The 6 most common retirement planning regrets, and how to avoid them

“The longer you give your money a chance to grow, the better.”


Retirement is supposed to be a time to relax and look back on a life well-lived. But these days, a lot of retirees look back with regret, according to a new survey from Coventry Direct.

Researchers polled 500 retired Americans to see how the financial reality of their golden years is lining up with their expectations. The results were a bit sobering.

Many of the poll takers struggle to find the resources for extras like travel and leisure, with 60% saying they're not traveling as much as they wanted to, and 47% saying they have a smaller social life than they anticipated.

Other figures are far more concerning. Roughly 1 in 3 retirees, 32%, are worried they'll outlive the money they've been able to stash away so far. And when retirees were asked about their single biggest concern now that they're no longer working, a third, 32%, said it was not having enough income.

The good news is that almost half, 48%, of the Coventry poll takers said their retirement is indeed living up to their expectations.

Here are poll respondents' six biggest regrets about saving for retirement, and how to avoid each one.

1. The amount they saved

Roughly a quarter, 24%, of people surveyed said their single biggest regret about retirement was the amount of money they managed to save. Experts suggest having at least 10 times your annual salary saved for retirement by the time you hit 67, but of course, that goal is different for everyone.

"It's a guideline to aim for, but not everyone needs to save that much," says Jessica Macdonald, vice president of Thought Leadership at Fidelity Investments. "Factors like retirement age and lifestyle impact how much someone should have. Do you expect your expenses to go down when you retire? Or will you spend as much as you do now? Also, keep health care in mind."

Curious how you stand compared to others in your age bracket? Here's a look at how much money each generation has put away.

2. The age they started saving

Failing to save early enough was nearly as common a regret as failing to save enough. Roughly a quarter of respondents, 23%, said their biggest regret was not starting sooner.

As soon as you start working, aim to put at least 15% of your monthly income in a 401(k) or IRA, or more if you can, experts say. If that's not doable, just save as much as you can, as early as you can. Decades of capitalizing on compound interest can make a big difference in the final result.

What is a 401(k) match and how can you take advantage of it?

Video by Ian Wolsten

Younger savers should focus on workplace accounts, trying to gradually increase their contributions with each income bump. For example, if a 25-year-old earning $50,000 a year working at a company with a 5% match bumps their 3% contribution to 10%, they'd have $1.4 million by the time they turn 65, according to data from J.P. Morgan. (That's assuming 2% yearly wage growth and a 5.75% annualized return after investment fees.)

Even contributing just 1% "can make a big difference in your balance when you retire," Macdonald says. "The longer you give your money a chance to grow, the better. And it works no matter how old you are, or how far off retirement is."

3. The age they retired

The third-biggest regret for surveyed retirees was the age at which they retired, with 22% saying they should have done so at another time. That's not surprising, since waiting longer to pull the trigger on retirement can make a big difference in how much you have to spend.

One in three respondents to the Coventry Direct poll reported having to access their Social Security benefits sooner than they expected. And the earlier you tap those benefits, the less money you receive each month.

On top of that, the Social Security Administration currently projects it will only be able to pay beneficiaries in full through 2037. That's a decade before the oldest millennials turn 65. 

While younger savers still have time to plan for later (and possibly lower) Social Security checks, older savers who have fallen behind should tighten up their spending and look for ways to earn. Reduce or eliminate extraneous phone and cable bills, and consider picking up a side hustle.

"Cut back on unnecessary expenses, [and] pay off your credit cards," Dorothy E. Bossung, a certified financial planner and executive vice president of Lowery Asset Consulting, previously told Grow. Even if you find you need to "work a bit longer in your current job or seek part-time employment in retirement to afford everything you want," don't think you can't achieve it.

4. The age at which they started planning

The age at which they started planning was the biggest regret for 13% of survey respondents. Even if you're still young, knowing what you want to do with your retirement is a hugely important part of saving for it.

Americans ages 65 and older spend an average of $50,220 annually, notes the Bureau of Labor Statistics' latest Consumer Expenditure Survey. But that number could be a lot higher if you dream of traveling the world, living in a walkable urban area, or just enjoying little luxuries like eating out.

To ensure your reserves last through retirement, figure out "what your new ongoing lifestyle expenses will be," Erika Safran, a certified financial planner and principal at Safran Wealth Advisors, told Grow. "Will you have to withdraw savings to supplement your living expenses?"

Grow's retirement calculator can help pinpoint a specific goal for you.

5. Where they chose to live

A lot of respondents to the survey aren't happy with where they chose to settle down. Over 55% of respondents said they're not happy with their current hometowns, citing factors like the climate or lack of proximity to family. For 11% of respondents, choosing the wrong place to live was their single biggest retirement regret.

Where you live has a big impact on what you'll spend. One important step you can take to help live out retirement stress-free is choosing a low-cost-of-living place to settle down. Consider moving to a cheaper area if you've fallen short of your savings goal, as your new state may have lower taxes and a lower overall cost of living.

What is a health savings account (HSA)?

Video by David Fang

6. The savings vehicles they used

For a small number of respondents to the survey, 7%, their biggest regret was using the wrong accounts. Investing in a 401(k), IRA, or individual brokerage account are all smart choices. But there are some key distinctions in how they operate. If you choose only one, make it a 401(k) — and "contribute at least enough to get the full 401(k) match from your company," says Macdonald, "so that you don't leave free money on the table."

Roth IRAs are another great vehicle for retirement savings, according to IRA expert Ed Slott, a certified public accountant and founder of Ed Slott & Company. While a Roth IRA doesn't come with free money from your employer attached, it does offer another massive benefit: not paying a dime in taxes on withdrawals once you hit retirement age.

"To start building your retirement account from dollar one tax-free is the Holy Grail," Slott previously told Grow.

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