When we talk about retirement, we often use abstract terms to talk about the good life waiting for us at the end of a long career.
One day, I'll be rich… When I stop working, I'll… Eventually, I'll have enough money for…
It makes sense that we talk about retirement in such vague, far-off terms because, after all, we don't really know what the future holds.
But when it comes to our finances, there are certain truths that are more than self-evident—one of them being that the more you save now, the more money you'll have in retirement.
There are many reasons that you would want to save for retirement as early as possible, but here's the biggest one:
Years from now, you'll want to quit working and spend your time doing the things you love. To do so, you're going to need money.
Here are some retirement statistics that will stop you in your tracks
You might have heard that it only takes a little bit of money each month to start building a viable retirement fund—and that's true.
You might have also heard that there are tax benefits to paying yourself first—and you'd be right.
Maybe you've heard stories about ordinary people making the right investment choices so that they are millionaires by the time they reach retirement age—you're correct again.
Could any or all of this also be true for you, too? It sure can—but only if you take action and save for retirement starting today.
If you started a retirement fund when you were in your 20s, good for you. Keep going!
But if you are a late bloomer (say, in your 40s) when it comes to personal finance, it's time to get smart about saving.
It's OK if you can't put aside much right now.
What's more important is that you get started in the first place—and yes, you can do this!
We traversed the internet and gathered some of the best personal finance advice available to help you get started planning for retirement.
Indeed, we've whittled down all the overwhelming information out there to serve up 13 insanely smart ways that'll empower you to start planning and saving for retirement today.
Let's get started!
Figure out how much you'll need for retirement so you can live the good life
"I want to retire rich" sounds like a great plan, but you'll need to be more specific about your financial goals if you have any hopes of achieving them.
The Department of Labor reports that you'll need anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of your current income to retire comfortably in your later years.
Let's break it down:
If you make $50,000 a year, 70% of that is $35,000.
Divide that by 12 months, and you're looking at $2,916 for your monthly income during retirement.
Do you want to travel and live the good life during retirement? We hope so!
Thanks to the power of compound interest (more on that later), starting to save—even a little—can get you on the path to a successful retirement.
But you've got to get moving if you want the good life!
Have you heard of SMART goals?
You can apply them to your finances, too, especially when it comes to saving for retirement.
Here's how SMART would work when it comes to saving for retirement:
Specific: Save money and buy coffee only two mornings a week instead of five.
Of course, you can swap coffee for any other small purchase
The point is that small purchases can add up to big bucks over the years—and those funds can pad your retirement savings account.
Measurable: Use a calculator to see how much money you need to retire, then analyze whether your current savings plan is on track.
Here are a few retirement calculators to play around with:
Achievable: Use an app like Acorns, which automatically rounds up credit card payments and invests the change (which really adds up!)
Talk about a great way to painlessly save and invest a few extra dollars per week.
Realistic: Automate your 401(k) contributions each month so you don't have to think about it.
Aim to have 10—15 percent automatically deducted from your paycheck.
At the minimum, invest enough to claim the full match your employer may offer.
Denise Downey, a certified financial planner from Spokane, WA, says "[The employer match] is actually part of your salary, so you should absolutely be taking advantage of that."
More money from your employer? Yes, please!
Time bound: When you get your end-of-year bonus, contact HR to increase your 401(k) contribution. Many choose to increase their contributions by one percent each year. It might not sound like a lot, and that's the point—you won't feel it.
Add an extra 1% to your retirement contribution each year.
For instance, if you're making $50,000 per year, that's $4,166 per month before taxes.
One percent of that amount each month is $41.66.
Your goal is to get that 1% into your retirement savings account. How?
Break it down into even smaller pieces.
$41.66 per month breaks down to a little more than 10 bucks a week—a very doable contribution to your retirement savings.
Not buying two cappuccinos per week at Starbucks would earn you that $10.
It's easy to get overwhelmed by the thought of funding all of your living expenses 10, 15, or 20 years from now.
