At Saving, Americans Are Confident & Clueless

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WASHINGTON (TheStreet) — Americans are showing slightly more confidence in their ability to retire comfortably, but that post-recession optimism isn't necessarily supported by either their actions or the facts.

On Tuesday, the Employee Benefit Research Institute released its 20th annual Retirement Confidence Survey, a study that gauges the attitudes and actions of working-age and retired Americans. The results reveal that confidence levels measured during the past two years of economic decline "appear to have bottomed out" and that the percentage of workers "very confident" about having enough money for a comfortable retirement has stabilized at 16%, a statistical equivalent to the 20-year low reported in 2009.

"Americans' attitudes toward retirement have clearly tracked the economy the last couple of years, and that seems to be the case in 2010," says Jack VanDerhei, EBRI research director and co-author of the survey. "Unfortunately, while their attitudes are stabilizing, their preparation for retirement is not. A distressing number of people have no savings at all."

"I have always interpreted from the data that people are almost too, and I hate to use the word, optimistic. I sometimes wonder if they understand the magnitude of the issue," says Daniel Houston, president of retirement, insurance and financial services for Principal Financial Group, one of the study's more than 30 underwriters.

Among the more alarming survey findings:

  • Sixty-nine percent of workers reported that they and/or their spouse have saved for retirement, down from 75% in 2009.
  • A growing percentage of workers report they have little saved and invested. Among respondents, 27% say they have less than $1,000 in savings and 54% report that the total value of their household's savings and investments, excluding the value of their primary home and any defined benefit plans, is less than $25,000.
  • One in four employees said they have postponed plans to retire this year.
  • Many workers continue to be unaware of how much they need to save for retirement. Less than half of workers (46%) have tried to calculate how much money they need to save to retire comfortably. Of those who did, 44% relied on guesswork, rather than a detailed review or professional advice.

Houston says the survey may indicate confusion on the part of workers as to the nature of their benefits and many may not grasp the difference between a company pension and a 401(k) plan.

"In 2005, when we asked the question are you counting on a defined benefit plan for your retirement, 62% per of the people said 'yes,'" Houston says. "This year it is down to 56%. But, as best we can tell, only about 40% of American workers are actually covered by one. The takeaway is that there are actually people who think they have a pension plan and don't."

Houston adds that Americans need to focus on their unique retirement needs and goals. He says government officials should focus on boosting saving rather than lowering fees charged by retirement plans.

"People worry about whether or not the appropriate rate being charged in a 401(k) plan is 90 basis points or 85," he says. "That is not the issue. The issue is whether you can get participation up from 60% to 100%. Can we see more employer matches? Can we see average deferrals go from 7% to 15%? Congress shouldn't be banging the drum so loudly on fees. Getting the quality of plan output from having paid those fees should be the criteria."

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