Do Americans Feel On-Track for Retirement?

September 7th, 2020 by 

In other posts, we looked at how American households compare to savings target multiples by age and the dollar amount they've saved for retirement. Now we'll examine American opinions of retirement savings in 2017... and see if people feel they're on-track for retirement.

American Savings Survey: Are They On-Track for Retirement

The first thing you'll notice in this data: people are more confident with eventual retirement than savings multiples estimates would suggest.

Sure, it's volatile and spiky - but we wanted to look at perceptions of retirement track by age. One of the survey questions is: "Do you think that your retirement savings plan is currently on track?"

Here's how American adults answered that question in 2017 (percentage among Yes, No, and Don't Know responses):

American Adults Feeling On-Track for Retirement from the Fedral Reserve SHED in 2017
American Adults Feeling On-Track for Retirement

Please note here - unlike with our posts that use the Survey of Consumer Finances (e.g. retirement savings), SHED surveys all adults. In theory, that might mean that a couple disagrees on a question.

Perceptions of On-Track Retirement vs. Savings Multiples

In the previous article in the series we looked at Fidelity's goal savings to income multiple for retirement.

Using the same method – save adults versus primary economic units – here's how  savings multiple on-track compares to on-track survey responses.

Selected Ages: On-Track for Retirement Savings vs. Survey Answers for the Federal Reserve SHED in 2017
Selected Ages: On-Track for Retirement Savings vs. Survey Answers. See methodology note.

Interestingly, you'll note that more than half of 67 year olds – full-retirement age, currently – believed themselves on-track for retirement.

Contrast that with our estimate that only 5.55% met the Fidelity savings goal in retirement assets - and 65-69 year old households averaged $173,532.84 in retirement savings.

Again, a full accounting might include other assets such as businesses and real estate – households might downsize, sell, or otherwise tap equity. For that math see our net worth by age calculator – but categorization aside, folks are more confident than their net worths would suggest.

Are Americans On-Track for Retirement?

There are usually two approaches finding "an" answer to a question: revealed answers vs. stated answers. Working backwards from assets and debts is a good start, but adults are more confident than net worth implies.

It leads us to ask: what could we be missing? I'll tell you one big thing missing from the bottom-up calculations: Social Security.

The further we dig into related retirement data the more we see how prominently Social Security – meant to be supplemental income [PDF] in retirement – figures in retirement planning. In 2016, the median 65-69 householder had $0 savings earmarked for retirement, and the median household had ~$210,000 in net worth.

Social Security – or more broadly, defined benefit pensions – fill much of the gap. More on this soon - stay tuned.

Methodology on the Retirement Survey Results

Microdata is from the Federal Reserve's 2017 Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking and you can find the codebook here.

We split results by age and only included respondents who answered Yes, No, or Don't Know about their on-track retirement. (As we stated above – some respondents didn't receive the question while others refused an answer).

Again, the population here is all adults not primary economic units. People in the same household could theoretically disagree on retirement track.

For just the multiple table: Like last post, age is a blend of one year below to one year above. Hence, '30 years old' is really 29-31 year old adults.

The 2017 SHED public use microdata contains 12,447 respondents and valid weights sum to 245,122,947 American adults 18 years old and older.



PK started DQYDJ in 2009 to research and discuss finance and investing and help answer financial questions. He's expanded DQYDJ to build visualizations, calculators, and interactive tools.

PK is in his mid-30s and lives in New Hampshire with his wife, kids, and dog.

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