MONEY 401(k)s

Ignore This Savings Plan at Your Peril

Workers often think signing up for their 401(k) is all they need to do. But millions fail to enroll right away or raise their contributions, and they'll pay a heavy price.

Call them victims of inertia. These are folks who are slow to sign up for their employer-sponsored savings plan or who, once enrolled, don’t check back for years. Their numbers are legion, and new research paints a grim picture for their financial future.

More than a third of 401(k) plan participants have never raised the percentage of their salary that they contribute to their plan, and another 26% have not made such a change in more than a year, asset manager TIAA-CREF found. The typical saver stashes away just 8% of income—about half what financial planners recommend. Without escalating contributions, these workers will never save enough.

More than half of plan participants have not changed the way their money is invested in more than a year—including a quarter that have never changed investments, the research shows. This suggests many are not rebalancing yearly, as is generally advised, and that many others are not paying attention to their changing risk profile as they age.

At companies without automatic enrollment, a quarter of workers fail to enroll in their 401(k) for at least a year and a third wait at least six months, TIAA-CREF found. These delays may not seem like a big deal. But the lost returns over a lifetime of growth add up. Based on annual average returns of 6% and a like contribution rate over 30 years, a worker who enrolls immediately will accumulate nearly double that of a worker who starts two years later. Even a mere six-month delay is the difference between, say, $100,000 and $94,000, according to the research.

Employer-sponsored 401(k) and similar plans have emerged as most people’s primary retirement savings accounts: 42% of workers say it is their only savings pool and a similar percentage say the plans are so critical they would take a pay cut to get a higher company match, according to a Fidelity survey. So any level of mismanagement is troublesome.

There is a bright spot, however—younger workers have been quicker to catch on. Millennials are the most likely group to boost their percentage contribution after each pay raise, and among millennials who do not boost the percentage, 23% say it is because they already contribute the maximum. Millennials are also most likely to check back in and adjust their investment mix.

That’s not entirely good news. In general, millennials are not investing enough in stocks, which have the highest long-term growth potential. But it reinforces the emerging picture of a generation that understands what Baby Boomers and Gen Xers were slow to grasp: financial security is not a birthright. Millennials will need to save early and often—on their own—and pay attention for 30 or 40 years to enjoy a happy ending.

MONEY Financial Planning

Why Millennials Aren’t Getting Love from Financial Advisers

Financial advisers are aging and mostly targeting their peer group. Where can a dedicated Millennial saver get answers?

“Follow the money” was sage advice in All the President’s Men, and “show me the money” worked well enough for the characters in Jerry Maguire. Now financial advisers are taking the same approach in their pursuit of new clients.

A third say they aren’t interested in your business if you have less than $500,000 to invest and 57% want at least $250,000 in assets to get on the phone, according to a survey from Principal Financial Group. Okay. These are business people following the money in their quest for higher fees and more commissions.

Yet this approach pretty much ignores the next mega-generation—the 80 million Millennials, the oldest of which are now turning the corner on 30. Just 18% of financial advisers say they are prospecting in this demographic. Millennials don’t have a lot of assets at this point in their life, and 29% of advisers say this generation has little interest in their services because of the cost, Principal found. So why bother?

Well, anyone building a wealth management business for the long term might find plenty of gold in this group. Millennials are hell-bent on saving and investing long term, and providing for their own financial security. Eight in 10 Millennials say the recession convinced them they must save more now, according to the 2014 Wells Fargo Millennial Study. Meanwhile, the financial industry, banks in particular, have a long way to go win this generation’s trust. They might want to get started.

Most wealth advisers are focused on Baby Boomers (64%), high net worth clients (64%) and business owners (62%). For those willing to work with the less well-heeled—advisers who just getting started and willing to build a practice over time—these twenty-somethings offer a huge opportunity. One issue, though, is that there aren’t a lot of young wealth advisers out there. Like bus drivers and clergy, this profession has a slow replacement rate and is aging fast. Among the 300,000 or so full-time financial advisers, the average age is about 50, and 21% are over 60.

