Many Americans fear they'll outlive their savings, but African Americans and Hispanics face an even greater risk of spending the end of their lives in poverty.
Members of those two groups are less likely than white and Asian workers to participate in their employers' 401(k) plans, and when they do contribute, they save less, according to a study scheduled for release today by Ariel Education Initiative and Hewitt Associates.
African Americans and Hispanics also are much more likely to take money out of their 401(k) plans for emergencies, which could further stunt long-term savings growth. And they are less likely to invest in stocks in favor of low-risk investments and real estate, increasing the risk that their savings won't keep pace with inflation, retirement specialists say.
The survey, which analyzed data from nearly 3 million employees at the end of 2007, found significant differences in retirement savings even among higher-income employees. White workers who made $120,000 or more had an average balance of $223,408 in their 401(k) plans, vs. $154,902 for African Americans in the same salary range.
Monica Flamand, 33, a fraud analyst in Chicago who is Hispanic, has a 401(k) plan through her job but has saved only about $6,000 in five years. Her husband doesn't have a 401(k) plan, she says. She worries that Social Security won't be there for her when she retires.
"We don't save," she says. "We should. We could, if we really wanted to, save at least 3% of our paycheck, which is probably what we should talk about doing."
Last year's bear market wiped out 27% of the typical worker's 401(k) plan, according to Fidelity Investments, forcing millions of Americans to save more, delay retirement or both. Many Americans have increased their savings rate in recent months, even as many employers have reduced or eliminated matches to 401(k) plans. But the Ariel/Hewitt study indicates that African Americans and Hispanics will have to save at a significantly faster pace than others to have a chance at a comfortable retirement .
The survey's authors say the savings gap among races can be closed by automatically enrolling workers in 401(k) plans, improving financial literacy and giving workers more time to repay 401(k)-plan loans. Why African Americans and Hispanics are falling behind, according to Ariel/Hewitt:
Angelique Anguiano, 27, of Oak Park, Ill., an account manager for telecommunications services firm Cimco Communications, is putting 5% of her salary into her 401(k) and has saved about $10,000.
Anguiano, of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent, says that her first-generation family didn't talk much about 401(k)s or other retirement instruments. She says the same is true for friends who come from similar backgrounds.
"Our parents didn't necessarily grow up with a strong financial education," she says. "They tend to think of savings as a savings account."
In turn, she has had to learn about financial products and saving for retirement through her college classes and her work experience.
"In the U.S., there is a 401(k) culture where most people simply know that it is something you have," Mike Periu, principal of EcoFin Media, which develops financial literacy content in Spanish and English, said in an e-mail. "This is not the case for many Hispanics. The benefits of a 401(k), or even how to participate, is something new that must be taught."