Survey: 71% of Americans are Behind on Retirement Savings

Photo illustration for retirement and investing

Knowing you aren't saving enough for retirement isn't a great feeling, but at least you are not alone.

A full 71 percent of Americans say they are behind on their retirement savings and more than half, 54 percent, believe they will never pay off their debt fully, according to a new national survey commissioned by Experian together with Get Rich Slowly and other top U.S. personal finance blogs. Entering retirement with a large debt load is risky, experts say, and older consumers are carrying more debt — mortgage, credit card, even student loans — into their retirement years than ever before, according to data by the Consumer Financial Protection Board.

These worrisome trends are part of a wider concern regarding income, debt and retirement, the consumer poll among 1,000 U.S. adults revealed, despite a generally strong economy, low interest rates and an unemployment rate that has been steadily declining since 2010. Strong emotions also accompanied questions about whether individuals felt they were headed in the right direction with their personal and family finances in total. Forty-three percent of Americans feel more secure in their finances than last year, but a majority (58 percent) feel the same or less secure than before.

Here's more of what the survey found:

  • Lack of income and funds are considered the main reasons for financial woes, not fiscal behavior
  • Financial education is the key to debt reduction and increased savings
  • 49 percent have credit card debt
  • 46 percent have less savings today than they expected they would five years ago
  • 39 percent say they have a hard time finding financial education resources

“While some consumers are on a good path with their finances, others are struggling. The best way to improve your situation is to become more educated about managing money and debt,” said Rod Griffin, director of public education at Experian.

“That is why resources like personal finance blogs are so beneficial. You can read timely information and real life stories from experts and peers on everything from understanding credit to learning how to invest.”

It wasn't all negative:

  • 64 percent of survey respondents feel “very” or “somewhat” confident in their ability to reach their financial goals
  • 53 percent are confident they will pay off their student loans on time
  • 76 percent reported they have not paid any credit card late fees in the past year

“The survey points to a few very encouraging trends in personal finance. For instance, more than half of the respondents create a monthly budget and 69 percent say they use the budget to control spending,” said Toni Husbands of Debt Free Divas. “Managing your personal finances by regularly creating a budget is essential for anyone interested in paying off debt.”

Related content: How to build a better budget

How to catch up on your retirement savings

There is a lot of advice out there, but here are three steps you can take immediately:

  • Max out your contribution to your company 401(k), especially if your company matches funds. Do whatever it takes to free up this money from your monthly budget. Even contributing 1 percent more of your paycheck will matter over time and you will hardly notice the difference in your take home pay. You can often make this change online and in mere minutes through the company holding your 401(k). (Seriously, go do this right now!) One study from Vanguard found that one-third of their “defined contribution” plan participants — a 401(k) — deferred less than 4% of pay.
  • Go beyond the 401(k). There are additional retirement vehicles out there and they are plenty easy to start up. Here's the how and the why of opening a Roth IRA. You will want to shop for one that has a low minimums.
  • Stop viewing your retirement fund as a cushion for future college costs. Excessive student loans can absolutely saddle your children with awful debt, but it's not all or nothing. Be pragmatic. If we are talking about reasonable student loan debt, most 20-somethings can look forward to many years of increasing earnings at the same time they have the most modest lifestyle needs. You will not be able to say that during retirement, with a fixed income and increasing health-care costs. Fidelity, for one, advises its clients to keep those retirement savings accounts separate and learn all the ins and outs, such as how colleges will treat distributions from IRAs as income when calculating financial aid packages.

Additional survey highlights

Personal finance:

  • Most respondents (74 percent) report feeling stressed due to finances at least “sometimes”
  • Forty-one percent are earning less than they thought they would be five years ago

Budgeting and spending:

  • Half of respondents report making an impulse purchase at least monthly, with 70 percent of those “impulse buyers” saying it's when they find a good deal

Savings and investing:

  • Seventy-one percent of respondents report being behind on their retirement savings
  • Seventy percent do not invest in stocks and bonds, and 41 percent of those said they do not plan on investing in the future


  • Of respondents with credit card debt, lack of cash flow (36 percent) and overspending (27 percent) are the primary causes
  • 70 percent at least “somewhat agree” that debt prevents them from living their life to the fullest

College costs:

  • 66 percent of those respondents with student loans regret taking them out
  • 70 percent agree that student loans negatively impact their ability to save for large purchases

Money management among spouses:

  • 48 percent of respondents in a relationship discuss financial matters only once a month or less with their partner
  • 30 percent say they disagree about finances with their spouse “all the time”

Education is a key takeaway from this survey and can go so far in reducing money stress, so here are more resources:

About the survey
In collaboration with Experian, the invited bloggers contributed questions to the survey. Those were: Amanda Abella of, Elle Martinez of Couple Money, Toni Husbands of Debt Free Divas, Andrew Schrage of Money Crashers, Tonya Rapley of My Fab Finance, Whitney Hansen of and David Carlson of Young Adult Money. The online survey was conducted by Edelman Berland on Experian's behalf from August 2-9, 2016, among 1,000 adults 18 years of age or older who reside in the United States. This online survey is not based on a probability sample; therefore, no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables, please contact Get Rich Slowly editors.

More about...Investing, Retirement

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4 years ago

It would be great if you also included a link to someplace that could evaluate our retirement savings progress.

4 years ago
Reply to  erica

Fidelity’s ‘guideposts’ for retirement savings as a function of annual salary (pre-tax) seem to be 1x, 3x, 5x, and 8x at ages 35, 45, 55, and 65: I like this line “Lack of income and funds are considered the main reasons for financial woes, not fiscal behavior”. So it’s not a matter of overspending, it’s all because I don’t earn enough (or have enough money). Funny how this problem usually persists even as income grows over time, the reason being that spending typically grows faster. I think there’s no substitute for treating actual net income minus required savings as… Read more »

Karthigan Srinivasan @ stretchadime
Karthigan Srinivasan @ stretchadime
4 years ago

This is bad but not surprising.

It is shocking that 70 percent don’t invest in stocks and bonds. I am yet to find someone who became rich by putting money in a savings account.

Cash is sin – inflation will eat it up.

William Medina
William Medina
4 years ago

I have taken to talking – more like meeting with my daughter at the beginning of every semester. We discuss her finances, her expenses, income and future plans.

The other day I helped her set up several automated bill pays but more importantly we set up a savings plan as well as an automated way to fund her savings and retirement.

It may have taken me years to start, but i want my children to succeed and that means they start now.

4 years ago

It’s rare that PF blogs talk about rental properties as excellent retirement vehicles. I have a motto: Why fund my retirement when someone else will do that for me? In other words, I buy a rental with, say, $25,000 down. When I rent it out, and have a 30-year loan, I own it free and clear in about 20 years depending on rent and interest rates and I get almost nothing but cash flow from then on. I stopped investing in 401K (1.8% expense ratio) and put it all toward down payment on the next property. Rentals are slowly making… Read more »

4 years ago
Reply to  Thomas

When did you start buying condos?

Terrence Forest
Terrence Forest
4 years ago

Great article. My mother is in a situation like this. Thank you. I’m sending this article to her. I’m sure it’ll be helpful

4 years ago

A few thoughts:
* How much does the postmodern mindset of delayed gratification play into this?
* Are people less trusting of “the market” in general because of the massive swings we’ve seen in recent years?
* What if people lived below their means (i.e. not living in the biggest home they could afford, paying cash for cars and driving them longer, etc.)?

I’m sure my accountant friend would have plenty to say on the topic. What say you, Mike?

4 years ago

Some startling statistics. Financial education is trending upward with more access to information but needs to be taught in our schools.