Half of households can’t sustain pre-retirement standard of living

Most Americans work throughout adulthood with the hope of retiring from the workforce some day. Ideally, the milestone is achieved when one is young enough to enjoy their work-free lives without worries about finances or debt.

Unfortunately, half of U.S. households can’t maintain their pre-retirement standard of living throughout retirement. Many Americans are forced to tighten budgets and give up luxuries during retirement, partly due to dismal savings and an upward trend in financial struggles among more than 80 percent of households with adults older than retirement age.

That decline in household wealth is particularly concerning during a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted the health of older adults. Infection can lead to unexpected costs related to acute or long-term healthcare, loss of the ability to live independently, and the death of a partner. Many don’t have the means to cover a financial shock, and even fewer have a cushion to fall back on.

The grim financial security for those in retirement begs the question: How are American retirees faring during the pandemic?

To answer this question, Clever Real Estate, a national real estate education platform for homebuyers, sellers, and investors, surveyed 1,500 Americans about their retirement funds, debt, and financial worries. We learned that many retirees are struggling. On average, retirees only have $178,787 in retirement funds and hold nearly $20,000 in non-mortgage debt, with their debt more than doubling in 2020.

Retirees rely on a variety of sources to finance their retirement. The most common sources of retirees’ income include Social security (33 percent), personal savings (32 percent),retirement funds–401k, Roth IRA, etc. (31 percent), company/ employer-funded pension plan (19 percent), other investments, including CDs, stocks, and real estate (17 percent), part-time employment (12 percent), government agency other than Social Security (9 percent), consulting /self-employment (6 percent), inheritance (6 percent), and children (4 percent).

Experts recommend that workers save approximately $465,000 for retirement. The typical retiree in our survey, however, reported having less than $180,000 in retirement funds, despite expecting to have expenses for 20 more years. Two-thirds of retirees have less than $50,000 in retirement funds.

Sparse retirement funds leave many retirees reliant on Social Security to cover their expenses. Nearly 60 percent of older adults’ household wealth comes from Social Security, which is less than ideal considering the benefit is only about $1,514 per month on average — much less than the typical spending of about $3,900 monthly.

Unsurprisingly, many retirees aren’t sure if they’ll be able to leave inheritance to their heirs after their passing; 28% said they won’t have enough money to pass on, while another 29% said they’ll pass on what they have but aren’t purposefully saving to do so.


Retirees’ debt more than doubled in 2020


According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, retirees’ average post-tax income from all sources is about $39,591 annually, which doesn’t even cover typical spending ($47,259). The $7,700 difference between income and expenditures means many are falling behind despite living relatively modestly, as the majority of retirees live below the standard of living they experienced prior to retirement. The average worker, for instance, spends more than $63,000 annually.

Instead, retirees are spending less than they did before retirement while still spending more than they earn. Nearly 60 percent of retirees said they struggle to pay for necessities and bills, including medical, groceries, credit cards, mortgages or rent, insurance, debt repayment plans, car payments, and student loans. In order to cover those bills, retirees are going into debt—an average of about $19,200 in non-mortgage debt.

Although they’re holding on to less debt than non-retirees, who have an average of about $44,000, retired Americans were hit harder financially in 2020. The average retiree took on an additional $9,779 in debt 2020, increasing their overall debt by 104 percent. Non-retirees, on the other hand, accumulated an additional $5,035, only increasing their total by 13 percent. Some of that increase is due to more people carrying credit card debt. In fact, the percentage of retirees carrying credit card debt has increased over the last decade—48 percent between 2019 and 2020 alone.

Only about 3 in 10 retirees retired when they planned. Of those who didn’t retire on schedule, 59 percent retired earlier. Although an early retirement sounds ideal, only 3 percent retired early because they had additional wealth, while the overwhelming majority were forced into retirement because of health issues (65 percent), job loss (22 percent,) or they had to care for a family member (10 percent).

Forced early retirement can leave retirees in a tough spot financially, as they simultaneously lose out on time they planned to save for retirement and have longer retirements. That’s even more troubling for those who left the workforce due to illness, as they will have additional medical expenses to cover, as well.

The COVID-19 pandemic has likely contributed to an increase in unexpectedly early retirements and worries about health, considering the virus disproportionately impacts older adults. Unsurprisingly, 1 in 3 retirees said they fear declining health that requires long-term care; its expenses can add up to more than what retirees have saved for their entire retirement.

The high costs associated with healthcare aren’t just a worry for retirees — they’re a reality. Of those who reported having trouble covering expenses and bills, nearly half said they’re struggling to pay medical bills— more than any other type of cost.

Besides medical issues, retirees are most worried about being a burden to their family, losing independence, cognitive decline, isolation and loneliness.


Francesca Ortegren, who wrote this article, is the data science and research product manager for Clever Real Estate.