Tony Mallozzi just won’t die. And his longevity is getting expensive.
“I’ve been retired for 20 years now,” said the 74-year-old from Sellersville, Pennsylvania. “I never expected to live this long.”
Tony stopped working after a heart attack. But he never anticipated the advances in cardiac care, which keep his heart ticking. And he never calculated for paying the property tax bills, which go up and up.
In spite of it all, Tony knows he's among the lucky ones. He retired with a pension.
What will happen to the millions of others with no retirement savings beyond Social Security?
Thousands of families in three counties just outside Philadelphia have no pension, 401(k) or individual retirement accounts, federal data shows. Lara Christiano, age 50, is just one of them.
Retirement was part of her plan. Life got in her way. “I don’t think about retirement because I can’t think about retirement,” said Christiano, a massage therapist from Ottsville, Pennsylvania.
Christiano has two boys, ages 12 and 14, who’ll soon need money for college.
What can she do? What steps should any of us take? This news organization put that question to certified public accounts, economists and licensed financial advisors.
First and foremost, they said, do something – anything. Now.
“Ninety percent of people are in some stage of financial distress, and they’re not doing anything about it,” explained Michael Vaules of FlagStone Retirement Consultants in Moorestown, New Jersey. “People are blinded by this fear of just getting started.”
And, if the experts are right, we should be worried.
"Even assuming that Social Security can be fixed, it's just very expensive to live in retirement," explained Olivia Mitchell, director of the Boettner Center on Pensions and Retirement Research at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
"Some of people living today may live to 125 (years old). So, you can't just retire in your 60s," said Mitchell. "Most Americans retire too young and take their benefits too early. Only 3.5 percent percent of Americans delay claiming (benefits) to age 70."
Not ready to retire
The Federal Reserve tracks retirement savings among “prime age families,” where the breadwinner is between the ages of 35 and 64.
In that prime age group, low- and middle-income families average $39,000 in retirement savings, the Fed estimates. Upper and middle-income households average $147,300 saved for retirement.
The National Institute for Retirement Savings tracks savings among workers in the private sector, who are far less likely to have a pension plan offered through work.
In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, NIFS estimates half of all private sector workers have nothing saved for retirement.
For those who do have pensions − sometimes referred to as defined benefit plans − the savings are unlikely to cover retirement, NIFS projects. In Pennsylvania, the average pension plan for a non-government worker was valued at $40,719, NIRS estimated. In New Jersey, the average plan was valued at $29,777, the non-profit said.
But does anyone have enough saved for retirement? That answer is complicated by cost of living, guesstimates of inflation, and even gender, financial planners say.
Average life expectancy is 76 for men and 81 for women in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control. So, retiring at age 65, the average man would need cash for 11 years and the average woman would need money for 16 years in retirement.
Set and forget
A single call to the bank could change your future, said Michael Garry, a certified financial planner with a master’s degree in finance from Saint Joseph’s University and a law degree from Widener University.
For workers in their mid-20s with no retirement savings, Garry recommended automatic transfers from your paycheck into a Roth IRA.
"The best thing is for people in their 20s is probably a Roth IRA,” said Garry, founder of Yardley Wealth Management. “You don’t need to worry about a (tax) deductible IRA because, at this point in your life, you’re probably not paying much, if anything, in federal income taxes.
“It’s not tax deductible now, but when you take it out at retirement, the money is tax free,” Garry continued. “Setting it up as an automatic withdrawal from your paycheck makes it easier than trying to get all together at the end of the year, when you do your taxes.”
Match or no match
By their mid-30s, most workers should enter into a 401(k) plan, even if your company offers no match in your contributions to the account, said Michael Vaules of FlagStone Retirement Consultants in Moorestown, New Jersey.
“At this point, a lot of people are at a point where they’re more comfortable, financially, but, for many, they’re also thinking about kids,” said Vaules. “I’d say to that client: OK, you’re in a car that costs $400 a month, but could you live with a car that costs $200 a month?”
And, if you have a 401(k), resist the urge to tap into that savings. A growing number of Americans draw cash from their 401(k) plans to pay for sudden expenses, according to a study released Oct. 25 by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Pew surveyed 5,661 Americans ages 20 to 58. One in four had tapped their 401(k) following a divorce or job loss.
Many are unable to pay back the amount "borrowed" from their 401(k) plan, said Cheri Freeh, a certified public account with Hutchinson, Gillahan & Freeh in Quakertown, Pennsylvania.
"In my experience, people think they’re borrowing from their retirement plans, but they never pay it back," she said. "It ends up as a distribution [from 401(k)] and they end up paying taxes on it."
Focus on debt
Heading into your 40s with no retirement savings, Americans should be thinking about debt – credit cards and mortgage payments, which might be impossible to manage in retirement, Freeh advised.
"You'll probably always carry a small amount of debt, but I would shy away from any personal loans," said Freeh, an IRS Advisory Council member since 2014. “Being debt-free could be just as important in retirement. You're not going to be in position to pay these bills, and I know many people heading into retirement and they're making mortgage payments.
Debt is something that, unfortunately, "many Americans just don't understand," said Olivia Mitchell, director of the Boettner Center on Pensions and Retirement Research at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. In published studies, Americans generally failed math questions about interest rates, inflation and calculated risk.
"Americans of all ages are much less financially literate," said Mitchell, who has studied financial literacy in the U.S. and other countries. "Women are less financially knowledgeable but more willing to learn and be trained. Men are much more confident in their wrong answers."
With no retirement savings in your 50s, Americans should think about job opportunities such a consulting.
Some retirees have expertise, which they can offer to a younger generation in exchange for cash, said Michael Garry, a certified financial planner with a master’s degree in finance from Saint Joseph’s University and a law degree from Widener University.
"You'll want to network and make connections with that next generation," said Garry. "You can't rely on connections with your generation because those people in your generation will be retired, too."
Another option: Find a part-time job that plays into your personal interests, said Vaules. “I’d advise them to start searching now for something that they’d like to do. Maybe, they love to golf and they can get a part-time job at the golf course,” said Vaules.
Budget for your future, said Freeh. "It's not only about how much you can save," said Freeh. "Equally important, you need to figure out how much you can spend in retirement. Ask yourself: what will be my expenses, and how far can I make that money go?"
And, remember, it could be worse, said Mitchell.
"I would rather be old in the United States than in any other country," she said. "I believe we have a better shake here than in other countries. That's not to say that the politicians can be relied upon to take care of us. You have to take care of yourself."
— James McGinnis: firstname.lastname@example.org, @James_McGinnis