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Retirement Savings Fears Grip Americans: 'I Don’t Have Enough'

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Americans are freaking out about their personal savings—and for good reason. A recent Gallup poll found that 59 percent of those surveyed were very or moderately worried they won't have enough money for retirement—by far their biggest concern.

Many people once counted on a triad of support for retirement—Social Security, personal savings, and employer-sponsored pensions. Yet in the wake of the Great Recession and a long stretch of high unemployment and stagnant wages, the once-dependable foundation has been crumbling.

Employers have phased out generous defined benefit pension programs in favor of 401(k)s and other workplace-based retirement accounts. Personal savings have taken a dive as many people have tapped retirement savings to pay the rent or help make ends meet. And many young people seriously question whether the Social Security trust fund will be able to pay them anything by the time they retire.

The latest National Retirement Risk Index from the Center for Retirement Research (CRR) at Boston College says that more than half (53 percent) of households risk falling more than 10 percent short of the retirement income they'll need to maintain their standard of living. More than 40 percent of retirees are also at risk of running out of money for daily needs, out-of-pocket spending on health care or long-term care, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI).

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Even more alarming, the National Bureau of Economic Research recently concluded that nearly one-quarter of Americans could not come up with $2,000 in 30 days if necessary, and another 20 percent would have to pawn or sell possessions to do so. That would mean nearly half of all Americans are financially stressed.

"The graying of Americans, a growing retirement population, rapid changes in the private employer pension programs, projected insolvency in public pension funds, fiscal pressures at both the federal and state level – all this and more requires policymakers to renew their focus on ensuring existing programs support individuals and families in their twilight years," said Bill Hoagland, a senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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The mounting crisis over retirement savings and investment underscores a key facet of the evolving national debate over income inequality: While many households are well prepared for retirement, only 17 percent of people in the lowest income quartile will have sufficient resources to avoid running short of money by the end of their lives, according to EBRI's 2014 metric.

The Bipartisan Policy Center on Monday is launching a "personal savings initiative" to begin formulating a series of innovative proposals to try to increase national savings, improve income security in retirement, and guard against the potential costs of long-term care. While Congress is unlikely to take up any meaningful tax or financial services legislation before November, a new commission chaired by former senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) and former Social Security Administration official James B. Lockhart III hopes to outline an action agenda for the coming year.

The group will look for ways to beef up the defined contribution retirement system by increasing personal savings for retirement and improving the effectiveness of tax-advantaged savings vehicles, according to a sum of the initiative.

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The commission will also examine the impact of federal policies on private savings, the finances and operation of Social Security Disability Insurance, the interaction of Social Security with personal savings, the impact of long-term care needs on retirement security, and the role of homeownership and student debt.

The reasons for shortfalls in retirement savings are complicated, but three stand out, says the BPC:

A sea change in workplace retirement plans

Over the past two decades, the workplace retirement landscape has dramatically shifted to defined contribution plans, in which a worker and in some cases the employer contribute to an account managed by the employee. These have largely replaced defined benefit plans, which specify a benefit – often a percentage of the average salary during the last few years of employment – once the worker retires.

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Since 1998, the number of companies offering any sort of defined benefit plan plummeted from 71 to 30 – and an increasing number of those are hybrid plans, where workers accumulate an account balance rather than an annuity. When 401(k)s were created in 1978, they were meant to be a supplement to traditional defined benefit pensions, not a stand-alone retirement account. But over time, they have evolved to serve that purpose – although they typically provide far less in long-term benefits than the old plans.

Dismal personal savings

The reasons for the long decline in personal savings are difficult to pinpoint, but they likely include stagnant real incomes for many workers, rising standards of living and higher consumption, and a weaker dollar than in the past. The savings rate is the percentage of money that one deducts from his or her personal disposable income for retirement.

America's savings rate fell steadily from the early 1980s through the mid-2000s, ticking up only during or after recessions, according to a Washington Post analysis. It topped 11 percent during President Ronald Reagan's first term. From 2005-2007, the annual rate averaged 3 percent. The savings rate essentially doubled during the Great Recession, and stayed there, averaging nearly 6 percent from 2009-2012. By early 2013, the rate had dipped to 2.6 percent, before rising again to 4 percent by mid-2014.

A Capital One ShareBuilder survey this year found that 72 percent of Americans are saving – while many more than that know they should be – and only one-fifth of them are saving 10 percent or more. On average, people are saving only 6.4 percent of their annual income, the survey found.

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Taking the money out

For those with defined contribution retirement accounts, carefully managing withdrawals is part of the challenge. Many people are shocked to discover that their account balances, when they need them, are smaller than they anticipated because of cash-outs during job changes, hardship withdrawals, or expensive 401(k) loans. Moreover, those who do not use their savings to purchase lifetime annuities face the risk of outliving their savings.

Individuals without long-term care insurance face impoverishment, having to spend almost all of their financial assets and income on care before they can qualify for long-term support benefits through Medicaid, the federal-state safety net program.

—By Eric Pianin, The Fiscal Times

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