Do you have saving regret, the wish in hindsight to have saved more earlier in life?
Well, if you procrastinated, you'll likely have some regrets. But if you experienced shocks along the way such as unemployment, health issues or divorce, you'll really wish you had saved more earlier in life.
So says Susann Rohwedder, a senior economist at the RAND Corporation, an associate director of the RAND Center for the Study of Aging, and co-author of Saving Regret.
In that paper, Rohwedder and her co-authors measured saving regret and possible determinants in a survey of a probability sample of those aged 60-79. The researchers investigated two main causes of saving regret: procrastination along with other psychological traits, and the role of shocks, both positive and negative. And they found, according to the abstract, high levels of saving regret but relatively little of the variation is explained by procrastination and psychological factors. "Shocks such as unemployment, health and divorce explain much more of the variation," wrote Rohwedder and her co-authors.
In an interview, Rohwedder discussed the research and its implications.
"The context or starting point of this research was the observation that quite a few people reach retirement with little or no financial assets," said Rohwedder. "And that poses, of course, this big question of, are they prepared for a retirement? Well, many people maybe not quite adequately so."
Why is that? One possible explanation is that people procrastinate. "Saving for retirement means you have to much earlier in life start putting money aside, and that means cut your spending, give up on things that you might actually enjoy today," she said. "And furthermore, once you save, you have to think of where do you put that money? How do I invest it? That's oftentimes hard to figure out."
People say they'll start to save tomorrow, and then tomorrow never comes. This procrastination leaves people -- once they reach retirement -- with too little assets to feel comfortable and financially secure, said Rohwedder.
But what's not known is how many people procrastinate. "Is it just a few people that find this hard to do and are procrastinators?" she asked. "Is it quite a few, or is it almost everyone? And knowing that is actually quite important."
The answer, she said, reveals how hard you should think about addressing the problem. "How much should you change your policies and infrastructure?" Rohwedder asked. "Is it just a few, maybe it's not worth it to change it for everyone. If it's a lot of people, you really should think hard about the problem.
The truth, however, is that hard to figure out how many people are procrastinators. So, in their research they decided to ask older Americans if, in hindsight, they wished they had saved more.
They also sought to also identify whether people's expression of saving regret is correlated with the tendency to procrastinate.
And what they found is this. Some 59% of the population aged 60 to 79 wished they had saved more. Among those with saving regret, 66% reported experiencing a shock earlier in life leading to adverse economic consequences, compared with just 43% among those without saving regret.
A gap between Social Security expectations and realizations was also associated with saving regret: among those with regret, 38% reported that Social Security benefits were less than expected compared with just 26% among those without regret.
The big surprise? "We could not really find much correlation or any correlation at all between our measures of procrastination and myopia, and the saving regret," she said.
Next, the researchers examined whether people experienced some positive or negative surprises that affected their finances. And what they found was this: 56% had a negative shock and 44% a positive shock. "And what was striking was the differences in saving regret you would find as a function of whether people had some negative or positive surprises," Rohwedder said. "That's really where the action was in the data, and that was really interesting to us."
According to the study: "Having had only a positive shock rather than a negative shock changes the probability of expressing regret by about 25 percentage points... When the shocks are entered individually, the most important negative shock involves health problems that limit the ability to work and unemployment, while the most important positive shock is having had good investments."
What did the authors conclude from all this? One conclusion was this: The failure to anticipate negative shocks, i.e., underestimating their probability and effects, may point to the larger relative importance of the lack of information compared to procrastination.
"I think there's still an important message in these results because it may mean on the one hand that people need to maybe be informed," said Rohwedder. "We could inform people better about the vagaries and hazards of life, that there are a lot of things that can happen to people. And preparing for the rainy day is maybe quite important."
"Hoping for the best, it's just not going to happen to me, divorce, unemployment, these various things, no, it's just not going to happen to me is maybe not a good strategy. There's just a lot of, many things that can happen to people, and putting some money aside for those hardships in life it seems to be quite important," Rohwedder said.
Given that, might we suggest, if you want to avoid saving regret later in life, learning about all the negative shocks you might face in life and take steps now to manage and mitigate those shocks. It could be self-insurance (retention) or insurance (risk pooling) or some other risk management technique (reduction and avoidance). Read The 18 Risks of Retirement Income Planning and Post-Retirement Needs and Risks.
It's never too late - or too early - to plan and invest for the retirement you deserve. Get more information and a free trial subscription to TheStreet's Retirement Daily to learn more about saving for and living in retirement.