Research sheds light on spending in retirement — suggests we spend less as we age

January 12, 2023

It’s an age-old question — and also, an old age question: do people spend less money as they age?

For answers, Save with SPP reached out by email to Dr. Susann Rohwedder of the RAND Corporation in California. She recently discussed the findings of a 2022 research paper, entitled Explanations for the Decline in Spending at Older Ages (Rohwedder, Hurd, Hudomiet 2022).

In her presentation on the research, Dr. Rohwedder says it is important for people to be aware of what their spending patterns in retirement could be, in order to plan on how much to save. Her research suggests that real household spending (adjusted for inflation) declines as people age and their health declines. 

We asked her a few questions on the general finding that people spend less as they age.

Should people be more or less concerned about running out of money?
Our findings are about the shape of the spending trajectory which helps individuals and households better anticipate their spending needs over their retirement years. We consistently find declining (real) spending trajectories across various groups, and it appears that for most households the declines are due to reductions in enjoyment related to various types of spending as health declines and other ageing related changes occur (e.g. widowing, loss of friends/social contacts). Households who thought that real spending would increase with age could use this information to update their expectations, possibly easing some worries of running out of wealth.

Often income replacement rates are mentioned as a retirement savings target — what do you think of this kind of planning target?
Regarding replacement rates, I do not find them a useful concept for financial planning for retirement in a world of where much of retirement wealth is not annuitized, and where the concept of retirement is not that well defined (such as retirement in dual earning households; and what about those who return to work/unretire?). In their financial planning for retirement, households should start with considering their spending needs over the course of their retirement years. Because of the shorter time horizon, working out desired living standards for the early retirement years tends to be easier than anticipating spending needs some 20-30 years into the future. Once having decided on the level of spending at the beginning of retirement, households can use the shape of the spending trajectories, that is, the rates of spending change that we have estimated, as a broad guide for how their spending will evolve in their later retirement years. Contrary to the common assumption that real spending in retirement will be constant or even increase, we found that spending tends to decline for most households, and this does not appear to be the result of tightening budget constraints with age. This is also what we found in another recent report on Spending Trajectories After Age 65.

Do people oversave?

Some do, some don’t … there is substantial variation across households. An important consideration in this regard is the economic position of households throughout their working years. Among households that reach retirement with few economic resources, some were not always poor and could have saved more. Those who have always had to live on very limited means, saving more earlier in life would have meant cutting necessities (food, rent, etc.). This demonstrates that the assessment of over- or under-saving should be viewed in the context of households’ lifetime resources.

Our finding about the shape of spending trajectories at older ages is a critical input to improving financial planning for retirement and also to assessments of whether people over- or undersaved. For individuals and their households is not easy to anticipate spending needs some 20-30 years into the future. Traditional wisdom suggests flat or even increasing spending at older ages. However, our estimates suggest that spending after age 65 declines consistently by about 1.7 – 2.4 per cent in real terms. This finding applies broadly, even among those in the highest initial wealth quartile, and our earlier paper provided plausible explanations for declines in spending at older ages: declining health and other factors that reduce enjoyment of some types of spending. While financial constraints play a role for some, we did not find evidence of tightening financial constraints at advanced ages.

Are there any other findings in this context you found surprising?

In the second (and quite related) report we showed that there was only modest variation in the estimated declines in spending by initial wealth quartile (measured when the individual was between 65-69 years old). So, even among those in the highest initial wealth quartile we found very similar rates of decline in spending as for less well-to-do households. This reinforces our earlier findings that the declines in spending are for the most part not driven by tightening budget constraints with age.

We thank Dr. Susann Rohwedder for answering our questions.

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Written by Martin Biefer

Martin Biefer is Senior Pension Writer at Avery & Kerr Communications in Nepean, Ontario. A veteran reporter, editor and pension communicator, he’s now a freelancer. Interests include golf, line dancing and classic rock, and playing guitar. Got a story idea? Let Martin know via LinkedIn.


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