The Surprising Reasons 40% Of People Run Out of Money in Retirement

RETIREMENT - RETIREMENT PLANNING
Preparation, spending wisely, and adapting to changing situations can help you avoid running through your retirement savings.
Updated May 8, 2024
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You may be wondering if you can retire early. On the other, no matter how much money you have saved, the fear of running out of reserves still lurks in the back of your mind.

According to a 2019 study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, 40.6% of people between the ages of 34 and 64 were projected to run out of money in retirement.

For some people, that worst-case scenario could come true, particularly with groups who are at higher risk, including women, Black and Hispanic retirees, and single people.

But you can take action now to avoid the most common pitfalls that lead retirees to run out of money.

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Not saving enough before retiring

sorrapongs/Adobe coins placed in glass jar with retirement label on table with man counting bank notes in background

First and foremost, saving enough is the most important thing you can do. If the money isn’t there at retirement, one of the only options is to figure out a way to bring in extra cash.

Create a plan early and save aggressively, invest wisely, and consider your future self whenever you want to make big financial decisions today.

Forgetting to make a retirement budget

Tamani Chithambo/peopleimages.com/Adobe senior couple sitting at table using laptop to read policies

When you’re on a fixed income and living off investments, it’s important to know where every dollar is going to avoid running out of money.

You’ll need a firm sense of what your monthly income looks like, what your fixed expenses are, and where you can cut your budget if you need to.

Remember, it’s always possible to get a part-time job in retirement to make up for the shortfall. Plus, you might find a second act rewarding.

Neglecting to consider inflation

elnariz/Adobe senior businesswoman at work screaming at tablet in office

Inflation can hit harder when you’re on a fixed income and you can’t predict what the inflation rate will be between when you retire and the rest of your life.

Saving as much as possible will, of course, help, but so will waiting to take Social Security benefits. The longer you can wait, the more money you will receive each month. And there is usually a cost-of-living adjustment to Social Security each year to ease the impact of inflation.

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Not planning properly for medical expenses

Dragana Gordic/Adobe senior african american man sitting at table holding head in stress while looking at notebook

Medical care is expensive and those costs will only continue to rise as you get older. The average retired couple may spend $300,000 after taxes on health care in retirement, according to Fidelity Investments.

Budgeting for these expenses, choosing the right insurance plan, and taking advantage of Medicare can all help lessen the burden.

Not continuing to invest properly

InsideCreativeHouse/Adobe senior man sitting on couch reviewing bills while using laptop

There is a time for an aggressive portfolio allocation and there’s a time to be more conservative.

As you get older, you’ll want to lean toward the conservative allocation to protect yourself from dramatic market fluctuations. Before you retire, know how much you can comfortably withdraw from your savings each year so you can make your savings last.

Withdrawing too much

luismolinero/Adobe woman having pink nail polish showing bank notes in hand over yellow background

Generally, the 4% rule is a gold standard for how much you can comfortably take out of your retirement accounts each year.

Withdrawing more than this could get you into trouble down the road. Ideally, you’ll want to come in even lower, if possible.

Not adapting to a new lifestyle

Yakobchuk Olena/Adobe happy senior woman sitting in sofa chair enjoying at luxurious home after retirement

Retirement life looks different than your working days. Back when you had a larger income, buying new clothes or dining out might have been part of your lifestyle.

But, when you’re on a fixed income, it might be necessary to adjust expectations. Consider inexpensive ways to enjoy yourself, like a book club, volunteer groups, and other lower-cost ways to spend time with family and friends.

Forgetting about taxes

Robert Peak/Adobe senior man sitting at table in home office reviewing bills while using laptop

Not all of your retirement accounts were created with after-tax dollars, and Uncle Sam wants a piece of your withdrawals.

Withdrawals from traditional 401(k) plans and IRAs are considered income, and you will be taxed accordingly. But you won’t pay capital gains taxes on that money.

