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Americans are deluded about when they will retire

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Americans may be feeling more confident than ever about their chances of securing a comfortable retirement, but there’s one thing we are seriously delusional about: when we will finally call it quits.

There’s a big gap between when workers expect they will retire and when people who’ve actually retired say they left the workforce, according to the latest retirement confidence survey from the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Half of retirees say they retire earlier than they planned.

Fewer than one in 10 workers say they expect to retire before age 60, when in fact 36% of retirees say they stopped working before 60. Comparatively, only 29% of workers retired between the ages of 60 and 64 and only 9% retired at the traditional age of 65. The odds of making it until age 70 and still working — which more than one-quarter of workers say they want to do — are even slimmer. A mere 6% manage to last that long.

“Most retirees retired earlier than they planned predominantly due to health problems,” says Luke Vandermillen, vice president of the Principal Financial Group, a co-sponsor of the study. “All you can do is try to control what you have planned, how you have saved, and whether you’ve taken steps to prepare for retirement as best you can.”

What’s clear is that the vast majority of premature retirees did not leave work because they wanted to. Sixty percent of premature retirees cited health issues or a disability as the reason. Others had little choice in the matter — their company downsized or closed, leaving them out of a job (27%), or they needed to care for a spouse or family member (22%).

When people THINK they will retire...

Source: The Employee Benefit Research Institute

When retirees say they ACTUALLY retired: 

Source: The Employee Benefit Research Institute

Stats like these don’t exactly jibe with the retirement narrative that emerged in the years following the Great Recession. The general prescription for older workers whose nest eggs were damaged by the financial crisis was simply to lower work longer and do more with less. Nearly 70% of workers say they plan on continuing to work part-time to keep money coming in after they retire. But in reality, only 23% of today’s retirees report working for pay in retirement.

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The expectation gap is more unsettling when you consider why people are so keen on dragging out their working years. Although nearly all retirees who are working in retirement say they do so because they enjoy it, more than half admitted they needed the extra cash to make ends meet. And about 40% said their savings and investments had taken a dive.

There can be real financial consequences for workers who underestimate their retirement age — they may not save enough to last them through their golden years.

“Retirees who retire earlier than planned are more likely than those who retire when expected or later to say they are not confident about having enough money for a comfortable retirement,” the report says, “or about paying for basic expenses, medical expenses, and long-term care expenses

The silver lining

This year’s EBRI survey wasn’t all bad news for retirees. Workers today are feeling more confident about their odds of securing a comfortable retirement than they have in years.

Twenty-two percent of workers report being very confident about retirement, up from 13% in 2013, and nearly as high as the rate among workers before the recession hit. And nearly half of workers (48%) are taking proactive steps to calculate how much they need to save for retirement now in order to be prepared later, up from 44% in 2014.

You don’t need to hire a pricey financial planner to get your number. EBRI offers a free retirement savings tool, as well as Bankrate, the AARP, and Kiplinger.

Unsurprisingly, it is these workers who have taken steps to prepare for retirement — contributing to a 401(k) or IRA — who are more likely to be confident, EBRI found.

“These people get to see their retirement accounts growing and they’re the ones who have taken more active steps than those who don’t have access [to] or haven’t chosen to fund an IRA,” Vandermillen says.

Source: The Employee Benefit Research Institute

Workers who have some kind of a retirement plan set up are 10 times as likely to have saved $100,000 or more than those who don’t have one, EBRI found. In fact, the vast majority of people without a dedicated retirement savings account have less than $1,000 saved.

“If you don’t’ have access to a plan, it becomes harder to go out and access one on your own,” he says. “But if you have one and you automate it, set it and forget it, you are much more likely to start accumulating savings.”  

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