By breaking down your retirement goals into manageable pieces like the way we did above, you'll have a better grasp on how to save for retirement.
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Optimize your monthly contributions to boost your retirement fund
You already know you should be making monthly contributions to your 401(k) or IRA. But how much should you be saving?
Many experts at say save "as much as you can."
What does that mean for you?
Well, some will say that 10% is a good rule of thumb, but it only if you got an early start to saving for retirement.
If you're in your 40s, and you're getting a late start, you'll want to shoot for 15% to get back on track with saving for retirement.
In the end, if you really want to have financial security come retirement, you'll have to optimize those contributions.
Notice we said optimize your contributions, not max them out.
There's a reason for that.
If you're making good money, it makes sense to contribute the maximum allowed for your retirement fund every year.
But since it's the IRS, there are going to be details and rules that you need to keep in mind.
Basically, what you need to know is:
- You can only put in $54,000 per year into your retirement accounts to qualify for tax considerations. This amount changes per year. In 2016, it was $53,000.
- How much money you can factor in (how high of an amount you can say you need to save based on your income) from your salary and employer matching is also capped. The compensation is limit $270,000 in 2017. Nice problem to have!
If you're not putting aside money in an emergency fund for short-term financial needs (more on this later), then you should rethink contributing the max amount to your 401(k).
Get your savings on
Here are a few scenarios in which you can make the most of your retirement fund contributions:
If you have a 401(k) or a 403(b), check whether your company matches your contributions, and if so, how much.
You want to be contributing at least enough to get the full company match, preferably more.
If your company does NOT offer a retirement plan, open an IRA at a brokerage firm like Fidelity or Vanguard.
Depending on your situation, you can choose a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA.
- Traditional IRAs enable you to invest pre-tax dollars for retirement—the money grows tax-free, but you'll pay taxes when you withdraw the money in retirement. Paying taxes later isn't the end of the world, since your tax bracket usually is lower than where you were when you started i.e. your income is lower since you've retired!
- Roth IRAs invest after-tax dollars—instead of getting a tax deduction today, you pay taxes now but can withdraw the money tax-free in retirement. They're good if your income is high now and may be lower when you retire.
Like a health care plan, a retirement fund is an important employee benefit.
When you switch jobs, you'll want to keep an eye out for retirement benefits—even more so than a higher salary.
Some companies are better than others when it comes to supporting your retirement.
Take a look at a list of the top companies with the best 401(k) plans, according to Bloomberg.
These employers are regarded as the best of the best in helping you reach your retirement goals fully funded.
Congratulations if you're already working for one—be sure you are taking advantage of all the benefits!
Companies with the best 401(k) plans:
- Philip Morris International
Think before you fund additional retirement accounts.
While saving more money sounds like it will automatically improve your financial future, you'll need to pay attention to which funds work better when it comes to tax benefits.
Plus, some accounts may charge fees if your balance isn't high enough.
If your company doesn't have a 401(k), here's another option for you: the myRA.
As far as retirement funds go, it's one of the easiest to manage because you don't have to make any investment choices: The myRA is invested only in a U.S. Treasury retirement savings bond whose value is guaranteed.
Ted Beck, president, and CEO of the National Endowment for Financial Education, has this to say about investing in a myRA:
If you are very risk-averse, and many people are, this is a guaranteed rate. You don't have to worry about having your balance go below what you started at or fees chewing away at your principal.
Did we just say "guaranteed"? We sure did.
There aren't many guarantees in life, and there are practically none when it comes to money.
Small contributions to your myRA are fine, as there are no fees for low balances
There is one drawback—once your balance reaches $15,000 or the account is open for 30 years, you must rollover your myRA into a Roth IRA.
Speaking of rollovers, don't forget that when you switch jobs, you have to rollover your previous 401(k) into whatever retirement fund your new employer is (hopefully) offering.
