‘Treading water:’ Why it's gotten harder to save for retirement

Anita Neisius stands in front of her home in Jamestown, N.D.
Anita Neisius, seen in front of her home in Jamestown, N.D., is trying to save for retirement while juggling everyday expenses and debt.Dan Koeck / Today
By Allison Linn

By now, many Americans know what they should be doing to save enough for retirement. The problem is that some just aren’t able to actually do so.

Take Anita Neisius as an example. For nearly 10 years, she had a good job, earning nearly $22 an hour assembling construction equipment for a major manufacturer. During that time, she managed to save nearly $50,000 in a retirement account, thanks to her own contributions and her company’s match.

Then the financial crisis hit in 2008, and she said her account value fell by around $23,000 when the markets tanked. Her employer also was badly hit by the recession, and she endured temporary layoffs, reduced hours and the threat of permanent job cuts.

The stress of not knowing if she could lose her job got to be too much, and she quit just eight months shy of the 10-year anniversary that would have made her eligible for a company pension.

She also cashed out what remained of her 401(k) to pay off her car loan, figuring that would put her on firmer financial footing if she had to take a pay cut in a new position. It’s a decision she says she now regrets.

“It was the biggest wrong move anybody could do,” she said, “but at that point it was all I could do to stay sane.”

Neisius, 41, currently makes $11.25 an hour at her full-time job as a receptionist at a car dealer in Jamestown, N.D. In the evenings, she works a second job, cleaning the offices of a credit union for $10 an hour.

She recently started contributing 3 percent of her income into her 401(k) plan, which her company matches.

“I know I need to, because where am I going to be if I don’t do it otherwise?” she said. “I’ll be working forever. … I’ll be working ‘til I die.”

Still, the lower take-home pay has made harder to cover daily expenses, plus chip away at the thousands of dollars in medical debt she has from emergency gallbladder surgery.

“I just feel like I’m treading water and I can’t hardly keep my head up,” she said.

Budget pressures
The recent recession and weak recovery has added to the problems facing mid- to low-wage workers, but Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, noted that many workers have for years struggling with stagnant wages. She thinks that’s made it hard for households at or below the nation’s median household income of around $51,000 to keep up with everyday expenses and also set aside money for retirement.

“People are just under enormous budget pressure,” Munnell said.

Many workers don’t even have access to a company-sponsored retirement plan, now considered a primary way to save for retirement. About 61 percent of employees had an employer that sponsored a pension or retirement plan in 2012, and just 46 percent of workers participated in such a plan, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Some may have elected not to participate, while others may not have been eligible.

“If you aren’t offered a plan, you certainly aren’t even going to participate,” said Craig Copeland, senior research associate with EBRI, an industry-funded nonprofit research organization

That leaves many workers responsible for figuring out how to save on their own, through an IRA or other vehicle, something Copeland said is extremely difficult to do.

Woefully unprepared
Experts say the hard truth is that many workers are ending up with woefully small retirement accounts, even if they have had relatively high incomes and have managed to save consistently over the years.

Munnell, at Boston College, said her analysis of government data from 2010 found that the median 401(k) and IRA account balance for households who are 55 to 64 years old was $120,000. That may seem like a lot, but it’s likely not enough to live on for many of your golden years.

“I think people are going to be shocked – shocked and dismayed – at how little money this produces,” Munnell said.

She thinks even high earners are falling short, in part because workers don’t know that they need to be saving far more than they were originally told in order to maintain their standard of living in retirement. Realistically, she said people should be saving between 10 and 15 percent of their annual income in order to replace their pre-retirement earnings.

It’s an even bigger challenge for lower wage workers, or those who are starting to save for retirement late in life. Munnell’s analysis found that households approaching retirement with earnings of $38,000 or less had median savings of just $18,000.

Experts say many of those people will be best off if they can work until age 70, so they can postpone collecting Social Security to get the maximum benefit.

Even then, they should plan probably on living a more modest life in retirement.

The lack of preparedness is likely to become more apparent as more Americans begin to retire with only a self-directed 401(k) plan, and fewer people have pensions.

Olivia Mitchell, director of the Pension Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania, noted that pensions haven’t served everyone well, either. That’s because they were most beneficial to people who stayed with the same company for a very long time, and left out people who switched jobs often.

But regardless of income level, she noted that it’s very difficult for anyone to force themselves to sacrifice part of their paycheck now for a payoff years down the road.

“Most of us enjoy immediate gratification, and the whole notion of saving for retirement is you may have to wait 50 years or 60 years before you get your reward,” she said. “So intrinsically it’s a difficult psychological task.”

Allison Linn is a reporter at CNBC. Follow her on Twitter @allisondlinn or send her an e-mail.