Like the word "topless," spelled in neon, in front of a strip joint.
Or "American workers aren't saving enough" on the executive summary of retirement research.
So it is with a new study from EBRI, the Washington, D.C. based Employee Benefit Research Institute. The new study examines retirement income adequacy by age group and household type. It does this by projecting current savings forward. Then, using a complex model, it estimates income and expenses in retirement.
"Can America Afford Tomorrow's Retirees?" tells us that retirees will be short an estimated $45 billion a year by 2030 and $400 billion for the ten years ending in 2030. Those are big numbers. I'll get back to them in a few minutes.
Right now, here are some of their other findings:
• Single women are more likely to have future financial problems than couples.
• Younger workers can "avert a personal shortfall" by saving more. Saving an additional 5 percent of income would solve the retirement income problem for many.
• Older workers, particularly lower income workers with little in savings, probably can't solve their retirement income problem by saving more of their income because it would require more than 25 percent.
• Personal real estate isn't the answer. Annuitizing the value of your house or selling it to provide additional income does little to solve the retirement income problem.
Reading the study, which is available at www.ebri.org, I couldn't help think I'd like the numbers in nickels and dimes instead of billions. So I called Brooks Hamilton, a Dallas benefits attorney who has devoted years to making 401(k) plans effective vehicles for employee retirement.
Hamilton explained that it was pretty easy to figure out where someone was heading from 401(k) plan contributions. By taking the percentage of income saved, age, current account balance, investment choices, and income you could project forward using historical investment returns. "Basically, you need about 16 years of final pay (in savings) to retire. Social Security is good for 6 or 7 years of that, so your actual target is around 10 years of final pay, " he said.
When he did that, sometimes with plans that had as many as 7,000 employees, patterns began to emerge. If he sorted employees by their projected accumulation, they fell into three groups. He called them "overs", "fixables", and "brokens."
We don't have to worry about the "overs."
"Those are the people, 10 or 15 percent of employees, who are going to have 15 or 20 years of final income. They'll have more than what is required.
"The largest group of people won't be over. They're saving 2 or 3 percent of their pay. They just won't have enough if they continue that way. But they're fixable."
I asked him to explain.
"If they save more, or work longer, or both, almost everybody can be fixed. I experimented and came up with my '3 by 3' rule. If you increase the percentage of pay being saved by 3 percent and work three more years, until age 68, most workers can retire in dignity.
"If you assume a 9 percent return and typical savings rates, only about one worker in twenty will be OK for retirement. Most aren't saving enough. But when the company puts in an automatic upward adjustment to savings (Something Hamilton urges his corporate clients to do) the figure goes from one in twenty to one in four. That's a dramatic improvement.
"And if they work to age 68, the ratio goes to one in two."
That isn't everyone, of course. There are some employees who are "broken." Because of their age, there is no way their savings rate or remaining years of work can be increased enough to provide an adequate retirement. Mr. Hamilton's goal with corporate clients is to reduce the percentage of "broken" employees. He wants to make the plans work so that 70 to 80 percent of all employees will be able to retire in dignity.
"It's a matter of corporate will. It's a matter of knowing it can be done. We're not talking about a lot of money. For the average employee, it might be as little as the price of a pizza, once a week," Hamilton said.
"Of course it helps when the employer contributes a pizza too," he added.
Next time you hear someone talking in billions, remember this: before it becomes billions, it's pizza.
Saving Retirement a Nickel at a Time
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