Pre-Retiree Expectations Do Not Match Retiree Experience

Plans to retire later may not pan out, and workers may not realize what competing financial priorities they will have in retirement.

In research from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, retirees shared actionable insights about what they would have done differently in preparing themselves for retirement.

Reflecting on their working years, many retirees say they:

  • Wish that they would have saved more on a consistent basis (76%);
  • Wish they had been more knowledgeable about retirement saving and investing (68%);
  • Would have liked to have received more information and advice from their employers about how to achieve their retirement goals (53%);
  • Waited too long to concern themselves with saving and investing for retirement (48%); and
  • Should have relied more on outside experts to monitor and manage their retirement savings (41%).

The research found the actual experience of retirees does not match the expectations of pre-retirees. For example, 67% of pre-retirees ages 50 and older are planning to work past age 65 or do not plan to retire. Their expected retirement age is 67 (median). However, the majority of retirees (60%) retired sooner than planned, 66% of them did so for employment-related reasons such as organizational changes, job loss, unhappiness with job/career or received a buyout. Twenty-seven percent did so due to health reasons and 11% for family responsibilities (e.g., becoming a caregiver). Only 16% retired because they found they had saved enough or received a windfall.

Among retirees who retired later than planned, most (61%) did so for financial reasons or the need for benefits. Forty-four percent say they delayed retirement for reasons of enjoyment.

NEXT: Income in retirement

Retirees (89%) and pre-retirees (83%) most frequently cite Social Security as a current source/expected source of income in retirement. As an indicator of the shifting retirement landscape, retirees (42%) are more likely to cite income from a company-funded pension plan than pre-retirees (31%). On the other hand, pre-retirees (67%) are more likely than retirees (37%) to expect income from self-funded retirement accounts such as 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and IRAs. In addition, 39% of pre-retirees are expecting income from working in retirement compared to only 6% of retirees.

Retirees (61%) and pre-retirees (37%) most frequently cite Social Security as their expected primary source of income in retirement; however, the difference in response levels is significant. Pre-retirees (25%) are much more likely than retirees (10%) to expect income from 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and IRAs as their primary source of income in retirement. Eleven percent of pre-retirees are expecting to primarily rely on income from continuing to work in retirement.

Eighty-nine percent of retirees are currently receiving Social Security benefits. The median age at which they started receiving benefits is 62. Retirees report having a total annual household income of $32,000 (estimated median); however, a wide disparity exists between those who are married ($48,000 estimated median) and those who are unmarried ($19,000).

By comparison, pre-retirees report higher levels of income ($71,000) including those who are married ($84,000) and unmarried ($35,000).

The total household savings in retirement accounts is $135,000 (estimated median) among pre-retirees; however, the survey found a wide disparity between those who are married ($177,000) and unmarried ($48,000). Among retirees there is also a wide disparity in retirement savings between the married ($225,000) and unmarried ($53,000).

NEXT: Competing financial priorities

"Today's retirees envision spending decades in retirement, albeit with limited savings and means," says Catherine Collinson, president of TCRS. Among retirees, their greatest fears about retirement are declining health that requires long-term care and that Social Security will cease to exist in the future (44%). Among pre-retirees, the most frequently cited fear is outliving their savings and investments (43%).

Retirees are expecting a long retirement of 28 years (median), with 41% expecting a retirement of more than 30 years. Retirees plan to live to age 90 (median), although it should be noted that 43% of retirees are not sure how long they plan to live.

Few retirees (16%) strongly agree that they built a large enough retirement nest egg. Twenty percent say they are continuing to save for retirement.

Retirees identify a myriad of competing financial priorities including just getting by / covering basic living expenses (42%), paying health care expenses (37%), paying off mortgages (21%), creating an inheritance or financial legacy (16%), funding long-term care expenses (9%), contributing to an education fund (6%) and funding assisted living expenses (4%). One-quarter of retirees cite paying off credit card debt as a financial priority. 

"One of the most important things within reach that retirees and pre-retirees can do is formulate a financial plan to identify opportunities, vulnerabilities, and ways to address them," says Collinson. The study found only 10% of retirees and 14% of pre-retirees have a written strategy which may include government retirement benefits (i.e., Social Security and Medicare), on-going living expenses, a budget, savings and income needs, health care costs and other factors.

Collinson adds that today’s workers have very different expectations about when and how they will retire when compared to those already in retirement, expecting to gradually transition into retirement by reducing hours or working in a different capacity. But, few pre-retirees in the study say that their employers currently offer this as an option. Moreover, while most employers sponsor plans and offer benefits to help their employees save for retirement, many pre-retirees say they are offered assistance such as financial education, counseling or seminars to help them transition into retirement. “By updating business practices and offering retirement transition assistance, employers can play a valuable role in helping their employees retire while, at the same time, optimizing succession planning and overall workforce management,” she tells PLANADVISER.

The research report is here.