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Paying off Debt a Higher Priority for Americans Ages 40-59 Skip to content

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Survey: Paying Off Debt Is Higher Priority Than Retirement Funding

AARP, Ad Council release new campaign to spur increased savings

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En español | Saving for retirement takes a back seat to paying off significant debt for Americans ages 40 to 59, according to a recent survey by AARP and the Ad Council.

The survey is being released as part of a new campaign to encourage more Americans to save for retirement. The effort features public service advertisements (PSAs) and resources available on AceYourRetirement.org. The PSAs introduce viewers to Avo℠, a digital retirement coach who helps break down planning for retirement savings in simple, easy-to-follow steps.

Paying off a significant debt — such as a credit card, student loan or mortgage — was cited by 33 percent of survey respondents as their most important priority, followed by 21 percent who say that building up their retirement fund was most pressing and 11 percent who viewed building up an emergency fund as their top goal.

“Whether we like it or not, Americans are responsible for their financial security in retirement,” says Jean Setzfand, AARP senior vice president for programs. “We know that 7 in 10 Americans approaching retirement (55-64 years old) have less than a year’s income saved for retirement.” 


The survey also found that more than half (53 percent) of those who did not save for retirement in 2018 didn’t do so because they couldn’t afford it after meeting such basic expenses as housing and food. An additional 37 percent say unexpected expenses prevented them from saving for retirement.

While the survey clearly indicates a need for adults ages 40 to 59 to step up their savings, it also showed that 69 percent of respondents put aside some money for retirement in 2018. Among those savers, almost half (48 percent) set a retirement savings goal, something that Setzfand says leads to real savings. More than 8 in 10 (84 percent) of those who set a retirement savings goal last year did save some money for retirement in 2018, compared to just 6 in 10 (60 percent) of those who did not set a goal. 

Other strategies used by retirement savers last year included:

  • Increasing contributions to employer-sponsored retirement plans to get the full match (27 percent);
  • Putting extra income, raises or bonuses directly into retirement savings (18 percent);
  • Cutting back on everyday expenses and spending (17 percent).

For the survey, 1,611 adults ages 40 to 59 were interviewed between Nov. 28 and Dec. 5. Those polled were employed and had an annual household income of between $40,000 and $99,000. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percentage points.

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