The decision of how much to save for retirement is a complex one, as it requires collecting and processing information on a large set of variables including Social Security and pensions, inflation, and interest rates, to name a few, and also making predictions about future values of these variables. It is also necessary for the consumer to understand compound interest, inflation, financial markets, mortality tables, and more. Nevertheless, little research has asked exactly how households make saving decisions, how they overcome the difficulty of making those decisions, and whether they are financially literate enough to make well-informed choices. These topics are of paramount importance, particularly when older households are increasingly required to take responsibility for investing and allocating their pension wealth. This is a particular concern for women, who tend to live longer than men and have shorter work experiences and lower earnings.
To gain insight into how households make saving decisions, Olivia Mitchell and I devised a module on planning and financial literacy for the 2004 Health and Retirement Study. The module includes three questions on financial literacy, as follows:
1. Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2% per year. After 5 years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow: more than $102, exactly $102, less than $102?
2. Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account was 1% per year and inflation was 2% per year. After 1 year, would you be able to buy more than, exactly the same as, or less than today with the money in this account?
3. Do you think that the following statement is true or false? Buying a single company stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.
The first two questions, which we refer to as “Interest Rate” and “Inflation,” help evaluate whether respondents display knowledge of fundamental economic concepts and basic numeracy. The third question, which we refer to as “Risk Diversification,” evaluates respondents’ knowledge of risk diversification, a crucial element of an informed investment decision
The responses to these three questions among a sample of 785 women age 50+ in the 2004 HRS module on planning and literacy indicate widespread illiteracy. Only 61.9 percent of women correctly answered the interest rate calculation question. This is a relatively easy question, so it is surprising that so many were unable to respond correctly, particularly because these older women have most likely made numerous decisions involving interest rates over their lifetimes (e.g. credit card rates, mortgage financing rates, etc). Respondents were more accurate about the inflation question, with 70.6 percent answering correctly. By contrast, only 47.6 percent of the women respondents knew that holding a single company stock implies a riskier investment than a stock mutual fund.
Note also that only less than half of all respondents could answer correctly both the interest rate and inflation questions. This is a remarkably low ratio, taking into account the complex financial calculations that households on the verge of retirement have almost surely engaged in over their lifetimes. Also disturbing is the fact that only 29 percent of respondents could answer all three questions correctly.
These findings raise concerns about the ability of women to make sound saving and investment decisions over a long retirement period. In an environment where individuals rather than employers and governments are charged with handing retirement finances, it is essential that consumers become more financially literate in order to be more successful at retirement.