Sorry, but retiring “comfortably” on $100,000 is a myth for most people. Here’s why.

When it comes to your own retirement, you need to ask yourself a lot more questions. – Getty Images

The new theory that people would be satisfied with a $100,000 retirement is a statistical myth just as dubious as the ideal retirement of $1 million—or $1.46 million, adjusted for inflation. Pick a number, add or subtract zeros, and you’ll likely find a statistic to support your philosophy, which may or may not match reality.

These numbers aren’t wrong, but they also don’t represent people’s actual retirement budgets. The $100,000 figure, for example, comes from a recent analysis of government survey data that has proliferated online. The $1.46 million figure comes from a Northwestern Mutual survey. These broad, important findings come from statistical analysis of retirement surveys, most of which mix quantitative questions with sentiment questions. That’s concrete when you ask someone their age, retirement status, and retirement savings. But it’s a little different when you correlate those answers with sentiment questions. For example: Overall, which of the following statements best describes your current financial management?

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It’s a key question asked each year by the Federal Reserve in its Household Economic and Decision-Making Survey, which surveys 11,000 U.S. adults on a variety of financial topics. The 2023 report found that 80% of people over age 60 said they were doing at least well financially, a higher share than the 72% share of U.S. adults overall.

The Fed didn’t correlate this result with any particular theory of retirement happiness, which would cap savings at $100,000. What led to this number is a bit more theoretical than that.

Andrew Biggs, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, examined several years of Federal Reserve data for a Wall Street Journal op-ed and for upcoming research projects. He broke down the age and income distributions by downloading the raw data and filtering it. He was then able to plot the income distribution of people in the early-retirement group, ages 65 to 75, who answered the above questions either “living comfortably” or “getting by” — the negative responses being “barely getting by” and “struggling to get by.”

The magic number? The study found that 86% of people with savings of $50,000 to $99,999 were doing at least fairly well.

This is where things start to get a little confusing. Some of Biggs’ colleagues who are retirement experts have challenged his reasoning and agenda, such as Teresa Ghilarducci, an economics professor at the New School in New York. Their issue is more with whether or not there is a retirement crisis in the United States, rather than with any particular statistic. Ghilarducci thinks there is; Biggs thinks there isn’t, to put it simply.

But as they and a few others competed in editorials and on social media, the $100,000 figure gained a certain prestige, with a little “telephone game” distortion as it was shared and passed around on sites like Yahoo and other syndication sites.

Biggs wasn’t surprised to hear this, because it happens all the time. “You read a lot of anecdotes, but even if they’re technically true, they lack context. It’s like that line from ‘The Princess Bride’: ‘I don’t think it means what you think it means,’” Biggs said in an interview with MarketWatch.

So, is $100,000 really enough for retirement?

It may seem easier to justify the increase in retirement savings, but the trap is that the numbers are too ambitious compared to reality. The headlines then announce that we are in a retirement crisis, because people are not saving much and are therefore short of money.

At $100,000, which is closer to the average retirement savings for many Americans, budgets are tight. At age 65, you’ll have $750 a month in income that could last about 20 years, growing at a 7% rate. That’s not a lot, but it could be doable if you add it to two large Social Security payments in a household.

But this scenario is far from perfect. It all depends on what you’re talking about and what you mean by “OK.” When it comes to real people, you have to ask a lot more questions.

What exactly do you consider savings? Does that include your home equity, pensions, family contributions, and ongoing employment income? If you have $100,000 and are still working, for example, you could set that aside and it could double in 10 years. You would be much better off, especially if you could wait until you were 70 to apply for Social Security and get your maximum benefit.

And the more important question might be: How much did you earn before? How much you have saved and much of your sense of well-being only matters in relation to your current lifestyle and how you will be able to maintain it in retirement. You are not in a race against hypothetical average people imagined from survey data.

The goal, Biggs said, is to “want to have a smooth retirement, without excess or deprivation. You can’t rely on other people.”

So when you think about what you should think about the numbers you read when you click on retirement surveys, you should think primarily about your own situation.

We should all be more interested in the questions asked than the answers. Ultimately, if you participated, you would be one row out of 11,000 on a spreadsheet, and your row is pretty much the only one that matters to you. It might be better to skip reading the articles about the surveys, click on the survey itself, find the list of questions asked, and do your own personal analysis.

Then you would have the answer to the question of what you think about your retirement — and that’s the one that would really matter.

Do you have a question about investments, how they fit into your overall financial plan, and what strategies can help you make the most of your money? You can write to me at Please put “Fix my portfolio” in the subject line. You can also join the conversation about retirement in our .

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