Saving for retirement is crucial for future financial security, but saving enough is a challenge for many. FinanceBuzz recently surveyed 1,000 U.S. adults to understand how Americans are tackling this important task. Questions around cryptocurrency and COVID-19 shed light on new trends emerging around how the country is approaching investing for retirement.
- Close to 44% of U.S. adults who've started saving for retirement say they have invested part of their retirement savings in cryptocurrency. Nearly half of these people indicated they have invested a "big" part of their retirement funds in crypto.
- More than three-fourths of people said that COVID-19 has NOT negatively impacted their retirement savings. In fact, 28% of those surveyed say they actually increased the amount they are contributing to retirement.
- The number of Americans who say they needed to withdraw retirement savings due to COVID-19 doubled between 2020 and 2021 (9% to 18%).
- One in five Americans (21%) have not started saving for retirement and more than one in three (35%) say they have "no idea" what they need to save to retire at their target age.
- When asked what roadblocks are hindering their ability to save for retirement, "not earning enough to save" and "health care expenses" were each cited by more than one-quarter of Americans.
- The number of Americans who say they'd give up their pets in exchange for being able to retire 10 years earlier nearly doubled between 2020 and 2021 (8% to 14%).
Crypto has gone mainstream for retirement savings
Although cryptocurrency may have begun its life as a fringe investment, it has undoubtedly moved into the mainstream. A whopping 44% of U.S. adults who've started saving for their retirement have added at least some cryptocurrency to their retirement investment portfolios, with half of those crypto investors indicating that virtual coins make up a "big part" of their retirement savings.
Despite the cryptocurrency market's volatility, and the challenges some Americans face in determining how to buy cryptocurrency, it is likely that putting retirement funds into crypto will continue to become a growing trend. In fact, an additional 14% of retirement savers indicated they would like to add cryptocurrency to their portfolios.
Although cryptocurrency may be growing in popularity and enjoying more widespread acceptance, not everyone is willing to put their money into Bitcoin and the like.
Among those who aren't interested in betting retirement savings on cryptocurrency, there were two common reasons for their reluctance. Thirty-five percent of survey respondents believe cryptocurrency is too risky to include in their retirement portfolios, and the same percentage felt cryptocurrency wasn't a good long-term investment.
For some Americans, however, simple confusion is holding them back. In fact, a quarter of survey respondents haven't purchased cryptocurrency because they don't know how. For this group, a growing number of options for investing in crypto in retirement could make a difference.
For example ...
- A growing number of the best investment apps now offer cryptocurrency, including Wealthfront, where investors can now add Grayscale Bitcoin Trust (GBTC) and Grayscale Ethereum Trust (ETHE) to their individual retirement account (IRA) portfolios.
- Bitcoin IRA now allows retirees to open a tax-advantaged investment account and use the money within it to purchase crypto or precious metals.
As brokerage firms simplify the purchase process, this will only accelerate the trend toward including cryptocurrency in retirement portfolios.
Americans are getting a late start on saving for retirement
Americans have consistently delayed retirement investing, with 21% of survey respondents indicating they haven't begun putting aside money yet. This is similar to the 19% of Americans who admitted in 2020 that they hadn't started saving, as well as to the 20% who hadn't yet begun retirement investing in 2019.
Delaying retirement savings can make it more difficult to amass a large enough nest egg due to the lost opportunity for compound growth. As soon as money is invested, it can begin earning returns that may be reinvested. The more years Americans wait, the less they benefit from this ability to make their money work for them.
The good news is, although close to one in five Americans haven't yet begun saving, a quarter began putting aside money for retirement as early as their 20s. These young savers could end up with much larger retirement accounts because of their long investment timeline.
Uncertainty about how much to save for retirement
Unfortunately, many Americans don't have a clear idea of how large their retirement nest egg will actually need to be. Just 30% of survey respondents have a strong understanding of the amount necessary to retire at their target age. Although 35% of people have a vague idea of the amount they'll need, a startling 35% have no idea how much they should save to be prepared for their future.
Without a retirement savings goal, it can be difficult to determine how much to invest each month or to assess retirement readiness.
The good news is, most people are consistent with saving once they begin, with just 7% of people who started saving for retirement indicating they are not currently contributing to their accounts. And close to a majority of savers are investing more than 10% of their income to retirement. This is a promising sign that a substantial number of Americans will end up with a nest egg sufficient to support themselves in the future.