The result is an industry filled with people that largely do not relate to Millennials and do not care because they have so little to invest. At the same time, we have a generation that has got the message on saving and wants to get serious about investing for its financial future. So it’s not surprising that a growing number are turning instead to online financial advice firms—start-ups such as Betterment, Wealthfront and Personal Capital—to get investment guidance with little or no minimum and at lower cost. Millennials may be broke and fee averse. But they won’t be that way forever. This time, “show me the money” may be bad strategy.

MONEY Retirement

Here’s Why More Americans Are Retiring Earlier Than They Expected

More workers have retired early than late since the Great Recession, new Fed Data show. But it's not a happy story.

It seems counter intuitive: Of all Americans who retired since the Great Recession, more retired earlier than expected than later than expected, a new Fed report shows.

This finding appears to be at odds with everything we’ve heard about the growing need to delay retirement and — my all-time favorite oxymoron — work in retirement.

Yet the numbers don’t lie: 15% of those who have retired since 2008 did so earlier than planned; only 4% did so later than planned. This is according to the latest Fed data, which goes to September 2013.

The data clearly show what we all know: In order to make ends meet, workers intend to stay on the job longer, not shorter. Two in five workers 45 or older plan to delay retirement. Among pre-retirees 55 to 64 years old, only 18% expect to retire on time and stop working altogether. A quarter expects to work as long as they can and another quarter expects to work part-time or become self-employed in retirement.

Taken as a whole, this can only mean that we’ve seen a lot of forced retirements. In the lousy job market of the past few years, millions of older workers downsized out of employment couldn’t find suitable work. They retired rather than keep up the search or work for significantly less. That’s not good, and it helps explain other sobering statistics in the report.

Nearly 40% of households say they are just getting by or struggling to make ends meet, underscoring the uneven recovery. The rebound in stocks has mostly benefited the investing class. Home prices have improved, and that has helped a wider swath of the population—but not as much as you might expect. Of those who have owned their home for at least five years, about half say the value is lower than in 2008.

Meanwhile, many households are suffering from tight credit, student loans and poor retirement savings. Some of these pressures have eased in the past 12 months. The economy grew at a healthy 4% pace last quarter and mortgage lending has loosened up.

But a quarter of households have some form of student debt with an average balance of $27,840. One in five has fallen behind in payments on this debt. At the same time, 31% of workers say they have no retirement savings or pension, including 19% of those aged 55 to 64. Almost half of adults aren’t even thinking about planning for retirement. And yet, as the report shows, retirement may be coming sooner than they expect.

 

 

MONEY stocks

How Watching TV Can Make You Poorer

Jim Cramer on the "500th Episode" of /CNBC'S "MAD MONEY."
Jim Cramer on the "500th Episode" of CNBC'S "MAD MONEY." Giovanni Rufino—© CNBC

Financial TV is entertainment, not enlightenment, say two TV pundits in a new book. Here's the real story about market gurus.

You cannot listen to the steady barrage of confident yet conflicting opinion on financial TV programs today without wondering which, if any of them, are getting it right. It’s been this way since the incomparable Louis Rukeyser launched the weekly PBS program Wall Street Week in 1970.

The pioneering cable station Financial News Network, which CNBC later bought, upped the ante in 1981 with daily money programming. That set the foundation for three decades of growth in the market for folks who could talk convincingly about the direction of stocks. This period made stars of analysts who often got it wrong—from Joe Granville and Robert Prechter in the 1980s to Henry Blodget and Jim Cramer in more recent times.

Yet as the voices of market gurus have grown louder and more numerous, the advice hasn’t got any better. The poor individual investor—stripped of his pension guarantees and wanting little more than to manage his 401(k) in a sound manner—has been left dizzy from the noise. This, at least, is the basic premise of Clash of the Financial Pundits, a book by financial commentators that takes aim at financial commentators.

The authors are former CNBC personality Jeff Macke and current contributor Joshua M. Brown, co-founder of Ritholtz Wealth Management. They write mostly in the voice of Macke, who during the depths of the financial crisis grew disillusioned with his role on Fast Money and disappeared—though not before an epic on-camera meltdown that can only be described as must-see TV. In some ways, this book reads like a cathartic undertaking meant to exorcise Macke’s demons. He is now host of the financial show Breakout, which appears on Yahoo Finance. I wonder if he realizes that by dredging up the memory of his public implosion five years ago more people will see it on YouTube than saw it live.

