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Updated on Thursday, November 8, 2018
A new MagnifyMoney analysis of recent Federal Reserve data reveals that millennials aren’t saving enough for retirement. This might not be shocking on its own, but the data also reveals that the gap between what millennials have saved compared with what they should be saving is surprisingly wide.
To set our benchmark, MagnifyMoney used the guideline promoted by retirement industry experts, such as Fidelity, that workers should have roughly two times their annual income in retirement savings by age 35.
We then compared the earnings, savings and ages of millennials as reported in the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances to see whether they are hitting that mark.
Here’s what our dive into the data revealed about millennials’ retirement savings.
- The median 2016 retirement savings level for households headed by 30-somethings was about $23,000, while the median income level was $55,400. This means that typical millennials in their 30s have saved just 41% of their income.
- Based on that level of income, median households should have saved $112,000, according to a common rule of thumb suggested by retirement plan administrators and financial planners. That’s almost five times more than the actual median savings of $23,000.
- This shortfall isn’t specific to the current cohort of savers in their 30s (millennials). Prior surveys show a persistent shortfall in retirement savings among 30-somethings in previous generations, too.
- While high earners are saving slightly more than median or average earners, they still fall short of retirement savings guidelines. Recent data show 30-something households with income at the 90th percentile — $146,000 — have saved roughly 1.1 times their income ($160,000) in retirement accounts when the rule of thumb suggests that figure should be $292,000.
Millennials are 80% behind on retirement savings
Unfortunately, millennials’ retirement saving efforts are far behind the recommended benchmark. The median income for workers in their 30s is $55,700 per year. This puts the retirement saving target at around $111,400 by age 35.
The actual savings are far behind that, however, with the median retirement savings at just $23,000. In fact, a typical millennial has saved only 40% of their annual income at age 35. This is just about one-fifth of the amount they should have saved. (Average retirement savings levels are similarly short).
Median earners in their 30s aren’t saving nearly enough. But perhaps more surprisingly, a better paycheck doesn’t seem to help much, as even high-earning households are coming up short.
High earners save more, but are still behind
High earners do a better job saving for their golden years than their median-earning peers. This makes sense, as higher-income households will have more funds at their disposal that they can use to save.
But even high-income millennials still fall short of the target of saving twice their incomes. Part of that is because earning more results in higher salaries, which also raises the target amount they should save.
In 2016, households earning at the 90th percentile — those earning about $146,000 or more per year — had saved $160,000 so far for retirement. That might seem impressive since it’s nearly seven times the $23,000 median retirement savings balance among their cohort.
But based on their level of income, the retirement savings standard suggests they should have close to $300,000 saved. Yet these high earners are around five years behind on their savings, having saved just 1.1 times their annual salary.
Of course, these numbers won’t reflect every saver’s individual progress. A household that falls in line with the median retirement savings of $23,000 with an annual income of $20,000 might actually be doing OK. Or they might earn $200,000, and be even further behind than most.
Other households might have their retirement savings right on target for their 30s or even be saving more aggressively with the aim of retiring early. Overall, however, it’s safe to say that millennials whose retirement savings are on or ahead of schedule are the exceptions to the undersaving trend.
Millennials’ retirement savings are on par with previous generations’
Millennials are way behind the ideal benchmarks for their retirement savings, and that’s worrying. But do these millennials have it worse than past generations?
We took a look at the historical Federal Reserve data going back to 1998 to find out how millennials’ retirement savings levels compared with previous generations’ savings habits.
As this chart shows, millennials are actually saving better than previous cohorts of 30-somethings. This could reflect the conservative money management attitudes found among many millennials. After coming of age in the Great Recession, this cohort saw the importance of personal fiscal responsibility.
The average retirement savings for millennials in 2016 is $64,000, which is 14% higher than the $56,000 30-somethings’ average retirement savings in 1998 (all figures are in 2016 dollars).
Interestingly enough, millennials are saving more without earning more than previous cohorts — U.S. wages haven’t grown much in that time.
On top of stagnant pay, millennials have also faced historically higher levels of student debt. The average student debt among recent graduates was $39,400, and a typical monthly student loan payment for a millennial is $351. With this student debt, millennials have had fewer discretionary funds they could use to make retirement savings contributions.
The fact that millennials’ savings habits are outpacing previous generations despite these financial obstacles is a promising trend, but it still might not be enough.
The guideline to have twice your salary saved by 35 is, admittedly, an aggressive goal — one that 30-somethings have been falling short of for the past 20 years. But it’s what millennials should be shooting for to ensure a comfortable and financially secure retirement.
How millennials can catch up on retirement savings
If you’re a millennial, you might be wondering how your retirement savings stack up — and if you’re behind, what you can do to make up for lost time.
The first thing to do is figure out where your retirement savings “should” be, according to this guideline. If you’re 30, this will simply be equal to your annual salary; for 35-year-olds, it will be twice that amount.
For every year in between or above, you can simply add on an additional 20% of your annual income. A 38-year-old, for example, should be shooting to have 2.6 times their annual income in retirement savings accounts.
- Take advantage of employer-provided retirement plans. If your employer offers a retirement savings plan, such as a 401(k), it can be an easy and simple way to contribute through your paycheck.
- Contribute enough to get the full employer match. Many employers will include retirement savings matching in their benefits package. This usually means that they will deposit extra funds into your retirement account to match your own contributions, typically capped at a certain amount. Find the details about your employer plan and contribute at least enough to take advantage of this full match.
- Open an individual IRA. You don’t need an employer to open a retirement savings account, however. Almost anyone can open an IRA or Roth IRA and start contributing to it on their own.
- Get debt costs and payments under control. If you have student loans, credit card balances, or other debt, these monthly payments and interest costs will limit your ability to save for retirement. Look for ways you can decrease the costs of your debt, such as consolidating credit cards or refinancing student loans to lower interest rates. Prepaying debt can also be a smart way to avoid interest charges and get rid of debt, freeing funds up to use for retirement savings.
- Shoot to save 15% or more. As you might have figured out, saving a year’s worth of earnings every five years requires some intense saving habits. Of course, these funds will be invested and generate growth and returns that will do some of the work for you, so you can save a little less than 20% of your gross income. Saving 15% of your annual earnings is the typical suggestion.
- Increase your savings rate a little at a time. If saving 15% feels out of reach, start smaller. Increase your retirement contribution rate by just 0.5%-1%. Then give yourself a few months to adjust, then raise it again and repeat until you’ve reached your target retirement savings rate. This method can help you ease into higher savings and find the right amount to balance retirement contributions with today’s costs.
- Save “extra” funds when you can. If you’re behind on retirement savings, you can use extra income to play catch up. Instead of using bonuses and raises as more take-home pay, for instance, you can contribute this increase in pay to retirement savings.
It’s not too late to start saving for retirement, and every dollar you contribute now will count more than what you’d save later. That’s because saving for retirement in your 30s gives these funds over three decades to grow and for that growth to compound — time and money you simply can’t make up for later.
Take a look at your retirement savings and find one thing you can do to save more. Your future self will thank you.
MagnifyMoney examined data from the Survey of Consumer Finances, a triennial report issued by the Federal Reserve, to determine relative retirement savings levels for various age and income ranges from 1998 through 2016 (the date of the latest study). We only include households with savings in at least one retirement account. All figures are in 2016 dollars.