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COVID-19

Downturn leads some to withdraw early from retirement accounts

Sabri Ben-Achour May 15, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
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The economic slump is making some Americans spend down liquid assets. Ian Waldie/Getty Images
COVID-19

Downturn leads some to withdraw early from retirement accounts

Sabri Ben-Achour May 15, 2020
The economic slump is making some Americans spend down liquid assets. Ian Waldie/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

Congress waived some of the penalties for withdrawing money from retirement accounts, and some people are going for it.

“People are definitely withdrawing,” said Matt Schulz, chief credit analyst at LendingTree, which recently surveyed 1,200 people with retirement savings accounts.

“About 30% of them said they had withdrawn funds from that account within the last couple of months,” Schulz said. “Another 20% said they would do so.”

Fidelity Investments, which manages retirement accounts for 23 million people, says it’s only seen about 373,000 people take a withdrawal. Meghan Murphy is senior vice president.

“It represents about 1.5% of the people who we keep retirement plans for,” Murphy said. She said almost 9% of people have decreased their contributions, almost double the number a year ago. Vanguard says its customers were withdrawing at about the same pace as last year. Whatever the exact number of people withdrawing from their retirement accounts, David John, senior policy adviser at AARP, expects it to rise.

“Many people have been using more liquid forms of savings to get through this month,” John said. “Now, they’re going to turn to retirement accounts.”

Americans weren’t doing a great job saving for retirement — or saving, period — even before coronavirus. 

“Half the population did not have a savings account in 2019 and did not have money for a rainy day,” said Torsten Slok, chief economist at Deutsche Bank.

People who have to make withdrawals or lower their contributions may leave this downturn even less prepared for retirement. LendingTree says the average withdrawal in its survey was $6,800. Over 30 years at 5% interest, that would have become $30,000. 

Correction (May 18, 2020): An earlier version of this story misspelled Matt Schulz’s name. The text has been corrected.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What does the unemployment picture look like?

It depends on where you live. The national unemployment rate has fallen from nearly 15% in April down to 8.4% percent last month. That number, however, masks some big differences in how states are recovering from the huge job losses resulting from the pandemic. Nevada, Hawaii, California and New York have unemployment rates ranging from 11% to more than 13%. Unemployment rates in Idaho, Nebraska, South Dakota and Vermont have now fallen below 5%.

Will it work to fine people who refuse to wear a mask?

Travelers in the New York City transit system are subject to $50 fines for not wearing masks. It’s one of many jurisdictions imposing financial penalties: It’s $220 in Singapore, $130 in the United Kingdom and a whopping $400 in Glendale, California. And losses loom larger than gains, behavioral scientists say. So that principle suggests that for policymakers trying to nudge people’s public behavior, it may be better to take away than to give.

How are restaurants recovering?

Nearly 100,000 restaurants are closed either permanently or for the long term — nearly 1 in 6, according to a new survey by the National Restaurant Association. Almost 4.5 million jobs still haven’t come back. Some restaurants have been able to get by on innovation, focusing on delivery, selling meal or cocktail kits, dining outside — though that option that will disappear in northern states as temperatures fall. But however you slice it, one analyst said, the United States will end the year with fewer restaurants than it began with. And it’s the larger chains that are more likely to survive.

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