If you saved in a Roth IRA, you’ve already paid taxes on the contributions, so you won’t pay again on withdrawals. If possible, convert your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA for tax-free retirement savings.

Continuing to spend like pre-retirement

digitalskillet1/Adobe african american woman sitting on couch smiling while celebrating holidays at home

As you get older, you may realize you don’t need as much stuff — and that’s a good thing.

Spending on clothes, gadgets, and more will eat away at your retirement savings quickly, leaving you with less for the things you get the most value out of, like spending time with friends and family.

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Letting fees eat away at investments

Fabio/Adobe senior couple sitting at home stressing over bills while using smartphone

When you contribute to an employer-sponsored 401(k), you generally won’t have many choices for where the money is invested. And it might be in a fund that charges, say, a 2.5% fee to manage your money.

While 2.5% doesn’t seem like much, on a $100,000 account over 30 years, you would be paying nearly $40,000.

After you retire, you can roll over the money into less-expensive mutual funds, such as an index fund, and save yourself some money each year.

Taking Social Security too early

JackF/Adobe senior woman sitting at table reviewing bills at home

If you start your Social Security benefits at age 62, the earliest you can claim it, you’ll face a 30% reduction in the amount that you’ll receive throughout your lifetime.

Unless you absolutely need to retire at 62 or start claiming Social Security at that point, it’s worth waiting until you can take the maximum benefit at age 70.

Not being able to rely on pensions

LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS/Adobe senior couple in shock while checking bills at table and holding money in hand at home

Employees used to count on the cushion of a pension when they looked toward their golden years. But, in recent decades, employers have shifted toward 401(k)s. This means employees are responsible for taking advantage of those accounts and dependent on market performance for their retirement.

One way you may create something like a pension is by investing in annuities. There are several types of annuities, and many have fees and penalties associated with them. Be sure to do your homework if you decide to invest in an annuity.

Giving too much money to children

JustLife/Adobe grandson and grandpa sitting on floor counties pennies while playing

In most cases when you retire, your children are adults and are not on a fixed income. Yet it’s sometimes hard to say no when they, or the grandchildren, ask for financial help.

But, keep in mind, your highest earning days are likely behind you and theirs are still ahead of them. There’s a time for the tide to shift on who’s taking care of whom.

Not accounting for splurges

Davide Angelini/Adobe Older couple on vacation

You have all the free time in the world now that you’re retired. You can finally step up your travel game or buy the vacation house you always dreamed of. Of course, you can afford these expenses if they’re part of your retirement planning.

Major splurges can quickly whittle down your retirement investments. If a second home or extensive travel are on your wish list, make sure you’ve allocated that money before you withdraw it from your accounts.

Outliving your money

Prostock-studio/Adobe sad senior couple getting diagnosis from young female doctor in clinic

This is a valid concern, particularly as we’re lucky enough to have access to better health care and longer life expectancies. While living to 100 may be a goal, that means you have to take steps now to account for 30, maybe 40, years of retirement.

There are many calculators online that will help you determine how long your retirement savings will last and whether or not you need to think of ways to boost your bank account. You will need to know how much you have saved currently, how much Social Security payments you’ll receive, and how many years you think you will live.

Bottom line

Charlize D/peopleimages.com/Adobe african american couple sitting at table reviewing bills while using laptop at home

As you look at your retirement accounts and decide whether you’re ready to stop working full time, make sure you’ve accounted for both the expected and the unexpected. 

Retirees get into trouble when they haven’t properly prepared for decades of possible expenses or spend the money too fast thinking their best years are finally here. It's worth it to take the time to prepare yourself financially.

This can and should be a time to enjoy yourself, and proper planning can make sure it’s also a stress-free, comfortable chapter of life.

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Heather Bien Heather Bien is a writer covering personal finance and budgeting and how those relate to life, travel, entertaining, and more. With bylines that include The Spruce, Apartment Therapy, and mindbodygreen, she's covered everything from tax tips for freelancers to budgeting hacks to how to get the highest ROI out of your home renovations.

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