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Are you a retirement "have" or a "have not"?

Many Americans are taking the right steps to improve their retirement security -- and many aren't. That's one conclusion of a recent study about IRA usage from the Investment Company Institute (ICI).

The mistakes and omissions people make fall into two time periods -- while you're working and while you're retired. See how the steps you're taking compare to other Americans.

Many Americans aren't saving for retirement

The biggest mistake you can make while working is not saving anything for retirement. The second-biggest mistake is not saving enough.

One of the best ways to save is through an employer-sponsored retirement plan, in which you put money away via automatic payroll deductions and reap substantial tax advantages. Your employer also does the shopping for investments and administrative services so you don't have to. According to the ICI survey, only about 55 percent of U.S. households participate in an employer-sponsored retirement plan.

The remaining 45 percent are eligible to save for retirement through an IRA, which have many of the same substantial tax advantages as an employer-sponsored plan. But the ICI survey reveals that not many of these households actually have an IRA. Of the households that don't participate in a savings plan at work, just 5 percent own an IRA. This leaves 40 percent of American households that have no retirement savings plan at all.

Simply put, if you aren't eligible for an employer-sponsored retirement plan, you should open an IRA and contribute as much as you can each year. If you don't have enough money to meet minimum thresholds established by many financial institutions, the new myRA account sponsored by the U.S. government gives you a simple, safe way to get started with no minimum amount.

The ICI survey also found that just 14 percent of U.S. households made contributions to IRAs in 2014, including households that were also eligible to participate in an employer-sponsored retirement plan. For those who contributed to an IRA, the median amount to traditional (tax-deductible) IRAs was $5,000; the median contribution to Roth IRAs (nondeductible) was $4,500.

Since the maximum contribution allowed in 2014 for either type of IRA for workers under age 50 was $5,500, it appears that the Americans who make contributions to an IRA are contributing almost as much as they can -- good move!

If you're 50 or older, you're eligible to make catch-up contributions of $1,000 per year. But only about 6 percent of U.S. households with workers in that age group are doing so, leaving lots of room for improvement.

Retirees and near-retirees need a plan

According to the ICI study, 70 percent of IRA owners have a strategy for managing income and assets in retirement. Most retirees use the money they withdraw from a traditional IRA to meet such typical retirement costs as living expenses (48 percent), health care (36 percent) and emergencies (23 percent). Withdrawals to purchase a car or boat are low -- just 12 percent do that.

The overwhelming majority of withdrawals from traditional IRAs appear to be calculated carefully -- another good move. Sixty-one percent withdraw the IRS required minimum distribution, 9 percent withdraw a regular dollar amount and 3 percent withdraw a fixed percentage of the account balance or an amount based on life expectancy. All three are reasonable methods.

These results are much better than methods reported by the general population for withdrawing from savings -- many don't have a plan or just "wing it." One possible reason is that IRA owners are much more likely to work with a financial advisor when creating a retirement strategy: 68 percent of IRA owners consult with a professional advisor, and 60 percent consider advisors their primary source of information.

According to the ICI study, IRA owners tend to be older, are more likely to be married and employed, and have college or postgraduate degrees compared to households that don't own IRAs. As a result, IRA owners are better able to take steps on their own to prepare for retirement, compared to the rest of the population, which includes younger workers, workers with lower income or low educational attainment and the unemployed or underemployed.

Many in those groups who don't own IRAs often spend most of their income to meet daily needs, and they may not have ready access to qualified advisors. As a result, they'll be vulnerable to financial insecurity in retirement.

It's likely that the retirement "haves" and "have nots" will correspond to the "dids" and "did nots": Those who did take steps to prepare for retirement are more likely to have a financially secure retirement, and those who did not, won't. At least the ICI study reports good news for Americans who do have the wherewithal to set up an IRA.

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