COVID-19's continued impact on retirement savings
COVID-19 has changed many aspects of American life, including how people are approaching retirement savings. Surprisingly, the impact has not been entirely negative.
Although 12% of people reduced retirement investing in 2021 and the same percentage stopped contributing due to pandemic-related hardships, 28% of people have actually been able to increase the amount they're saving — possibly because of stimulus funds or reduced expenditures in other areas such as travel and dining out.
When asked about roadblocks to retirement savings, 18% of Americans admitted they had been forced to withdraw money from retirement savings due to COVID-19. Withdrawing funds can trigger penalties and affect future returns, which has a detrimental impact on retirement readiness.
The number of people who had to withdraw funds from retirement accounts doubled compared with 2020, though early withdrawal penalties were waived last year but not this year.
COVID-19 was not the only obstacle impacting retirement savings, as there are long-standing financial concerns Americans have repeatedly cited as reasons for their inability to invest. This included insufficient earnings, which prevented 28% of people from saving enough, as well as health care expenses, which impacted 24% of survey respondents.
Student loans were less of a burden this year, though, with the number of people indicating their educational debt interfered with retirement investing dropping from 25% in 2020 to 17% in 2021. Waived interest and automatic forbearance for federal student loans resulting from COVID-19 relief measures may have lessened the burden that student loans present.
Credit card debt was also less of a problem, with just 23% citing it as an obstacle to retirement savings compared with 30% a year prior. Revolving credit card debt has fallen to the lowest levels since the Great Recession, in large part due to stimulus funds and COVID-related cutbacks that enabled more people to retire their debt and avoid accruing an additional balance.
Surprising trade-offs for early retirement
Retirement preparedness is a top financial priority for Americans, despite many not yet saving for the future and others not yet saving enough. In fact, survey responses made clear that people were willing to make substantial sacrifices to retire 10 years earlier than anticipated.
Over one-quarter of Americans — 26% — claimed they would embrace a lifestyle of extreme frugality if it meant retiring 10 years earlier. These survey respondents said they'd go two years without purchasing anything new except groceries and other essentials.
Giving up alcohol and coffee was also a sacrifice close to a quarter of Americans were willing to make and a surprising 14% said they would be willing to give up their pets. This is a substantial increase in owners willing to forfeit their animal companion, as just 8% said they'd give up their pet in 2020. It could result from new pet owners who acquired animals when housebound during the pandemic but who are struggling to fit their pets into their life now that they're returning to the office.
However, although many are willing to make sacrifices, far fewer Americans than in the past said they would be willing to take a second or third job to retire earlier. Just 23% said they would be willing to take on additional jobs in 2021, compared with 27% in 2020 and 32% in 2019. This could reflect changing attitudes toward work driven by the pandemic, and it is one possible explanation for a national labor shortage that is making it difficult for many businesses to hire.
Employer retirement plans still not an option for many
Employer-sponsored retirement plans simplify the retirement investing process and encourage investing through programs such as employer matching contributions. Yet, 35% of survey respondents said they had never participated in an employer-sponsored plan such as a 401(k). Forty-one percent of them said that it was because their employer didn't offer a plan.
Americans who do not have access to a workplace plan have other options including:
- A Roth IRA: This account can be opened with many brokers and provides the opportunity to invest with after-tax dollars but claim tax-free withdrawals as a retiree.
- Traditional IRA: Many brokers also offer these accounts, which allow for tax-deductible contributions but require retirees to pay tax on withdrawals. When deciding between a Roth vs. traditional IRA, consider whether your tax bracket will be higher as a retiree or lower. If you expect it to be lower, choose a traditional IRA and claim your tax savings now while being taxed at a higher rate.
- SEP IRA: This is an option for self-employed workers. Contributions are tax-deductible and withdrawals are taxed in retirement.
Opening one of these accounts is as simple as checking IRS eligibility rules and finding a brokerage firm that offers one.
Although there have been substantial changes to retirement savings over three years, including growing interest in cryptocurrency investments, Americans continue to face many of the same obstacles to retirement savings. Still, with so many survey respondents indicating they are willing to make big sacrifices to ensure retirement readiness, there are hopeful signs that more people will soon begin investing for their future.
FinanceBuzz surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,000 U.S. adults ages 18 or older on Aug. 5, 2021. Results are also available from our 2020 Retirement Survey and our 2019 Retirement Survey.