There is some paperwork involved, but it's mainly taken care of by the HR departments at your former and current companies, so get it taken care of soon after you start your new job.
Understand the power of compound interest (and how it can boost your retirement nest egg)
Grab a calculator—it's time for a quick lesson in compound interest.
In simplest terms, it's interest that earns interest.
Basically, when the balance of your retirement fund earns interest, that interest gets reinvested to earn more interest so that the whole sum grows and grows.
Using 7% as the annual rate of return, here's what an IRA max contribution of $5,500 per year looks like over the decades if you started saving at age 25:
You simply can't get that large of a return on investment with a regular savings account—which offers, on average, less than 0.25% in interest. So while you can't pull a stress-free retirement out of a hat, it makes sense to take advantage of compound interest. Yes, it's math, but it still seems like magic, right?
It's enough to make you want to work longer and keep saving, right? Just kidding. The point of all this financial sacrificing is so that one day you'll take your leave of the rat race. You'll get there, but you do have to do one thing above all…
Make saving a priority and sleep better at night
Who here hasn't laid in bed unable to sleep while their mind spins with thoughts about how their bills or piling up or how they'll afford daycare next month?
It has to be one of the worst feelings in the world: not sleeping due to stress about money.
You want a good night's sleep. Right? Of course, you do.
Stress about money and security is some of the worst.
Here's how to get rid of the obstacles that are keeping you from saving as much as you can each month:
Pay off debt
Debt gets in the way of everything, but it especially gets in the way of saving. If you've got credit card debt, pay it off as fast as you can.
Explore two popular payoff methods and see which works best for you:
- Snowball method: While paying just the minimum on your other debts, you make a bigger payment on the smallest debt until you pay it off. Then, take that payment and roll it together with what you were paying on the next largest debt. Keep rolling payments over until you're done.
- Avalanche method: This method has you start with the debt that carries the highest interest rate first. You'll save both time and money this way.
Once you've gotten those balances down to zero, take that same figure you were paying your credit card company and apply it toward your emergency or retirement fund.
Remember that a little can go a long way
Finance expert David Bach presents The Latte Factor® as proof that small daily sacrifices can lead you to the life of a millionaire down the road.
Could giving up your daily latte make you a millionaire?
It may, especially if giving up an overpriced beverage gets you thinking about other small sacrifices you can make for the sake of financial independence.
Automate your savings
Your company's 401(k) is deducted automatically from each paycheck, so you won't miss having that extra money in your paycheck.
If you've got an IRA, do the same thing.
If you don't see the money in the first place, you won't miss it.
The more painless you can make your savings each month, the better off you'll be.
Think of the above tips as the "new" form of counting sheep—you'll sleep better knowing you're as focused as you should be on your future finances.
Take advantage of financial planning resources and make that retirement nest egg grow
Many people think they need to have hundreds of thousands of dollars saved up to work with a financial planner.
While wealth managers typically charge a fee equal to 1-1.5% of their clients' assets, companies like Charles Schwab or Fidelity often work with individuals and couples who are just getting started in learning how to save for retirement.
Other low-cost options include robo-advisors—that's a futuristic-sounding term for online wealth management services like Betterment or Wealthfront—that provide resources to people growing their nest eggs.
The major benefit of working with a financial professional is that you've got an expert on your side who understands market volatility and how to make portfolio adjustments accordingly.
He or she is adept at recognizing and managing risk, so you'll get a fair warning when you need to pivot your investments.
And if you don't know your mutual fund from your ETF (more on these later), your financial adviser can help explain complex financial terms in an easy-to-understand manner.
Don't procrastinate because of the paperwork
Keep in mind that it's completely OK to have lots of questions about your retirement fund—but don't wait to get the answers before you open an account.
When it comes to saving for retirement, it's better to act now and ask questions later.
And if you're allergic to paperwork, know that you have options.
Get automated and get rid of the financial paperwork
Even if you're a small potatoes investor (for now), you can still avail yourself of many online financial resources.
