Most of us (myself included!) don’t plan to work forever, so this question is always looming. Here’s some insight on how other pre-retirees answer.

Our informal survey

In a casual on-the-street “interview” in West Chester, PA, longtime Vanguard crew member Sue Ianieri asked 15 people a few questions about investing, including whether they’re confident they’re saving enough for retirement. This 1-minute video shows how 3 investors responded:

 

About two-thirds of Sue’s interviewees reported feeling confident about their retirement savings.

A national survey

A recent online study,* which had a significantly larger sample size, found that only one-third of retirees are confident in their ability to live comfortably throughout retirement.

I have a few theories to explain the discrepancy between our survey results and the results of the online survey: Maybe people didn’t want to admit—especially on camera!—that their retirement savings aren’t adequate. Or maybe we encountered a unique sample of optimistic investors who always see the glass half-full. In any case, it’s a fact that many investors aren’t confident they’re saving enough for retirement.

Here are a few factors that may contribute to feeling uncertain about the health of your retirement savings. Although some of them are outside of your control, you don’t have to let them get in your way.

1. Future unknowns

Fact: None of us knows what the future holds for Social Security and Medicare (or how much we’ll need to spend on health care throughout retirement). In fact, only 7% of the respondents in the online survey felt confident that Social Security and Medicare would continue to provide the same level of benefits they do today. The unavoidable ambiguity around the future state of these “guaranteed” benefits can dampen even the best saver’s confidence.

My recommendation: Base your retirement savings goal on the information you know today. Just keep in mind that you may want to be conservative to create a buffer for the unknowns.

Income from various sources, including pensions, annuities, part-time employment, or rental properties may be able to fill in any gap between the guaranteed benefits you anticipate based on today’s programs and the guaranteed benefits you’ll actually collect in retirement. Aligning your retirement goals with available resources can help you see the big picture so you don’t lose sleep worrying about future unknowns. (For more information about creating a framework for retirement spending, read this blog post by my colleague Colleen Jaconetti.)

2. Assets can fluctuate in value

Fact: If you purchase something—property, land, a collectible, etc.—with the intention of earning a return, it’s an investment. And its value can fluctuate, just like the investments you hold in your portfolio.

My recommendation: Focus on what you can control, whether you’re investing in a mutual fund, a rental property, or a collectible car.

  • Cost: The amount you pay initially, plus any ongoing fees or miscellaneous charges, raises the bar for how much you have to earn to make a profit.
  • Diversification: “Don’t put all of your eggs in 1 basket” is the perfect cliché to prove this point. When you own only 1 type of investment, you increase your overall risk. For example, if the bulk of your retirement savings is coming from the sale of your home and a vacation property—and the real estate market dips—you may experience a shortfall. Mixing different types of investments together can lower your overall risk, since different types of assets usually perform differently at any given time.
  • Discipline: You can’t control how the market (the financial market, the real estate market, or something else) performs today, and you can’t predict what will happen in the future—so don’t try. Make a plan and hold yourself accountable for sticking to it. Or work with an advisor to eliminate the temptation to make a hasty change to your portfolio based on recent events.

3. Lack of clear goals

Fact: If you don’t have a specific goal in mind, it’s impossible to determine whether you’re meeting it. If you have no idea how much you should be saving, how do you respond to the question, Are you saving enough?

My recommendation: Figure out your goal with the help of an online resource or an advisor. If you’re close to retirement, for example, look at your current annual income or annual take-home pay and work backward. Say your take-home pay is $75,000 per year. Consider making that amount your target replacement income amount, especially in the early years of retirement. Many planners use the 70% or 80% income-replacement rule for retirees, but I’ve found that many retirees need 100%. In fact, some retirees need more! While you’re likely to lower certain expenses (or eliminate them altogether) in retirement, other expenses (travel, costs associated with helping family members, etc.) can end up offsetting these reductions.

If you’re further from retirement, look forward. Aim to save at least 12%–15% of your income, including any employer match, for retirement (closer to 20% if you plan to retire early).

4. Feeling that no amount will ever be enough

Fact: You may fear the prospect of supporting yourself (and potentially a spouse or other family members) when you’re no longer receiving a steady paycheck. This feeling is common among investors, but don’t let it paralyze you.

My recommendation: Set a realistic goal. Adjust your goal if your circumstances change. If you know you’re saving enough to meet your long-term goal, don’t be weighed down by the thought that you should be saving more.

Also, keep in mind that many retirees decide to work part-time to add structure to their days. If you find yourself in this position, use the extra income for peace of mind, a reminder that you’ll be able to support yourself over the long term. Most importantly, strike a balance between enjoying yourself now and preparing for the future.

On the other hand, if your current saving habits aren’t going to put you on track to meet your long-term goal, do something about it. Start by ensuring that you have the appropriate asset allocation for your time frame and risk tolerance. Then increase your retirement contributions each year and resist the urge to make unnecessary changes.

Bottom line: Face your fear. If you’re not saving enough today, take action so you’ll be in a better position tomorrow.

The million-dollar question

Now you know how other pre-retirees feel about their retirement savings. And you know the factors that contribute to those feelings (as well as recommendations for dealing with them).

So tell me, are you confident you’re saving enough for retirement?

*Employee Benefit Research Institute, 2018 Retirement Confidence Survey, https://www.ebri.org/pdf/surveys/rcs/2018/2018RCS_Report_V5MGAchecked.pdf

Notes:

  • All investing is subject to risk, including the possible loss of the money you invest.
  • Diversification does not ensure a profit or protect against a loss.
  • Advice services are provided by Vanguard Advisers, Inc., a registered investment advisor, or by Vanguard National Trust Company, a federally chartered, limited-purpose trust company.