U.S retirement crisis just got worse

Mar 03 2008 by Nic Paton Print This Article

When times are hard it's all too easy for retirement saving to drop down the priority list - which is exactly what is happening in America. With money getting tighter, workers are struggling to pay their day-to-day debts – even raiding their pension plans to do so.

The combination of volatile financial markets putting a dent in savings, less access to credit and greater jobs' uncertainty has cast an ever darker cloud over America's already pretty bleak retirement savings landscape.

According to the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, the number of U.S. workers who are confident in their ability to retire comfortably has declined significantly in the past year.

Whereas in last year's survey of more than 1,000 workers three quarters of American workers said they were confident, this year the centre found the numbers had fallen sharply, to just under six out of 10.

A similar percentage, worryingly, predicted that if they were able to work until 65 (not something guaranteed in the current climate) they would still not have saved enough for retirement, up from just under half last year.

Fewer than half were confident that they were building a large enough retirement nest egg, down from nearly two-thirds the previous year.

Perhaps the most significant finding was the rise in the number of workers citing "paying off debt" as now being their greatest financial priority.

This had increased to just under a third, up from just under a fifth a year ago, although the numbers whose top priority was "just getting by – covering basic living expenses" had remained relatively stable 17 per cent this year, against 16 per cent last year.

Among the most frequently cited factors stopping people saving more for retirement the answer "already stretched – need to cover basic living expenses" remained relatively unchanged on last year.

But the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies poll also found the number citing "too much debt – need to pay it off" had risen sharply, up to a quarter from 16 per cent last year.

And seven out of 10 said "excessive credit card debt" was stopping them putting something aside, up from just under half last year.

The tougher economic climate was also increasingly affecting people's job and career decisions.

Nearly half of those polled said that, when faced with nearly identical job offers, they would choose a higher salary over excellent retirement benefits, a significant increase from the slightly more than a third polled in 2006.

"In past years, our annual retirement study has found that people often face competing financial priorities that prevent them from saving more for retirement, but the economic climate this year is noticeably worse," said Catherine Collinson, retirement and market trends expert for the centre.

"A loss of confidence during economic uncertainty is often expected, but it is troubling that so many people may feel the need to put their long-term retirement security on the back burner in favour of the current malaise," she added.

Equally worrying, this year's survey highlighted a noticeable jump in the number of people taking out a loan from their retirement plans.

Nearly one in five did this last year, up from slightly more than a tenth in 2006.

And nearly half of those who did so said they simply did it to pay off debt, up from more than a quarter in 2006.

"While a loan from your 401(k) plan seems like an obvious choice when you're in need of money, many are unaware that this short-term solution can often create more problems," warned Collinson.