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EBRI survey: retirement confidence remains low

By Eric Reinhardt


Americans’ confidence in their ability to afford a comfortable retirement remains low, despite the improving economy.

That’s among the findings in the 23rd annual Retirement Confidence Survey (RCS) issued recently by the Washington, D.C.–based Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI).

The March 19 report, entitled “The 2013 Retirement Confidence Survey: Perceived Savings Needs Outpace Reality for Many,” finds the percentage of workers confident about having enough money for a comfortable retirement is essentially unchanged from the record lows observed in 2011.

What researchers found was 2008 really brought down confidence to a record low, and the confidence level continues to lag to this day, said Mathew Greenwald of Mathew Greenwald & Associates, Inc., a Washington, D.C.–based market-research firm that co-sponsored the RCS. Greenwald offered analysis on the annual survey during a video interview with columnist Robert Powell on the financial-news website

“As the economy has recovered, retirement confidence has not,” Greenwald told Powell.

Only one in seven survey respondents is confident they’ll have a comfortable lifestyle in retirement, the survey finds.

At the same time, more than half of the respondents express some level of confidence (13 percent are very confident and 38 percent are somewhat confident), but 28 percent are not at all confident (up from 23 percent in 2012 but statistically equivalent to 27 percent in 2011), and 21 percent are not too confident, the RCS found.

Retiree confidence in having a financially secure retirement is also unchanged, with 18 percent very confident and 14 percent not at all confident.

One reason that retirement confidence has remained low despite a brightening economic outlook and rebounding stock market could be that some workers may be waking up to a realization of just how much they may need to save, the RCS report says.

Asked how much they believe they will need to save to achieve a financially secure retirement, a “striking” number of workers cite large savings targets, according to the RCS report. The findings indicate 20 percent say they need to save between 20 and 29 percent of their income, and nearly one-quarter (23 percent) indicate they need to save 30 percent or more.

“Many people have learned through this period, caused by the shock, just how much they need to accumulate for retirement. We asked people how much they need to save for the rest of their work life. Among workers, we have large number saying at least 25 percent, an impossible task,” Greenwald said in the video interview.

Aggressive as those savings targets appear to be, they may not be based on a careful analysis of their individual circumstances. Only 46 percent report they and/or their spouse have tried to calculate how much money they will need to have saved by the time they retire so that they can live comfortably in retirement.

Another factor affecting retirement confidence is that some respondents “really aren’t prepared,” Greenwald said.

“The people who are reasonably prepared kept their confidence the same level down through the great recession, but the people who really are not prepared crashed and stayed low and they’re worried,” he added.

Greenwald also notes that worrying may be good for some people because that’s a product of a greater awareness of really what they need for retirement.

Retirement savings may be taking a back seat to more immediate financial concerns, the EBRI report says. Just 2 percent of workers and 4 percent of retirees identify saving or planning for retirement as the most pressing financial issue facing most Americans today.

Both workers and retirees are most likely to identify job uncertainty (30 percent of workers and 27 percent of retirees) and making ends meet (12 percent each), according to the RCS report.

Employers have a key role in retirement planning, Greenwald says, noting that auto enrollment in a company’s savings plan can be quite helpful.

“Employers who have plans who automatically put people in at a higher level, like six percent, will be doing their workers a favor,” Greenwald said in the video interview.

People know they should be saving more, he said, and Greenwald believes employers who make more aggressive use of auto enrollment help their workers “get through that inertia that often stops people” from saving for retirement.


Survey methodology

The Retirement Confidence Survey was conducted in January through 20-minute telephone interviews with 1,254 individuals (1,003 workers and 251 retirees) age 25 and older in the U.S. Researchers used random-digit dialing to obtain a representative cross section of the U.S. population, according to EBRI.

To further increase representation, researchers added a cell-phone supplement to the sample.

Starting with the 2001 wave of the RCS, all data are weighted by age, sex, and education to reflect the actual proportions in the adult population. Data for waves of the RCS conducted before 2001 have been weighted to allow for consistent comparisons; consequently, some data in the 2013 RCS may differ slightly from data published in previous waves of the RCS.

EBRI is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan, public-policy-research organization; and Mathew Greenwald & Associates, Inc. co-sponsored the RCS. The 2013 RCS data collection was funded by grants from about two dozen public and private organizations, with staff time donated by EBRI and Mathew Greenwald & Associates.


Contact Reinhardt at


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