Americans are worried about retirement — very worried. According to a recent survey from Wells Fargo and Gallup, despite recent gains in the economy, 46 percent of investors continue to be nervous that they will outlive their savings in retirement.
That's probably a pretty valid concern, considering a sizable percentage of workers report (nwsdy.li/survey) that they have virtually no savings and investments. The reason for the dearth of retirement funds is clear: The cost of living and day-to-day expenses leave little room for savings in a family's budget.
A new study by the Center for American Progress shows just how heavy the burden has grown: For a typical married couple with two children, the combined cost of child care, housing, health care and savings for college and retirement jumped 32 percent from 2000 to 2012 — and that's after adjusting for inflation.
Meanwhile, median household income is down 5.7 percent from 2000. The Great Recession only exacerbated the trend. More than 20 percent of those who were laid off over the past five years are still unemployed, and one in four who found work is in a temporary job. Of those who were lucky enough to land new jobs, 46 percent say they had to take a pay cut and 44 percent reported a drop in status.
The increase in expenses, combined with stagnant incomes, is creating a retirement squeeze where middle-income families are finding it hard to build savings. For those who are struggling, the advice remains the same: Do the best you can to address what I like to call "The Big Three Financial Goals."
* Paying down consumer debt (credit card, auto loans)
* Establishing an emergency reserve fund (6 to 12 months' worth of living expenses for those who are still working and 12 to 24 months' worth of living expenses for retirees)
* Contributing to retirement accounts
For many, conquering the Big Three requires that you figure out where your money is going. The easiest way to do that is to track your expenses for three months. You can use a software program like Quicken, an app like Mint, a spreadsheet or an old-fashioned legal pad. Without determining how much money is coming in and going out today, it's tough to do any planning.
A word of encouragement: When I was a financial planner, some of the clients who started with big debts turned out to be fantastic savers. After they whittled down the loan balances, they simply shifted the outgoing payment into savings, and voilà, they were able to build their nest eggs.
When it comes to older Americans, the lack of savings is more critical. According to the nonprofit National Council on Aging, one in three Americans 60 or older is economically insecure, and 49 percent of Americans 60 and older are very concerned about whether their savings and income will be sufficient to last for the rest of their lives.
These statistics encouraged the council to launch a free, confidential site for older, financially insecure Americans called EconomicCheckUp (nwsdy.li/ncoa). The site prompts you to answer a few simple questions and will then generate a personalized report with tips on how to better manage your budget, save money, and set financial goals.
The site can translate into real bottom line results. According to Ramsey Alwin of the council on aging: "We've found that individuals using EconomicCheckUp, on average, receive $3,000 worth of recommendations to free up their annual budget." Three grand — now that's worth some of your time!
Another part of the site is devoted to helping older Americans find work later in life. Given that some may have retired a little bit earlier than expected, or lost their jobs in the recession, this, too, is a valuable service.
Jill Schlesinger, a certified financial planner, is a CBS News business analyst. She welcomes emailed comments and questions.