Bleaker Hopes for a Good Retirement

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 10, 2008

Fewer American workers are confident that they will have enough money to retire comfortably, according to a survey released yesterday.

The percentage of workers who said they were very confident about having enough money for retirement decreased from 27 percent last year to 18 percent this year, the sharpest one-year drop since the Employee Benefit Research Institute, a private nonprofit group that focuses on retirement and economic security issues, began the survey 18 years ago.

Current retirees were also less confident about their prospects for financial security. Last year, 41 percent of retirees surveyed were confident about their retirement, compared with 29 percent this year.

Researchers attributed the growing pessimism to concerns about rising health-care costs, a flagging economy and declining home values. The sentiment was spread across all age groups and income levels but was particularly strong among younger workers and those with lower incomes, the researchers said. The Retirement Confidence Survey was conducted in January through telephone interviews with 1,322 people nationwide, both workers and retirees, ages 25 and over.

"For years, confidence in being able to have a financially comfortable lifestyle remained steady without major year-to-year movement, including through a surge of good times in the later 1990s and the downturn and fear following 9/11," said Matthew Greenwald, president and chief executive of Matthew Greenwald & Associates, the District research firm that gathered the data.

The results reflect public unease about not just the future but also the present state of the economy, the researchers said. When asked what they consider the most pressing financial issue facing most Americans today, just 5 percent of workers and 4 percent of retirees said it was saving or planning for retirement. Instead, they cited the cost of living, medical expenses, mortgage payments, debt, energy costs and job uncertainty.

Michelle Cover, a 36-year-old Fairfax County social worker who lives in Sterling, is not as worried about her retirement as she is about a looming recession. She and her husband continue to contribute as much as they can to their 401 (k) plans and their Roth individual retirement accounts but have cut back on other spending. Cover also shares ideas with her neighbors and friends about budgeting. They do a lot of carpooling, tell each other about good sales and try to entertain at one person's house in the neighborhood so as not to waste gasoline.

"We've been more conscious of watching our pennies, being careful with our spending, being conservative about where our money goes . . . because we know the economy is not good right now," said the mother of two, who did not participate in the survey.

Despite concerns about their financial security, a large number of workers continue to have inadequate retirement savings, a problem that the survey has found year after year. Forty-nine percent of workers reported total savings and investments of less than $50,000, while 22 percent of workers and 28 percent of retirees said they have no savings of any kind.

Nonetheless, there was some evidence that people are becoming more conscious about the need to plan for retirement. Forty-seven percent of workers said they or their spouses have tried to calculate how much money they will need for comfortable retirements, up from a low of 29 percent in 1996.

Both workers and retirees said they were less confident that the Social Security system will continue to provide the same benefits received by retirees today. And only one-third of workers expect to have access to employer-paid health insurance in retirement, a drop from last year of about eight percentage points.

"From one perspective, it is disheartening but understandable that retirement confidence has gone down," Greenwald said. "However, it is my view that a lot of the confidence observed in previous years was false confidence, and perhaps people are now getting more realistic and this is a precursor to more effective financial preparation for retirement."

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