New Report Reflects Troubling Debts for Pre-Retirees, but These Six Tips Could Help Reverse the Trends

Despite being close to retirement, adults between the ages of 51 and 61 years old have a tendency toward risky spending behaviors, high debt and financial illiteracy, according to a recent report by the Filene Research Institute, based in Madison, WI.

The report’s co-authors, Carlo de Bassa Scheresberg and Annamaria Lusardi, both from the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center at George Washington University, say that the prevalence of long-term debt for pre-retirees was “troubling.” Pre-retirees use expensive credit card borrowing frequently and financial advice sparingly, and they also lack financial management and planning skills.

However, the report notes six steps that these adults can add to their pre-retirement checklist in order to “increase wealth at retirement and to improve retirement security.”

The steps, along with data from the report, are as follows:

1. Open a retirement plan or account. Nearly 30% of pre-retirees don’t have their own retirement plan or account.

One solution is to enroll in a 401(k) at work to receive a full match from an employer — usually 50 cents for every dollar up to 6%. That adds up to 9% in savings — much higher than the average personal savings rate in the U.S. of 5.4%.

Opening an IRA at a bank or brokerage firm is another option. Pre-retirees can set these accounts to automatically withdraw money from checking or savings every pay period.

2. Develop a schedule to pay down short-term and long-term debt before retirement. Around 60% of pre-retirees have at least one source of long-term debt; 26% have at least two.

Pre-retirees can check with their banks and mortgage brokers to find ways to reduce the term and/or interest rates on their mortgage. Paying above the monthly minimum payment is the best way to pay down the principal on a loan, such as a mortgage.

3. Use credit cards wisely. The report concludes that nearly 40% of pre-retirees use credit cards, and the same number feel heavily indebted by that use.

Even more frightening, however, is the number of pre-retirees who have used other services, like payday loans and pawnshops, in the past five years: 20%.

Additionally, 74% of the survey’s respondents use at least one credit card, but 56% are not paying the full amount due, which could lead to higher fees. A further breakdown reveals that 33% only paid the minimum due, 15% are charged late fees, 6% are charged fees for exceeding their credit limit and 9% use their cards to obtain cash advances. A total of 39% reported at least one expensive credit card behavior.

Pre-retirees who have trouble limiting spending are advised to seek a financial professional, either at a bank or at a qualified credit counseling agency. “Because debt often carries much higher interest rates than what is earned on assets,” Lusardi explains, “it may be important to start there and see how we can reduce debt or reduce the interest rate or the fees associated with debt.”

4. Establish a rainy-day fund. Only a small amount of 51- to 61-year-olds had savings, or “rainy-day funds,” for unexpected economic problems. Setting aside enough to pay for at least one month of living expenses is a good place to start, according to the report.

Those who have more steady jobs should aim for at least three to six months’ worth of expenses in savings; if the economy is bad or the job is unstable, the report’s authors recommend aiming for 12 months’ worth of expenses.

5. Calculate what’s needed to fund retirement. Fewer than half of pre-retirees have calculated the savings needed once they stop working, according to the survey.

The best way to find the right amount is to divide the amount saved by the household income. Retirees will need at least 11 times their pay by age 65 to have sufficient assets to get through retirement.

And it’s all about planning, says Lusardi. The research found that “those who plan for retirement end up with three times the amount of wealth than non-planners.”

Lusardi likens an unplanned retirement to an unplanned vacation: “Answer the following question: What would happen if you went on vacation without reserving a hotel or arranging transportation? What are the chances you would enjoy that vacation?”

6. Take additional steps to improve financial literacy. By becoming smarter about money, pre-retirees can avoid making costly mistakes.

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