Nearly 30% of workers yet to save to retire

Many are mired in debt from college, credit cards

Dollars & Sense

October 26, 2003|By T. Shawn Taylor | T. Shawn Taylor,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

As younger workers watch parents and others in older generations go back to work after retiring because their savings were not adequate, they still aren't doing enough to provide for their own financial futures.

Twenty-nine percent of American workers say they have not begun to save for retirement, and 61 percent have not calculated how much they'll need to save to reach their retirement goal, according to a recent survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington.

Jeff Hinrichs, 28, of Chicago said he'll probably be 40 before he can start socking away money. Meanwhile, he has to pay off about $30,000 in student loans and a $30,000 hospital bill from a three-day stay a few years ago to control his diabetes.

"It's hard to save for retirement unless you're Bill Gates," Hinrichs said recently while shopping for music CDs. "I have too many other bills to think about saving."

Hinrichs also has seen how unexpected events can affect retirement savings by watching what has happened to his father, 59, and stepmother, 52.

Both have good jobs. He's an administrator for United Way in Baton Rouge, La., and she inspects nursing homes. But they spent a chunk of their retirement money on two homes that needed expensive repairs. The houses were purchased as a result of job changes.

"They're putting money away, and they do have a little bit of a nest egg, but it's not as great as it used to be," said Hinrichs.

He remains confident that he will be able to retire comfortably, though he hasn't saved a penny. In the back of his mind, Hinrichs hopes he will hit the lottery or sell for millions of dollars a movie script he has written.

Many people dream of having luxurious retirements, but rarely do things turn out the way they planned, said William Gale, senior fellow of economic studies at the Brookings Institute in Washington.

Today's younger workers not only face longer life expectancies - many may live well into their 80s and 90s - they also will have to work longer to maintain their lifestyles. Otherwise, they risk sliding into poverty when they're too feeble to work.

"Something's got to give. If people work longer, they not only have more income from which to save, but they have a shorter retirement to finance. Both make it easier to accumulate wealth," Gale said.

Those born between 1960 and 1980 face other obstacles to building nest eggs. Many are mired in credit card and college debt while experiencing extended periods of joblessness as they work in industries hit hard by swings in the economy and the movement of jobs overseas.

Take Harvey Dodd Jr., who had to move in with his parents. In March 2002, two years after completing his bachelor's degree in electronic engineering from Purdue University, Dodd, 29, was laid off as a software engineer at Northrop Grumman Corp. just as he was about to buy a house closer to work in Rolling Meadows, Ill. Today, he remains jobless and living in his parents' University Park, Ill., home. He has used up about a third of his intended house down payment, but at least he has no debt. Still, the layoff was a major setback. "I was hoping to save up a little more toward retirement," said Dodd, who said he learned how to save from his father. "My stocks didn't do well [with the downturn]. They did pretty bad, actually. I invested a lot in technology." Today, the elder Harvey Dodd, 56, who took an early retirement two years ago from Commonwealth Edison because his job was eliminated, works part time as a courier to help his son save up to start his own home innovation and technology business. Younger people also marry and buy homes later than previous generations did, and that doesn't help their finances.

"I think that waiting longer to do everything from child-raising to buying a home will put them a bit behind the eight ball in terms of building wealth," said Don Blandin, president of the American Savings Education Council.

"If you stay single or even live together paying rent, you won't have the tax advantages of someone who is married and has a home."

Workers in their 20s and 30s often need a second household income to make ends meet. Many singles share the rent and - now that the taboo against people of the opposite sex living together has faded - more couples are living together. But even with two incomes, most aren't saving any more for retirement.

Blandin suggests that workers closely examine the Social Security statements they get in the mail every year, put together a retirement plan and alter it when necessary.

"It's like any goal. You have a plan. It's not set it and forget it. You have to fine-tune it every year," Blandin said.

Such planning is more critical for young people as traditional safety nets such as Social Security, employer-funded pensions and company matches to 401(k) accounts can't be counted on.

Those who fail to plan and save for retirement are deciding they will work into their 70s or 80s or will never retire.

Carter Kennedy said he intends to work way past retirement age anyway.

"Retirement is not appealing at all. I'd go insane," said the 41-year-old bond option trader at the Chicago Board of Trade.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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