Adjusting the Retirement Savings Path

Financial circumstances may change, but plan sponsors can help participants still control, and sustain, their savings.

Saving and investing for retirement is much easier said than done. Even the most well-prepared participants may face dips in their savings when circumstances change.

The Road to Retirement study conducted by TD Ameritrade and The Harris Poll found prospective retirees—those ages 40 and older—have experienced or are experiencing a wide range of retirement disruptions, from career and family events, to health and caregiving needs. Unsurprisingly, 50% of survey respondents disclosed they were forced to retire earlier than they would have liked.

“With pensions mostly gone, most people think of creating their own retirement,” says Dara Luber, senior manager of retirement at TD Ameritrade. “While setting up your own retirement is great, it’s really the first step in what could be a long and winding road.”

Saving for retirement, whether through a 401(k), 403(b) or another savings plan, is rarely ever linear. Oftentimes, the most significant occurrences are the unexpected, states Katie Taylor, vice president of Thought Leadership at Fidelity Investments. She cites situations including divorce, caregiving and natural disasters that are common in disrupting retirement savings—and which may lead to other complications.

“It tends to have a ripple effect on other areas,” she adds. “If we can get people to feel confident on an unexpected event, they feel better about the situation overall.”

When participants experience a disruption in their financial wellness, the stresses and anxieties can be expected to leak through their day-to-day life. “When people get into situations where they’re being squeezed, it’s easy to get overwhelmed,” Taylor explains. “We hear a lot from people that they can’t afford to save for retirement, and we hear that from just everyday people who aren’t well-versed on budgeting, and those who are going through financial stress.”

Amy Diesen, vice president of Retirement Plans for Ameriprise, echoes a similar sentiment. Otherwise dubbed as the sandwich generation, those in Generation X are likely juggling numerous financial tasks and accountabilities by this moment in their lives, so experiencing any sort of disruption can be devastating. 

“This is the busiest time for them,” she says. “They start to get involved in big jobs, the largest house payments they’ll have, and they’ll most likely have children, who they spend a lot of time and money on.”

Getting laid off from their job, losing a close family member or unexpectedly needing to care for an individual is more than a distraction to their finances, it turns into a complete interruption of their daily lives. This rings truer for female professionals, who are more likely to turn to caregiving if a family member becomes sick, are paid lower than their male counterparts and likelier to live a longer life.

“When I think of sandwich generations, I think of women,” Diesen mentions. “They really need this income.”

Saving toward their finances will likely help participants in this generation, especially women, save themselves. “There’s an importance of paying yourself first, because you’re doing your children and family a favor. If you take care of yourself, you’re not only alleviating their worries, but you’re ensuring your own health.”

Taylor normally suggests participants save 15% of their yearly salary toward retirement but recognizes this may not be doable for all participants, especially those experiencing financial shocks or disruptions. Still, saving any amount is always better than nothing, she says.

“What can you do from a retirement planning perspective to stay in the game through an event?” she asks. “Can you still save something to keep an eye on that future goal?”

For those who can begin planning immediately, Luber recommends saving in both a 401(k) and individual retirement account (IRA). Those with higher assets in the TD Ameritrade study emphasized saving in both vehicles. Additionally, six in 10 participants said they would tell their younger selves to start saving earlier in life, and the same amount recommended paying off debt as soon as possible.

Yet these financial triggers aren’t the only reason some will break from saving. The rise of health care costs, student loan debt and housing expenses can mean retirement planning takes a back seat. This is when employers can come in to help. Aside from introducing retirement projection calculators, creating an environment to discuss these financial worries can mitigate concerns, whether this is done through a WebEx, webinar or in-person, Diesen says.

Incorporating a digital interface also adds a layer of communication that participants can go to at any moment. “Having some sort of interactive feature where these individuals can get the help they need,” Diesen explains.

And while integrating tools and features to assist those facing such events can be effective, among the most crucial aspects is acknowledging what the participant is experiencing. Employers can offer flexible work options, which eases stress while also ensuring the participant doesn’t lose his pay, and provide programs that focus on financial wellness and mental health assistance. Studies show providing holistic wellness offerings yields workplace productivity, as well as healthier and happier employees.

“Focusing solely on financial impacts is good, but equally important is treating the whole person,” Taylor says.