Here's a sample of some of the best saving apps out there, according to a survey by PC Mag:
These apps make managing your money ridiculously easy, so if you've got modest savings, you can most likely manage it yourself on your smartphone—for now.
If you're looking for a bit more financial guidance, but aren't too keen on committing to a financial advisor just yet, try one of these user-friendly financial services that help you make more sense out of your money:
- FeeX: Called "The Robin Hood of Fees," this free service helps you lower the fees associated with your IRA, 401(k), 403(b), and other investment accounts.
- ForUsAll: This is the answer for small business owners looking to start a simple 401(k) program for their employees.
- Captain 401: An automated service that removes the hassle—and the paperwork—from the 401(k)
- Betterment: This popular robo advisor offers the best options for investing your money, thanks to a diverse portfolio of global ETFs. The RetireGuide™ helps users figure out how much they need to save for retirement, and if their current savings strategy will get them there.
- Guideline: This is the first (and only) service that completely manages and automates the 401(k) experience based on its proprietary technology.
There are many other online resources and robo advisors out there, so do some research and narrow them down to the ones that best match your financial needs.
Get schooled in investments and get an A+ for your retirement portfolio
If you're like most people, ≈the stock market ticker is just a jumble of numbers and decimal points.
While it's not necessary to get your broker's license to gain a handle on your personal finances, it does make sense to have a basic understanding of the different types of investments available.
Here's a quick list of five key investment terms:
Stocks: When you buy a stock, you are paying to own a (very) small part of a public company. There are many stockholders for any given company, but when the company does well, you'll all do well. The stock market is rather volatile, though—meaning it has many ups and downs. Many experts would agree: Invest in stocks and hang on for the ride, since over long stretches of time, the market typically goes up in value.
Bonds: Even successful businesses need loans from time to time. When you invest in bonds, you are loaning money to businesses, which will later pay you back with interest according to the terms of the bond. Many investors like bonds because they more or less know what they're getting back on their investment. If you like to keep a conservative portfolio, bonds are the way to go.
Mutual funds: These are groups of assets, like stocks and bonds. Mutual funds are ideal for new investors, as it doesn't take much money to invest and build a diverse portfolio that incorporates different types of investments. Diversity is key to investing, as it helps investors manage risk.
ETFs: ETFs stand for exchange-traded funds. These are similar to mutual funds, but they trade on the stock exchange similar to stocks. Regular folks like us like them because they often come with fewer fees and more choices.
Real Estate and Infrastructure
Real estate and infrastructure: Even if you're not ready to purchase your own home, you can still invest in real estate and infrastructure development. Investing in infrastructure, including airports, bridges, and mass transit, offers low-risk alternatives to traditional stocks and bonds.
Again, diversity is key to a strong investment portfolio, so your retirement fund should reflect a healthy mix of most or all of the investments featured above.
Include Social Security in your financial planning and feel secure about your future
As we mentioned earlier, the future of Social Security is uncertain.
If you want to plan for a financial rainy day, then it makes sense not to overestimate your future Social Security payments.
But don't think you're financially savvy by excluding them from your retirement planning.
Why? Isn't it better to err on the side of caution? Not necessarily. Here's why:
If you leave Social Security out of the equation entirely, you're not planning for a rainy day; you're planning for a complete washout, followed by a zombie apocalypse.
That's not being conservative; that's being unrealistic.
While the future of any government program can be iffy, many experts say that even if Social Security doesn't make it for the long haul, there will be something similar to take its place.
So don't lose sleep over Social Security.
All that money you've been paying over the years will still be there in some form or another.
The Department of Labor reports that when you start collecting Social Security, it comes out to about 40 percent of what you earned before retirement.
Use this Social Security calculator to see the likely payouts you'll start to receive in your late 60s.
Remember that retirement contributions are pre-tax, so be smart about saving
Breaking news: Paying income tax is not going anywhere anytime soon.
