Americans aren't known for being great savers.
In a recent GoBankingRates study, 69% of adults admitted to having less than $1,000 in the bank, while 34% said they actually don't have any savings at all. But apparently, this collective lack of savings doesn't get all that much better with age. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found not so long ago that almost half of Americans die nearly broke.
Of the general population, 46% of retirees die with savings of $10,000 or less. But that number climbs to 57% among retirees who are single.
Now when we take other assets, like homes, into account, the picture gets a bit less bleak. Still, 57% of single-adult households and 50% of widowed households had no housing equity to show for when they died.
The problem is that dying nearly broke isn't just a matter of denying one's beneficiaries an inheritance. Rather, it points to a frightening degree of financial vulnerability during retirement. If seniors are passing without much in the way of assets, it means that in the years leading up to their death, they're ill equipped to handle a major unexpected expense, such as a significant medical bill. In fact, in that same GoBankingRates survey, only 37% of seniors 65 and older claimed to have $1,000 or more in the bank.
In fact, there's a reason seniors 65 and older carry over $6,300 of credit card debt, on average. Because they don't have much in the way of liquid assets, they're often forced to resort to credit cards to cover whatever unforeseen costs come their way. But just as working Americans need a minimum of three to six months' worth of living expenses available in an emergency fund, so too do seniors need that same sort of cushion, if not an even greater one. That lack of savings is causing a large number of seniors to not only die nearly broke but die in debt. Having an emergency fund, however, is just as crucial for retirees as it is for younger folks. And the sooner more people realize that, the less financial insecurity they'll take to the grave.
Will an unplanned expense catch you off guard?Though most Americans don't have the means to cover an unanticipated expense, working folks have one advantage over retirees: the ability to earn more to cover their costs. But since many retirees don't work, in the absence of savings, they'll have no choice to but take on debt when a financial emergency arises.
Build your savings now
If you're still years away from retirement and don't have much in the way of accessible savings, you should work on establishing your emergency fund early on, so that it's available for you when you're older. To start, create a budget that maps out your current expenses and find ways to cut corners. If you're willing to make a series of smaller changes, like eliminating several restaurant meals each month or scaling back your leisure spending, you may come to find that you're able to build that fund without making too many major sacrifices along the way.
If small lifestyle adjustments don't work, however, then you'll need to start thinking big. That could mean downsizing your living space to a more affordable property or moving someplace less expensive overall. Or, it could mean selling your car and taking the bus every day if that's an option where you live.
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Livio S. Nespoli has been a broker, registered investment advisor, and financial publisher since 1985.