Money Expert Barbara Ginty: Why Saving for Retirement Is Different for Younger Generations

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cofotoisme / Getty Images

As Gen Zers enter the workforce, it might not come as a surprise that most aren’t saving for retirement — or have very little saved. However, it’s more concerning that older generations aren’t faring much better.

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According to a recent survey conducted by GOBankingRates, almost 41% of 18- to 24-year-olds haven’t started saving for retirement and have very limited savings to fall back on. The generations closer to retirement age aren’t displaying an enthusiasm to save, either. An astounding 27% of Gen Xers aged 45-54 don’t have any retirement savings.

Here’s a breakdown of who is saving for retirement and who isn’t, as well as experts’ top tips for all ages on how to get started.

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Nearly Half of Gen Z and Gen X Have $0 Saved for Retirement

According to GOBankingRates’ survey, 29% of overall Americans have not started saving for retirement and 20% have saved $10,000 or less.

Motivation to save for retirement varies vastly among generations. Nearly 41% of Gen Z respondents have no retirement savings in the bank and make up the group least motivated to start saving. Surprisingly, those on the Gen Z-millennial cusp are displaying more enthusiasm than both older millennials and Gen Xers, with a much lower 28% who have not yet started saving.

As age rises, retirement savings do not. According to the survey, 23% of millennials aged 35-44 have yet to start saving. The numbers are even bleaker for Gen Xers aged 45-54, with 27% of this age group not yet saving for retirement.

Surprisingly, those in the 55-64 age group fare worse, with 32% saying they have yet to start saving. Twenty-five percent of baby boomers over 65 said the same.

See: Almost 1/3 of Retirees Are Spending More Than They Can Afford – 5 Costs To Cut First

Older Generations Experienced Less Pressure To Save for Retirement

It’s curious that such a large number of Gen Xers, and even some baby boomers who are at retirement age, don’t have any retirement money saved. One reason for this could be that many were raised by parents who did not encourage them to save for retirement.

“Over the past few decades there has been a shift from defined benefit to defined contribution pension plans,” said Robert R. Johnson, Ph.D., CFA and CEO at Economic Index Associates. “In the defined benefit world, one didn’t need to be concerned with saving for retirement. The baby boomers retiring today began their careers in the defined benefit world. They didn’t witness their parents saving for retirement and weren’t conditioned to do so themselves.”

“Younger generations will need to plan more for retirement, as they are less likely to have a pension,” pointed out Barbara Ginty, CFP and host of the Future Rich Podcast. “Without a pension, you will be responsible for about two thirds of the income you desire for retirement. Additionally, Social Security will most likely be collected at a later age, for example 70, but could possibly be later.”

In other words, older generations could expect to work for the same company over the course of their careers and receive pension payments when they retired. The same cannot be said for younger generations, as pensions for the most part have gone extinct.

Although most Gen Zers and millennials don’t expect a pension, the fact that retirement is decades away is probably why many haven’t given thought to saving for it. But the sooner they start saving, the more time their money has to grow and compound and sustain them through their retirement years.

How To Start Saving for Retirement

The best time to start saving for retirement is when you get your first full-time job. That being said, if you haven’t started saving for retirement yet at age 40 or 50, it’s not too late to start.

Saving for retirement can be daunting. With all your other financial responsibilities, you might not want to set aside money for something that seems so far away. That being said, you might be surprised by how manageable saving for retirement can be if you break it down into bite-sized goals and automate it.

Calculate How Much You Need

“How much you need to have for retirement depends on your expenses and how much you require to live comfortably,” Ginty said. She recommends aiming for three sources of retirement income: Social Security, a pension or equivalent and your own savings.

Ginty advised that your fixed incomes, like Social Security and a pension, should cover necessities. Your savings can then fund discretionary spending like vacations. As a guideline, plan for a 4% annual withdrawal rate from savings.

The 12% Rule

Younger generations should start saving for retirement as soon as they start working full-time. Ginty recommends aiming to save 12% of your income toward retirement if possible. She advises taking full advantage of employer-sponsored retirement plans like 401(k)s, especially if they offer matching contributions, which is essentially free money.