But consider this: 401(k) and Roth IRA contributions are taken out of your paycheck before taxes.
Sure, you may balk at the idea of paying more money each month into your 401(k) or Roth IRA when you're living paycheck to paycheck.
But your income is only taxed after that chunk is taken out.
So if you start making bigger contributions to your retirement fund each month, guess what?
Your taxable income is even lower, which means you pay the government less.
Depending on how much you can take out, you could even put yourself into a lower tax bracket.
Feeling better about saving for retirement? Good! Let's keep going.
Work with your partner to save for retirement so you can share the good life
What's better than a well-funded retirement account? Two well-funded retirement accounts!
Boost your retirement savings by strategizing as a couple.
Here are two ways to make the most out of your partnership:
- Let the younger partner take on more risk. This is especially important if the couple has an age gap. It makes sense for an individual to take fewer investment risks as he or she reaches retirement age. But the younger partner has more time to recover from market volatility. The younger partner in your relationship should check in with a financial adviser and make the necessary portfolio adjustments.
- Stagger your respective retirements. If you are close in age, it makes sense to retire at a different time than your partner. From a financial perspective, the retiree can begin to live off of retirement payouts while the partner who is still working can max out retirement contributions or perhaps even pay catch-up contributions, which are additional retirement fund deposits that individuals 50 and older can make. From a personal perspective, retirement is a major lifestyle adjustment, and it may be beneficial to experience that adjustment one person at a time.
They're not joking when they say two is better than one—in matters of the heart and money management.
Leave your retirement savings alone to avoid penalties
You shouldn't touch your retirement savings, which is completely different than an emergency fund.
But in some very specific instances, the IRS does let you withdraw from your retirement savings accounts (401(k), IRA, etc.) without having to pay a stiff penalty.
Depending on your retirement fund and your age (you can take out as much as you like when you're 59.5 years old), you are allowed early withdrawals or loans—as exemptions—against your balance.
Here are a few reasons that someone would consider withdrawing money from a retirement fund:
- Down payment for a home
- College costs for a child
- Medical expenses
If you're doing everything right, you're going to see your retirement account grow handsomely over the years.
Admire that balance all you want—but don't touch that account unless it's for an extremely good reason.
Not only will you pay a penalty for early withdrawal, but you'll also set yourself back big time with saving.
When people take a loan, they typically stop saving. They can't afford to pay back the loan and continue [regular contributions] at the same time.
But that's exactly what you need to be doing—paying the bills and saving your money. And if you were to quit or lose your job, you'd need to find a way to keep on keeping on. That's why you need an emergency fund.
Set up an emergency fund so you have extra money when you need it most
The idea here is to let nothing get in the way of your retirement savings. But sometimes, things have a way of getting in the way of everything.
That includes being out of work. Enter the emergency fund, which is the closest you'll get to a real-life superhero.
An emergency fund is just that: Money set aside in case of emergency.
We're talking real emergencies here, not an "I need to buy those shoes" or "I just have to go on vacation this year."
Evaluate your budget
Many people cringe when they hear the "b" word because it forces them to examine their spending habits.
But while a lot of what you hear about budgeting isn't true, it is true that many people will soon realize that they are overspending on the wrong things.
Budgets can change from month to month depending on needs, which is why it's important to evaluate your spending habits on a regular basis.
Save, budget, and manage your money for free
Here is a list of the top five budget apps to consider using:
- You Need a Budget(YNAB): Similar to Mint, these guys promise that you will gain total control over your money. That's a promise worth exploring when it comes to your budget.
- PocketGuard: Connects to your bank accounts so that you always have access to your current transactions and balance. The home screen shows how much money is in your pocket now, your income and how much you've spent. It also analyzes your spending to identify recurring payments, see where you spend your money, and areas you might need to cut back on.
- BudgetTracker: Allows you to manually track all of your accounts, enter expenditures, create budgets and calendars, and even compile notes.
