While the recession, followed by a moribund recovery, may have imperiled Americans' future retirements, market volatility is not the only culprit. A new survey from Bankrate.com has found that many Americans have curtailed or decreased contributions to their retirement savings accounts this year compared to a year ago.
Nearly 3 in 10 employed Americans (28 percent) are saving less for retirement than they did the year before, while 15 percent are saving more and 48 percent are saving about the same amount.
Time is of the essence
In the best of times, most people are woefully underprepared for retirement. Clearly these are not the best of times for everyone, which puts retirement savings even further behind the curve. With no quick solution to the economic malaise on the horizon, it may be time for many people to downsize their lifestyles to save money.
The key to amassing a substantial sum for retirement is consistent saving and investing over time. With millions of Americans out of work and the economic doldrums occupying the nation's collective psyche, more people are focusing on survival rather than planning for the future.
This leads to a new set of worries. Nearly half of Americans, 47 percent, report feeling less comfortable with their level of savings than they did one year ago. That's up considerably from a low in May -- just three months ago -- of 35 percent reporting discomfort with their level of savings.
"They probably feel that they don't have the ability to save because either they fear being out of work or maybe their spouse is out of work. These are tough times," says John Burke, CFP, owner of Burke Financial Strategies in Iselin, N.J.
Trade-offs in financial decisions
"People could have decreased their savings to pay off more debt," says Robert Fuest, COO and head of investment research at Landor & Fuest Capital Managers in New York.
Data from the Federal Reserve indicate that Americans have succeeded in reducing household debt burdens. The household debt service ratio illustrates the relationship between debt payments to disposable personal income. It peaked at 13.95 in the third quarter of 2007 and fell to 11.51 in the first quarter of 2011.
Unfortunately, servicing debt requires resources that could be allocated elsewhere -- for instance, for an emergency fund or your future retirement. Households have a finite amount of money that must be directed toward many different obligations, and the decisions are difficult when Americans are feeling squeezed.
"I would have expected the 'saving less' number to be higher," says Dan Yu, managing director and lead retirement expert of EisnerAmper's wealth division in New York. "There is so much pressure everywhere else on people. Just making ends meet can be difficult for some people these days with all of the constraints that we're dealing with."
Rejigger the priority list
You've heard the motto, "Pay yourself first." When the financial going gets tough, the first thing people do is stop paying themselves. While the wisdom of that strategy is questionable -- after all, a perfect credit rating won't finance retirement -- retirement savings needn't be cut off altogether. But the definition of wants versus needs may have to undergo change.
"Make a list of everything you spend money on and then rank it in terms of importance to you," says Burke. "Food will be at the top, certainly." Burke suggests also putting savings near the very top, and cutting a bit from the least important expenses to make sure there's enough money to fund it.