Savers value vacation over IRAs

Vacation savings
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Pity the lowly IRA.

Savers would rather set aside their cash for any other goal—including a beach vacation or a nice refrigerator—than put money in an individual retirement account, or IRA, according to a new survey by TIAA-CREF.

Only 8 percent of savers listed contributing to an IRA as their first priority, which is roughly the same percentage of people who had no idea what their top savings goal was.

"People are not relating to IRAs," said Dan Keady, director of financial planning at TIAA-CREF. "They are seeing the information, but not connecting with what IRA contributions can do for them down the road."

Only 18 percent of those surveyed are currently contributing to an IRA.

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A lack of understanding about what exactly an IRA is may diminish enthusiasm for them.

Individual retirement accounts come in two types. A traditional IRA lets savers contribute pretax dollars to an investment account so contributions can grow without capital gains and dividend taxes, but withdrawals from the account are taxed.

With a Roth IRA, people contribute after-tax income to an account, contributions grow tax-deferred and withdrawals are tax-free.

TIAA-CREF found that the more money people make, the more they know about IRAs. Eighty-one percent of the people surveyed who had an income of $100,000 or more knew what an IRA was, compared with 42 percent of people with an income of less than $35,000.

But take heart: People's savings priorities aren't totally screwed up. One-quarter of the 1,000 people polled by TIAA-CREF said their top savings priority is to contribute to their employer's retirement plan.

Contributing to both an IRA and a 401(k) can boost a person's retirement savings, but financial experts usually say it's best to contribute to a 401(k) up to the employer's match before investing in an IRA.

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Putting retirement plan contributions on automatic can help savers meet both their short-term and long-term goals, financial advisors say.

"Any dieter knows we can only deprive ourselves for so long before we go out and splurge. Clients can set themselves up for success on two fronts," said Abby Kovach, a financial planner in Erie, Colorado. "First, set up automated transfers from the account where their paychecks hit to their retirement accounts. If they don't ever see the money, they are less likely to spend it. Second, indulge in smaller pleasures."