The One Thing Americans Get Right About Retirement Saving

Feb 15, 2017

Americans get one thing right when it comes to retirement saving: They would like Warren Buffett to be their personal advisor. That shows they are paying attention to personal finance on one level. But they display a lot of gaps otherwise, new research shows.

In general, workers have no idea how much they need to save before calling it quits; they want to live a long life in retirement but are financially ready for only a short one; and they know they should save more but don’t. These are among the discouraging findings in a report released Wednesday by Bank of America Merrill Lynch and aging consultant Age Wave.

Half of those past age 50 and still at work say they have no positive role models when it comes to financial planning, the report finds. Many are flying blind. Maybe that’s why they like the idea of enlisting the world’s most famous moneyman as their personal advisor.

Asked to choose from among seven “famous financially successful people” to be their “ideal hypothetical advisor,” 67% chose Berkshire Hathaway chief Buffett, who has lived modestly, given vast sums to charity and is worth $75 billion, according to Forbes. Also on the list of choices (respondents could pick more than one) were financial advisor and writer Suze Orman (selected by 38%), Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (34%), Oprah Winfrey (28%), CNBC's Jim Cramer (17%), Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen (9%) and Beyonce (7%). I’m not sure why anyone other than Buffett would get a vote. But the order here is probably close to what it should be.

Retirement is the most expensive purchase most people will ever make, costing 2.5 times more than the average home, the report finds. It places the average home value at $278,000 and the cost of retirement at $739,000. Both cost more than raising a child ($245,000).

This is an interesting way to look at retirement—as a purchase as opposed to a life phase. It’s especially useful at a time when traditional pensions and guaranteed lifetime income are in short supply. Retirees increasingly will purchase this income through annuities.

Most people say they want to live to age 90, the report finds. Yet only 27% of pre-retirees past age 50 feel financially prepared to make their savings last even 10 years. Workers are saving an amount equal to just 5.7% of their after-tax income, compared to the 25% they say they should be saving, according to the report.

Why the big gap? It seems clear that many individuals are simply strapped. More than a third say they cannot save because they can barely afford their day-to-day expenses and the cost of paying down debt.

But they are also confused about their options. Two-thirds say they find the language of finance difficult to understand. That contributes to low confidence with money matters—individuals are twice as likely to second-guess decisions related to personal finance as those related to work or health.

One encouraging sign: When 401(k) plan sponsors are proactive about communicating the benefits of their plan, employees are much more likely to participate. The top trigger for saving, named by 46% of workers, is access to a tax-advantaged plan at work. The second most important trigger, named by 26%, is effective communication.

The report also suggests that many people have some idea of how they might strengthen their finances, even if they aren't doing that now. Here are some of the most common options that workers and retirees say they would consider:

  • 90% say they would cut back on basic expenses to save more
  • 79% say they would seek professional advice
  • 77% say they would make better use of tax-advantaged accounts
  • 70% say they would buy an annuity for lifetime income
  • 66% say they would sell real estate or other personal property to raise cash to live on
  • 64% say they would delay taking Social Security to get a higher monthly benefit

A smaller percentage say they would seek help from social services and one in four would consider filing for bankruptcy.

If Buffett really was your advisor, he'd probably encourage you to start at the top of that list right now. It's easy to dream about his billions. But even he started modestly and bulked up his net worth over many years.

All products and services featured are based solely on editorial selection. MONEY may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.

Quotes delayed at least 15 minutes. Market data provided by Interactive Data. ETF and Mutual Fund data provided by Morningstar, Inc. Dow Jones Terms & Conditions: http://www.djindexes.com/mdsidx/html/tandc/indexestandcs.html. S&P Index data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Terms & Conditions. Powered and implemented by Interactive Data Managed Solutions