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Many Americans are deluding themselves when it comes to their retirement readiness — especially the wealthier ones.
About one-third (34%) of American households say they’re at risk of not being able to replace their working income in retirement. But an index measuring the percentage of working-age households at risk forecasts a far larger number — nearly half (47%) are in danger, according to a new brief published by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
Higher-income households tended to be overly optimistic versus lower earners.
The disconnect between belief and reality means many households with too little savings are unlikely to course-correct and find themselves with a lower standard of living in retirement, while those who are too concerned may forfeit too much of their earnings now for later.
"We found that about 28% of people are what we call ‘not worried enough,'" Anqi Chen, one of the brief’s co-authors and a senior research economist at the Center for Retirement Research, told Yahoo Finance. "They think they're doing okay, but our model says that they are at risk of falling short."
The index is calculated by the researchers based on the Federal Reserve’s most recent triennial Survey of Consumer Finances data provided by 6,500 American families in 2019. It measures the percentage of working-age households that are at risk of being financially unprepared for retirement.
Here’s where it gets a bit messy. The Index’s income assumptions figure people work to age 65, annuitize all their financial assets, and tap their home equity with a reverse mortgage on their homes.
The truth is most people are unlikely to do all of those things, so the percentage that falls behind may ultimately be far higher.
It’s also worth noting that the meaning of "at risk" differs by income, according to the researchers. At-risk households with very low income may have trouble affording basic necessities. In contrast, at-risk households with high income are probably not going to wind up broke. However, they do face the possibility of a drastically downsized lifestyle — especially since so many at risk are under the impression that they’re not.
Overall, 41% of households with high-median incomes — which varied based on age and marital status — were at risk of a falling standard of living in retirement, while only 17% reported they were concerned, according to the report. That’s a 24-percentage-point discrepancy.
But the brief found 45% of middle-income households are in danger versus the 33% who say they are, a 12-point difference. For low-income households, 56% are at risk compared with 50% who say they are — a 6-percentage-point difference.
"There is a wealth illusion playing a role in why they were more likely to be not worried enough," Chen said.
High-income households that had a house were much more likely to fall into the group of not being worried enough, according to the report.
"They might think that they're doing well because they have a house and the housing prices seem to be growing really quickly, but they forget that they still owe a lot on their house," Chen said. "And so they think that they're really well off financially, even though they may not be."
Another group would be people "who have the wealth illusion where if you have $100,000 in your 401(k), that might seem like a lot of money, but if you convert that into a steady income stream in retirement that's only about $617 per month in retirement income, not actually a lot of money," she added.
Dual-career couples can fall into the category of too confident as well. They might get caught in the misconception that they are dandy when it comes to having enough money for their retirement years, but are likely to not meet their expectations.
"You can see that if you have two earners, then you think you're doing pretty well with those two incomes coming in, but if only one of them is saving for retirement, then it'd be very hard to maintain that dual income spending in retirement if only one of them is saving," Chen said.
Interestingly, despite those whose perception was off from reality, "nearly three in five of the survey participants have a good gut sense of their financial situation," Chen said.
"Those are the people who correctly assess their situation. That combines the people who are at risk and they think that they're at risk and also the people who are not at risk and correctly say that they're not at risk."
For instance, 40% of American households are in good shape when it comes to their future and know it, according to the report, while 20% are in trouble and know it. Conversely, 15% are "too worried," while the researchers predict they’ll be fine.
"The way we look at risk is whether you're able to maintain the same standard of living in retirement as before retirement," Chen said. "Households that are 'not worried enough' about their retirement income may not save enough now, or are least likely to change their retirement plan. Households that are 'too worried' may unnecessarily sacrifice their pre-retirement standard of living."
Kerry Hannon is a Senior Reporter and Columnist at Yahoo Finance. She is a workplace futurist, a career and retirement strategist and the author of 14 books, including "In Control at 50+: How to Succeed in The New Work of Work" and "Never Too Old To Get Rich." Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.
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