Clash is a stroll down memory lane for anyone that has been around the financial markets a while. It recounts bubbles past, starting with the South Sea Co. in the early 1700s when Sir Isaac Newton lost a fortune. The authors recount the rise and fall of “Calamity Joe” Granville, the spectacularly wrong Harry S. Dent, and the absurd Dow 36,000 prediction from journalist James K. Glassman and economist Kevin A. Hassett. Other names that pop up along the way include Ben Stein, Jim Rogers, Carl Icahn, James Altucher, Martin Zweig and more.

Brown and Macke give credit where it is due: Zweig’s real-time call of the 1987 crash on Wall Street Week, Cramer’s October 2008 sell-it-all message delivered on The Today Show, Blodget’s almost comical prediction in 1998 that Amazon.com would hit $400, which it did in just two months. But the whole point is to also note their miscalls and downfalls. Blodget, for example, was banned from the industry for life in 2002 after privately advising certain investors to sell stocks that he was publicly bullish on. Cramer took a beating on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show for being bullish on the soon-to-collapse Bear Stearns.

Being right and wrong is all part of the forecasting business, the authors point out, which is why it’s foolish to invest solely on one pundit’s view at any given moment. “At a certain point, the folly of forecasting becomes obvious,” the authors write. “It is at the dawning of this realization that we begin to grow as investors.”

As a young financial writer at USA Today, I watched the market for market punditry explode in the 1980s and 1990s. I was the first mainstream reporter to cover the annual “10 Surprises” list that helped elevate Morgan Stanley’s Byron Wien. Brown and Macke note that Wien’s innovation, which other forecasters soon picked up on, was a clever way to make a predication that could easily be dismissed if it did not come true. After all, who could be surprised if a surprise didn’t happen?

I worked next to Dan Dorfman, possibly journalism’s first $1 million investing columnist. In the 1980s, Dorfman wrote three times a week for USA Today and was on TV at least that often. His comments routinely moved stock prices and inspired other writers to try their hand at the market-moving game: Gene Marcial at Business Week, John Crudele at the New York Post, Herb Greenberg at the San Francisco Chronicle, to name three.

But Dorfman, who is not mentioned in Clash, had all but cornered this market. Ultimately, he got spread too thin and just couldn’t sustain the pressure to keep moving stocks. He was thought to be tied to a stock promoter and lost his job in 1996 when he refused to disclose his sources to his editor. (Full disclosure: Dorfman was working for Money magazine at the time.) At one point, venerable Coca-Cola responded to a Dorfman report with this statement: “Dan Dorfman does not have a clue.”

I’ve had my own brushes with TV punditry and seen firsthand how bookers, under pressure to get a warm body on camera, often don’t understand the topic to be discussed. They just want someone out there who will have an opinion and be entertaining. Once a booker asked me to go on air and talk about CEO pay. I had spent a week researching the subject and written a column about it. I was ready. On air, the host introduced the topic as Wall Street pay—which is a very different subject. I had almost nothing to contribute and was never invited back.

Macke and Brown explore this theme throughout and conclude that a successful pundit’s key attribute is the willingness to speak confidently on any topic, whether or not they understand it. Writing about Granville, whose “early warning” calls moved the market in the 1980s, they note that what he “had lacked in breadth and depth, he made up for with sheer personality and moxie. He had figured out the secret to all punditry, market or otherwise: certitude.”

The question underlying all of this is simple: Should you believe any financial forecaster and adjust your investments accordingly? The authors say no. They cite a 2005 study that looked at 27,000 forecasts by hundreds of experts over 15 years and concluded, “The experts’ forecasts were no more accurate than those of dart-throwing chimpanzees.”

That doesn’t mean expert opinion has no value. But the value is in the experts’ rationale and supporting arguments and how those jibe with your own considered view—not in blind loyalty to their advice. Key questions to ask include:

  • Who are the experts and what do they get for having an opinion?
  • Is their time frame the same as yours?
  • How many investment ideas do they generate each day or week? Is that realistic?
  • Why am I watching in the first place? Entertainment—or genuine need for this kind of information?

