Debt Control Is Key Before and During Retirement

Two-thirds of all investors have been consciously reducing their debt, according to the Wells Fargo/Gallup Investor and Retirement Optimism Index.

Findings from the third quarter Wells Fargo/Gallup Investor and Retirement Optimism Index survey show debt reduction remains a top goal for Americans, both before and after retirement.

The survey finds fully three-quarters of investors have some type of debt, including 83% of non-retired investors and 54% of retired investors. While two-thirds report a concerted effort to cut debt loads, an even larger majority (89%) has taken at least a small action to reduce debt.

Among investors who carry debt, nearly half (46%) say the amount of debt they are carrying has decreased in the past two years, according to Wells Fargo and Gallup. Another 31% say it has increased and 23% say their debt load has stayed the same. Among all investors, debts most often include either a mortgage (53%), a credit card balance that carries over from month to month (37%), a car loan (35%), a student loan (23%) or another outstanding debt or loan (12%).

In one encouraging sign, seven in 10 investors who say they made an effort to trim debt feel they have been successful in reducing their debt as much as they had hoped. The progress is encouraging, researchers note, especially given that 62% say they intend to make additional major efforts in the future to reduce their debt.

Many of those surveyed (56%) implied their ultimate goal for reducing debt today was achieving a debt-free retirement. Another 36% say this is important but not critical, while 8% say it is “not too important” or “not at all important.” A slight majority (55%) believe it is “very possible” for them to be debt-free in retirement, while 37% say it is somewhat possible and 8% not possible.

Interestingly, Wells Fargo and Gallup find investors with more saved in retirement accounts ($100,000 plus) are likelier to see debt “as a powerful tool” for building wealth, at 20%, versus 6% of those with less saved.

NEXT: Social Security worries abound 

According to Wells Fargo and Gallup, non-retired investors are generally doubtful they will receive their full benefit from Social Security when they retire. A little more than half (52%) say it is not too or not at all likely the system will be able to pay them their full benefit. And while another 31% say it is somewhat likely, just 15% believe it is very likely.

As a result, most non-retirees are not counting on their Social Security benefit to be a major source of income when they retire. Fifty-eight percent say it will be a minor income source and 14% not a source at all. Just 26% expect Social Security to be a major income source for them. This contrasts sharply with current retirees, according to the optimism index, with 42% of current retirees describing their Social Security benefit as a major income source and 37% as a minor source.

Looking to the wider markets, 44% of investors say they would make major adjustments to their investment strategy if interest rates rise. The most common action investors anticipate making is buying more stocks (30%), while just 8% say they would reduce their stock holdings. About a quarter (23%) say they would buy bonds or other fixed income investments, whereas 10% say they would sell these types of instruments.

“In a complex market environment, interest rates changes are yet another factor that can be unsettling to investors,” explains Bob Vorlop, head of products and advice at Wells Fargo Advisors. “One of the most important roles a financial adviser can play is to design portfolios that can meet investors’ objectives under a variety of circumstances.”

Advisers can be a tremendous source of comfort and confidence to investors, he adds.

“Investors found a variety of ways to benefit from the low interest rate environment, but this may be a good time for them to revisit their investment strategies and make sure they’re properly diversified to benefit in a rising rate environment as well,” Vorlop says.

NEXT: Overall optimism is down 

Even before the steep slide in stocks in late August, the Wells Fargo/Gallup Investor and Retirement Optimism Index showed investor confidence slipping 12 points to +58, from its seven-year high of +70 during the previous quarter. The drop in optimism was attributed to non-retirees, whose index score was down 17 points to +53 versus +70 in May. According to Wells Fargo and Gallup, this was driven more by mounting concerns about the economy—particularly the stock market and inflation—rather than their ability to reach personal financial goals. Retiree optimism held steady at +70, similar to +67 in May.

“While investors couldn’t have predicted the timing of the market volatility, the wide market swings in late August underscored the importance of having a diversified portfolio that helps to shield them from the rollercoaster rides that can occur in the stock market from time to time,” Vorlop concludes.

Looking ahead, investors predict the issues most likely to put a drag on performance were taxes (46%), unemployment (43%), and the threat of cyberattacks (42%). Only 20% of investors in August believed China’s economic slowdown was “hurting the investment climate a lot,” while 42% said it was hurting it a little.

Once again the quarterly survey underscores the important role that a written financial plan can play in helping investors meet their financial goals. Just over a third of non-retired investors (36%) say they have a written financial plan, Wells Fargo and Gallup find, and of these 45% are highly confident that their plan is adequately designed to ensure they reach their financial goals. Slightly more retired investors have a written plan (45%), and a somewhat higher share (53%) is highly confident it is adequately designed to achieve their financial goals.