Going Broke in Retirement Is Top Fear for Americans

A pervasive fear of running out of money in retirement is not causing Americans to spend less today, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Going broke in retirement trumps other stress-inducing situations such as public speaking, gaining weight and going to the dentist for mass affluent Americans, according to the latest Merrill Edge Report. Despite the prospect of not having enough income to live on comfortably later in life, many are unwilling to cut spending on indulgences now in order to invest for retirement, the report finds.

In fact, while more than half (55%) of respondents surveyed say they’re frightened of not having enough money to spend throughout retirement, many won’t consider cutting back on indulgences such as entertainment (33%), eating out (30%) and vacations (28%). Even if they were to receive a hypothetical $1 million windfall, only about one in five say they would make it a priority to set aside the money specifically for their retirement years.

“Many mass affluent investors are taking more of a ‘live for today’ financial approach than you might expect, given their fear of running out of money in retirement,” says Aron Levine, head of preferred banking and investments at Bank of America. “That type of disconnect might have a significant impact on the long-term financial well-being of these investors.”

The bi-annual survey also shows that, even though many are likely to forego saving for retirement in order to maintain their customary spending habits, the majority of parents surveyed say they would cut spending on themselves in order to help their children. Thirty-five percent have even withdrawn from their own savings or investment accounts to cover a child’s expenses, leading to diminished long-term retirement assets (see “When Adult Children Ask for a Loan”).

When asked about long-term financial management topics including their attitudes about making trade-offs, how they prioritize savings and the role finances play in relationships, mass affluent respondents revealed the following:

  • Respondents say having enough money to live “in the here and now” is a more popular priority (63%) than saving more for the future (48%);
  • More than a third of women report unexpected costs have gotten in the way of their retirement savings, compared to 28% for men; and
  • About one in two mass affluent investors say financial stability is an attractive quality when considering a spouse, while others are more likely to be drawn to an appealing sense of humor, money saved or a stable job.

More women than men (59% vs. 51%) are frightened about the possibility of not having enough money when they retire, according to the report. The fear of an uncertain retirement is also most common among 61% of both Generation X and Baby Boomer investors, whereas only 41% of Millennials feel this way.

Laying a solid financial foundation for the future starts with motivation and self-discipline, Levine adds.

“It’s great that the availability of 401(k) plans serves as the main catalyst to get people saving,” he says. “Some employers match contributions up to a certain percentage, therefore it’s even more important to contribute at least as much as their employer matches.”

The survey also indicates that the status of a romantic relationship can fuel financial concerns. For example, almost seven in 10 (68%) divorced survey participants say they are worried about not having enough money during retirement, compared with 53% of respondents who are single, married or widowed.

According to 43% of respondents, choosing among different investment products such as stocks, bonds and exchange-traded funds is the most complicated part of investing. Others say the most difficult part of investing is handling changes in the stock market (33%) or understanding how 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts work (9%).

In terms of daily financial management, a strong majority (89%) of mass affluent investors set a household budget, but almost two-thirds (66%) of these people say they are unable to consistently stay within their budget parameters. The survey shows that the two most common factors that compete with respondents’ regular retirement savings are paying off debts (31%) and handling unexpected costs (33%).

The report also reveals that priorities vary widely between men and women, especially when it comes to the effects of finances on relationships. Although financial stability is not considered the top quality for mass affluent Americans when choosing a spouse, it carries some influence among women. In fact, women are more than twice as likely as men to be attracted to someone with a stable job (51% vs. 24%) and almost twice as likely to be attracted to someone who has financial stability (64% vs. 33%).

There is also a generational difference when it comes to the importance of finances in selecting a spouse. For example, Millennials are more than twice as likely as respondents in other age groups to be attracted to someone who has some money saved (37%). And, Gen Xers are more likely than respondents from other age groups to be drawn to people who have financial stability (59%).

For more in-depth information about the financial behaviors and priorities of the mass affluent investor, read the entire Merrill Edge Report here.