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Affluent Set High Bar On Retirement Expectations


While middle America struggles to save for retirement, one would expect wealthy people to be in far a better position to save.

Turns out, F. Scott Fitzgerald was not quite right when he wrote, "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me."

Just like many Americans, affluent people are increasingly worried about what life will be like in retirement, and their concerns have become more pronounced since the Great Recession. Plus, they have rather unrealistic expectations, with 79% expecting to retire full time, 76% expecting to live on 80% to 100% or more of their current income and the average affluent individual anticipating living to age 85

These were some of the key findings from a recent presentation on "Retirement Security and the Affluent," hosted by the Retirement Income Industry Association. The information was based on the Phoenix Wealth Survey of affluent households with $1 million or more in net worth, not including their primary residence. This group represents about 7% of the total U.S. population.

"The Great Recession has impacted affluent investors' needs and concerns," said Walter H. Zultowski, principal of WZ Research & Consulting. "Wealth does not ameliorate retirement security concerns. Traditionally, retirement security for the affluent was primarily about lifestyle protection. The Great Recession has heightened their concern over all risks associated with retirement security-even the risk of outliving assets."

Among 10 financial goals of the affluent, the top four are focused on retirement, with the first being having a comfortable standard of living in retirement (cited by 87%), followed by not running out of money in retirement (80%), having health insurance in retirement (68%) and long-term care for themselves and their spouse (66%).

Asked what is their most important goal, 46% said having a comfortable standard of living, followed by 23% not running out of money in retirement.

"Retirement for the affluent is much more about ensuring a comfortable standard of living than protecting themselves against running out of money, which is much more of a concern for the rest of the population," Zultowski said.

These goals remain consistent among different wealth levels, whether they are people with $1-$2 million in net wealth, $2-$3 million in net wealth or $3-$5 million in net wealth. It is only when people reach assets of $5 million or more that concerns about having a comfortable standard of living in retirement decline somewhat. Among these pentamillionaires, having a comfortable standard of living is the No. 1 goal for 26%, followed by not running out of money, cited by 17%.

"Something magical changes at this level of wealth," Zultowski said. "Concerns about living standards are replaced by a higher interest in estate planning and protecting against taxes."

Asked what specific risks could threaten their retirement security, 55% of affluent investors said inflation eroding the value of their assets. That was followed by poor investment performance diminishing assets (cited by 51%), assets depleting too quickly (50%), unforeseen healthcare expenses wiping out assets (49%) and outliving assets (47%).

"Prior to the Great Recession, the one thing that was always at the top of the list of risks was unforeseen healthcare expenses," Zultowski said. "The interesting thing for me is the percentage checking unforeseen healthcare expenses didn't go down. Rather, the number of risks that they now have in mind has grown."

Across the various net asset levels, concerns over financial risks to retirement security remain the same-again, dropping slightly only among the pentamillionaire group. For this group, the fear of inflation eroding value of assets is a fear for 43%; poor investment performance, 41%; assets depleting too quickly, 33%; unforeseen healthcare expenses, 32%; and outliving assets, 37%.

"But pentamillionares are still not free of concerns," Zultowski said, "because we still see that four our of 10 have concerns about inflation and poor performance."

Looking at how these retirement security issues have changed over time, they have remained essentially the same except for in 2009, following the financial crisis and steep market drop of 2008. That event appeared to dial down affluent investors' retirement expectations, with slightly fewer worried about a comfortable standard of living and slightly more worried about running out of money in retirement; standard of living concerns in 2009 fell to 41% from 44% the year before, and the fear of running out of money rose to 25%, up from 21% the year before.

"Concerns over standard of living and not running out of money very clearly vary according to the economic environment," Zultowski said. "While a comfortable standard of living remains the most important concern for the affluent across all these years, it does vary."

Zultowski pointed out following the strong market returns in 2009 and 2010, standard of living took back a strong precedence over other financial goals, being cited by 46% of the affluent in 2010, while concerns about running out of money fell to 23%.