82% of Americans say COVID affected their retirement plans

March 24, 2021

A year after the Covid-19 pandemic first ravaged the world’s societies and economies, more than 80% of Americans say the events of the past year have affected their retirement plans, according to a new study from Fidelity Investments.

One-third of the more than 1,200 financial decision-makers Fidelity surveyed said it would take them two to three years to get back on track due to factors such as job loss or withdrawals from retirement savings, according to Fidelity’s 2021 State of Retirement Planning Study.

But most respondents to the online survey conducted in February said they are still confident they will be able to retire when and how they want. In fact, more than one-third said they are now more confident in their retirement plan than before.

“The past year has been a roller coaster, but for those Americans with a retirement plan, it should come as a relief to know the fundamentals remain sound,” said Melissa Ridolfi, senior vice president of retirement and cash management at Fidelity Investments.

“Although the survey indicates 36% of Americans are more concerned now than at the start of the pandemic on their ability to maintain a nest egg in retirement, at Fidelity we saw retirement savings accounts reach record levels in the fourth quarter of 2020 and also experienced record levels of planning engagements with clients throughout the year,” Ridolfi said. Fidelity is the largest retirement provider in the U.S.

However, financial planning means different things to people of different ages. For those 30 years from retirement, including most millennials, having a plan means simply determining how much you should save on a regular basis and in which account you should put those savings based on tax and investment considerations. As people get closer to retirement, they need to think about more complex topics, such as the age at which to retire, expenses in retirement and how to generate retirement income.

Based on their varying definitions of financial planning, millennials are more likely to report having a plan that will allow them to afford their desired lifestyles in retirement (35%) than Gen Xers (34%) or boomers (32%). Part of this may be attributed to the fact that millennials are nearly twice as likely to have reported using online tools and calculators than boomers.

But while many Americans say they are planning for retirement, they often don’t understand crucial fundamentals, underestimating how much they should save and overestimating how much they could afford to withdraw each year in retirement. That means financial advisers have their work cut out for them.

Only 25% of respondents accurately indicated that financial professionals generally recommend having saved 10 to 12 times your income in your last full year of work by the time you reach retirement. Half of the respondents thought the figure was only five times or less.

More than a quarter of respondents — 28% — thought they could withdraw 10% to 15% of their savings each year in retirement rather than the suggested guidelines of 4% to 6%.

And nearly three-quarters of respondents — 72% — believe the stock market has seen negative returns more frequently than positive ones over the past 35 years. In reality, the S&P 500 Index has had positive annual returns for 26 out of the past 35 years.

A separate study by American Advisors Group, a leading reverse mortgage lender, found the events of 2020 had a negative impact on the retirement plans of 30% of seniors, with one in five withdrawing more money than planned from their retirement accounts.

At the same time, the year-long stay-at-home orders caused many seniors to reevaluate their retirement housing plans. More than a quarter of seniors said they felt safer at home in 2020 than in previous years, and more than half of American seniors — 55% — said they plan on living in their current home forever.

“This study showed us that not only are seniors still recovering from last year, but that they have a different outlook on the importance of their home,” said Martin Lenoir, chief marketing officer at AAG. “This may be the perfect time for them to bridge the gap and utilize their home equity to regain the peace of mind they had in years past.”

(Questions about Social Security rules? Find the answers in Mary Beth Franklin’s ebook at InvestmentNews.com/MBFebook.)