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Pandemic is heightening stress over the $1.9 million retirement number. How you can save more

New survey shows 401(k) savers think they need $1.9 million to retire

The top source of financial stress is saving enough for a comfortable retirement, a worry that is trending upward as a result of the pandemic, according to a newly released nationwide survey by Charles Schwab of 1,000 currently employed 401(k) plan participants between the ages of 25 and 70. 

The survey, conducted between May 28 and June 11, 2020, by Logica Research for Schwab Retirement Plan Services, revealed that Americans think they'll need to save $1.9 million on average to retire. This is up 12%, from $1.7 million in 2019. Millennial and Gen X savers were slightly more ambitious, putting their target at $2 million, while boomers said they'll need about $1.6 million.

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Yet many believe their retirement goals are out of reach. Thirty-seven percent feel they are "very likely" to achieve their retirement savings goals, nearly half (49%) report they are "somewhat likely" to achieve their retirement savings goals, and 14% say it is "not likely" they will achieve their goals at all. One in five (21%) expects to retire later than originally planned because of the economic fallout from the pandemic.

As a result, the stress from the pandemic has led many to make some money moves: Forty-one percent of survey respondents made changes to their 401(k) as a direct result of the economic impact of Covid-19. Of the 41% who acted, 14% rebalanced their portfolio and 12% increased their contribution rate.

2020 401(k) Participant Study conducted for Schwab Retirement Plan Services by Logica Research

"Times like this make people a little more engaged," says Nathan Voris, managing director for Schwab Retirement Plan Services. 

Strategies to up your retirement savings

Having a "magic number" in mind may motivate some 401(k) savers to be more disciplined about rebalancing their portfolios and making regular contributions, financial advisors say.

Experts suggest that if you have the means to raise your 401(k) contributions right now, do it. In 2020 the maximum contribution limit for a 401(k) plan is $19,500. If you're age 50 or older, you can add another $6,500 to your account with a "catch-up" contribution.

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"If you're already on track to max out your 401(k), then maybe you want to put some of that money in a brokerage account," said certified financial planner Lazetta Rainey Braxton, co-founder of 2050 Wealth Partners and a member of the CNBC Financial Advisors Council. "The good thing about a brokerage account is it gives you liquidity. If you need to sell, you can sell and get funds from your account. It is subject to the market, but the good news is, there is no penalty for taking withdrawals from your brokerage account."

Federal legislation aimed at providing financial relief during the Covid-19 crisis also now allows for penalty-free withdrawals from a 401(k) account this year. If your employer allows it, under the CARES Act, you can take a "coronavirus-related distribution" of up to $100,000 from a 401(k) plan until December 31, 2020, and you won't have to pay an early withdrawal penalty if you are under age 59 1/2.

Thirty-seven percent feel they are "very likely" to achieve their retirement savings goals, nearly half (49%) report they are "somewhat likely" to achieve their retirement savings goals, and 14% say it is "not likely" they will achieve their goals at all.
Schwab Retirement Plan Services 2020 Survey

Given many Americans' worries about jobs, daily finances and the growing concern about how to make ends meet during the Covid-19 crisis, financial planning may put too much focus on retirement goals, said Tim Maurer, director of advisor development at Buckingham Wealth Partners. "It's almost as if every recommendation in a financial plan is serving the sacred cow of an extended, blissful, effortless retirement. I'm all for reaching financial independence, but making financial planning solely about deferred gratification means that the practice adds very little value to our todays."

"To many people, the dollar we can see today is more valuable than the dollar for tomorrow or 30 or 40 years in the future," said Maurer, a member of the CNBC Financial Advisors Council.

"Do most people need to save more? Yes," he says. "The way to do that may be figuring out what's more important to them today — and get them to envision what life will look like in the future."

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