Poor and rich retirees spend about the same

Research shows that poor and wealthy retirees spend about the same during their retirement. www.shutterstock.com

There is little justification in giving rich households generous superannuation tax concessions, as wealth has a limited impact on spending and wellbeing in retirement new research suggests. Retirement income is at the core of the controversy around the federal government’s proposed changes to superannuation and yet very little is known about how retirees actually spend their money.

Our research found that, despite the large variation in the income levels of households, wealthier households spend at a similar level to those with more modest wealth.

Retiree couples aged 65-74 spent just $33,200 a year on average, while single households of the same age spent an average of only $18,400 in 2014.

These figures fall below the benchmarks set by the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia (ASFA), which suggests a couple needs $33,784 a year to afford a “modest” lifestyle, and 20% lower than the $23,489 figure it benchmarked for single households in 2014.

In March, the federal government adopted the thinking from the Financial Systems Inquiry that superannuation’s objective was to provide income in retirement to substitute or supplement the Age Pension. But Treasurer Scott Morrison remains under pressure not to go through with plans to limit lifetime non-concessional superannuation contributions to $500,000.

The government appears committed to other super reforms aimed at dismantling super concessions for the wealthy, announced in its May budget.

At present retirement income needs are estimated either as a proportion of income during the working life or by using income “standards” (such as those used by ASFA) which estimate the income needed to attain a given quality of life.

Our analysis, using data from the most recent Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey, shows spending levels are largely driven by cost-of-living pressures such as geographical location (with spending highest in Sydney and lowest in regional South Australia). Household structure and home ownership are also important.

It’s likely that the wealthiest households are indeed “saving” – either deliberately to ensure they can pass on their wealth to the next generation, or to self-insure against possible future aged-care and health expenses – particularly if they own their home outright.

In comparison, retirees who are in the rental market spent on average $11,500 on rent – almost 40% of their total annual expenditure. This points to a need for a real focus on the plight of retirees exposed to the rental market, particularly single-person households.

With a large bulk of their spending swallowed up by rent, these households appear to struggle to afford basic household items. Our analysis showed households that rely on the Age Pension as their major source of income had much lower relative spending on health care and insurance – $1,900 annually, compared to $4,300 for self-funded retirees.

Single-person households also struggled, with almost 80% of households unable to reach even a modest standard of living.

For these households, increases in welfare payments or housing assistance will likely have a greater impact on well-being than raising the current 9.5% Superannuation Guarantee to 12%.

On the positive side, we found that superannuation already provides a valuable source of income for younger retirees – around one-fifth of annual income for those aged 65-74. Superannuation wealth has grown enormously over the past decade. In 2014, households aged 65-74 had superannuation assets 190% higher (in real terms) than their counterparts in 2002.

And this huge growth in superannuation and household wealth has coincided with increases in household spending, with current retirees spending more than previous cohorts.

Further growth of the superannuation system through greater participation and the rising Superannuation Guarantee will likely see the wealth of retirees continue to grow. But until there is a clearer picture of superannuation wealth and retirement income, it will be hard to ensure superannuation reforms deliver on their objective.