Most people think about putting money away for retirement as “savings.” However, these accounts are really a form of investing today’s income in the hopes that it grows and provides a nice nest egg for the future. As with any investment, retirement accounts come with a certain amount of risk.
The amount of risk with which someone is comfortable depends on the person, as well as the situation. With retirement, individuals often try to reduce risk as they approach their sixties to protect the money that they have saved since there is less time for rebound.
Managing risk when it comes to retirement savings starts with understanding what risks exist. This is particularly true in light of the fact that more investment decisions are falling to the individual than ever before. Some of the key risks involved with retirement savings include:
Perhaps the most obvious (but still frequently overlooked) risk is inflation. Because of high inflation rates, the money that is put aside now will simply not be worth as much in terms of purchasing power in the future.
Since 1981, the inflation rate has been about 2.8 percent annually. That means people need to earn a return on investments of 2.8 percent just to break even when it comes to inflation.
Furthermore, inflation tends to be higher for retirees largely because of healthcare costs, which have actually grown at a rate that outpaces general inflation. Individuals should always think about inflation in terms of their low-risk investments, which may not even break even if they have a very low rate of return.
Sequence of Returns
The phrase “sequence of returns” refers to the state of the market during the time withdrawals are made. When retirees need to withdrawal from an investment account during a bear market, they will deplete their savings far more quickly than in a bull market.
This is exacerbated by the fact that depleting one’s savings limits the amount of money left to generate returns going forward. While most people focus on the average rate of return before retirement, afterward it is quintessential to consider the sequence of returns. Perhaps this consideration becomes most important when thinking about when to retire.
Ideally, individuals retire during positive market performance. This minimizes the need of liquidating investments to generate an income. When the liquidation happens, individuals may find themselves running out of money before predicted.
While the subject of longevity may seem morbid, it is a critically important consideration for people facing retirement. When it comes to retirement risk, longevity refers to how long individuals will actually live. Funding a retirement that lasts 20 years is significantly less challenging than making the same money last for 30 years.
While no one can predict exactly how long they will live, this consideration does have an impact on how fast individuals spend money once they have retired. Even individuals with a very solid foundation will have trouble generating enough income for 30 years. Yet people today are living longer than ever before, with many individuals living until their late nineties.
Current interest rates are considered fairly low. Retirees should recognize this fact because it means that they can generate only limited returns with “safe” investments, such as Treasury notes. While these notes once generated a return of more than 5 percent, or even 7 percent in the early 1990s, they now have a return of about 2 percent, which does not even cover inflation. As a result, individuals may have to save more than they initially thought when they started saving a few decades ago.
Another strategy is to move these investments into more aggressive accounts with the potential for greater yields, but this comes with the risk of losing considerably. While rates could increase, it leaves many people just starting to save relying on riskier options for the time being.
Healthcare costs continue to increase rapidly. People who do not plan for these expenses may find themselves going bankrupt when something happens. Before retirement, individuals need to think critically about their needs and prepare as best as they can. Looking at current health and genetics can say a lot about likely needs in the future. This will help direct people toward the best options for them.
Individuals also need to consider the level of care that they want. Private nursing homes cost much more than other options. To offset health costs, individuals can purchase long-term care insurance or supplemental policies for Medicare. However, it may also be prudent to save more than initially thought necessary for healthcare expenses, just in case.
Laws can change quickly, creating completely new tax situations. These risks are hard to predict, but they could really take a bit out of retirement plans. For example, taxes could skyrocket, which leaves individuals with traditional retirement accounts with much less money than they thought when they start to withdrawal funds.
On the other hand, people who prepare for this issue by investing primarily in Roth accounts may kick themselves if taxes are much lower when they start making withdrawals than they currently are. Many people try to mitigate this risk by investing in both traditional and Roth accounts so that they can be more strategic in how they withdraw down the road.
It is important to begin saving for retirement as early as possible. Fortunately, it is never too late to take control over retirement planning. Even in the decade leading up to retirement, there are important steps that individuals can take to maximize their savings. This is particularly true if they need to catch up in order to meet their goals.
