Many Focus on Saving for Retirement Over Paying Off Debt

Some of the same people say they plan to work in retirement, and they may have to if they don’t manage their debt.

More than half (55%) of working individuals say they would prefer to save enough to last through retirement rather than be free of debt, according to a Voya Financial survey.

This preference for retirement savings is even more pronounced among those working with a financial professional or owning a managed account (67%) and those participating in a retirement savings plan (65%).

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“We’re encouraged to see this understanding of needing to take a ‘long-term view’ exists across age groups—in particular those with a longer retirement horizon,” says Charlie Nelson, CEO of retirement and employee benefits for Voya Financial.

The survey also found that 54% of employed Americans are now planning to work in retirement due to COVID-19, with 40% saying they would like to work in retirement in order to build a safety net to cover unexpected costs and be better prepared for market volatility.

Fifty-nine percent of employed Baby Boomers plan to work in retirement as a result of the pandemic, and this is also true for 60% of Generation Xers and 49% of Millennials. And some may have to, if they don’t manage their debt. If they have debt, they may not be able to save as much for retirement as they’d like.

“While the majority of generations have seen challenging times and volatile markets before, the findings of our survey and our own data show an even greater opportunity for employers to help their employees address both short- and long-term needs,” Nelson says. Employers should keep communicating about “their workplace benefit offerings to ensure employees understand how the right tools and guidance can help them achieve their retirement savings and broader financial wellness goals. With open enrollment season about to begin, this is an opportune time to consider ways to ensure employees are taking advantage of all their benefit offerings.”

Shane Bartling, senior director, retirement, Willis Towers Watson, says a struggle with controlling spending is at the heart of current financial wellness efforts crowding out the ability to save for retirement. He adds that how plan sponsors present their wellness solutions and design retirement plans is significant.

Bartling suggests wellness programs should at some point shift focus away from traditional budgeting and education techniques to in-the-moment approaches that have an emotional impact and are easy to understand. For example, he says, employers could send a targeted message about tax refunds—i.e., about using the money to pay off debt or establish an emergency savings fund rather than upscaling one’s lifestyle.

Brian Hamilton, vice president at Smart Dollar, previously told PLANSPONSOR that employer financial wellness programs should be covering the basics of what to do in an emergency and encouraging people to create an emergency savings fund.

“Coronavirus is shedding a big light on how bad it was. Americans are not prepared to handle a financial emergency—let alone a pandemic,” Hamilton said.

Nancy Hite, president and CEO of The Strategic Wealth Advisor, says she strongly believes that creating an emergency savings fund that would cover six months’ worth of spending should be people’s first priority—before saving for retirement.

Laura Varas, CEO and founder of Hearts & Wallets, says, “Financial wellness programs need to help people holistically with all of their financial goals—not just retirement. Programs that do not just favor retirement savings but that take a more holistic approach to all of their goals will better engage participants.”