401k Balances are Far Below Potential

If a 60-year-old baby boomer started saving consistently at the beginning of his career back in the 1980s, he would have some $364,000 in his 401(k)s and IRAs today.

Bar graph showing a 60-year-old worker's 401(k): potential vs. reality

How much does he actually have? One-fourth of that, according to a new study from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College (CRR).

One obvious explanation for the enormous gap is that the 401(k) system was in its infancy in the 1980s, and it took time for employers to widely adopt the plans and for young adults to get into the habit of saving for retirement.

Another likely reason is the large share of workers who do not have any type of employer-sponsored retirement plan.  This coverage gap, which predates the introduction of 401(k)s, persists today and leaves about half of private-sector workers without a plan at any given point in time.

And this gap isn’t just a problem for baby boomers. A majority of young workers are not saving in a retirement plan, despite their advantage of having entered the labor force after the 401(k) system was more mature. …Learn More

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Does Increased Debt Offset 401k Savings?

Roughly half of U.S. employers with a 401(k) plan enroll their workers automatically, deducting money from their paychecks for retirement unless they explicitly opt out of this arrangement. This strategy is widely viewed as a good way to get people to save.

But auto-enrollment might not be as effective as it seems, if individuals are compensating for a smaller paycheck by borrowing more.

A new study of civilian employees of the U.S. Army used credit and payroll data to gauge whether debt increased for employees who were automatically enrolled in the federal government’s retirement savings plan. The researchers compared changes in debt levels for people hired after the government’s 2010 adoption of auto-enrollment with hires prior to 2010.

The good news is that since the broadest debt category, which includes high-rate credit cards, did not increase, it did not offset the employees’ accumulated contributions. Their credit reports showed no increase in financial distress either, the study concluded.

However, the findings for car and home loans were ambiguous, so auto-enrollment “may raise these latter types of debt,” said the researchers, who are affiliated with NBER’s Retirement and Disability Research Center.

If workers are, in fact, borrowing more, the question, again, is whether the new debt is offsetting the additional savings under auto-enrollment. Auto and home loans – in contrast to credit cards – are used to finance an asset that has long-term value. Whether these forms of debt improve or erode net worth depends on the asset’s value and whether the value rises (say, a house in a growing city) or falls (a car after it’s driven off the lot).

The researchers did not have access to data on federal workers’ assets, which they would need to see what’s happening to their net worth. This remains an important question for future research. …Learn More

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The Secret to Feeling Younger

You’re as young as you feel!

This cliché is meant to be uplifting to older people. But it really just begs the question: what, exactly, is it that makes a person feel young?

Having a sense of control over the events in one’s life is the answer that emerged from a 2019 study of 60- to 90-year-olds in the Journal of Gerontology. “[B]elieving that your daily efforts can result in desired outcomes” lines up nicely with what the researchers call “a younger subjective age.”

This makes a lot of sense. Feeling in control becomes important as we age, because it counteracts our growing vulnerabilities – we can’t move as fast, hear as well, or remember as much. Wresting back some control can rejuvenate older people, instill optimism, and improve memory and even longevity, various studies have found. …Learn More

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Financial Survival of Low-Income Disabled

A monthly disability check from the federal government is a lifeline for poor and low-income persons with disabilities, but they still face a daily struggle to meet their basic needs and cover their expenses.

In in-depth interviews, 35 low-income people in Worcester, Massachusetts, described how they make ends meet on the disability benefit they get from Social Security, which averages $912 a month and is their largest source of income. Another $300 comes from other forms of public assistance, family support, or minimum-wage jobs, according to a new issue brief by Mathematica’s Center for Studying Disability Policy.

The daily struggles that each individual faces are as unique as they are. Here are a few excerpts from the study:

“My rent is subsidized. Plus I work 20 hours a week which is pretty good. I bring home more than one hundred something dollars a week and I get a few dollars in food stamps. So it’s okay.”

“I’m stringing it, managing it, and just barely staying above water. I’ve been treading that water for a long time.”

“My situation is challenging. I sometimes just don’t have enough coming in to make what’s going out.”