Individuals in this situation should not feel alone. A survey conducted a few years ago found that three out of 10 individuals over 55 have no retirement savings at all. About 25 percent of responders had less than $50,000. These situations are serious, but all hope is not lost. The key last-minute steps to take when it comes to saving for retirement include:
Delay pulling on Social Security.
The age at which someone starts pulling on Social Security has a big impact on the monthly benefit. When individuals claim before their full retirement age, which is either 66 or 67 depending on birth year, the payments are reduced.
On the same token, payments increase by delaying retirement, at least up to the age of 70. Individuals who choose to retire at 70 will maximize their monthly benefit.
To see how much of an impact this will have in each individual’s particular situation, people can visit the Social Security website and track the payments that they would receive retiring between the ages of 62 and 70. People who are already behind on saving definitely need to make the most of this important benefit. The added effect is that this delay gives people even more time to save.
Diversify accounts to minimize taxes.
Once people retire and start to pull on their traditional 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts (IRAs), they will need to pay taxes on withdrawals. Furthermore, withdrawals become mandatory once individuals reach the age of 70 and a half.
These tax payments can significantly cut into the amount of money available for everyday living. People can help offset this issue by diversifying their retirement savings with a Roth 401(k) and/or a Roth IRA. Both of these accounts require that individuals invest after-tax money, but then no taxes are due upon withdrawal.
Diversification of accounts can help provide better planning for the future since individuals know more fully how much they will have to spend. With fluctuating tax rates, planning with traditional accounts becomes more difficult.
Downsize or consider a reverse mortgage.
One of the best strategies that individuals can undertake to increase retirement savings is downsizing their home, which in turn reduces cost of living. People often find this step necessary to survive in retirement anyway. Doing it early can mitigate some of the headaches that would otherwise come down the round.
However, individuals who wish to stay in their home can consider a reverse mortgage to help cover monthly bills. Such a loan is only available to people over the age of 62.
However, it does come with disadvantages that individuals need to consider. People will need to repay the loan to move. Additionally, they will not be able to leave the home to children unless they pay back the money. Also, these loans often involve a number of fees.
Reduce retirement savings fees.
Once people retire, they have the option to roll over the savings in a 401(k) into an IRA. If individuals have great investment options with the IRA and low fees, meaning less than one percent, then it makes sense to transfer money into that account. While this may not seem like a big deal at first, this move can easily translate into thousands of dollars of savings over the course of retirement.
The best part of this savings is that it requires only a one-time action on the part of the retiree and the savings will continue throughout retirement. These savings are quite significant when one considers how percentage fees compound.
However, individuals should make sure that they perform their due diligence before reinvesting the money. Any IRA should have adequate investment options for meeting realistic goals and charge low fees.
Create a strategic financial plan.
Ideally, individuals create a comprehensive financial plan for retirement savings early in life, but sometimes other factors get in the way. Even people who save diligently face emergency situations that require them to drain accounts.
When approaching retirement with less-than-ideal savings, it is more important than ever before to account accurately for monthly financial needs and figure out how to make the ends meet. Often, this means curbing spending right now to get as much into retirement plans as possible. Sometimes, individuals find that they will need to get a part-time job to cover their monthly expenses once they retire.
However, it is impossible to know these things without mapping out how much people’s financial requirements in retirement and their projected monthly expenses. Of course, much of this practice is prediction, but it also provides some needed guidance for future planning.
While many Americans look forward to their retirement years, saving for this time period can bring a lot of stress. A majority of workers participating in a 2017 AARP survey said they felt that they did not have enough saved for the various expenses, both expected and unexpected, that come with retirement. Part of this problem may relate to the hidden fees associated with retirement accounts, especially 401(k)s.
Often, people do not even know they are paying fees on their 401k, or have little choice in paying them, as their plan is selected by their employer. According to financial expert Robert Hiltonsmith, these fees can cost the average two-earner family more than $150,000 over a lifetime, an amount that accounts for nearly a third of all investment returns.
