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In our opinion: Most Americans struggling to save something — anything — for their retirement

Published: Thursday, Aug. 21 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Thursday, Aug. 21 2014 6:28 a.m. MDT

The bottom line for Americans and their retirement savings — or lack thereof — is that a large number of people face the prospect of living out their years with incomes close to or below poverty levels.

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Every day, about 8,000 so-called “baby boomers” turn 65 years old and reach what’s long been considered retirement age, even though many them have absolutely no money in their retirement savings accounts. None.

A recent survey shows that more than a third of all Americans have failed to save a single dollar to live on after they finish working. Among 65-year-olds, 14 percent have no savings, and more than half of all people who are near or past retirement age have insufficient savings. The bottom line is a large number of people face the prospect of living out their years with incomes close to or below poverty levels.

There may be a number of reasons why we’ve come to this situation, but there are not a lot of ways to fix it. Far too many people are beyond the point of being able to catch up, and that includes many still in their prime earning years.

Data compiled by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College show that more than half of all U.S. workers will need to immediately begin saving at least 15 percent of annual household income in order to live in retirement with an income of about 70 percent of what they currently live on. And that takes into account what money they will get from Social Security.

There’s slim hope that’s going to happen. Researchers have documented an attitudinal shift toward a sense of futility about saving for retirement. A survey of so-called “millennials” — those born in the 1980s and 1990s — shows the majority lack confidence that putting money into savings instruments will bring necessary returns. Many of them say they are influenced by the stress their parents experienced when the stock market tumbled in 2008 and 2009. There is also a trend among members of that generation to rent homes or apartments in lieu of taking out a mortgage, which means they will eschew the opportunity to build equity in a home, another key source of retirement funding.

Many are burdened by large college loan debt and are entering a workforce at a time of relatively high unemployment. Consequently, many in their late 20s and early 30s tell researchers their retirement plan is to simply continue to work.

A lot of people 65 and older are facing that reality now, and not as a matter of choice. Their situation should serve as a wake-up call. As for government policy, there’s not much that can be done. Keeping entitlement programs solvent is enough of a challenge; expanding them in any way is not in the cards. Perhaps schools could put more emphasis on financial planning studies and lessons on the power of compound interest.

But mostly, the burden is on the individual. It is easy to live in the present, but an essential component of financial responsibility is to plan for the future. People may have decided their present expenses are such they can’t afford a savings plan. The question they should ask is whether they can afford the consequences of not having one.

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