Retirement account owners decrease

Tim Grant
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The share of American families that have IRAs or 401(k) retirement plans has spiraled down in the past decade, while the amount of assets in those accounts has been on an upward climb during that time.

The Washington, D.C.-based Employee Benefit Research Institute recently reported the percentage of all families with an individual retirement plan such as a 401(k) or an IRA decreased from 52.8 percent in 2001 to 48.2 percent in 2013, based on the most recent data from the 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances, a survey of household wealth conducted every three years by the Federal Reserve Board.

Although fewer families own retirement accounts, the Federal Reserve found the median account balance actually increased. The median value was $35,456 in 2001, but had bounced up to $59,000 by 2013.

“For many families, individual account retirement plan savings constitute most of whatever financial assets they have,” said Craig Copeland, senior research associate at EBRI and author of the report. “Looking at these accounts is key to understanding how well — or poorly — people are preparing for retirement.”

As individuals live longer than ever before, one of the biggest fears retirees face is outlasting their savings and becoming a burden on their families. The EBRI report suggests a growing number of people either cannot or have not chosen to commit to a financial strategy to fund their golden years.

Thomas Mackell Jr., former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Virginia, and author of “When the Good Pensions Go Away,” believes many people are unable to save for long-term financial needs because the wage growth in this country is headed south instead of north.

“Due to this wage gap, they have no extra money to sock away for retirement,” said Mackell, a senior consultant to the International Longshoremen’s Association, AFL-CIO for political, legislative and public affairs. “Those with the ability to put money into a retirement fund are being rewarded with a stock market that is raging. Those who can’t contribute to their own retirement are in jeopardy,” he said. “It’s a horror story in the making.”

According to the AARP, in 2011 the first of the baby boomers — roughly 76 million people born between 1946 and 1964 — reached what used to be known as retirement age, and for the next 18 years boomers will be turning 65 at a rate of 8,000 a day.

The EBRI report offers the most recent snapshot of challenges families face contributing to a retirement account, and offers some prospective on how important these accounts are to a family’s total financial picture.

Among families owning such plans, individual account retirement plan assets were a clear majority of their total financial assets. The money in these accounts in 2013 represented a median 70.3 percent of these families’ total net worth.