median savings amount of $134,000 — still far from ensuring a long, happy retirement — but significantly better than the national median. Americans under the age of 35, who still have a lot of time to ramp up their savings habits, had a total of $13,000. These days, that would buy you a decent used car.

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“Approximately half of Americans are at risk of not being able to maintain their pre-retirement standard of living after they stop working,” said Angie Chen, a research economist at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

There are a huge number of factors that affect planning for retirement — many of them like life expectancy, market returns and long-term inflation rates, are highly uncertain. Still, there are many rules of thumb to follow in terms of making the right calculations and accumulating enough assets for your golden years.

The so-called Rule of 25 suggests saving 25 times your expected annual expenses in retirement. Meeting that guideline will allow you to withdraw 4% of those savings annually over a 30-year time horizon.

“People shouldn’t be targeting a number as much as a savings rate,” said Chen. “The best thing people can do is to save early and save consistently.”

Starting with the results of the Federal Reserve survey, Chen’s organization crunches a lot of numbers to determine target income-replacement rates that households will need in retirement, and the savings rates they’ll need to adopt to hit those targets.

Lower-income households require higher-income replacement rates (80%), and higher-income households lower ones (67%). Because Social Security provides a proportionally bigger benefit to lower-income households, they will require smaller percentages of their retirement income from personal savings.

The rate of savings required to meet targets for a person who begins saving at age 25 and retires at age 62 were 11% for the lowest tercile of households by income, 15% for middle-income earners and 16% for high-income ones. If you don’t start saving until later, the rates go higher, of course.

For example, a medium earner aiming to replace 70% of pre-retirement income has to save 24% of income if they start at age 35 and an impossible 44% if they start at age 45. Those required savings rates drop dramatically if retirement is delayed. A 35-year-old can save 15% to retire at 65, or 12% at 67.

Setting big targets that you can’t reach is worse than taking smaller steps that fit with where you are in life.

Jude Boudreaux

senior financial planner at The Planning Center

Take these numbers with a big grain of salt. Targeting numbers or even savings rates can be counter-productive, said certified financial planner Jude Boudreaux.

“When it comes to behavioral change, well-meaning guidelines are often not very good in application,” said Boudreaux, who merged his New Orleans-based advisory practice Upperline Financial Planning with The Planning Center in 2017 and now serves as a senior financial planner there. “There are general rules and then there are everyone’s personal circumstances.

“My wife and I didn’t meet retirement-savings targets because we were building my advisory practice.”

The big problem with setting targets can be the behavioral cost of missing them. If someone can’t meet a target, they often end up not doing anything at all.

“Setting big targets that you can’t reach is worse than taking smaller steps that fit with where you are in life,” Boudreaux said. “My advice to clients about saving for retirement is to ask themselves, ‘Can you do more?’

“If you’re saving 5% of your income, can you save 6% and that way you keep growing your ability to save.”

Boudreaux suggests that people learn to track their spending and saving rates in their 30s to understand how their choices will affect their future financial position. Like all financial advisors, he suggests that if you participate in an employer-sponsored retirement plan with a contribution-matching program, take full advantage of it. Nothing will pad a nest egg better than free money, he said.

What’s more, if you feel far behind on your savings later in life, don’t start swinging for the fences with your investment portfolio. It’s much better strategy to delay your retirement and/or reduce your spending further. That will help to stretch your savings and could allow you to delay claiming Social Security for a larger benefit down the road — further reducing the need for personal savings.

“Don’t take more risks to make up for lost time,” he said. “You could end up in a much worse situation.”

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