I didn’t expect to like this book. Pundits pontificating on the art of pontification feels light. Besides, even the pros know you should buy an index fund and head to the beach. The daily clatter is for traders and possibly ordinary people who just want to be entertained and try to understand how the market works.

But, like the punditry the authors explore, the material in Clash is entertaining. The book is built around engaging Q&A sessions and includes historical perspective that makes it useful in a big-picture kind of way. If you didn’t already know that the vast majority of talking heads are experts in name only, Clash will beat you over the head with examples until you are enlightened. As Cramer says in this book: “In the end it is just TV.”

More on how to invest:

 

MONEY financial literacy

Why Workers and Retirees Missed the Roaring Bull Market

Glass half Empty
Jupiterimages—Getty Images

Investor optimism dips, especially among retirees, a new survey finds. Maybe it's because 1 in 10 investors haven't noticed the huge gains in the market.

Quick, how much did the stock market gain last year? Tough question, right? Okay, let’s try a multiple choice: Based on the S&P 500 index, did the market rise 10%, 20%, or 30%? Evidently, that’s a tough question too because the vast majority of investors haven’t a clue.

Only 11% of adults with at least $10,000 in savings and investments got it right in a Wells Fargo/Gallup poll. This stands in stark contrast to the 67% that rate themselves somewhat or highly knowledgeable about investing and underscores the extent to which so many people simply don’t know what they don’t know.

For the record, the S&P 500 rose 30% in 2013—you received a total return of 32% if you reinvested dividends. This is the 13th biggest gain in a calendar year since 1926. Forget about getting the percentage right. Anyone paying attention should at least know that last year was a huge winner. Yet only 64% of investors even knew the market was up. Of those who did, 57% thought the gain was just 10% while 27% thought the gain was 20%. About 1% was looking through rose-colored glasses and thought the market rose 40% or more.

The poll also found that retirees were feeling much less optimistic in the second quarter. The Wells Fargo/Gallup Investor and Retirement Optimism index declined modestly overall but the portion looking only at retirees plunged 41%. This too seems incongruous. Second-quarter GDP surged 4%, one of the sharpest quarterly gains since the Great Recession.

One reason for this gloom is that about half of both retirees and workers are worried they will outlive their money, the poll found. Sadly, this may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Playing it safe and earning 1% in a money market account won’t amount to much over time. Meanwhile, those who stayed true to a diversified portfolio of stocks through the downturn are doing better than ever. They were present for that 32% market gain—even if they have no idea how great last year was for them.

As a whole, the findings suggest that many people remain fixated on the past. The recession was a harrowing and humbling experience. But it is over. Real estate prices have turned up and the job picture is better. The stock market has more than doubled from the bottom. Yet when asked what they would do with a $10,000 gift, 56% in the poll said they would hold it as cash or stash it in an ultra-safe bank CD—not invest for growth. At this rate, expect more declines in optimism, especially as retirees stuck in cash see further declines in income.

Related stories:

 

MONEY Kids and Money

Go Figure, Grandkids Want to Hear About Your Money Memories

Having seen tough times already, young adults crave money conversations with grandparents who have seen it all before.

What young person doesn’t enjoy a good story? And it doesn’t have to be about vampires or super heroes. The top thing young adults want to hear from grandparents is about experiences and decisions that shaped their life, new research shows.

This is especially true of events having to do with money, according to a survey from TIAA-CREF, a financial firm with $613 billion under management. The finding suggests that grandparents who are willing to talk about their financial follies can play an important role in helping their grandkids learn early to save, manage debt and stick to a budget.

Only 8% of grandparents say they are willing to start a conversation with their grandkids about money, the survey found. Yet 85% of grandkids aged 18 to 24 say they are open to such a conversation. In a further sign of this divide: only 30% of grandparents believe they could have an influence over their grandkids’ money habits; but 73% of young adults say their grandparents already have such influence.

How can perceptions be so different? For one thing, young adults have got the message and are intensely interested in understanding how to manage their money. In the survey, 97% said they were concerned about saving for their future. They see their grandparents as a role model: 59% rated their grandparents as very good or excellent savers.

