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Average Retirement Savings

Around half of American households have no retirement accounts at all. No 401(k)s, no IRAs, nothing. You might think that’s because they’re all expecting pension income in retirement. In fact, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), around 29% of households age 55 and older have neither retirement savings nor a pension. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture.  

What Is Average?

According to the National Institute on Retirement Security, almost 40 million households have no retirement savings at all. The Employee Benefit Research Institute estimates that Americans have a retirement savings deficit at $4.3 trillion. That means all U.S. households (with a head of household between the ages of 25 and 64) have $4.3 trillion fewer in savings than they should have for retirement.

Research by the Federal Reserve found that the median retirement account balance in the U.S. (looking only at those who actually have retirement accounts) was just $59,000 in 2013. The mean balance was $201,300. Those numbers might not sound bad but consider that a retired couple’s medical costs were recently estimated to be about $200,000. And that’s only medical costs.

Unmet Savings Goals

It isn’t just retirement accounts that Americans lack. Looking at overall net worth tells a similar story. According to the Census Bureau, the (median) average net worth excluding home equity for an American 35-44 years old is $14,226. In the 55-64 age range, average net worth is $45,447. The picture of Americans’ net worth looks better if you include home equity, but not every American will be able to tap into that equity to pay for retirement. The financial crisis showed how borrowing against your home equity can go wrong.

For many Americans, Social Security benefits are the only source of income during their retirement. Social Security was never meant to be the sole source of retirement income. Retired workers average a monthly Social Security benefit of $1,354.04 as of October 2016. Add the rising debt levels among older Americans and you have a situation that’s a far cry from most people’s’ retirement dream of travel and leisure.

America’s Retirement Savings Gap

Average Retirement SavingsAmerica has a retirement savings gap to match our income gap. People with higher incomes are more likely to have retirement savings and their average retirement savings are higher too. Meanwhile people with the lowest incomes have no savings and plenty of debt. That shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, but it’s one of the most notable features of the U.S. retirement savings landscape.

It may be counter-intuitive but those near the top can still have big retirement savings gaps. Think of a high-earning family with an expensive mortgage and kids in private school. They may not save much for retirement, and their high standard of living means there would be a big gap between the income they’re used to and the retirement income they’ve saved.

Think lower-income folks can simply work longer and retire later to make up for their lack of savings? Not so fast. Americans with lower incomes may be the ones least able to work into their late 60’s and 70’s, either because their work is too physically demanding or their employers won’t want to keep them on. It’s a good idea even for white-collar workers not to count on working later as a substitute for retirement planning.

Where You Stand

Average Retirement Savings

Experts generally think of retirement savings as an end goal with a series of mileposts along the way. Some say that you should have saved the equivalent of one year’s salary by the time you hit 30, but saving more certainly won’t hurt.

By the time you retire, it can be a good idea to have between 9 and 11 times your salary in retirement savings. These aren’t hard-and-fast rules, and experts disagree about how much to save by 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55, 60, 65 and beyond.

Conventional wisdom has been that saving between 10 and 15 percent of your salary each year will get you on your way to a comfortable retirement so long as you choose a low-fee investment vehicle that consistently earns inflation-beating returns. Talking to an expert can help you set and execute a retirement plan.

So why don’t Americans’ average retirement savings match up to what experts say we should have? There are two very good reasons. One is that our brains have a hard time giving up present reward for future reward, especially when that future is decades away. Saving is tough. We can’t picture ourselves choosing between food and prescription drugs in our old age but we can picture what we’d do with our paychecks in the here and now.

The other reason that Americans fall short when it comes to retirement savings is that many of us don’t make enough to both save for retirement and have the life we want. Juggling necessary expenses, student loan payments, childcare and all the rest can leave us with nothing left for an IRA.

Bottom Line

When it comes to average retirement savings statistics in America, the picture is pretty bleak. Average just isn’t enough. Even above-average savings might not be enough to let you maintain your lifestyle in retirement. Many Americans say they expect to work longer and retire later to get around the retirement savings gap. That’s one strategy but it isn’t a sure thing. You may say you want, plan or hope to work into your 70s, but what if your boss has other ideas? It’s risky to bank on working longer. The safest thing to do is save as much as you can throughout your career and to start saving as early as you can.

You should also consider working with a financial advisor to ensure you’re ready to retire by the time you want to. According to industry experts, people who work with a financial advisor are twice as likely to be on track to meet their retirement goals. A matching tool like SmartAsset’s can help you find a person to work with to meet your needs. First you’ll answer a series of questions about your situation and goals. Then the program will narrow down your options from thousands of advisors to up to three registered investment advisors who suit your needs. You can then read their profiles to learn more about them, interview them on the phone or in person and choose who to work with in the future. This allows you to find a good fit while the program does much of the hard work for you.

Tips to Help You Save for Retirement

  • Social Security benefits aren’t enough to replace having your own retirement savings. However, they can certainly help with your living expenses in retirement. Try our Social Security calculator to see how much of a benefit you can expect.
  • The amount of retirement savings that you’ll need depends on where you live. Try our cost of living calculator to get an idea of how much you’ll need.

Photo credit: © iStock/jpa1999, © iStock/Vernon Wiley, © iStock/Squaredpixels

Amelia Josephson Amelia Josephson is a writer passionate about covering financial literacy topics. Her areas of expertise include retirement and home buying. Amelia's work has appeared across the web, including on AOL, CBS News and The Simple Dollar. She holds degrees from Columbia and Oxford. Originally from Alaska, Amelia now calls Brooklyn home.
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