Sunday, March 31, 2013

Guess Work?

Last week a reporter asked me what finding in the 2013 Retirement Confidence Survey¹most surprised me, before acknowledging that maybe there wasn’t anything to be surprised about in a survey that has now been conducted for nearly a quarter century.Sure enough, finding that retirement confidence is (still) at an all-time low stands out when you consider that is based on sentiments over a 23-year period.² Of course, you’re also able to note that it wasn’t that long ago (2007) when those sentiments were at an all-time high.

As it turns out, the finding that stood out most to me in this year’s RCS was the response to a new question. While we have long asked about individual savings levels, and how much workers thought they would need to have accumulated by retirement in order to achieve a financially secure retirement, this year we also asked what percentage of their total household income they thought they would need to save each year from now until retirement so that they could live comfortably throughout retirement.

Granted, the most common answer—cited by 23 percent—was “don’t know/refused.” But the second-most common response was….20 percent to 29 percent.

That was an eye-opener to me. Not because we see much evidence that most individuals are actually saving at that rate³—but it does at least suggest that individuals are beginning to take seriously the amount of savings that might be required.

On the other hand, one of the RCS findings that never ceases to surprise me is the percentage of workers who say that they have ever tried to calculate how much they need to save for a comfortable retirement. This year 46 percent had done so—and while that’s less than half, it was higher than we’ve seen the past couple of years, and it was better than we’ve seen in most of the years since 1999 that we’ve asked that question (the all-time high was 53 percent in 2000).

Muting the positive message that trend might imply was the reality that those calculations often aren’t a sophisticated undertaking. Indeed, workers often guess at how much they will need to accumulate (45 percent), rather than doing a systematic retirement-needs calculation. Eighteen percent indicated they did their own estimate and another 18 percent asked a financial advisor, while 8 percent used an on-line calculator. Another 8 percent merely read or heard how much was needed.

Which brings to mind the following: Are the savings projections so high because so many workers hadn’t done a savings needs calculation? Or have they avoided doing a savings needs calculation because they thought the results would be too high?

In either event, it’s likely that their retirement confidence—and their savings goals—would be well-served by taking the time to do an actual assessment. Here’s hoping the release of this year’s Retirement Confidence Survey inspires them to do just that.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

¹ See EBRI’s “2013 Retirement Confidence Survey: Perceived Savings Needs Outpace Reality for Many,” on-line here.

² For some other interesting RCS trendlines, check out this post.

³ In fact, only 8 percent of the 2013 RCS worker respondents cited as a target the 0–8 percent that many industry surveys suggest is the most common savings rate (though that often doesn’t take into account the impact of the employer match).

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