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Retirement Planning > Retirement Investing

Many Gen Xers Are Too Bogged Down With Debt to Save Enough for Retirement

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Many 401(k) participants in the U.S. who belong to Generation X are focused on saving for a comfortable retirement, but can’t save nearly as much as they’d like to because of credit card and other debt, along with other competing financial obligations, according to Schwab Retirement Plan Services.

Although a small majority (58%) of this age group that includes Americans 39 to 54 years old say they’re more focused on saving for retirement now than paying off debt, the other 42% say they’re prioritizing their debt, the firm said, citing the findings of a new online survey conducted for it by Logica Research from March 19 to 29.

Seventy percent of Gen Xers feel on top of their 401(k) investments but still face obstacles and experience financial stress while trying to meet their long-term goals, according to the findings.

When asked what was preventing them from saving more for retirement, 31% cited credit card debt as their top barrier, while 38% named unexpected expenses including home repairs, 29% pointed to needing money for monthly bills, 22% cited paying for their kids’ education and 11% blamed their own student loans still being paid off.

Saving for retirement was the top source of money-related stress for 40% of Gen Xers surveyed, followed by credit card debt at 27% and keeping up with monthly expenses at 23%.

“Gen Xers are at a time in their lives when they have financial pressures on all sides,” according to Catherine Golladay, president of Schwab Retirement Plan Services. “While many are caring for children and financing those children’s education, many are also providing care and financial assistance to older relatives,” she said in an announcement on the survey’s findings, adding: “Given all of these competing priorities, it’s not too surprising that they’re relying on credit to cover expenses.”

But most Gen Xers are in their “critical earning years and at an age when it makes sense to really focus on retirement preparations,” she said, noting that, “with additional guidance and a solid financial plan, Gen Xers could feel more confident and better manage the many responsibilities they face.”

Most Gen Xers are relying on their 401(k) plans to “fund their golden years,” Schwab said, noting 58% of those respondents said their 401(k) was their largest or only source of retirement savings. That compared to 68% of millennials surveyed and 48% of Baby Boomers surveyed.

On average, Gen Xers think they will need $1.81 million for a comfortable retirement, more than either of the other groups, and they may not be saving enough to achieve their goal, Schwab said. In comparison, millennials said they’d need $1.78 million and boomers said $1.51 million.

While Gen Xers saved slightly more in their 401(k) s last year than the other two surveyed generations – $9,499 on average vs. $9,433 for boomers and $7,257 for millennials — that only equaled about 50% of the 2018 IRS contribution limit of $18,500 for those under age 50, Schwab noted.

Many Gen Xers may also not be thinking about their 401(k) s as a long-term savings vehicle. That’s because 31% said they had taken a loan from their 401(k) and 61% said they had done so more than once, Schwab said, noting that was higher than either of the other generations in both cases.

One main takeaway of the survey was that Americans are not making the most of their investment opportunities. “While everyone’s path to retirement is different, investing a sufficient percentage of your salary early on is key to growing a nest egg,” Schwab pointed out on its website. More than half of those surveyed (51%) were contributing only 10% or less of their salaries to their 401(k) plans, with the average annual contribution totaling $8,788, the firm noted.

“This is a good start but may not be enough, especially if you start investing for retirement later in life,” it said, explaining: “To put this in perspective, Schwab has determined that if you start in your 20s, you will likely be able to retire comfortably by investing 10 to 15% of your salary each year. But if you don’t start until age 45 or older, you might need to invest as much as 35% of your salary annually,” which “would be a significant challenge for most workers,” the firm said.

The survey clearly showed that Gen Xers could benefit from help and education to make more of their 401(k) plans, the firm said, pointing to two specific data points: Forty-one percent of Gen Xers said they didn’t know which investments to choose for their 401(k) to have enough for retirement, while only 28% said they were “very confident” in making 401(k) investment decisions on their own. Gen Xers said they wanted help with fundamentals, including calculating how much money they need to save for retirement (41%), determining at what age they could afford to retire (38%) and deciding where to invest their 401(k) (37%), according to Schwab.

Sixty-nine percent of Gen Xers expressed a desire for personalized help with their 401(k) plans, according to Golladay. “Fortunately, most plans today offer some kind of managed account or advice service,” she said, adding: “We encourage people at any stage of their career to take full advantage of the resources available to them. Professional advice can boost your investing confidence as you formulate a tailored plan you can stick to, all with the goal of ultimately helping you achieve better outcomes.”

The nationwide survey of 1,000 online 401(k) plan participants included 368 Gen Xers, 315 millennials and 317 baby boomers, Schwab said. The survey had a 3% margin of error at the 95% confidence level, it said, adding survey respondents worked for companies with at least 25 employees, were current contributors to their 401(k) plans and were 25 to 70 years old. Survey respondents weren’t asked to indicate whether they had 401(k) accounts with Schwab Retirement Plan Services, it said.

The overall retirement savings picture for Gen X Americans — and those in other age groups — could be much bleaker when taking into account those who aren’t contributors to 401(k) plans. After all, many — including the growing number of gig economy workers, as well as those working at traditional freelance and part-time jobs — don’t have 401(k) plans to contribute to. Schwab declined to speculate and didn’t have additional data to share, ThinkAdvisor was told.


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