Understanding the Incredible Impact of Fees on Retirement Savings
Most people saving for retirement do not understand the impact that fees can have on their accounts. In fact, paying a single percent less in fees for an investment over the course of a lifetime can translate to enough money for an additional 10 years of retirement.
Consider three people who all invest $100,000 and achieve a rate of return of 8 percent. One person invests in an account with 1-percent fees and eventually achieves a total of $761,000. Another puts their $100k into an account with 2-percent fees. During the same time interval, this account will only grow to $574,000. The third person invests in an account with 3-percent fees. This account ends with $432,000. These figures demonstrate how seemingly small increases in fees can cut into overall savings.
In 2015 a law professor at Yale published a study concluding that a surprising number of 401(k) plans focus on high-fee funds, and ultimately recommended that employees pay close attention to the fees they pay.
Instead of putting money into plans with high fees, employees may be better off investing in a retirement account outside of their employers’ that will conserve a much higher percentage of their investment for the future. Pew Charitable Trusts has also researched this issue, noting that fees lower the amount of money available for compounding and thus have a reverberating effect on growth through the life of the investment. Unfortunately, many people think that fees are an inevitable part of saving for retirement, but this is not the case.
Pushing through the Confusing Language of Fee Disclosures
Often, 401(k) plans bury the nature and number of fees in pages upon pages of statements and then use undecipherable names to describe them. Since 2012, retirement plan companies have been required to declare the amount and purpose of fees, but that does not mean they do not try to confuse the average investor. Even savvy investors may feel lost in a 30-page disclosure document designed to discourage people from asking questions. Phrases like “asset maintenance fee” and “required revenue fee” seem legitimate, but they actually just refer to revenue sharing and commissions.
To determine if you are paying too much in fees, you will first need to know what an appropriate amount is. In general, fees should be less than 1 percent, but many finance professionals note that they have seen fees as high as 3.25 percent. Some plan managers will try to justify a higher rate by saying that a small company needs to pay higher fees until they grow larger—this is not the case. Ideally, it should be under 1 percent, regardless of the size of the company.
Viewing Employers as a Key Partner in Fee Negotiations
The regulatory changes that took place in 2012 made employers responsible for the plans they select for employees on a fiduciary level. Employers have a duty to select plans solely for the benefit of their employees and are required to review fee disclosure documents within 90 days of receiving them. During this time period, it is possible to make changes to the plan. Company owners and managers can actually face rather significant fines if they do not review the disclosure since it is considered disregard for the welfare of employees both now and in the future. In other words, employees are not alone when it comes to negotiating for better fee structures and should view their employers as partners in this struggle.
Employees should advocate for a joint disclosure assessment with their managers to make sure that the plan is the best for the future. When people take the time to learn what the fees mean and how they may be unnecessary, they can argue for a fairer structure and ultimately put everyone in a better position for retirement.
While historically people could count on Social Security and pension plans to provide a comfortable income during retirement, people today need to save and invest as they prepare for life after work. Luckily, there are wide variety of retirement plans available. However, understanding which vehicle is the best option can be confusing. Learning more about the specific advantages and disadvantages of various plans can help people figure out what they need for their particular retirement needs and goals. One way to categorize retirement plans is to consider those sponsored by employers versus individual retirement accounts.
Retirement Plans Sponsored by Employers
A great way to start saving is through employer-sponsored plans. The most basic employer-sponsored retirement account is the defined-contribution plan, typically a 401(k). A defined-contribution plan involves payroll deductions that go directly to an individual account within the company plan. Ideally, your company will match your contributions, which means that your employer will also put money into the account, up to a certain amount and based on how much you elect to contribute.
Employer-sponsored accounts are generally easy to set up, since the contributions are usually deducted directly from your pay each pay period. They’re also easy to maintain, because the plan administrator handles most of the statements and disclosure. In addition, 401(k) contribution limits are typically higher than those for individual retirement accounts—not to mention the fact that any employer matching is free money. Furthermore, contributions to 401(k) plans reduce your taxable income now. However, you’ll pay taxes on withdrawals from traditional 401(k) accounts during retirement.
