Posted on 21 Feb 2011
Those baby boomers with 401(k) plans looking to retire are getting a wake up call. The retirement savings plans that many thought would see them through old age are falling short in many cases.
The median household headed by a person aged 60 to 62 with a 401(k) account has less than one-quarter of what is needed in that account to maintain its standard of living in retirement, according to data compiled by the Federal Reserve and analyzed by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College for The Wall Street Journal. Even counting Social Security and any pensions or other savings, most 401(k) participants appear to have insufficient savings. Data from other sources also show big gaps between savings and what people need, and the financial crisis has made things worse.
This analysis uses estimates of 401(k) balances from the end of 2010 and of salaries from 2009. It assumes people need 85% of their working income after they retire in order to maintain their standard of living, a common yardstick.
Facing shortfalls, many people are postponing retirement, moving to cheaper housing, buying less-expensive food, cutting back on travel, taking bigger risks with their investments and making other sacrifices they never imagined.
Inevitably, we find that, for the average person, there is not enough there," says financial adviser Paul Merritt of NTrust Wealth Management in Virginia Beach, Va., who has found himself advising many retirement-age people with too little savings. "The discussion turns out to be: What kind of part-time work do you want to do after you retire?"
He has clients contemplating part-time work into their 70s, he says.
Tax-deferred 401(k) retirement accounts came into wide use in the 1980s, making baby boomers trying to retire now among the first to rely heavily on them.
The problems are widespread, especially among middle-income earners. About 60% of households nearing retirement age have 401(k)-type accounts, according to government data, and those represent the majority of most people's savings. The situation is less dire for those in a higher income bracket, who tend to save more outside their 401(k) accounts and who have more margin for error if their retirement returns fall below the recommended 85% figure.
Steven Rutschmann, 60 years old, manages the buildings and grounds at a Midwest research facility. His employer recently offered him a bonus if he retired early.
Mr. Rutschmann's 401(k) is well into six figures. His wife has a 401(k) and expects a small pension from her nursing job. An outdoorsman, he dreams of spending time hunting, fishing and hiking.
So he consulted a financial planner at Ernst & Young and learned that even with the bonus, his savings could run out before he turns 85. Now he expects to work for several more years.
"I was disappointed," says Mr. Rutschmann, whose 401(k) balance was damaged by the financial crisis and who still has a large mortgage.
In general, people facing problems today got too little advice, or bad advice. They didn't realize that a 6% annual contribution, with a 3% company match, might not be enough.
Some started saving too late or suspended contributions when they or their spouses lost jobs. Others borrowed against 401(k) accounts for medical emergencies or ran up debts too close to their planned retirement dates.
In the stock-market collapses of 2000-2002 and 2007-2009, many people were over-invested in stocks. Some bailed out after the market collapse, suffering on the way down and then missing the rebound.
Initially envisioned as a way for management-level people to put aside extra retirement money, the 401(k) was embraced by big companies in the 1980s as a replacement for costly pension funds. Suddenly, they were able to transfer the burden of funding employees' retirement to the employees themselves. Employees had control over their savings, and were able carry them to new jobs.
They were a gold mine for money-management firms. In 30 years, the 401(k) went from a small program to a multi-trillion-dollar industry supporting thousands of financial planners and money managers.
But a 401(k) also requires steady, significant savings. And unlike corporate pension plans, which are guaranteed by the U.S. government, 401(k) plans have no such backstop.
The government and employers aren't going to pay more for people's retirements. Unless people begin saving earlier and contributing more to their 401(k) plans, advisers say, they are destined to hit retirement age with too little money.
Vanguard Group, one of the biggest providers of 401 (k) plans, has changed its advice on how much people should save. Vanguard long advised people to put 9% to 12% of their salaries—including the employer contribution—in their 401(k) plans. The current median amount that people contribute is 9%, counting the employer contribution, Vanguard says.
Recently, Vanguard has begun urging people to contribute 12% to 15%, including the employer contribution, because of the stock market's weak returns and uncertainty about the future of Social Security and Medicare.
Plans of younger people have been affected too. Of those 45 to 59 who had substantial retirement assets prior to the downturn, 40% planned to work longer, according to a study by the Center for Retirement Research.