Three out of four people in the study told interviewers that they find it very difficult to pay for their housing, food and other basic expenses. A bright spot is that people on federal disability insurance (DI) are also covered by Medicare and/or Medicaid and spend very little on medical care.  “I’m getting everything I need,” one individual said about her healthcare. …Learn More

Half of Retirees Afraid to Use Savings

For most retirees, figuring out how much money to withdraw from savings every year is a difficult-to-impossible math problem. But the issue goes much deeper: fears about what the future might bring make this decision overwhelming.

Extreme caution is a popular solution. A 2009 study estimated that by the time middle-income retirees are in their 80s, they still had not touched about three-fourths of their savings, and 2016 research found that retirees with substantial assets are the most reluctant spenders. Vanguard recently reported that retirees with very modest savings turn around and reinvest a third of the money they’re required to withdraw under IRS rules after age 70½.

People saved all of their lives to make sure they will enjoy retirement. So why are they so reluctant to spend the money for the purpose it was intended?

A 2018 study in the Journal of Personal Finance surveyed retirees to get a sense of the psychology behind their caution.

Half of the survey respondents agreed with this statement:  “The thought of my retirement portfolio balance going down over time brings me discomfort, even if the decline in value is a result of me spending money on my retirement goals.”

And the people who agreed with this statement said they feel like they are not well prepared financially to retire – and this had nothing to do with how prepared they actually are. …Learn More

What Personality Says about Your Wealth

A person’s finances are not determined simply by obvious factors like how much they earn – personality can also make a difference.

A new study has identified three personality traits that play a role in how individuals handle their nest eggs. For example, conscientious people – self-disciplined planners – are more careful and have more wealth at the end of their lives.

The University of Illinois researchers looked at two types of wealth: within employer retirement plans and outside of these plans. They did not find a connection between the wealth levels in employer plans and various personality traits, a result they anticipated because retirement wealth has more to do with a retiree’s work history and earnings.

But they did find a connection between personality and the wealth individuals hold outside of their retirement plans. Even though the majority of retirees have very little of this wealth, it’s still interesting to see the connections.

For example, retirees who are open to new experiences – they are imaginative, proactive, and broad-minded – behave like conscientious people and preserve their wealth, especially after their mid-60s, according to the study, which was conducted for NBER’s Retirement and Disability Research Center.

Agreeableness works in the opposite direction. Agreeable people are known for being soft-hearted, friendly and helpful – they also tend to care less about money or about managing it. Not surprisingly, they have less wealth. …Learn More

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The ACA and Retirement: Is there a Link?

When older workers are able to get health insurance from a source outside of their jobs – Medicare, a spouse’s job, or an employer’s retiree health coverage – they become much more likely to decide it is time to retire.

So it’s reasonable to ask whether the Affordable Care Act, which provided millions of people with health insurance for the first time, has also helped to nudge more older workers into early retirement.

The answer, surprisingly, is no, according to a recent study for the University of Michigan Retirement and Disability Research Center.  This finding is important, because baby boomers who are poorly prepared financially to retire should be working longer – not retiring sooner – to improve their retirement outlook.

The researchers, who are at the University of Michigan and Vanderbilt University, estimated that the uninsured rate of 50- to 64-year-olds dropped substantially after the ACA went into effect in 2014 – from 16 percent in 2013 to 12 percent in 2016.  But when they tracked these older workers for several years, they found no evidence that they started retiring at a faster pace after the ACA established the state insurance exchanges and gave tax subsidies to people who purchased coverage on the exchanges.

The study also looked at whether retirement activity increased in response to a separate provision of the ACA: the expansion of the Medicaid health insurance program for low-income Americans.  The expansion, which was voluntary for each state, was achieved by increasing the income ceiling for eligibility. The federal government gave a financial incentive to states that broadened eligibility for Medicaid coverage, and about two-thirds of the states have expanded to date.

In comparing states that expanded their Medicaid programs to states that had not, the researchers again found virtually no change in low-income workers’ retirement trends.

There is widespread agreement that turning 65 and becoming eligible for Medicare motivates people to retire. So why is the ACA different?

One possible explanation is that the “political uncertainty” surrounding the ACA and Medicaid expansion “discourage[s] older workers from counting on them when making career decisions,” the researchers said. …Learn More

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