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Underfunded and unprepared, Americans aren't financially ready to retire

Many Americans aren't prepared for retirement and they don't have a plan either. (AP file photo, 2014)
Many Americans aren't prepared for retirement and they don't have a plan either. (AP file photo, 2014)
Published Jun. 6, 2018

As a whole, American workers love the idea of retirement, associating it with freedom, leisure and opportunity.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the financial realties, the better description would be unprepared, underfunded and overconfident.

We know it's important to save but lack a plan.

Our already modest financial goals likely won't be met.

And too often we say we understand personal finances but don't act like it.

Those are just some of the alarming takeaways from the latest Aegon Retirement Readiness Survey, which questioned 14,400 workers and 1,600 retired people in 15 countries. While our ability to slide comfortably into retirement improved a little over the past five years, the overall ledger remains troubling, according to the survey.

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Start with the income we think we'll need versus what we'll actually need.

The study found that American workers figured they could retire on 66 percent of their current earnings. For most, that goal is too low. How doable does a 34 percent drop in spending sound, keeping in mind that health care costs often rise much faster than the cost of living as we move through our senior years?

More disturbing: Only 32 percent of respondents said they were on track to achieve that meager goal. About 36 percent said they weren't even close to being on course and another 33 percent said they didn't know.

"I really think that this study points to the big picture, which is that too many people are totally and completely underprepared," said Chris Stennett, a certified financial planner with Saltmarsh Financial Advisors in Tampa. "There should be some strong concerns about the overall health of the economy when two-thirds of the people in that economy don't have enough money to keep it moving into retirement."

Don't count on working longer to make up the difference.

Two-thirds of American retirees in the study said they quit working earlier than expected. Of those, most cited ill health (38 percent) and losing a job (also 38 percent). Only 10 percent said they had saved enough to retire early. Another 2 percent came into an inheritance or some other sort of windfall.

More than half of the workers surveyed had no backup plan to provide income if they had to stop working before their planned retirement age.

"It's incredibly common to see people who are severely underfunded, and it's also common for them to be completely unaware of how bad things really are," Stennett said.

Despite that, we remain confident in our financial acumen, even when the evidence suggests humility as the better course: About 69 percent of Americans in the survey said they were able or very able to understand financial matters when it comes to retirement. Only 31 percent, however, correctly answered three basic financial literacy questions. (The Germans tallied 45 percent.)

We also seem to know there's a better way, even if we aren't taking it: More than 9 out of every 10 respondents said they were at least somewhat aware of the need to plan financially for their retirement. But 30 percent said they had no financial plan and another 45 percent said they had a plan but that it was not written down.

Americans in the survey appeared open to both raising taxes and cutting benefits to ensure the long-term health of Social Security. That could include raising the full retirement age, which is currently 66 or 67 years old depending on the year someone was born.

That said, many more American respondents thought future generations of retirees would be worse off (46 percent), than better off (16 percent).

"Today's generation of workers is losing faith in the current system's ability to provide retirement income security," the study concluded.

Stennett advised anyone struggling with a retirement plan to seek professional help. Many financial planners offer initial consultations for free, he pointed out. Plus, businesses with any sort of retirement plan, including 401(k)s, can put an employee in touch with a representative who can go over retirement basics and set up a savings schedule.

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His top advice: Start talking about it now. He stressed that we need to get over the cultural taboo surrounding money. Too often that only exacerbates the problem.

"If you have issues with money, you probably aren't talking about them with professionals or with the people who love you who could be affected," he said. "Start that conversation now while there is still time on the clock."

Contact Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.