I recently had the opportunity to do a seminar on a Christian's retirement at a church that's part of our denomination. It's a large church with a sizeable number of older folks. The seminar wasn't only about the financial aspects (it was one of three sessions), but a recent study that I used to frame the financial discussion was helpful, so I thought I'd share it here along with some of those thoughts.
But before we get into it, do you notice a familiar song lyric reference in the article title (which also happens to be the title of a chapter in my Redeeming Retirement book)? Do you remember the song name, rock band, and singer who made it famous? (Answer: Kenny Rogers and the First Edition). Rogers and his band recorded it in 1968. They had a second hit single that same year ("You Know I Love You"), and then a year later, "Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town" went up the charts.
Financial planners like to discuss two life phases: the "accumulation phase" and the "decumulation phase." (Have you noticed that almost no one ever uses the word "decumulate"? Maybe "spending" works better.)
In the "accumulation phase" before retirement, the focus is on saving, spending, giving, and investing wisely with the resources God has entrusted to us. Practicing wise stewardship means that we work to meet our family's immediate needs (1 Tim. 5:8) while also making provision for future needs (Prov. 6:6-8, Prov. 21:20) and especially generosity (2 Cor. 9:6-8).
And, of course, we do all this while placing our ultimate hope and trust in God for our daily provision, now and in the future (Phil. 4:19).
You may see the paradox here regarding our responsibility to plan and act and God's promise to care for us providentially. As with many things taught in Scripture, it's not either-or but both-and.
The Bible instructs us, on the one hand, to wisely steward God's resources while placing our ultimate hope and trust in him for our daily provision. It contains numerous proverbs about saving for the future (Prov. 6:6-8, Prov. 21:20, and others). They're not commands but biblical wisdom that applies to our modern context because even if you want to work for pay for as long as you live, there will practically be a day when you can no longer do so.
Money is essential, but it isn't the most important thing. Still, to live in this world, in most societies, it's right up there on the "gotta have some," kinda like air. The wise steward views money as a resource, a means to an end, not an end in itself. And as Christians, we know that our true worth isn't our net worth; it lies in being rich toward God (Luke 12:21).
In retirement, we enter the "decumulation" phase, which means spending down our assets (and sometimes hauling stuff off to Goodwill or the Salvation Army). The goal is to maintain a reasonable standard of living by combining various income sources, including whatever retirement savings we have to fund it. Regardless, we want to wisely use whatever we have to provide for our families and live a life that honors and glorifies God.
Some will have more resources, and some less when they get to retirement. As we'll see, there is a wide range in retirees' savings and income profiles.
This graphic illustrates five different financial profiles of retirees based on expenses and available income sources. It's from some research in 2021 by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. They identified these five distinct financial profiles among retirees aged 62 to 75 with total financial assets under $1Mil, representing about 90% of all retirees in the U.S. It's a diverse group with a lot of variation in things like assets, types, and amount of income, debt, health, homeownership, marital status, and gender.
First and foremost, we see that most retirees aren't "wealthy" by most definitions. (According to Forbes, financial professionals consider "high-net-worth" households as those with liquid assets, i.e., don't include assets like home equity, of between $1Mil. and $5Mil.) Even the "affluent" group (19%) falls short of that standard. Many retire with much less and live on a very tight budget.
Average Retirees (29%)
"Average Retirees" usually have more modest financial assets than those with an affluent or comfortable profile ($100K or less) and incomes between $40,000 to $100,000 annually. Most of them rely on Social Security and pension plans (which are quickly going the way of the dinosaurs), but credit card debt seems to follow them like a relative who won't leave, to use one of Dave Ramey's favorite metaphors.
However, in terms of overall satisfaction, they rate their retirement satisfaction level relatively high at 7.8 out of 10.
Comfortable Retirees (22%)
The "Comfortable Retirees" aren't drowning in money, but they're doing all right. They have a moderate income, similar to the Average Retirees, with financial assets between $100K and $300K. They're a mix of homeowners and mortgage payers. This group tends to have diverse sources of income, relying on workplace retirement savings plans (like 401(k)s) and Social Security, and some also have a pension. They may carry credit cards and auto loans, but they're mostly manageable.
Their overall satisfaction score is just a tad lower than the Affluent Retirees at 8.0%
Affluent Retirees (19%).
These retirees have more financial assets than the average and comfortable groups ($300K or more, up to $1Mil.) and incomes of over $100,000. They're mostly mortgage-free homeowners and debt-free. They also tend to have multiple sources of income, with Social Security, pensions, and personal savings being the most common. Credit cards and auto loans are a rarity for this bunch.
