Personal Finance

Rough road to retirement for many Americans

Martha C. White, NBC News contributor
Delayed retirement dilemma

American workers have been hearing dire warnings about the state of retirement for years, but what does this look like at kitchen tables across America? What does a comfortable retirement mean for baby boomers today? What about their kids, saddled with student loans and trying to launch careers in a depressed labor market?

Most Americans haven't saved enough, and high mutual fund fees erode what they have socked away. Even those who have been diligent about saving aren't immune to the financial crisis that led to the Great Recession. The recovery in stock prices has primarily benefited investors who already had enough to ride out the storm.

Read More Lessons from 401(k) millionaires

Replacing defined-benefit with defined-contribution plans exposed less-sophisticated investors to the market's volatility and put more of the onus on their shoulders to decide where that money should go. It also shifted the responsibility of saving for retirement to workers who have been squeezed by stagnant wages and rising health premiums. For many, the choices are stark: Work longer, scrimp more or adopt lower expectations for a post-retirement lifestyle.

NBC talked to four Americans about their retirement savings. Here are their stories:

The surrogate parent

Lamar Wright with wife Becky and grandchildren Joshua, 5, A.J. 8, Ariana, 10, and Draven, 11. A surrogate parent. Lamar thought he'd retire close to a decade ago, until he and his wife took in what would eventually be four grandkids to raise.
Robin Rayne Nelson | NBC News

Atlanta-area resident Lamar Wright planned to retire close to a decade ago. "My original version of retirement was big chunks of free time and travel and that sort of thing," he said.

Instead, the 69-year-old Wright retired at the beginning of the year. He characterizes his nest egg as in the low seven figures, but this is a hard-won security. When he sold off part of his share of the insurance company he owned six years ago, it didn't fetch the price he had hoped. He had to pull a couple of hundred thousand dollars from his retirement savings to shore up the business during the recession's slump.

Then life threw Wright what he called his "curve ball." He and his wife are raising four grandchildren, all under the age of 12.

"We certainly don't live as high on the hog as I thought we were going to," he said. "I'm probably spending the same amount of money now but I'm spending it in different places, just the kid stuff: the soccer games, the Cub Scouts, those kinds of things."

Since Wright and his wife couldn't downsize to a smaller home, he recently refinanced his mortgage. While he's saving around $300 a month in monthly payments, Lamar acknowledged that the trade-off is that his debt will almost certainly outlive him.

The success story

Debra Shelton, retired and living in Jacksonville FL, with Sophia, her cherished West Highland Terrier.
Robin Rayne Nelson | NBC News

Raising a daughter by herself in a generation when single motherhood was less accepted, Debra Shelton had to practice self-reliance. With a good job and what would eventually be a 25-year career in sales and marketing at a pharmaceutical company, Shelton socked away the maximum in her 401(k) and retired at 55.

"Fear is a great motivator," she said.

Shelton said a conservative investment stance helped her build a nest egg in the low seven figures. "I'm just not overly confident that I know everything," she said.

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As a result, Shelton left nothing to chance. She carefully researched her investment options while working up to 80 hours a week. Besides low-fee funds, Shelton researched individual companies to invest in. Her main rule of thumb is simple, she said: "Don't invest in things you don't understand."

Describing herself as frugal by nature, the 59-year-old Shelton paid off the mortgage on her Jacksonville, Florida-area home five years before she retired and was able to put her daughter through college debt-free.

Since retiring, Shelton has traveled to South America, Antarctica and other places. "It's just being able to pick up and leave — it's more the quality of life," she said. "I want experiences."

The rebuilder

Emily Wittmann working from home in Montclair, New Jersey. Wittmann dipped into her retirement savings during the recent economic downturn and now is unsure when, if ever, she will be able to retire.
John Brecher | NBC News

With consulting gigs scarce in the recession's aftermath and the oldest of her three kids heading to college, Emily Wittmann drew down on the 401(k) she built up during her career at MTV Networks (now Viacom Media Networks) to cover bills. She whittled away about a third of it and incurred taxes and early withdrawal penalties.

"All I keep thinking is, I'm going to be working until I'm 80 years old," she said.

Her husband, a therapist's aide who works with autistic children, has a small retirement account and is eligible for a pension through the school system that employs him, but since payments are based on earnings and he left the workforce for 13 years to raise the couple's children, that won't be large, either.

On retirement, the 51-year-old Wittmann said, "I haven't even put a date on it. I can't."

Rebuilding her nest egg takes a back seat to a more pressing obligation: Property taxes on the couple's suburban New Jersey home are steep, and Wittmann also is paying down around $50,000 in credit card debt the family sustained when her business was struggling.

And there are more college costs coming. Wittmann's twin daughters are sophomores in high school. "I keep thinking, I've got to put two in college at the same time," she said.

The health wild card

Ryan Book, 26, stands outside of his home in Westerville, OH on Wednesday, March 18, 2015. Book is a music writer who recently moved back to his home state of Ohio from New York City with his wife. While the lower cost of living in Ohio helps, he has thousands of dollars in student loans and Type I diabetes.
Maddie McGarvey | NBC News

When Ryan Book moved back to his home state of Ohio from New York City last year, he traded a one-bedroom apartment in upper Manhattan with a rent of more than $1,500 a month for a two-bedroom condo in Columbus that costs $1,000 a month.

Even with the lower cost of living, though, the 26-year-old journalist hasn't been able to start saving for retirement. That's despite not counting on job security, or Social Security income in his later years.

"It's really hard to imagine at this point in my life ever retiring," he said. "I feel as a journalist, at least as a young journalist just entering the field, I feel we're all kind of walking on ice. We're always wondering, 'Will our job be here next year?' "

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Complicating things, Book has Type I diabetes, a condition he acknowledges could make his health or financial situation unstable in the future. "This is something I know I'm going to have," he said.

Book has around $70,000 in student loans, and his wife owes even more, although, as a high school teacher, she is eligible for a pension and has access to health insurance. Although Book has a staff job, his employer doesn't offer a 401(k) plan.

"We have discussed starting an IRA or looking into it," he said. "We know it should be now… definitely this year."