It’s no secret that inflation has proved a daunting challenge for Americans over the last couple of years.
What has become America’s most persistent inflation cycle in the last four decades kicked off in April 2021, when the consumer price index (CPI) first climbed meaningfully above the Fed’s 2% target level.
It has yet to return to earth, at one point reaching as high as 9.1%, a rate unseen since the era of the “Great Inflation” that characterized much of the 1970s and early 1980s.
Inflation that lasts as long – and stretches as high – as it has this time around can be an acute source of financial discomfort in two ways. One is the way in which rising prices of goods and services put a strain on consumers and savers. But there’s something else. Once the Federal Reserve decides it’s time to attack inflation with higher interest rates, the strain can become even greater as Americans see an increase in the cost of both the money they’ve borrowed and the new money they need to borrow to keep their heads above water.
Recent data suggests that’s what we’re seeing play out currently. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, consumers can’t seem to take on enough debt these days. During the first quarter of 2023, household debt in the U.S. climbed above $17 trillion for the first time ever. And through the same period, credit card debt, specifically, sat at an all-time high of $986 billion.
A recent Bankrate survey confirmed that taking on too much household debt – and credit card debt, in particular – is one of the most prominent financial regrets harbored by Americans right now. That doesn’t seem difficult to accept, given the cumulative toll that inflation and an especially stringent rate-tightening environment (11 rate hikes in the last 17 months) have taken.
But as substantial as the impact of inflation and soaring rates has been, and as much as Americans now say they regret taking on all of those obligations, it turns out there’s something they regret even more: Not doing a better job of saving.
And their single-biggest regret? Not getting an earlier jump on saving for retirement.
We’re going to talk more about that. Not just in the context of the survey itself, but also in terms of how setting aside less for retirement possibly can make savers even more vulnerable to the impacts that arise from adverse economic events. And as we close out this week’s article, we’re going to look at something else: the possibility that many Americans may be turning to one particular alternative asset in an effort to help mitigate the kind of adverse impacts that can exacerbate the problem of having lower accumulated savings.
One thing’s abundantly clear from the Bankrate survey: Having financial regret is pervasive among Americans. It turns out that nearly 75% of all U.S. adults have at least one financial regret.
Unsurprisingly, a big chunk of that regret is rooted in debt, one way or another. For the 25% of Americans who say debt is their biggest regret, the accumulation of too many credit-card, student-loan and mortgage obligations, collectively, is the fundamental driver of the financial remorse they’re apparently feeling today.
But as significant as debt concerns are for Americans, it’s a lack of savings, overall, that turns out to be their greatest source of regret. Collectively, nearly 40% of Americans say they wish they’d done a better job of setting money aside for such things as children’s education, emergency expenses…and, especially, retirement.
“Despite rising debt levels and higher interest rates, regrets over lack of savings continue to outpace regrets related to debt,” noted Greg McBride, Bankrate’s chief financial analyst.
More specifically, failure to do more in the way of saving for retirement turns out to be Americans’ most common financial regret, with 21% of Americans saying that’s the case for them
Unsurprisingly, it turns out that baby boomers, which Bankrate defines as Americans aged 59 to 77, are the ones who most regret not starting earlier to save for retirement – slightly more than 1 in 3 said so.
Based on the current median 401(k) balance of baby boomers, it’s understandable why not saving more is such a prominent regret among that age group. Despite the reality that demographic has, by definition, less time than any other to make up for deficient savings, the median value of boomer-owned 401(k)s is just a little more than $61,000 (as of the first quarter of this year).
Contrasting that number with another piece of data further underscores the gravity of the situation. According to Fidelity Investments, Americans looking to retire at age 67 should have 10 times their income set aside by that point. Which means, given that the average annual median income in the U.S. is around $57,000, the typical American should have close to $600,000 socked away by the time they reach their mid-sixties.
Not a mere one-tenth of that amount.
In discussing the survey results, Bankrate’s Greg McBride makes an important observation.
“The power of compounding has the potential to magnify regrets about foregone savings over time as a ‘what could have been’ realization becomes more stark,” he notes.
McBride adds, “At a modest 6.5 percent annual return, every dollar you put away in your 20s becomes $17 by the time you retire. Of course, every dollar not invested during your 20s is $17 you won’t have in retirement.”
And that reality can be intensified by another: Economic challenges – standard features of any long-term journey toward retirement – have the potential to further diminish savings already diminished by years of lower contribution rates.
Examples of such challenges impeding the progress of retirement savers abound. One of the clearest may be the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis, which saw total household net worth plummet by nearly $20 trillion. In fact, a full decade after the crisis, one survey revealed that half the country had seen no improvement in their financial situation while another 25% said they remained worse off.
More recently, an unsettled 2022 – which few likely thought rivaled the financial crisis in impact – still saw household net worth drop by roughly $4 trillion on the year. Included in that overall number is a 20%-plus decline in average IRA and 401(k) balances, according to Fidelity Investments.
Looking ahead, there are concerns we may be facing more subdued growth prospects for some time to come, which potentially could increase the regret felt by those who wish they’d set aside more money for retirement.
According to credible projections, economic output in the U.S. is expected to be considerably lower than its historical average for the foreseeable future. Currently, the Congressional Budget Office expects real GDP from 2023 through 2033 to average 1.9%…nearly 40% lower than the 3.1% it averaged each year from 1948 until 2023.
Even those who are hitting their marks when it comes to savings discipline must contend with these same challenges. But it’s reasonable to speculate the potential consequences of economic adversity could be greater for those who – for whatever reason – feel as though they’ve fallen short in saving for retirement.
That reality underscores the importance of taking extra care to optimize, as much as possible, the savings one has accumulated, however much it is.
And as it turns out, some Americans now may be trying to do that very thing by turning to a time-honored alternative asset for help.
There are signs that the persistent economic challenges of the last few years may be motivating some savers to think a little less conventionally and look to assets not typically considered when assembling the building blocks of a retirement account. One such possible sign is the increased popularity gold may be enjoying right now with many savers.
One piece of evidence in support of that notion is the fact that Google searches for the phrase “how to buy gold” hit an all-time high in April. Another is the results of a Gallup poll conducted during April that revealed the number of Americans who say gold is the “best long-term investment” nearly doubled in the past year.
There’s more. State Street, a leading asset management firm, last week published a comprehensive report that indicates a high regard for gold right now among long-term savers.
According to the report, Generation Xers and baby boomers each have, on average, a 10% exposure to gold in their savings accounts, presently, while millennials have a 17% exposure.
Perhaps just as interesting is how favorably that exposure is viewed by the savers themselves. State Street found that 88% of those who have exposure to gold currently consider the metal to be an asset that should be held for the long term, while 70% maintain that gold actually has improved the performance of their overall holdings.
In a recent interview that touched on the report and the numbers, George Milling-Stanley, chief gold strategist at State Street Global Advisors, noted that despite some of the positive macroeconomic data that’s been generated recently, he’s hearing directly from long-term savers and fund managers about the unease they’re still feeling about the condition of the economy.
“People are still very concerned about the health of the economy, and that uncertainty is good for gold,” Milling-Stanley said. “I don’t think that uncertainty is going anywhere anytime soon.”
That insight may be of value to all long-term savers, to one degree or another. But for those who count themselves among the large swath of Americans that say dropping the retirement-savings ball is their biggest financial regret, the stated possibility that “uncertainty isn’t going anywhere anytime soon” may be something of a clarion call that prompts them to ensure they’re doing all they can to make the most of what they do have.
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