Grandparents may be missing their influence due to cultural differences, the survey authors say. Many grandparents today are Baby Boomers, the generation that once upon a time didn’t trust anyone over 30. They wonder why young people would listen to them about anything.

But Millennials are coming of age in different times. They embrace the new multi-generational workplace and family. Through the Great Recession, they have seen first hand how tough life can be and they tend to respect elders who have muddled through despite life’s many ups and downs, says Joe Coughlin, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab, which collaborated with TIAA-CREF on the study.

Coughlin suggests initiating the money conversation with grandkids when they are teens or earlier. Saving for college is a great starting topic. This may require crossing another divide, however. Grandparents are largely in the dark as to how expensive college has become. Four-year university costs easily run to $100,000 and can shoot to $160,00 or more at a private school. Yet one in five grandparents believe the total to be under $50,000 and a quarter believe it to be $50,000 to $75,000, TIAA-CREF found.

In speaking to grandkids about money, the trick is framing the discussion as a personal experience. Kids love to hear stories about rituals, big decisions, frugality and home life, he says. Grandparents can find ideas and conversation starters for teens here and for younger kids here and here.

Taking on this subject can be a fun and rewarding way to get to know a grandchild better—and it may be a huge help to parents. “Life has gotten very busy for dual income households,” Coughlin says. “Grandparents can fill in the gaps. They have the time and the stories to tell.” They just need to understand that, unlike themselves in younger days, the kids will listen.

Related stories:

 

MONEY Savings

How to Thrive in Retirement After Falling Short of Goals

Turns out, many retirees don't need as much in savings as they once thought. They are surprisingly delighted with their downsized life and embrace a flexible budget.

Maybe the experts are wrong. Retirement planners say you will need at least 70% of pre-retirement income to enjoy your golden years. Some target as much as 80% or even 85%. Yet recent retirees with less say they are doing just fine, thank you.

Three years into retirement, the average replacement income of people with an IRA or 401(k) plan is just 66% of final pay, mutual fund company T. Rowe Price found. Yet more than half say they are living as well or better than when they were working, and 89% say they are somewhat or very satisfied with retirement so far.

Such findings belie our widely accepted retirement savings crisis. In aggregate, we are way under saved. The average 50-year-old has put away just $44,000. But clearly a large subset—those with either a 401(k) plan or IRA, or both—are doing pretty well. This is the group that T. Rowe Price surveyed by filtering for those retired less than five years or over 50 and still working.

This particular group of savers may want to let up on the handwringing. As recent research by EBRI and ICI show, consistent 401(k) investors (those who held accounts between 2007 and 2012) had balances 67% higher than overall plan participants, reaching an average $107,000.

For years a small band of economists led by Lawrence Kotlikoff, the Boston University economics professor, have been making the case that many people are over saving. Kotlikoff argues that the financial services industry is essentially scaring people into over saving in order to collect fees. The fright factor is evident in the T. Rowe Price survey, where those still at work expressed far more anxiety than those who have reached retirement and found it to be less financially challenging than they may have been led to believe.

Half of workers believe they will have to reduce their standard of living in retirement, compared to just 35% of recent retirees who think that way. More workers also believe they will run out of money (22% vs. 14%), and workers are much less likely to believe they will be able to afford health care (49% vs. 70%), the survey shows.

Recent retirees in this survey have median assets of $473,000. That includes investable assets plus home equity minus debt. Home equity is a big part of their holdings at $191,000. They have just 52% of investable assets in stocks and asset allocation mutual funds, and are playing it fairly safe with 31% in cash.

How are they managing on pre-retirement income that falls short of most planners’ models? A third are working at something or looking for work, and to augment Social Security and pension income they are drawing down their savings by an average of 4% a year, which is a rate that many planners consider reasonable.

But the real source of new retiree satisfaction may be their genuine appreciation for a downsized life: 85% say they do not need to spend as much in order to be happy and 65% feel relieved to no longer be trying to keep up with the Joneses. In addition, they embrace flexibility with 60% saying they would rather adjust their spending to maintain their portfolio than maintain their spending at the expense of their portfolio. With that attitude, almost any retiree can feel good about their life.