- Wally: This expense tracker lets you log your expenses either manually or upload a photo of your receipts. Wally alerts you when a new bill is due, when you hit a savings goal, and other activities.
- Mint: Track nearly every aspect of your financial life from spending and income, banks and credit cards, retirement accounts and loans, in one place! Setting up an unlimited number of budgets is easy, and spending is simple to track. Mint makes it easy to see what you have and what you owe without letting anything fall through the cracks.
- Acorns: This nifty little app rounds up expenses made on your credit card and deposits the difference into a designated savings account. So if you spend $97.73 at the grocery store, expect to find $2.27 deposited into your retirement savings account, for example.
Figure out where to cut spending
If you find that your money is "disappearing" each month, it's time to find out the source of your overspending.
Ask yourself these questions for starters to see where you might save some bucks:
- Do you keep forgetting coupons at home when you go food shopping?
- Are you spending a ton of money at a gym you don't use?
- Are you paying for a pricey cable TV package full of channels you barely watch?
- Do you eat in restaurants or order take-out more than you cook your own meals?
Aim for a six-month cushion.
This is where most people zone out during an emergency fund discussion.
To be fair, six months of expenses is a lot of money, but no one is expecting you do to it quickly.
Take it month by month.
Even saving money for a month's worth of savings is better than nothing.
Keep saving, and soon you'll have two months.
Six months doesn't sound like a pipe dream anymore, does it?
You've got to start somewhere, so give yourself a break and give your emergency fund some breathing room.
The point is to get started.
Hopefully, you'll never need to crack open the emergency piggy bank, but if you do, you'll be glad you stuck to a budget and made the necessary budget sacrifices.
Don't regret past financial mistakes—focus on saving for the future
Here's a bit of advice that's more personal than finance: Now that you know how to save for retirement, don't wallow in past financial mistakes. It's not healthy, and it's certainly not productive.
Follow these five steps to push past regret, encourages Dr. Reynolds, and yes—you will be able to move forward:
- Accept your regrets as part of being alive. Take it from Henry Kissinger: "Accept everything about yourself—I mean everything. You are you and that is the beginning and the end—no apologies, no regrets."
- Don't overemphasize what was bad about your choices. OK, so you mismanaged your money—you blew your bulk of your pay instead of stashing some away like you knew you should have. It happens. Now, suck it up and save as much as you can per paycheck, then save a little more.
- Claim today as the best you have with what you now know. The doctor's quote above about enjoying what you have and applying lessons you've learned? It totally applies to your dollars and cents sense. Work with what you got, and then make it work for you!
- Make time to reflect on what you are grateful for. Your paycheck. The roof over your head. Friends and family who love you. Things may not be perfect, but they could always be worse.
- If you are dwelling in regret, change something. To regret not saving sooner for retirement is counterproductive. If you think you're behind in saving for retirement, all you can do is keep saving. Math is good like that—things will eventually add up!
When you make saving a priority, good things will happen—and not just to your bank account.
You'll start to figure out what matters most to you in life.
You'll cut out many small expenses that cost money, but that offer little long-term enjoyment or return on investment.
Maybe you're happy with the current balance of your retirement fund. If so, keep it up.
Don't be discouraged no matter where you are in your savings journey
Maybe you're a bit shell-shocked and are seriously thinking that your career is going to end the way it started—with a diet of ramen noodles.
If it's the latter, take heart: You're turning over a new leaf in your personal finances starting today, even if that means just putting aside a few bucks here and there for now.
The point is to get started! By using some of the tips and tricks we've shown you here, you'll soon establish momentum in saving for retirement.
With a little bit of investment in taking care of yourself, you'll be able to quit your job in the future and spend the rest of your days doing what you love.
Now, that's a goal worth pursuing!
How far along are you on fuelling your retirement plans?
Better yet, what's the best advice you have heard about planning for your golden years?
Some people plan to save less and move to a place where their dollars go for more. You?
Let us know in the comments below.