woman carrying a stack of bills, house and a car
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The average 401(k) balance has nearly doubled from its 2008 lows to $94,482 according to the Investment Company Institute. It seems like that would be music to everyone's ears. Yet a new study based on a survey of middle-class Americans from Wells Fargo (WFC) found that 48 percent of them are "not confident they will be able to save enough for a comfortable retirement."

Why the unease about the future? It's those mounting monthly bills.

We Owe, We Owe, It's Off to Work We Go

We're not talking about wanton spending here. We're talking about people paying their debts -- prioritizing their IOUs -- which leaves them little left over to set aside for retirement.

Nearly 60 percent of those surveyed said that their No. 1 daily financial concern is "paying the monthly bills," with saving for retirement coming in a distant second (13 percent said it was a priority). The ability to pay the bills and save for retirement is simply not possible, said 42 percent of the people Wells Fargo surveyed.

These folks are what financial firm HelloWallet calls "debt savers" -- people who take on debt and maintain it, but at the expense of other things.

While paying your bills on time is obviously a good practice, it also happens to be a great excuse to put off saving for retirement.

A recent Hello Wallet report found that 60 percent of households accumulate debt -- including credit card debt, auto loans, and mortgages -- faster than retirement savings. That puts a damper on people's ability to spend in the short term, and of course makes it difficult to throw extra cash into a retirement savings account for the long term.

Saving Is Harder Than Paying Off

There's never an easy time to start saving. Psychologically, it's painful. It forces you to delay making purchases of what you'd like to have now -- often for years. The gratification is frustratingly postponed, which is why so many Americans fail to develop a retirement plan altogether.
And as the Wells Fargo study makes clear, the ones who don't have a plan are the ones who really aren't sure they'll be able to retire anyway.

For some people, it really would make more sense to take a break from saving for retirement to eliminate their debt. After all, if you have credit cards charging 20 percent-plus interest rates, the return on investment for paying them off far exceeds what you could realistically expect from an S&P 500 index fund.

An alternative would be to boost retirement contributions so that the pace of saving for retirement exceeds that of paying off debt.

But there is another way, and that is to rethink the role of debt -- even so-called "good debt."

A New Framework for Debt

The ideas of "good debt" (think student loans and mortgages) and "bad debt" (such as credit card debt and car loans) have long been part of the accepted canon of financial wisdom. But the delineation is no longer serving people well. We've got to free our minds of the notion that there's "good debt" and "bad debt."

Buying a home might seem like the right thing today -- but don't expect your home to provide for you in your golden years. Historically, home prices have a horrible track record.

According to Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller, a $100,000 home is historically worth only $112,723 after a 30-year mortgage is paid off. But the same amount invested in large-cap stocks would be worth $719,677 -- even after adjusting for inflation.

Granted, that's not entirely a fair comparison. You do have to live someplace. And, yes, you can sell your home to get cash in retirement. But as the example above shows, you're not going to profit much.

Buying a home is not the same as saving for the future. And stretching your paycheck to buy a home that leaves you with little left over each month to invest elsewhere is not a sound financial move.

The lesson here is clear: Figuring out a rough estimate of how much you'll need to retire -- and developing a plan to gradually get there -- is the first step to a comfortable retirement. The critical next step is to rethink how you want to direct your dollars -- and whether taking on debt -- even "good" debt -- is going to serve you well in the long-term.

Adam Wiederman has no position in any stocks mentioned. Click here to read Adam's free report on how to ensure a wealthy retirement. The Motley Fool recommends Wells Fargo. The Motley Fool owns shares of Wells Fargo.

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