Living Costs Hinder Focus on Retirement Saving

Three-quarters of Americans say it is hard to keep up with bills and save for retirement at the same time, with 43% saying it is “very hard,” a survey finds.

According to results of the BlackRock Global Investor Pulse Survey, fundamental financial worries such as the high cost of living (cited by 61%), the state of the U.S. economy (55%) and health care costs (50%) are the top three threats that Americans see to their financial future. Only about one in four Americans believes the U.S. economy and job market are getting better, despite recent employment and equity gains.

The high cost of living has a particularly acute impact on investors’ psyche in the U.S. Americans report having to allocate about 42% of household income to expenses, compared with only 32% among respondents worldwide. As a result, they have less left over for spending, savings and investing—including retirement.

The survey found a sizeable majority of Americans are counting on Social Security as a key source of retirement income, with 64% saying that it will be “critical” to their ability to support themselves in retirement.

“It’s clear that immediate financial needs are hindering people’s ability to focus on longer term investment decisions and retirement planning,” says Rob Kapito, president of BlackRock. “Focusing primarily on the short-term is concerning for investors of all ages, and can eventually create special risks for those closest to or newly in retirement, who need to be well prepared to spend as much as two or three decades in retirement.”

Illustrating this “short-termism,” many Americans are not necessarily putting their money in the best places to achieve their long-term goals. Just 27% of Americans surveyed by BlackRock say they are more interested in investing in stocks today than five years ago; 18% say they are not interested in stocks at all. More than one-third (35%) of individuals say they do not hold and would not consider investments outside of the U.S.

On average, cash and cash-related products take up nearly two-thirds (63%) of Americans' total household savings and investments, and most intend to increase their commitment to cash over the next 12 months. "In a low return environment, such as now, cash simply does not deliver the kind of investment performance that most investors need to reach their most critical objectives, like retirement," Kapito says. For the remainder of their savings and investments, Americans report holding 18% in equities, 6% in bonds, 5% in property, 2% in alternatives, and 7% “other.”

Despite the obstacles they see, many Americans are strongly optimistic about achieving the financial goals that are most important to them. For example, among Americans who place a high priority on saving money, 71% are confident about achieving this goal. And, although 73% of Americans are concerned about being able to live comfortably in retirement, nearly seven of 10 (68%) who have prioritized this goal believe they will get there.

"To achieve their strong retirement hopes, Americans need to plan, save and invest with the realities of increasing retirement longevity firmly in mind—which means considering investments with good prospects for long-term return," says Kapito.

Millennials Setting a Good Example

Millennials are setting a good example for older generations in their investing attitudes and behavior. Nearly half (45%) of Millennials say they are more interested in stocks than they were five years ago; only 16% of Baby Boomers are. Millennials also spend the most time reviewing or adjusting their investments—about seven hours per month, compared with the U.S. average of around four hours per month and the Baby Boomer average of about two hours per month. Despite their younger age, 60% of Millennials report having started saving for retirement—about the same as the U.S. average overall (59%).

Millennials also feel less pressure when it comes to making room for retirement savings, with 37% saying it is "very hard" to pay bills and save for retirement at the same time, compared with a U.S. average of 43%.

The survey also found all age groups would advise their younger self to save earlier, save more, spend less, and pay off debt sooner. The Silent Generation, ages 69 to 74, report the least concern about being able to live comfortably in retirement (17% vs. 34% overall).

The BlackRock Global Investor Pulse survey interviewed 27,500 respondents, in 20 nations, in July and August 2014.