April is Financial Literacy Month: Social Security and Saving
by Rep. David Scott
As we recognize April as Financial Literacy Month, it is more important than ever that Americans get on track with their retirement savings—especially if they have desires to be among the few who can retire early and truly enjoy it. Personal finance professionals often refer to Social Security, private pensions, and personal savings as the “three legged” stool of retirement income, but for many workers at least one of these legs is missing. Most commonly, retirees come to rely too heavily or solely on Social Security for their retirement income after not accumulating enough savings. For those with nest eggs, they are often little larger than the value of the family house. In recent weeks, there has been intense debate over the aging of the population and strain the “baby boom” generation will place on the Social Security system when they begin retiring over the next decade. America, by and large, is getting older. As the spike in the elderly population will soon place unprecedented pressure on the social safety net, younger American families must prepare to be financially self-sufficient during their golden years. The facts are daunting: in 2000, there were 35 million Americans age 65 or older, representing 12.4% of the population. By 2025, the Census Bureau projects that number will swell to 62 million people. As birth rates continue to decline and medical advances extend life expectancies, the elderly will have to increasingly rely on a shrinking working population to finance Social Security. With fewer workers paying into the system as more Americans retire, Social Security will ultimately be unable to pay 100 percent of benefits by 2041. President Bush has proposed tackling Social Security’s funding problems by allowing workers to divert up to 4 percent of their payroll taxes into personal investment accounts that could be invested in stocks and bonds. Yet despite a nationwide campaign to sell his plan, creating private accounts will do nothing to stabilize Social Security for the long term or sustain guaranteed benefits to retirees, a reality that even President Bush himself acknowledged recently. Further illustrating the problem, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan warned during his testimony before Congress in March that benefit cuts will almost certainly factor into saving Social Security. While the details about how to best save Social Security continue to be worked out, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the working population can expect to receive different government benefits over longer retirements than their parents and grandparents enjoyed. However, with the proper approach we can and must save Social Security as a vital component of retirement security. Surprisingly, the first step most people skip entirely is figuring out just how much money they’ll need in retirement, taking into consideration their desired retirement age and lifestyle. Do you want to travel extensively? Would you like to own a second home for frequent leisure and vacation time? What about anticipated health care costs? These are the first kinds of questions to consider when determining your retirement goals. You can begin planting the seeds for financial security in retirement today if you set goals for yourself, start saving now, and continue each year. There are many helpful resources to help you begin planning for retirement available through the public library, financial advisors, and the helpful American Savings Eduction Council, at www.asec.org. Even if retirement isn’t far away, Congress has passed laws that provide new incentives and opportunities for you to catch up and increase your retirement savings. For example, a few years ago, Congress increased the amount you can contribute yearly to your IRA and 401(k), 403(b), or 457 plans. Many employers also allow workers age 50 and over to make an extra “catch-up” contribution each year to these plans. The most important point to remember is that it’s never too late to start saving and making smart decisions that move you closer to a comfortable retirement. For young people who are just starting out or have yet to enter the workforce, parents must lead by example and teach their children to design and stick to a plan for earning, spending, saving, and investing in a financial environment that is becoming increasingly complex. As the author of the Financial Literacy and Education Act, I am working closely with others in Congress to help teachers produce financially savvy adults by teaching money management at an early age. Although the Social Security debate is likely to continue over the next several years, with smart planning and saving you can build a foundation that provides a lifetime of financial security right through retirement. Congressman David Scott is the representative for Georgia’s 13th Congressional District. He is a member of the House Financial Services Committee and Financial and Economic Literacy Caucus.