Starting when we are children, we are not taught to pay ourselves first and to put money away for ourselves and put ourselves at the top of our payroll. We spend without looking at the consequences or taking responsibility for our actions." —Saul M. Simon, Certified Financial Planner
Bob Bentz understands why younger people don't save for retirement. When he was in his 20s, he was saving for retirement at his work. But then he decided he wanted a Mazda RX-7 sports car.
"It was red and it was fast," says Bentz, who now owns Advanced Telecom Services — a mobile marketing agency in the Philadelphia area. "So instead of that money growing for 30 years, I withdrew it early. I even got a 10 percent penalty for taking it out."
But Bentz is now 53, and like many Americans is nudging closer to retirement age. Unfortunately, many Americans may be acting more like Bentz in his 20s. A new survey by Bankrate.com found that despite an improving economy, most Americans are not putting more into their retirement savings.
The survey, conducted at the beginning of August, found that 54 percent of adult Americans say they are contributing the same amount to retirement savings accounts such as 401(k)s and IRAs as they did last year. Seventeen percent say they are saving less, while only 18 percent say they have upped their savings. Eight percent say they contributed nothing at all. Experts are concerned and say there are easy ways to be more prepared for retirement.
Not a surprise
David Rae, vice president of investments at Trilogy Financial Services in Los Angeles, is not surprised that people are lowering or not increasing their retirement savings.
"Many people are underestimating what they need to save for retirement," he says. "People are not thinking early enough about retirement."
Rae worries about people who wait until they are 55 or 60 to start planning for retirement.
"If you wait that long, you will have to save more than you make to get enough money," he says, half joking. "And for people to save more than they make is hard."
People start to realize, he says, once they hit 50 or so, that they are getting near retirement and start to get serious about it — creating a rush to the finish line to get ready.
But Bankrate.com's survey also found that employed Americans between 50 and 64 years old were the most likely of all age brackets to be saving less this year than last year.
"You would think it would be the opposite," says Saul M. Simon, a Certified Financial Planner in New Jersey. "Uncle Sam gives people aged 50 years old and up the opportunity to increase their contribution."
"Catch-up contributions" allow people age 50 and older to contribute more to their 401(k)s or IRAs. The most they can put in for 2013 is $5,500 for 401(k)s and $1,000 for IRAs. This is on top of the $17,500 allowed for 401(k)s for those under 50 and on top of the $5,500 allowed for IRAs for those under 50.
But just as this added impetus and opportunity to save more at age 50 kick in, other things kick in the opposite direction, says Bentz in Philadelphia.
"I have a son who just graduated and another one just going into college," he says. "You pick up a lot of extra expenses when you are at the 50-ish age if you had children. I know it becomes more difficult."
The need to save is real, though.
"People are getting Social Security checks that are relatively small," Rae says. "And if they don't save money, they will not have enough."
Simon, who is the author of "Simon Says: Love Your Legacy," says pensions are also, for the most part, out of the picture.
Even with the need to save for retirement, Simon thinks the economy has been holding many people back from doing it. But he says the bigger problems are attitude and priorities.
Paying self first
"Starting when we are children, we are not taught to pay ourselves first and to put money away for ourselves and put ourselves at the top of our payroll," Simon says. "We spend without looking at the consequences or taking responsibility for our actions."
Simon says his daughter just turned 17 and now has a driver's license. This means he is dealing with the added expenses of helping to buy a car and paying for car insurance. But this doesn't mean cutting back on retirement saving. When his clients bring up similar circumstances as an excuse for putting less in a 401(k), he tells them to continue following their retirement goals.
"Maybe it means not providing a car at this point," he says. "Sometimes as human beings and as parents, we have to say no. We may need to share the truth that we may not be able to afford things like a week-long vacation or a trip to Disneyland."
Bankrate's survey found that having more money doesn't translate into saving more. Twenty-one percent of upper-middle-income households are saving less for retirement and only 14 percent are saving more.
Bentz, however, says he learned about catch-up contributions last year and makes the maximum contribution he can to his savings plan.
"In my case," Bentz says, "if you want to retire at 65, you better put it in now."
He also says he strongly encourages his younger employees to contribute as much as they can to retirement while they are young so the interest can compound over the decades.
And, presumably, they should avoid red sports cars as well.