Participants Don’t Realize Benefit of Small Savings Boost

If only retirement plan participants knew how a small change in retirement savings could add up, they would be more willing to make the change.

People just don’t realize what their spending and saving behaviors add up to over a long period of time—say, 25 or 30 years, the length of time they might have to save for retirement, says Fidelity Investments.

As America Saves Week draws near, Fidelity is again conducting a campaign that encourages small savings increases. In its “America Saves” poll, individuals were asked how much $50 a month would mean if saved and invested over 25 years.

Fidelity points out that for a household making $60,000, 1% of salary equals $50 a month. When compound interest and market growth potential are factored in, saving that $50 more today could translate into an additional $270 of monthly retirement income. Do American workers and retirees understand the effect of time on small amounts of money?

Meghan Murphy, director of thought leadership at Fidelity in Boston, says the answers were surprising, and about two-thirds of respondents far underestimated what a small savings boost today would amount to in retirement.

The median response was $17,000—far lower than the estimated amount of more than $40,000 in extra wealth. But when respondents were told the estimated amount their money could grow to, 74% of those still working and saving said that information made them likelier to save more, and 82% of retirees said they would have saved that much if they had known.

“Save early, save often,” Murphy tells PLANSPONSOR, “and when we look at the different salary levels, if a 25-year-old saved $33 more a month, it would be $320 [a month] in retirement, which could be game-changing for some people.”

The point of the campaign is to break down the numbers into findings that people will see as realistic, Murphy says. “I know what $50 can buy me today,” she says. When inflation is factored into costs, people need to see that this amount from a current budget could mean the cost of a monthly cable bill in retirement or going out to dinner every weekend.

Put in those terms, 72% said they would be willing to give up going to the movies one night each month if the savings could pay for their monthly cable bill in retirement, the study found.

“We are seeing that attitudes are changing, especially among Millennials,” Murphy says. This demographic is keenly aware of the importance of saving, possibly because they saw their parents go through the recent economic downturn. Fidelity’s numbers show that about 18% of Millennials are saving 15% or more for retirement. “They know it’s on their plate, and something they have to make a priority,” she notes.

Murphy calls America Saves Week, February 23 through 28, a great opportunity for plan sponsors and plan advisers to encourage healthy saving behavior, taking advantage of the company match and considering automatically increasing deferrals at 1% a year, either through an automatic-increase program via plan design or through the employees choosing this option.

“Saving for retirement is like training for a marathon—a solid plan with incremental increases along the way is key to crossing the finish line,” says Jeanne Thompson, vice president at Fidelity Investments. Thompson suggests plan sponsors and advisers counsel plan participants to put away at least 10% to 15% of their pay annually, including employer contributions.

Murphy says that plan design can play a critical role in helping achieve optimal retirement outcomes. “Even 1% can make a big difference in the end,” she says. Plan sponsors should also design communications around basic financial information, such as the importance of saving on a regular basis, good saving behaviors and taking advantage of the company match.

Some demographics might require different messaging, Murphy says. While 1% might work for some people, others may say that $50 more in monthly savings is not possible. In that case, she says, ask if they can save $33 a month. Usually they say they can. “Look at the population, look at people saving below the match, look at specific ages,” she suggests. Perhaps people under 40 are neglecting to save: They can be targeted in specific campaigns that show the benefit they will see in retirement. Plan sponsors need to know how ready or unready their work force will be if they fail to save enough for retirement and to be aware of the impact, Murphy points out.

Fidelity polled 1,039 adults (510 men and 529 women), at least 18 years of age. Respondents had to be working and saving for retirement, or already retired. The survey was conducted online between February 2 and 4.