Who can afford retirement?

Most Americans' retirement savings are under $25,000. That's old news.

The new news is that with social security in jeopardy, medical costs skyrocketing, and the chances of living longer better than ever, how do you expect to retire in the years ahead?

The short answer is most of us won't.

But no matter how long you intend to remain on the job, at some point your legs, knees, back, or brain will give out, whether you like it or not. For many baby boomers that time is right now, just when the politicians are telling us the country can't afford to continue funding Social Security and Medicare. It isn't fair, but those are the facts.

Honestly, this boomer generation has had its share of "retirement derailers," a word coined by Ameriprise Financial in its survey on the causes behind the retirement crisis in America. Their survey discovered that 90 percent of Americans, ages 50-70 with at least $100,000 of investible assets, have experienced at least one economic or life event that has gutted their retirement savings.

The average person, however, has had four such traumas. Loss of a job, recessions, stock market declines, periods of low interest rates and lifestyle changes, such as supporting a grown child or grandchild, are some of the derailers that the survey listed. Other causes listed were making bad investments, taking social security before retirement age, and disappointment over the worth of pension plans.

Remember too that the Retirement Derailers Survey polled those with substantial retirement savings compared to the majority of American savers. The Employee Benefit Research Institute found that 57 percent of Americans have less than $25,000 in household savings and investments (excluding their home and pension benefits). Only half of those polled could raise $2,000 in cash if there was an unexpected emergency. Lessons that many older respondents learned such as saving earlier in their lives, acquiring more knowledge about investment, and spending less on vacations and extras seem to be falling on deaf ears.

Given these well-known facts, one might have expected that the rate of the nation's savings would increase, but actually the opposite has occurred. The percentage of people reporting that they are saving more for retirement has declined from 75 percent in 2009 to 66 percent today. Have we given up on saving?

That's the conclusion of a recent report by the Deloitte Center for Financial Services. They found that 60 percent of pre-retirees are convinced that future health care costs will eat up their savings no matter how much they stash away. In addition, almost 40 percent believe that investment returns will never be high enough to afford even the simplest retirement no matter how much they save.

One wonders if these polls would have a different result if taken in a growing economy with full unemployment and a robust stock market. Although the economy and unemployment leave much to be desired, the stock market is at record highs. The average 401-(K) retirement balance for U.S. workers also hit a record high in the first quarter, up 75 percent since March 2009. Workers 55 and older did even better. Those pre-retirees have seen their average balance nearly double to $255,000 from $130,700 back in 2009.

But those are the exception, not the rule; there are millions of Americans who do not even have an IRA, let alone an employee-sponsored savings plan. If the majority of Americans think at all about retirement, they mistakenly assume that Social Security is the retirement plan of the nation.

Unfortunately, it is at best a supplemental program to years of private savings of which most of us have none. If ever there was a Black Swan event lurking in the future surely this would be one.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment advisor representative and portfolio manager with Berkshire Money Management (BMM).


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