Retirement Saving Hardest Financial Habit for Homes to Adopt

Hearts & Wallets finds just 43% of households have a habit of retirement saving, even as financial wellness tools and guidance proliferates.

Among the five financial behaviors that build wealth, retirement savings is last on the list, according to a report released Wednesday by Hearts & Wallets.

So-called “peak accumulators,” which the Rye, New York-based firm has been tracking for over a decade, generally amass more wealth than households with less financially healthy behaviors.

In a survey of nearly 6,000 households backing the research, Hearts & Wallets found that peak accumulators had an adoption rate of over 50% in every area except retirement savings. Their rates of success were:

  • 66% have insurance needs covered (life, home, care, health);
  • 59% have little or no credit card debt;
  • 54% have some savings in case they lose their job;
  • 51% generally spend less than they make; and
  • 43% have a retirement savings plan(s) and contribute to it/them regularly.

“Part of the issue is consumers balancing multiple saving goals,” says Laura Varas, CEO and founder of Hearts & Wallets. “Often they prioritize other goals that take on more immediacy before the longer-term goal of saving for retirement. These other goals include saving for a home, a car or a child’s education.”

When Hearts & Wallets looks at top financial goals for U.S. households, it find the top three goals at the national level were to build up an emergency fund (48%), take a vacation (42%) and have enough money to be able to work less or spend time as they want when older (39%), according to Varas.

Over the past decade, Americans have made the most progress on “some savings,” with 54% of households setting aside some money, up 11 percentage points from 43% in 2011, according to Hearts & Wallets. But when it comes to tax-deferred workplace or individual retirement savings plans, progress lagged at just a 7% gain over the past decade.

Another part of the results may be due to the fact that “retirement is not seen as a goal for some individuals, who may plan to continue working for as long as possible,” Varas says. “Workplace programs may want to shape messaging around saving to meet goals when older rather than using the word ‘retirement’ to get more participants engaged in these longer-term saving goals.”


Even as U.S. households lag on retirement savings, they are putting more savings toward liquid assets such as bank savings, certificates of deposits, and taxable brokerages. Nationally, about one in three households save $5,000 annually, one in five save $10,000 or more annually, and 8% save $20,000 or more annually, according Hearts & Wallets.

The lag in retirement savings may be due to a lack of knowledge by consumers who are juggling a variety of financial needs, from mortgages to college savings to everyday expenses, according to Marthin De Beer, CEO and founder of BrightPlan, a fiduciary financial advice and education tool for employers.

“People are trying to figure out if they have enough to save for retirement within an ecosystem of financial questions,” says De Beer, who is not related to the Hearts & Wallets research but tracks real-time financial health scores from employer clients. “People are asking themselves, ‘How which of my company benefits should I enroll in? How much do I need to save for retirement? How valuable is my equity compensation? How can I pay my bills tomorrow?’ There are a lot of unanswered questions that drive fear and have people fretting about their finances.”

BrightPlan launched a data-driven financial wellness tool earlier this month, says De Beer. “We are living in a “hype cycle” of financial wellness, but with an old model that doesn’t utilize all the data points of a person’s situation to personalize.”

There appears to be no shortage of such personalized financial health tools, with offerings proliferating of late from vendors such as BrightPlan, as well as advisory firms, recordkeepers, and even wealth managers. On Wednesday, financial advisory firm Cambridge launched a new client solution that expands beyond investing to areas such as tax and estate planning, legacy planning, and exit strategies for business owners. Cambridge, which has a network of over 3,800 financial advisors, said its Private Client Solutions will leverage multiple areas of its business to provide a range of services to high-net-worth and ultra-high-net-worth clients.

“Serving high-net-worth clients today requires a truly integrated, firm-wide approach,” Jeff Vivacqua, president of growth and development for Cambridge, said in a statement. “Cambridge is committed to ensuring that every one of our professionals is equipped with the resources, technology, and personal support they need to provide these clients with the ‘white glove’ service experiences they expect and deserve.”

De Beer of BrightPlan says technology can provide a holistic experience for everyday workers as well. When his San Jose-based startup started working with 3,000 plan participants, they generated 100,000 pieces of personalized advice in the first week alone. In the first six months, the company saw employee financial wellness scores—as tracked by BrightPlan—double in the first six months.

“You could never do that in the old model,” De Beer says. “With the right technology we can reach people at scale.”

Workplace Financial Wellness Behavior Up

Overall, workers are doing a better job of meeting the five healthy financial habits as tracked by Hearts & Wallets, which has a dataset with over 120 million data points on saving, investing and advice behaviors for over 70,000 households.

Participants reported that behaviors in workplace financial wellness programs are improving steadily for those in accounts with recordkeepers including Empower, Principal Financial Group, T. Rowe Price, Vanguard, and Voya. Among those providers, Voya had the highest proportion of workplace participants who score 47% at all five peak accumulator behaviors among participants who know their plan providers.

“Workplace wellness programs position participants for successful wealth building,” Amber Katris, Hearts & Wallets subject matter expert and report co-author, said in the report. “Such programs can also satisfy sponsor demand and bolster low recordkeeping margins with additional revenue streams.”

De Beer says providing employee data back to the plan sponsor is key. Although the data is anonymous, the aggregate trends can guide employers in the offerings and benefits they provide their employee base.

“Now at the workforce level we can show the employer how their employee base is doing,” he says. “We can show them where the gaps are, and where the strengths are, and how to adjust in a way that improves their business goals as well as employee outcomes.”