It’s not hard to find a wide range of statistics that paint very different pictures about the state of Americans’ retirement savings. The Employee Benefit Research Institute (ERBI) just released its annual Retirement Confidence Survey, providing the most up-to-date research on the subject of retirement and Americans’ attitude towards it.

As you would expect, American workers’ confidence in their chance for a comfortable retirement plunged to record lows between 2009 and 2013 due to the Great Recession. But over the past couple of years, that sentiment has rebounded along with the stock market. (For more, see Retirees: 7 Lessons from 2008 If There’s Another Crisis.)

One thousand workers were asked a series of questions in the ERBI survey. The first was “How confident are you that you and your spouse will have enough money to retire comfortably throughout your retirement years?” The survey found that 21% of workers are very confident, statistically unchanged from 2015. Nearly half (42%) said they were somewhat confident – a sharp rise from 36% in 2015; meanwhile, 19% were not at all confident, down from 24% last year.     

What will those numbers look like in 2016? Despite the stock market’s rough start to the year, confidence has been steadily rising since falling to a short-term bottom in October, according to the University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment survey. (For more, see Gloom and Doom in Global Markets in 2016?)

As one would expect, people with a tax-advantaged retirement plan are far more likely to believe in their ability to retire comfortably: 26% of respondents with a plan were very confident compared with 10% of those who didn’t have a plan. Same with debt: Of those who listed debt as a major financial problem, only 9% said they were very confident while 50% said they weren’t confident at all. In contrast, 32% without a debt problem were very confident.      

Studies show that Americans had $3.4 trillion in credit card debt as of November of 2015, with an average household debt level of $15,779. The United States is the 10th-most indebted country in the world from a debt-to-GDP measure. The ERBI survey found that 63% of workers are saving something for retirement, but more than 25% of those respondents have less than $1,000 in savings of any type and more than 50% have less than $25,000 in the bank or retirement accounts.     

When asked why they hadn’t saved more, 40% of respondents said that their cost of living was too high. Salary was also a factor: 11% of respondents cited not being paid enough as the reason for insufficient savings, making it the second most popular answer. It’s clear that many Americans’ poor financial situations severely limit their ability to save.   

Medical Needs

Only one out of six employers offers health insurance to retirees, so retirees have to rely largely on Medicare for their health insurance coverage. In order to more fully cover medical needs, retirees have to get Medigap or Medicare Advantage plans that come at an additional monthly cost. Add to that coinsurance and/or copayments and medical expenses can add up fast in retirement.

According to the EBRI survey, only about one-fifth, or 22% of people are very confident in their ability to pay for their medical expenses. (For more, see Medicare Part D Changes in Paying for Drugs and Medigap Vs. Medicare Advantage: Which Is Better?)

That number jumps to 42% for current retirees, indicating that based on current economic conditions, things aren’t turning out to be as bad as some people fear. For more, see What Will Healthcare Cost After Retirement?

Retirement Planning Sentiment

Maybe the problem is that Americans don’t know how to plan for retirement and that affects their level of confidence. While 63% of the ERBI survey respondents said they were very confident in their ability to make a budget, only 30% said the same thing about retirement planning.         

Knowing how to do a budget doesn't mean actually doing one. In fact, one Gallup study found that only one-third of Americans actually make a "detailed written or computerized household budget" every month.  But once they reach retirement, 54% of retirees in the ERBI survey state they understand retirement planning and 70% say they understand Social Security, compared to 40% of pre-retirement Americans. Introduction to Social Security will help you catch up.     

All the same, when asked what percentage of their household income they need to save for retirement, answers were all over the map, with 22% saying that they didn’t know. We can help you do better: Retirement Savings: How Much is Enough? will walk you through figuring this out for your situation.

Bright Spots

There are definitely some statistics in the ERBI survey that are worth celebrating. First, approximately 33% of Americans are very likely to get advice from an independent financial services company or advisor, and another 31% will ask their plan provider for help. Only 18% said they would phone a friend. This indicates that people understand the importance of professional financial advice.     

Second, only 23% have taken a loan from their retirement plan. Although loans may have some advantages in select situations, robbing yourself of the capital gains that come from having the money fully invested is a better financial move. (For more, see Should You Borrow From Your Retirement Plan?)  

Finally, only 13% are planning to delay their expected retirement age. That’s down from 25% in 2009.

The Bottom Line

Are Americans more confident about retirement than their situation warrants? Ready or not, each retiree will find out when the time comes. It's possible that actual retirement is less daunting than workers expect – or that retirees find a way to settle their circumstances by the time they actually retire: While 44 % of workers say they don't have a problem with their debt level, that number rises to 67% for retirees. And 39% of actual retirees are very confident that they have enough money for retirement, compared to 21% of those still working. As noted above, a tax-advantaged retirement account and lack of problematic debt are two factors contributing to the feeling of confidence. Professional help with planning can also be useful.

The savings levels reported in the survey show that not all is well. And that's backed up by other data. In January 2016, a Bankrate survey found that approximately  63% of Americans didn't have the savings to handle a $500 or $1,000 emergency. Clearly, conditions have not changed all that much since Bankrate reported in 2013 that  76% of Americans living paycheck to paycheck. (For help in that department, see Paycheck to Paycheck: 5 Ways to Start Saving Now.)

But ERBI  respondents overwhelmingly said that their personal financial situation wasn’t a big problem. Only 15% called their current situation a major problem and 44% said that it wasn’t a problem at all. The good news for everyone still working is that the economy has given more Americans the opportunity to save a little more for retirement. Now they just have to do it.

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