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Is Your Debt Outpacing Your 401K?

Christine DiGangi

Americans are piling up debt faster than they are stashing money away for retirement, according to an analysis of consumer data  by HelloWallet. This means many pre-retirees — workers ages 50 to 65 — are not financially prepared to live without paychecks. The typical defined contribution plan — usually a 401(k) — has a balance equal to about two years of replacement income.

The trouble is, most people live 17 years after retirement. While the ideal savings amount depends on a consumer’s retirement lifestyle and other factors, it’s easy to see why adding to debt is a problem.

About a third of working American households participate in a defined-contribution plan at work, contributing an average of 11% of their incomes to retirement savings, through plans and Social Security taxes. In contrast, 22% of defined-benefit plan participants’ paychecks went to pay debt obligations in 2010, up from 20% in 1992, and the change was more pronounced among those near retirement. For those in the 50-to-65 age group, the share going to debt is 22%, but it was 13% in 1992.

HelloWallet analyzed the finances of plan participants from 2010 to 2011, the most recent data available. It found that 64% of participants accumulated debt faster than they saved for retirement, up from 46% from 2006 to 2007. The authors of the study called these consumers “debt savers.”

The majority of the debt savers were middle-aged — 40 and older — with a college education. These debt savers also lacked proper emergency savings, despite earning more than $50,000 annually.

Mortgages accounted for most of the debt these workers have taken on (21%), followed by credit card debt (19%). The implications of these debts were unclear: While taking on debt to buy an appreciating property could be a fruitful investment, it’s not a guarantee. Credit card debt may indicate a consumer has trouble living within his or her means, but again, that’s not necessarily the case.

The study didn’t find a clear connection between type of debt accumulated and readiness for retirement, but plan participants near retirement whose savings outweighed new debt had an average of four years of income saved, as opposed to the two years’ worth held by debt savers.

Not only are these debt savers setting aside 50% less than their peers, they also make up the majority of defined-contribution plan participants. The HelloWallet report recommended more study of the outcomes of these programs and better guidance for participants.

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