EBRI Issue Brief

Retirement Plans, Personal Saving, and Saving Adequacy

Mar 1, 2000 24  pages


  • This Issue Brief addresses three questions raised by recent trends in personal saving:

    —How are national savings measured and what is the meaning of the trends in measured personal saving rates, given what is included and what is not included in those measures?

    —What is the effect of retirement saving programs—in particular, 401(k) plans and individual retirement accounts (IRAs)—on personal saving levels?

    —What are the implications of existing saving behavior for the retirement income security of today's workers?

  • The National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA), the most commonly referenced gauge of personal saving, is a widely misunderstood measure. One could argue that a complete measure of saving would include increases in wealth through capital gains, but NIPA does not factor accrued and realized capital gains on stocks and other assets into the saving rate. By one measure, accounting for capital gains results in an aggregate personal saving rate of 33 percent—more than double the rate of four decades ago.
  • A major policy question is the impact of tax-qualified retirement saving plans (i.e., IRAs and 401(k) plans) on personal saving rates. Empirical analysis of this issue is extremely challenging and findings have been contradictory. These programs now represent an enormous store of retirement-earmarked wealth in tax-deferred vehicles: Combined, such tax-deferred retirement accounts currently have assets of about $4 trillion. Ninety percent of IRA contributions are now the result of "rollovers" as employees leave employer plans, like 401(k) plans. While leakage from the system remains a challenge, the majority of the assets in the system can be expected to be available to fund workers' retirements.
  • One could argue that, from a retirement income security perspective, workers in general are better off because IRA and 401(k) programs exist. Surely, many of the dollars in these programs would have been saved even without the programs; but they would not necessarily have been earmarked for retirement and been available to fund retirement expenses. As rollovers become larger, this "partnership" of employment-based qualified plans and IRAs will grow even more important.
  • The evidence indicates that many groups of American workers appear unlikely to be able to afford a retirement that maintains their current lifestyle (at least not without working more years than currently planned). Consensus does not exist on how many workers are at risk or the typical magnitude of their retirement saving shortfall. There is a consensus, however, that a substantial number of individuals are at risk. This is not surprising—despite the fact that the 70 percent of workers are saving for retirement—since relatively few workers know how much it is that they need to accumulate to fund their retirement.