America’s retirement accounts are growing, but not fast enough

Trader Talk

America’s retirement accounts are growing, but not fast enough.

Vanguard has released its annual How America Saves 2019 report. It’s a snapshot of the state of retirement in America that focuses on defined benefit accounts, which are mostly in the form of 401(k)s.

Here’s the good news:

1. Despite the market downturn in 2018 (the S&P 500 was down about 6%), the average defined contribution plan last year increased 4%, largely because participants were saving more. The increase counted only those who also had accounts in 2017, not new accounts.

2. More Americans have retirement accounts: 100 million Americans are now covered by defined contribution accounts, most of it in 401(k)s. Assets are growing and are now in excess of $7.5 trillion. Vanguard is among the biggest, with $1.4 trillion in assets under management in direct contribution accounts.

3. Automatic enrollment in retirement plans is increasing. Auto-enrollment is a critical component in improving retirement savings rate. At year-end 2018, 48% of Vanguard plans had adopted automatic enrollment and 66% of new plan entrants were enrolled via automatic enrollment.

4. Auto features are encouraging consistent savings. Including both employee and employer contributions, the average 15-year total participant contribution rate (both employer and employee) in 2018 was 10.6%.

Here’s the bad news: the amount of money being saved still seems well short of what is needed. The size of the accounts in 401(k)s in general (not just Vanguard) is very small, particularly for older Americans.

For example, Vanguard’s average defined contribution plan had $92,148, but the median — where half had more and half had less — was only $22,217. The big difference between average and median is due to a small number of “super-savers” who have large account balances that pull the average up.

The average account value for investors age 65 and older was $192,877, which sounds like a lot, but the median is a measly $58,035.

That is not much money for a 65-year old nearing retirement.

Of course, these balances don’t necessarily reflect total lifetime savings. Some have more than one retirement plan because they had other plans under prior employers. Others may have different sources of retirement savings.

What about Social Security and pensions? Don’t they provide additional support for retirees?

Yes, but the numbers are fairly small as well. The average Social Security check is about $17,000 a year. Pensions, which at one time were widespread, have practically disappeared. Among the few that still have them, the median private pension is only $9,376 a year, according to the Pension Rights Center (state, local and federal pensions were higher).

So let’s do some retirement math. Let’s look at that median $58,035 that an investor aged 65 or older has. Let’s split that over 20 years, assume a modest rate of return, and take $4,000 a year out of it.

Here’s our yearly retirement budget:

Personal savings $4,000

Pension $9,376

Social Security $17,000

Total: $30,376

It’s certainly possibly to live on $30,000 a year, but as I have pointed out many times, this would likely only work if you own your home, have low expenses, and live in a relatively low-cost part of the country.

Even so, it would hardly be a robust retirement.

And these are the lucky ones. A 2018 study by the St. Louis Federal Reserve found that only 27% of households have a defined benefit plan (a pension), while only 33 percent have a defined contribution plan (usually a 401(k)).

A recent study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that 40.6% of all U.S. households where the head of the household is between 35 and 64, inclusive, are projected to run short of money in retirement.

If you’re trying to figure out how much is enough to sustain your current lifestyle when you retire, Fidelity has provided some useful rules of thumb. They recommend you have your annual salary saved at age 30. At 50, six times, and at 67, 10 times.

That means if you make $50,000 a year, you should have $500,000 saved by the time you are 67.

How much should you save for retirement?

(multiple of salary)

30: 1x

40: 3x

50: 6x

60: 8x

67: 10x

Source: Fidelity

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