Related links:

 

MONEY 401(k)s

Are You a Saver or an Investor? It Matters in a 401(k)

Close-up piggy bank
Fuse—Getty Images

Most 401(k) participants see themselves as savers, new research shows. And it's holding them back.

The venerable 401(k) plan has many failings and is ill suited as a primary retirement savings vehicle. Yet it could do so much more if only workers understood how to best use it.

The vast majority of 401(k) plan participants view themselves as savers, not investors, according to new research. As such, they are less likely to allocate money to 401(k) plan options that will provide the long-term growth they need to retire in comfort.

Only 22% of workers in a 401(k) plan in the U.S., U.K. and Ireland say they are knowledgeable about investing, State Street Global Advisors found. This translates into a low tolerance for risk: only 27% in the U.S., 15% in the U.K., and 10% in Ireland say they are willing to take greater risk to achieve better returns.

This in turn leads to sinking retirement confidence. Only 31% in the U.S., 26% in the U.K., and 16% in Ireland feel they will save enough in their 401(k) plan to fund a comfortable retirement, the survey shows.

The faults of 401(k) plans are well documented and range from uncertain returns to high fees to failing to provide guaranteed lifetime income. Economic activists like Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor of economics at the New School and author of When I’m Sixty-Four, have been arguing for years that we need to return to something like the traditional pension.

But the switch to 401(k) plans from traditional pensions has taken more than three decades. A broad reversal will be slow too, if it comes at all. In the meantime, workers need to understand how to best use their 401(k) or other employer-sponsored defined contribution plan. Like it or not, these plans have become our de facto primary retirement savings vehicles.

At a basic level, plan participants of all ages must begin to embrace higher risk in return for higher rewards. The State Street survey reveals broad under-exposure to stocks, which historically have provided the highest long-term returns. A popular rule of thumb is to subtract your age from 110 to determine your allocation to stocks. But the latest research suggests that even just a few years from retirement you are better off holding more stocks.

There is much more to making the most of your 401(k) plan than just adding risk. You need to contribute enough to capture the full employer match and be well diversified, among other things. But it all starts with understanding that saving in a secure fixed-income product is not investing, and it is not enough to get you to the promised land.

Yes, the financial crisis is still fresh and the market’s deep plunge is an all-too-real reminder that stocks have risk. But just five years later the market has fully recovered, and 401(k) balances have never been plumper. Fixate on the recovery, not the downturn. A diversified stock portfolio almost never loses money over a 10-year period. It took the Great Depression and then the Great Recession to produce 10-year losses, which were less than 5% and disappeared quickly in the recovery.

If you feel nervous about investing in stocks, consider opting for a target-date retirement fund, which will give you an asset mix that shifts to become more conservative as you near retirement. While they may not suit everyone, target-date funds tend to outperform most do-it-yourselfers, research shows. With your asset mix on cruise control, you can focus on saving, which is enough of a challenge.

MONEY 401(k)s

How to Fix the 401(k) and Income Inequality in One Fell Swoop

A top economic adviser wants to cut the tax break for 401(k) savings for high earners and launch a new government plan with a generous match and low fees.

Two hot-button economic issues appear to be colliding: the failed 401(k) plan and growing income inequality. Both have been garnering headlines, and now a noted expert is tying them together through proposed reform.

Gene B. Sperling, a former White House economic adviser in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, wants to cut the tax advantage of 401(k) contributions to top earners. He also wants to create a government-funded universal 401(k) plan that would incorporate all the best parts of these plans—low fees, safety, a generous match, and automatic enrollment.

Presumably, a government-backed 401(k) plan also would offer an option like deferred annuities, which the industry has been resisting, and an easy way to convert some or all of your 401(k) balance to guaranteed lifetime income upon retirement. Both those provisions have had strong backing from the White House.

In a New York Times op-ed, Sperling blamed an “upside-down tax incentive system” for contributing to income inequality in America, adding “it makes higher-income Americans triple winners and people earning less money triple losers” as they save for retirement.