Unsurprisingly, they are the most satisfied with their retirement life among all the groups at 8.2%.
If you fall into one of those three, about 70% of those in the study, be humble and grateful. You can probably direct more of your savings towards discretionary spending and generous giving, using it for your good and the good of others with a grateful and cheerful heart (2 Cor. 9:7).
Remember, possessing wealth is not inherently wrong, but the Bible warns us repeatedly about idolizing it—1 Tim. 6:17 says we shouldn't put our hope in wealth, which is uncertain, but instead in God, who provides us with everything we need.
Still, caution is warranted since you can't just cut loose and "let they good times roll," as you may be constrained to the extent you rely on savings for a significant part of your retirement income. In other words, you can't spend whatever they want whenever you want, and be assured you can cover your expenses for the rest of your life.
Plus, there are many risks to deal with in retirement, and I'll discuss those in future articles.
"Just-Getting-By" Retirees (12%)
These retirees are similar to the struggling ones but generally own their homes and have less debt. They believe they've saved enough for retirement—at least half of them do; the others are hopeful but not too confident. They have modest financial assets and income. Social Security is their primary source of income, but personal savings and, for some, pension plans help keep their financial ship afloat. They're frugal spenders, which greatly helps, but housing takes up a big chunk of their budget. On average, they rated their retirement life satisfaction at 7.2 out of 10.
Struggling Retirees (18%)
Next are the Struggling Retirees (18%). It can be tough for this group due to their financial challenges. Their financial assets are low (less than $100K), and their income is below $40,000, barely making ends meet. They're more likely to be renters, and debt, especially credit card and medical bills, is their constant companion and sometimes unmanageable. Social Security is their primary income and is a larger percentage of their total income than the other groups. Not surprisingly, their average satisfaction score was the lowest, 5.8 out of 10.
These two groups combined are about 30% of all retirees with assets under $1Mil., which is a pretty large number. As shown by their satisfaction scores, having little retirement income besides Social Security can be very challenging.
According to a 2022 Gallup poll, 55% of retirees rely on Social Security as their primary source of income, but Social Security typically replaces less than 50 percent of pre-retirement income. And even if Social Security benefits are cut in the future due to funding issues, those with fewer assets or other income will probably not see much reduction.
Other studies have shown that baby boomers generally haven't done a great job saving for retirement. According to a study conducted by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in 2020, the median retirement account balance for those getting close to retirement (age 56 to 61) was $163,577, while the average savings were $260,805. (Other studies put the median at less than $200,000. Divide those amounts by 20 or 20 years, and you see the challenge.)
Many will still be okay, but it's usually due to having a pension or home equity they can tap if needed. There are lots of reasons for this. It's usually not that folks think saving is unimportant; more immediate financial issues or concerns get in the way. And, of course, some Christians intentionally save less and sacrificially give more, which is totally acceptable based on biblical teachings as long as they also provide for their families.
Something I found interesting about the study was that the average retirement "satisfaction rating" by those in the "struggling" and "just getting by" groups was 6.6 on a scale of 1 to 10, and it was an average of about 8.0 for the other three groups. Although it's lower, it's not as large a gap as I would have expected. Despite a sizable difference in assets and income, it seems that having a "satisfying" life in retirement isn't just about money (duh!).
Hopefully, if your finances are challenging, you can get to a place where you believe it's perfectly fine and acceptable to live a "smaller" life in retirement. Not small in productivity and enjoyment, or love, joy, kindness, and generosity toward others—but relative to how much money it takes to pay the bills, be content, and live happily. As 1 Tim. 6:6 reminds us, "Godliness with contentment is great gain." With contentment, you can live each day to the fullest, with a generous heart and life.
To be sure, if you have barely enough to cover your monthly bills, you have to be extremely careful about how you spend your money. Any spending that does not serve a critical purpose has to be eliminated. It's good that money is easily quantified, and we can see precisely how much we have—it lends itself to careful budgeting and spending.
I'm not suggesting that watching your spending will make all your financial struggles disappear. If you're struggling or barely getting by, you'll need to decide the most responsible way to serve Jesus in your situation and work on trusting God's promises to meet all your needs.
You can also seek out family, friends, and church leaders who can help. Also, remember that there can be challenges no matter what your situation. While those struggling or barely surviving can be tempted by fear or hopelessness, those in a comfortable or affluent situation may be tempted to feel self-sufficiency. And greed can rear its ugly head anywhere, anytime.
Get more help
If you're in the "Struggling" or "Just Getting By" categories or are hoping to retire one day and are concerned that you might not be as well-prepared as you'd like, consider picking up my book, Redeeming Retirement: A Practical Guide to Catch Up.