Many jobless Americans dipping into retirement savings

July 18, 2012 at 11:07 AM ET

The tight job market has taken a serious toll on some people’s retirement plans, forcing many to withdraw money set aside for their golden years early despite the potential for stiff penalties.

A new survey from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies finds that about one-third of people who are unemployed or underemployed and have a retirement account have withdrawn money from that account.

That’s despite the widespread knowledge that such a withdrawal could carry a stiff penalty if the person is under 59-½ years old.

What’s more, many unemployed and underemployed people reported having very little money set aside for retirement.

Transamerica used a Harris panel of 621 people who were either unemployed or underemployed for the survey. A person was defined as underemployed if they were working part-time because they couldn’t find a full-time job or had a full-time job but still considered themselves to be less than fully employed.

The data suggest that some younger people are dipping into retirement savings even though that can lead to costly penalties and fees. The researchers also looked more narrowly just at people who were under 60 years old and had a retirement account with their most recent employer. More than four in 10 of those people said they had taken a withdrawal.

The unemployed and underemployed workers also reported very little savings for retirement. The Transamerica survey found that the median household savings in retirement accounts was just $5,800. The figures included people who hadn’t saved anything at all.

The respondents in their forties and fifties had the lowest median retirement savings of $2,300. Those in their twenties had a median savings of about $10,000, and those in their sixties had a median savings of $47,000.

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