Currently top earners pay a federal tax rate of 39.6%, which makes their tax deduction for 401(k) contributions more valuable than the deduction for contributions of those in lower tax brackets. Top earners also have more tax-advantaged savings opportunities, and they benefit more from employer matches. The upshot, Sperling asserts, is that the top 5% of earners get more tax relief for saving than the bottom 80%. He proposes a flat 28% tax credit for saving, regardless of income.

His universal 401(k) plan also would skew toward lower income households with a dollar-for-dollar match up to $4,000 a year below certain income thresholds. Higher income households would be capped at 60 cents on the dollar—still about double the average match today.

Sperling isn’t the first to champion a universal 401(k) or fret publicly about income inequality. President Clinton floated universal accounts in 1999. Versions of this government-funded plan exist in parts of Europe, and Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor of economics at the New School and author of When I’m Sixty-Four, has been arguing for years for private sector workers to be able to enroll in cost-efficient and professionally managed state-operated retirement programs.

So far the idea hasn’t gotten much traction. The debate in Washington has centered on Social Security and tax reform. Maybe this op-ed from a beltway insider is a sign that 401(k) reform—and income inequality—will heat up as an issue in the coming election cycle.

If so, paying for it all will surely be part of the debate. But not to worry, writes Sperling. Among other possibilities, we could cut the federal estate tax exemption. Currently a married couple can leave $10.7 million to heirs tax-free. Cutting the exemption to $7 million would free up billions to bolster the retirement accounts of lower earners and shore up some of what’s wrong with 401(k) plans today—and take a further whack at income inequality in the process.

Related:

Half of Workers Are on Track to Retire Well—Here’s How to Join Them

Why Your 401(k) Won’t Offer This Promising Retirement Income Option

This Nobel Economist Nails What’s Really Wrong with Your 401(k)

MONEY Get On The Right Path

Half of Workers Are on Track to Retire Well—Here’s How to Join Them

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iStock

Save 15% of pay for 30 years and you will be fine, a new study shows. Save for longer, and it gets much easier.

The shift from traditional pensions to 401(k) plans hasn’t gone well for most workers. One in two U.S. households are destined for a lifestyle downgrade in retirement, data show, as guaranteed lifetime income from old-style pensions disappears. But new research finds that most families can stay on track to a comfortable retirement by regularly saving 15% of pay over 30 years. Start earlier, and you only need to put away 10%.

The news isn’t all bad if you’re starting late. Even folks past age 50 have time to adjust. But clearly those with the shortest windows to retirement have the steepest hill to climb—and probably need to start factoring in a longer working life and more austere retirement lifestyle right away.

The typical middle-income household headed by someone 50-plus, and with a projected retirement shortfall, would need to boost its savings rate by 29 percentage points to retire comfortably at age 65, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. That would mean saving, say, 39% of every paycheck instead of 10%.

Calling this savings rate “unrealistic,” researchers Alicia H. Munnell, Anthony Webb, and Wenliang Hou conclude in their paper, “A better strategy for these households would be to work longer and cut current and future consumption in order to reduce the required saving rate to a more feasible level.” One thing the paper does not mention is that one in 10 U.S. workers is limited or unable to work due to poor health—and those past age 65 are three times more likely to have this issue, according to the National Health Interview Survey.

On a cheerier note, younger middle-income workers currently on track to fall short of retirement income still have time to realize their dreams by boosting savings just 7 to 13 percentage points (the younger you are, the lower the savings rate needed), research shows. The impact of starting early and letting your savings compound over more years cannot be overstated.

The typical wage earner planning to retire at age 65 in 2040 would need to build a nest egg of $538,000, the paper states. By purchasing an immediate annuity, you would replace 34% of pre-retirement income. Social Security would replace 36% of pre-retirement income—in all giving the household 70% of pre-retirement income, which is considered an acceptable minimum level. To reach this savings goal this household would have to save 15% of every paycheck starting at age 35. But if the household planned to work to age 70—or started saving five years earlier—it would need to save just 6% of every paycheck.

In general, the typical middle-income household must save enough to produce a third of its retirement income. Low-income households need only get a quarter of retirement income from savings. High-income households (with a more expensive lifestyle) need to save enough to produce half their retirement income, the paper found.

Related links:

Why It’s Never Too Late to Fix Your Finances

The Amazing Result of Actually Trying to Save Money

 

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