“Ideally, when someone starts their first full-time employment, they will start saving 12% toward retirement,” said Tommy Thompson Jr., CFP with Innovative Financial Group. “The more time your savings have to compound, the greater your chances of a financially sound retirement.”

Since pensions are less common now, younger generations will need to rely more heavily on their own savings and Social Security. Ginty cautions against planning to retire on Social Security alone. She suggests running the numbers to see if your estimated Social Security benefit will realistically cover your retirement expenses. If not, you may need to delay retirement or find additional sources of retirement income.

For those interested in achieving FIRE (financial independence, retire early), Ginty recommends keeping your FIRE savings separate from your long-term retirement savings. This protects your retirement in case your FIRE plans don’t work out as expected.

Take Advantage of Employer-Sponsored Plans

An easy way to set aside a percentage of your check for retirement is through an employer’s retirement program, such as a 401(k) account, 403(b) and other employer-sponsored retirement plans, especially if they offer matching contributions. This should be your first priority before investing elsewhere.

“Perhaps the worst financial mistake anyone can make is turning down free money,” Johnson said. “If one does not contribute enough in a 401(k) plan that has a company match to earn that match, one is basically turning down free money.”

Ginty added, “Once you have maxed out your work plan, then you can investigate other investment options, such as real estate or non-qualified investing. I would caution that real estate isn’t always passive and investing is!”

Consider Backup Plans to Social Security Alone

While possible to retire on Social Security alone, Ginty warned this may be difficult. “If you plan to retire on only Social Security I would make sure your net benefit is enough to sustain you. Be sure to figure in both taxes and Medicare costs if those are applicable. It isn’t ideal to only have Social Security, so be sure to run the numbers and delay retirement if necessary.”

Have a backup plan in case Social Security isn’t enough, such as generating income from rental properties or part-time work. You may want to delay taking your Social Security benefits in order to increase them.

Increase Your Contributions

Increasing your retirement contributions becomes particularly important in your 40s and 50s — especially if you haven’t started saving yet.

Since your 40s and 50s are likely your peak earning years, you are in a great spot to put a sizable chunk of your income toward retirement. Consider setting aside 15% of your pay instead of 12% to take advantage of maximum retirement plan contributions and receive a higher employer match.

Overall, Ginty stressed the importance of starting to save early and consistently, taking full advantage of tax-deferred retirement accounts, and creating multiple streams of retirement income. With smart planning, younger generations can achieve a comfortable retirement despite not having access to traditional pensions.

Maddie Duley contributed to the reporting for this article.

Methodology: GOBankingRates surveyed 1,037 Americans aged 18 and older from across the country between Sept. 5 and Sept. 7, 2023, asking fifteen different questions: (1) How much money do you currently have saved for retirement?; (2) How much money do you think you’ll need in retirement?; (3) How much do you spend or expect to spend monthly during your retirement?; (4) If you aren’t yet retired, how much do you expect to get from Social Security during your retirement?; (5) How much of your retirement do you plan to fund with Social Security?; (6) At what age did you or do you plan to claim Social Security benefits?; (7) Did you or do you think you will have to move to afford your retirement?; (8) Which of the following proposed Social Security solutions do you think would work best to prevent the trust fund from being depleted?; (9) What sources of income will you have in retirement? (Select all that apply); (10) How confident are you that you will have saved enough to afford retirement?; (11) If you retired early, at what age did you retire?; (12) Are you counting on help from your family (financial, housing, long-term care, etc.) to afford retirement?; (13) Do you think retiring around age 65 is financially possible for most Americans?; (14) What worries you financially about retirement? (Select all that apply); and (15) If you got a stimulus check in the last two years, how much of the money did you save for retirement?. GOBankingRates used PureSpectrum’s survey platform to conduct the poll.

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This article originally appeared on Money Expert Barbara Ginty: Why Saving for Retirement Is Different for Younger Generations