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Coronavirus-related unemployment is putting people’s retirement at risk

The pandemic has exacerbated America’s looming retirement crisis

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The most effective way for most people to save for retirement is through their workplace investment plan.

“Among those with retirement savings, these savings were most frequently in defined contribution plans, such as a 401(k) or 403(b), with 55 percent of non-retired adults reporting they had money in such a plan,” according to a May report from the Federal Reserve.

But for the millions of people who have lost their job in the coronavirus recession, their focus is probably not on retirement but on daily financial survival. And that makes sense. When money is tight, you have no choice but to take care of your short-term financial needs.

Yet, we should be concerned about how a lengthy stint of unemployment will affect people’s ability to save for retirement. Coronavirus-related job losses continue to put people out of work.

Even before the spread of the novel coronavirus led to massive layoffs, many households were at risk of falling short in retirement savings. Not surprisingly, there’s concern that the longer folks stay unemployed, the harder it will be for them to jump back into or even start saving for retirement.

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A recent analysis of household retirement readiness by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College found that widespread unemployment would increase the risk of people not being ready for retirement. The brief was written by Alicia Munnell, the center’s director and the Peter F. Drucker professor of management sciences at Boston College; Anqi Chen, assistant director of savings research; and Wenliang Hou, a research economist at the center.

“The country has been levelled by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the researchers wrote. “Hence, the most pressing question at the moment is how retirement security has been affected by the virus and the shutdown of the economy. This crisis will affect retirement security in a very different way than the Great Recession because the destruction is occurring more through widespread unemployment and less through a collapse in the value of financial assets and housing.”

The center measures the share of working-age households that are at risk of being unable to maintain their pre-retirement standard of living. The latest figures from the National Retirement Risk Index show a nearly five-percentage-point increase in retirement insecurity. The coronavirus-related surge in unemployment has probably increased the share of households at risk to 55 percent, up from 50 percent.

Simply put, the pandemic has made the retirement savings gap larger.

“Unemployment has not only had an immediate impact in terms of lost earnings but also a longer-term negative effect on future wages, making it more difficult to save for retirement,” Munnell said about the findings.

Munnell said unemployment is far more damaging than just the wages forgone. When people finally get back to work, they often have to take a cut in pay in the period following their unemployment.

“The pandemic has worsened an already bleak outlook for retirement security,” the researchers concluded. “Ensuring retirement security for an aging population was one of the most compelling challenges facing the nation before the onslaught of COVID-19. The unemployment associated with the pandemic has made the situation worse across the board.”

So, what should be done to mitigate the problem?

More has to be done to get people back to work.

“These results underscore the need for policies that provide well-targeted assistance to employers and individuals aimed at preventing more people from becoming unemployed and getting those who are unemployed back to work quickly as the pandemic subsides,” the brief says. “The shorter the spell of unemployment, the less harm people will experience to their long-term retirement prospects.”

Color of Money Online Chat

Join me on Thurs. Sept. 3 from noon to 1 p.m. (ET) for a real-time discussion about your money.

All you have to do is send in your written questions and I’ll answer them during the one-hour online discussion.

Reader Question of the Week

If you have a personal finance or retirement question, send it to In the subject line, put “Question of the Week.”

Q: If I take out $100,000 as a withdrawal from my 401(k), do I have to repay the money? I will turn 59½ next year. I’m prepared to pay taxes on the money. I’m just not prepared to pay it back.

A: The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (Cares) Act includes several provisions that cover retirement accounts. The act temporarily increases how much you can borrow from your retirement and waives the penalty for an early withdrawal.

If you’re younger than 59½, you’re ordinarily subject to a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty if you remove money from an IRA, 401(k) or 403(b) retirement account. In addition, you have to pay income tax on the distribution. But if you have experienced financial hardship related to the pandemic, the 10 percent penalty is waived for distributions up to $100,000.

The Cares Act also allows you to spread the tax obligation over three years. Also, under the stimulus package rule, if you change your mind and don’t need the money, the distribution can be repaid within three years tax-free.

However, if the withdrawal is not coronavirus-related, you will have to pay the 10 percent penalty, and you don’t get the three-year window to pay the tax bill.

Finally, whether your withdrawal is coronavirus-related or not, there’s no requirement that you repay money withdrawn from your retirement account.

Retirement Rants and Raves

I’m interested in your experiences or concerns about retirement or aging. You can rant or rave. Send your comments to Please include your name, city and state. In the subject line, put “Retirement Rants and Raves.”

“Every time you turn around, there’s someone offering free advice on how to save for retirement, but nothing on how to plan for living on these savings in retirement,” wrote Shannon Beatty of Frederick, Md. “It’s scary. If you have an unexpected expense and pull money out of tax-deferred savings to pay for it — or earn a little bit too much ‘retirement income’ — the tax man gets a lot more of it than you’d expect.”

Here’s a post that may help: Saving for retirement is hard. Knowing how to spend it down is harder.

Allan Scardina of Houston wrote: “I read with interest your recent update on the concept of a ‘death book.’ I prepared something similar a few years ago but of course, now it is hopelessly out of date. A key challenge with such a document is how to allow online access to key accounts and documents while maintaining privacy and keeping the document updated with changing access details. The use of a password manager helps, especially if there is a way to share access with trustworthy individuals. That said, the emergence of two-factor authentication complicates even that approach, as the person accessing your details will not only need your account details and password but also your mobile phone to receive the one-time code. Any suggestions to overcome such a barrier?”

No one needs to actually access your accounts. The person you’ve entrusted to handle your final affairs doesn’t need to peek at what you have until you’re deceased. You just need to be sure they know where to find the information, including the passcode to your mobile device.

And who’s the right person? Read this article: Here’s how to pick the executor of your estate. It may not be the person you think.