For many Americans, saving for retirement is a luxury.
More than one-third of Americans say they’ve never had a retirement account, such as a 401(k) or an Individual Retirement Account (IRA), according to a Bankrate.com survey. A Harris Poll survey released in December reported that more than a fifth of the more than 2,000 adults canvassed are saving nothing each year for retirement.
There are two big reasons for the lack of savings — and one of them is not easily solvable. Many workers don’t have employer-provided retirement accounts, while others simply don’t have anything to save.
“Access to a retirement plan is an important driver — roughly half of American workers don't have that,” said Craig Copeland, EBRI senior research associate. “Many workers are low-wage workers throughout their careers and really don’t have enough money to save in a retirement plan. They are trying to pay off debts to just make ends meet.”
No access to an employer's retirement plan
Traditional employer-based retirement plans are typically not available for contractors, freelancers, gig economy workers, and part-time workers. And only 42% of small businesses with less than 100 employees offer retirement benefits, according to a LIMRA 2019 study.
“Why small businesses don’t offer retirement benefits to their employees is pretty straightforward,” said David Deeds, the Schulze Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. “They didn’t need to in order to hire and retain employees in the previous labor market, weren’t required to by state or federal governments, and the perceived costs and complexity (real or imagined) of managing retirement benefits kept at least half of small business from offering retirement benefits.”
Even without a workplace retirement savings plan, those with earned income can still contribute to an IRA, said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com.
“You can open an IRA with a brokerage, mutual fund company, your bank or credit union in many cases,” he said. “Have an automatic monthly transfer from your checking account into your IRA to automate retirement savings.”
A handful of states – Oregon, California, and Illinois – now offer auto-IRA state-sponsored retirement savings plans to workers without employer-sponsored plans. Other states are considering crafting similar offerings. These state-facilitated programs automatically enroll workers in moderate risk, low-cost retirement savings accounts called auto-IRAs.
Three-quarters of Americans say they would participate in state-supported retirement programs if offered one in their state, according to a survey by the National Institute on Retirement Security, a nonprofit, non-partisan research and education organization.
“State-sponsored retirement savings plans offer the best chance in the near term to increase the number of Americans with access to payroll deduction retirement savings plans,” wrote David John, deputy director of the Retirement Security Project at the Brookings Institution think tank, Mark Iwry, senior fellow in Economic Studies, and William Gale, director of Brookings’ Retirement Security Project, in “Wealth After Work,” which explores solutions to help all Americans gain access to retirement savings accounts.
It’s not a foolproof way to get workers to save. For instance, for the Oregon plan that began in 2017, about one-third of eligible workers opt out.
Nothing to spare
That brings us to the second reason for not saving for retirement: Lack of funds is the other indisputable roadblock.
More than a third of those who don’t contribute to retirement plans say it’s because they can’t afford to do so, according to a MagnifyMoney survey of more than 1,200 working Americans. And nearly 50% of those with annual income of less than $50,000 said they’ve never had a retirement account, according to the Bankrate report.
“Choosing between staying afloat, setting aside some short-term savings and student debt payments often prevents Gen Z and younger workers from contributing to retirement,” said Lazetta Rainey Braxton, a financial planner and co-CEO of 2050 Wealth Partners in Brooklyn, NY.
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And those who stepped out of the workforce for caregiving duties, especially when caring for aging parents or relatives, “often struggle with ramped up expenses and are left with little to spare to stash away for retirement,” said Shelly-Ann Eweka, a certified financial planner and senior director of financial planning strategy at finance firm TIAA.
Debt is also a big blocker.
Close to half of workers say debt has negatively impacted their ability to save for retirement, according to the EBRI findings. Nearly one-third of Americans’ monthly income on average goes towards paying off debt other than mortgages, according to a 2021 Northwestern Mutual study, with 18% saying they’ve delayed saving for retirement because of their debt.
“People aren’t saving because they just have more pressing needs than saving for retirement,” said Laurence Kotlikoff, Boston University economics professor and author of the new book, "Money Magic: An Economist's Secrets to More Money, Less Risk, and a Better Life."
“They don't have the money. They've got to pay for daycare. They've got to pay the mortgage,” he said. “They don't feel they can contribute to retirement because they're just too swamped.”
Kerry is a Senior Columnist and Senior Reporter at Yahoo Money. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon