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While the majority of middle-class Americans in their 40s and 50s are saving for retirement, getting rid of debt is a more pressing concern.
Among that group, 33 percent say their top savings priority for 2019 is paying off debt, according to a new report from AARP and the Ad Council. That ranked ahead of building up their retirement fund (21 percent) and an emergency fund (11 percent).
Even among just 50-somethings, paying off debt ranked slightly ahead of retirement savings, 31 percent vs. 29 percent.
"The here and now is much more of a bigger concern than the future, which is human nature," said Jean Setzfand, senior vice president of programs for AARP. "But the debt burden is nothing to laugh about."
The report, based on a survey of more than 1,600 working adults ages 40 to 59 with household incomes of $40,000 to $99,999, explores that demographic's approach to retirement savings. While it shows the majority in that group are saving something for retirement, it also illustrates the competing financial priorities they face.
U.S. households with any kind of debt — mortgage, credit cards, student loans, auto loans, etc. — owe an average $135,768, according to personal finance website NerdWallet.
At the same time, Americans are charged with funding much of their own retirement, which is proving a challenge for many. The median retirement account balance — half are below, half are above — for people ages 55 to 64 stood at $66,643 in 2016, according to asset manager Vanguard. The average for that age group was $178,963. For ages 45 to 54, the median was $43,467 and the average was $116,699.
Health care expenses alone in retirement are estimated to be about $280,000 for a healthy couple turning 65 today, according to Fidelity Investments.
Meanwhile, the AARP/Ad Council survey shows that about 70 percent saved for retirement last year. For those who had set a savings goal, 84 percent were able to save something for retirement in 2018.
Among those who didn't set a goal, only 60 percent set anything aside. For those who did not put any money toward retirement, the most common reason cited was having no money left over after paying basic expenses (53 percent).
While some people genuinely might be squeezed, others could likely find places to trim their budget and put those savings toward retirement, Setzfand said.
"I think every one of us has an opportunity to take a good hard look at things we can forego in our daily lives," she said.
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