Building Up, Spending Down

Financial Literacy, Retirement Savings Management, and Decumulation

by Angela Hung, Erik Meijer, Kata Mihaly, Joanne K. Yoong

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As employer-provided pension plans have largely shifted from defined benefit (DB) to defined contribution (DC) pension plans, responsibility for plan investments and the accompanying risks have also shifted from the provider to the employee. Employees have to decide how much to contribute to their plans, how to allocate their retirement accounts between various investment options, and how they will spend down or decumulate their retirement funds during retirement. This raises the question of whether most employees are well-equipped to make such decisions. Empirical research suggests that large segments of the United States population do not feel financially well-prepared for retirement, and suboptimal financial decisions have been attributed to lack of financial literacy. The authors investigate this hypothesis by constructing multidimensional financial literacy indices using modern psychometric methods. They assess the relationships between a wide array of DC contribution, investment and (planned) decumulation behaviors on the one hand and these financial literacy indices on the other hand, controlling for other socio-economic and demographic determinants. Their indices measure financial literacy well, but the dimensions that they represent (objective and self-assessed financial literacy, broken down by topics) are very highly correlated, so that the multidimensional nature does not offer much additional explanatory power over a simpler one-dimensional index. Consistent with earlier empirical findings, they find large fractions of “investment mistakes”. Surprisingly, however, the relationships between investment behavior and financial literacy are often weak and nonsignificant. They do find that financial literacy is related to retirement planning, but not to retirement preparedness.

This paper series was made possible by the NIA funded RAND Center for the Study of Aging and the NICHD funded RAND Population Research Center.

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