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Half of Americans Won’t Be Able to Afford Their Standard of Living in Retirement: Here’s What You Can Do


Will you have to downsize in your retirement?

Many families plan to adjust their lifestyles in retirement. They swap the family house, say, for a smaller home. Or they move to a less expensive community. When this is a choice, it can be an excellent way to slow down and stretch the value of your portfolio.

Unfortunately, for many households, downsizing won’t just be an option. It will be a necessity.

That’s the result of a recent study published by Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research. The CRR researches the many different financial and lifestyle issues that surround modern retirement and publishes a statistic called the National Retirement Risk Index. This index measures how many households have less in retirement savings than they will need in the years ahead.

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What the CRR Study Says

The CRR’s findings are stark. Fully half of the nation’s working-age households will not have enough money to maintain their standard of living once in retirement. Making matters worse, this study assumes a strong working and saving life in which people work until age 65 and annuitize their assets, and even accounts for Social Security income.

Instead, according to the CRR’s findings, millions of households will have to cut back on both luxuries and necessities in order to survive. The specifics will range based on the needs of any given individual. In some cases, retirees won’t be able to enjoy some of the same things that made them happy in their working years. They might have to go out for dinner less often, for example, or they may no longer be able to travel.

For other people the situation will get more dire. In order to survive, retirees will have to sell valued assets like a family home or may have to skip necessities like food and medication.

The National Retirement Risk Index is based on the concept of income replacement. Essentially, how effectively can the proceeds of a retirement portfolio replace working income? It isn’t a one-to-one relationship, because, once retired, most households need less money to maintain the same standard of living on a day-to-day basis. You no longer have to save for retirement, for example. You typically pay less in taxes, no longer have dependents to support, have paid off the mortgage on your house and in general have fewer costs. For many households, the rule of thumb is that your retirement portfolio needs to replace 80% of your working income in order to maintain the same standard of living.

Yet half of all households will fall short of even that 80% mark by at least 10 points, the level at which the NRRI considers a household “at risk.”

Underprepared For Retirement – A Wider Trend 

This is the latest survey to emphasize what financial experts have been warning of for years: There is a retirement crisis brewing in America.

Around the late 1970s and the early 1980s, the economy shifted from what is called “defined benefit” retirement planning to “defined contribution.” Instead of receiving a guaranteed pension from their employers, most workers were enrolled in the now-common 401(k) plans. This has system has struggled to keep up with workers’ needs, however, and in the decades since there has been a growing concern that households simply have not been able to save up the money they will need to pay for retirement.

The National Retirement Risk Index has found this consistently to be the case. Since 2004, it has found that about half of households surveyed do not have the money they will need to maintain their standard of living in retirement.

Previously, older generations were less at risk, as in 2004 many older households still reflected the more generous retirement plans and pay scales of a previous era. In the most recent publication, however, that difference has been erased. Now the NRRI finds equal risk across all age groups. The center has also found this broadly true across most income groups as well. Even across high-income households (defined as $85,000/$248,000 or more for single/married households), 41% of all households surveyed fall below their own replacement level of savings.

As to what policymakers can do to address this crisis, there are many proposed solutions. Yet arguably two of the biggest issues when it comes to addressing retirement shortfalls are time and money.

From the perspective of time, effective solutions will differ across various households. Policymakers may be able to help younger households through a series of employer- and tax-based options, helping people to get more income and to save up more in their retirement accounts during their working lives. This can be an effective solution for someone who has decades of growth left ahead of them. However this problem is equally stark for households that are just a few years away from retirement, and they likely do not have the time to catch up through savings and investment. Households approaching retirement are likely to founder without a simple plan to get them more money.

Which is the other problem. Ultimately, the retirement crisis is about money. Households need more of it, and it will have to come from somewhere. Whether the government spends this money directly through Social Security overhauls or whether an employer does so by reintroducing pensions or boosting benefits and pay, this comes down to somebody, somewhere cutting a check. Finding those funds remains one of the biggest problems when it comes to solving the retirement crisis.

That solution needs to come soon, however, because the Boston College findings are quite clear. For millions of Americans, retirement will not be something to look forward to. It will be an era of struggle and want.

But this does not have to be your own experience.

Saving for retirement is a massive project that should last for your entire career. Ideally, you can begin setting aside money as early as possible. Even just a small amount of savings in your 20s can add up to a significant nest egg by the time you reach your 60’s. If you have children, you can do the same for them. Making modest contributions to a portfolio that can grow over 60 years will be one of the best ways you can help young children get a head start on life. But no matter what age you’re at, it’s never too soon or too late to start.

Beyond that, the rule of thumb is 10%. Whenever possible, set aside 10% of your salary into retirement savings. If you have an employer with a matching 401(k), maximize that, followed by Roth IRA and Roth 401(k) accounts.

Don’t just rely on rules of thumb though. Use tools like our retirement calculator to reverse engineer your savings plan. Start with a sense of how much money you will need in retirement, then work backwards to figure out how much you should be contributing in order to reach that goal. Even if the numbers are large, it’s better to have a clear plan than a best-guess approach.

Finally, if you do need to change your standard of living in retirement, begin planning for that early. Again, by understanding what you can contribute and how that can grow over time, you will have a sense of what’s possible from your retirement account. Make your plans from there. That will give you a degree of control over how you have to change your lifestyle, so that you’re making cuts that you’re comfortable with instead of scrambling to meet your needs as they arise.

Bottom Line

The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College released its latest National Retirement Risk Index, and its findings are grim. Fully half of all Americans will need to cut their standard of living in order to ever retire.

Retirement Tips

  • You’ve worked. You’ve saved. You have a portfolio that’s humming along. So, with all of that going for you, how can you know when you’re ready to retire? 
  • But the best way to know how your retirement plan is to get professional help. A financial advisor can help you save and plan for retirement. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

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