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Many Americans Can't Afford an Emergency Expense. Some Are Calling for Employers to Help With That

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  • Many workers have trouble accumulating enough savings toward retirement.
  • One reason is many take early withdrawals from retirement plans to pay for immediate expenses.
  • Now, some are calling for employers to address the problem by creating plans to encourage emergency savings.

Putting away enough savings for retirement has always been a struggle for many Americans.

One reason workers tend to fall short: they often dip into the money they have set aside for their golden years.

Now, some experts and lawmakers are discussing one idea that could help workers avoid that – by enabling employers to offer emergency savings plans.

The programs would work similarly to retirement savings programs many employers already offer, allowing employees to save for unforeseen events alongside the long-term funds dedicated to their later years.

The idea surfaced at a recent Senate hearing on retirement security. The discussion painted a grim picture of where some Americans are with regard to retirement preparation.

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"We were facing a retirement crisis before Covid-19," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said. "But, as with so many other things, this pandemic has just poured gasoline on the fire."

"If we are going to rebuild our country stronger and fairer, we have to address the reality that for far too long, the ways we help families plan for the future have been stuck in the past," she said.

There are complex reasons why Americans have had so much trouble putting money away for the future.

Many workers do not have access to retirement plans through their employers. Even those who do may find it tough to set aside money they could put to other more immediate needs.

Studies also show Americans routinely struggle to come up with enough money to handle an unexpected expense.

In fact, 40% of Americans would have difficulties covering a $400 expense, a 2018 Federal Reserve report found. A more recent survey from Bankrate.com released in January reported that fewer than 4 in 10 people could pay for a $1,000 expense out of savings.

"Unfortunately, an alarming share of Americans have very little emergency savings or even none whatsoever," Shai Akabas, director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said during his Senate testimony.

One way to solve that would be extending the automatic enrollment features now offered for workplace retirement plans to emergency savings, Akabas said. That would enable employers to default their employees into a plan that automatically puts a portion of their paychecks aside for routine savings.

Efforts to address this issue are already underway, including a $50 million emergency savings initiative launched by BlackRock in 2019. But there are challenges to getting such plans off the ground, such as low participation and regulatory barriers, Akabas said.

"Unfortunately, the law is unclear for employers that want to adopt automatic enrollment for these accounts," Akabas said. "Providing regulatory clarity along with reasonable consumer protections will open the door to this promising tool and with it, better savings outcomes."

A bill to help employers experiment with offering these kinds of accounts is expected to be reintroduced this year, Akabas said. That bipartisan proposal was backed by Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Todd Young, R-Ind.; and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., in the last Congress.

Fidelity Investments is among the firms encouraging the adoption of such programs to help workers avoid early withdrawals from their retirement savings, Dave Gray, head of workplace retirement products at the firm, said during the Senate hearing.

Last year, 1.6 million Fidelity customers took distributions from their retirement accounts under the CARES Act after the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

"The substantial number of withdrawals demonstrates the need for emergency savings," Gray said.

Legislation could help spur the creation of emergency savings programs that allow participants to earn a match to their retirement plan by contributing to an emergency savings account, he said.

Until then, experts recommend individuals and families put away savings so that they can handle unforeseen expenses when they crop up.

"It generally doesn't happen without having a forced savings into a separate account," said certified financial planner Ted Jenkin, CEO of Atlanta-based Oxygen Financial.

Workers should generally strive to have at least three to six months of cash in a bank account separate from the one for checking, either online or with a community bank, Jenkin said.

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