Ben Grefsrud / msnbc.com
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/9/2007 8:57:49 PM ET 2007-11-10T01:57:49

Generation X may have shed the slacker image over the past decade as its members moved beyond coffee shop jobs and into the suburbs, SUVs and corporate boardrooms. But when it comes to saving for retirement, the description still fits.

Most Gen Xers, the oldest of whom are heading into their 40s, are woefully behind in saving for retirement. Nearly half of the 5,000 Gen Xers surveyed by Charles Schwab this year said they are so saddled with debt or live on such tight budgets they can’t even think about saving.

“They’re not a saving generation — they’re spenders,” said Gio Van Remortel, a 36-year-old who studies her generation as a futurist at Social Technologies, a research and consulting firm in Washington.

Melanie Keller, 35, admits that fact. She worries about retirement because she only has $3,000 put away in a 401(k) plan and has no other investments. But instead of socking away money for retirement, the pharmaceutical saleswoman is trying to save $60,000 so she can buy a starter home where she lives in San Jose, Calif.

“I am worried, but I don’t feel like after I pay all the bills — with rent, car payment — I have enough money” for savings, she said.

Indeed, the expenses of a house, car and all the other possessions that go along with being an adult often leave Gen Xers very little to sock away in a 401(k) system that grows money incrementally, said Van Remortel. Even if they are not supersizing their lives and living beyond their means, she said, many Gen Xers — generally defined as those born from 1965 to 1980 — carry significant debt due to college alone. Once they have kids, they begin to worry about saving for their college educations, and retirement planning often drops in priority.

Recognizing those pressures, investment firms are offering new incentives tailored to get Gen Xers to invest. The Principal Financial Group, which runs 401(k) plans for 47,000 employers and their 3 million workers, offers free music downloads to people who boost their contributions to retirement accounts. The company also sends financial counselors to the offices of their clients to offer free advice on 401(k) planning.

Broker Charles Schwab meanwhile has lowered its minimum balances to $100 for people opening new investment accounts and offers high-yield checking accounts linked to brokerage accounts. “If they can start with a checking account, they can invest easily over time,” said Jonathan Craig, a vice president at Schwab.

Still, Gen Xers may face bigger financial challenges than their parents and grandparents did. On top of the big mortgages, college loans and the rising child education costs, they face the fact that few employers offer traditional pensions anymore, meaning they take on more of the burden of retirement. Plus, the future of Social Security is more uncertain than ever. Unless Congress makes changes, the trust fund that helps pay for the federal entitlement is likely to be exhausted by 2040 — about the time most Gen Xers hit retirement.

Credit card debt, too, remains another big roadblock to many people. As many as 40 percent of Gen X women and 58 percent of men said they carried a credit card balance of $5,000 or more, according to a 2006 survey of 300 people by OppenheimerFunds. Nearly half of women interviewed said they would rather buy 30 pairs of shoes than save $30,000 for retirement.

Waiting to pay off that debt before saving for retirement could be a big mistake, said Doug Charney, president of the Charney Investment Group of Wachovia Securities in Harrisburg, Pa.

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“Pay yourself first,” Charney said. He advises people to set aside at least 15 percent of their income into a retirement account. If that’s too much, people should start small with maybe 4 percent or 5 percent and gradually increase the contribution as they get pay raises. 

“If you don’t save 10 percent of your income, you won’t be able to maintain the lifestyle you’re used to,” Charney said. For many people, that equates to saving about $2 million by retirement, after accounting for inflation. Those who haven’t put away enough money may have to work into their 70s. (Charney later sent an e-mail raising his target to 15 percent of income.)

Still, many people don’t understand how to invest or what is the best way to invest, and some are spending the retirement money they do save, according to surveys by financial institutions. As many as 40 percent of people cash out their 401(k) money when they leave a job rather than rolling the money over to grow in another retirement account, according to the Principal Financial Group.

Count Robert Betts as one of those people who made that decision. Burned out on his job at a Manhattan advertising agency, the 36-year-old Betts quit his job in 2005 and blew through $28,000 from his 401(k) plan while unemployed for 18 months. Now working for a Denver ad agency, he puts $500 a month into his 401(k) in an effort to catch up.

“When you see your 401(k) grow on top of what you put into it, it’s tough to swallow that you could have been doing that for 10 years,” said Betts. But he doesn’t regret using the retirement money to take time to clear his head.

“I could die poor in the gutter at 60, and I wouldn’t regret taking that money,” he said. “I’m much happier, and my career is on track.”

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