Philly Inc: Not many are confident about their retirement savings

Posted: March 23, 2012

Tax time is generally when I catch up with my household's overall financial health.

After I've griped (to my computer) about the lagging income and higher tax payments that TurboTax calculates, I pore over the year-end reports sent by the various financial firms that hold my retirement savings.

That had not been a pleasant exercise until this year. But finally, the total balance of those 401(k) defined-contribution plans and Individual Retirement Accounts has not only recovered from the Cratering of 2008, but has grown enough to make me feel good about having continued to defer some current income for future use.

Like many Americans, however, I still feel as if I've fallen behind and that I'm not where I should be in preparing for my non-paycheck years.

Each year for the last 22, the nonprofit Employee Benefit Research Institute has surveyed both retirees and working people over the age of 24 for its Retirement Confidence Survey. Since the 18-month recession that ended in June 2009, the institute might as well call it the "Lack of Confidence" survey.

Results from the survey of 1,262 people in January show workers' confidence in having enough money to live comfortably throughout retirement remains near the all-time lows recorded in the 2011 survey. Just 14 percent identified themselves as "very confident," while 23 percent said they were not confident at all. In 2011, those percentages were 13 percent and 27 percent.

In fact, last year's results had EBRI research director Jack VanDerhei scratching his head. After all, the U.S. stock market had a good run in 2010, with the Standard & Poor's 500 Index up nearly 13 percent. Why would so many be downbeat following such a bounce-back?

In an interview, VanDerhei said that those who described themselves as being "on track" with retirement savings showed no change in their confidence level, but that the worse off workers were, the more negative their confidence.

In other words, many people are confronting more immediate financial worries than saving for retirement. Forty-two percent of workers and 41 percent of retirees identified "job uncertainty" as their No. 1 worry, followed by "making ends meet," which was mentioned by 10 percent of workers and 13 percent of retirees.

Such clear and present anxiety tends to overshadow a distressing trend that has persisted in EBRI's survey over the last decade: Many workers say they have not saved much for retirement.

In 2002, 50 percent said the value of household savings and investments (excluding their house and pension plan) was less than $25,000. In 2012, that percentage had grown to 60 percent, with 30 percent saying the amount was less than $1,000.

To some extent, VanDerhei said, many Americans may have finally "internalized" the message that they will not have the comfortable retirements of their parents that were funded by once-common pension plans. The bad news, he said, is that it hasn't prompted them to increase their savings.

This former Temple University professor's message is: "If you can afford it, if you have a job, please save now."

Contact Mike Armstrong at 215-854-2980 or marmstrong@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @PhillyInc. Read his blog, "PhillyInc," at www.phillyinc.biz.

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