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Here's What the Average Older American Has in a 401(k)

Maurie Backman, The Motley Fool

Once you reach your mid-60s, retirement is just around the corner, which means you have limited time to boost your savings before your career comes to a close. Unfortunately, many Americans risk running low on money in retirement, and it's all because their savings aren't as robust as they should be.

The average 401(k) balance among workers 65 and older is $192,877, according to Vanguard's "How America Saves 2019" report. That might seem like a lot of money, but in reality, it's a fairly small sum over the course of what could be a 30-year retirement.

Furthermore, while the average 401(k) balance among older Americans is $192,877, the median balance is just $58,035. And when the median is much lower than the average, it means that most adults 65 and over have less than the average, not more.

Older man with serious expression standing outside a building

Now to be fair, these figures represent Vanguard retirement plans only. But given that Vanguard serves more than 5 million participants, it's a pretty decent sample size. And it should serve as a wake-up call for those older Americans who are about to retire with inadequate savings.

Making up for a savings shortfall

A savings balance of $192,877 might seem like a lot of money initially, but when we break down that sum on a yearly basis, it actually amounts to very little. If you follow the 4% rule, which states that if you begin by withdrawing 4% of your savings balance your first year of retirement and then adjust subsequent withdrawals for inflation, $192,877 gives you just $7,715 in annual income. That's less than $650 a month.

Granted, you'll most likely have Social Security income on top of the money you're able to withdraw from savings, but keep in mind that the average recipient today only collects $1,461 a month, or $17,532 a year, in benefits. Combined with the average savings balance, that's roughly $2,100 a month, or just over $25,000 a year, to live on, which is not a whole lot.

So what should you do if you're nearing retirement without enough savings? For one thing, consider working longer. Extending your career will allow you to leave your existing savings untapped for a few extra years, thereby allowing you to stretch that money further. Additionally, if you're able to work, say, three years more than planned, and contribute $10,000 a year to your 401(k) during that time, you'll have $30,000 more to work with in retirement, not including potential investment growth. That additional $30,000 then gives you $1,200 more per year, or $100 more per month, in usable income.

Working longer could also enable you to hold off on filing for Social Security, and that's important, because for each year you delay benefits past full retirement age (which is either 66, 67, or somewhere in between, depending on your year of birth), you'll boost those payments by 8% a year. For example, delaying a $1,461 monthly benefit for three years would raise each monthly payment to $1,812, thereby giving you an extra $350 per month of income, or $4,200 a year.

In addition to extending your career, it pays to consider working in some capacity during retirement if you're short on savings. Earning even $100 a week could alter your financial picture for the better. Plus, working is an inexpensive way to fill your free time, and if you're low on retirement income, it's a good way to avoid getting bored.

While it's encouraging to see that older Americans have some savings for their golden years, even a number as seemingly impressive as $192,877 may not cut it. If you're nearing retirement, take an honest look at your savings, and adjust your plans as necessary so you don't wind up cash-strapped once your career ends.


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