In contrast, with a Roth 401(k), your payroll contributions are made after taxes, so your withdrawals during retirement are tax-free. A Roth 401(k) also has no income restrictions, unlike a Roth individual retirement account. Which you choose (traditional vs Roth 401(k)) basically depends on whether you think you’ll be in a higher income tax bracket during your retirement. Roth 401(k)s are often recommended for younger investors, who tend to fall in lower income tax brackets, but there may be good reasons for older investors to consider Roth 401(k)s as well. A financial advisor can help you make the best decision.
There are some drawbacks to defined-contribution plans, the most obvious of which is greater restrictions on investment choices. With an individual plan, you have much more control over where your money is invested. In addition, employer-sponsored plans often come with high management and administrative fees, which can take a significant chunk out of your savings. New employees should also make note of any waiting period before they can make contributions, as this is common. You may also have to wait until you’ve been with your company for a certain period of time (say, a year) before your employer will match your contributions.
Individual Retirement Accounts
The other main option when it comes to saving for retirement is the individual retirement account (IRA), which can be set up through banks, brokerage firms, and other financial institutions. These accounts hold various investments, from stocks and bonds to cash and mutual funds, reserved for retirement. Several different types of IRAs exist, each with its own tax and contribution rules, so it’s important to look through all the options. As with a 401(k) plan, you can select a traditional or Roth IRA, with Roth contributions made with after-tax income, in order to avoid taxation upon withdrawal during retirement. You can contribute to both a Roth and traditional IRA in the same year, provided that you qualify for both.
The main advantage of IRAs is the fact that you’re in the driver’s seat and make all the decisions, whether that means personally or choosing a professional to do so. Furthermore, an IRA comes with a very wide range of investment choices, so it becomes easier to diversify. However, there are some downsides, too. IRAs in general have lower annual contribution limits, although these limits increase once you turn 50. Contribution limits depend on your modified adjusted gross income. Furthermore, even traditional IRA contributions are not always tax-deductible. (Roth IRA contributions are never tax deductible.) The deductibility limits for traditional IRAs depend on your income, as well as your tax filing status and access to workplace retirement plans.
General Guidelines for Deciding on Retirement Contributions
The exact savings strategy you should use will depend on your individual circumstances, but some general guidelines can help you determine your contributions. For the most part, you should first take advantage of any workplace retirement plan that comes with employer matching. Outside of the 401(k), these plans might include 457(b)s, 403(b)s, and defined-benefit plans, which work much like a pension.
Once you’ve maxed out your 401(k) contributions, or at least the matching available from your employer, it might be time to consider an IRA. Additionally, people who do not have a retirement plan through their company should focus on an IRA. Here, the most important decision is whether a traditional or Roth IRA is more appropriate. Determining this will involve making some predictions about your tax status in retirement. People who will fall into a lower tax bracket in retirement will benefit the most from a traditional IRA. Furthermore, people who are self-employed or who own a small business should recognize that specialized accounts exist for them, including the solo 401(k) and specialized IRAs.
One of the most common questions people ask their financial advisors is, when should I start saving for retirement? Virtually across the board, financial advisors will say that you should start as early as possible—ideally when you’re in your 20s and have just launched your career.
Of course, there’s no reason to despair if you didn’t start a retirement fund right out of college. Not everyone in their 20s has the foresight to start saving for something decades in the future, especially since many employers do not offer a savings-matching program. If you started saving for retirement later in life, the situation certainly isn’t hopeless, but it is a bit more urgent. You’ll need to save more and be more focused to meet the same goals, since you’ll have less time to achieve them.
However, if you start early, you’ll enjoy a wide range of benefits, including the increased flexibility that compounding interest provides. You’ll also be able to take more chances with your investments, because you’ll have more time to recover from losses. Another major benefit of starting early is that it instills good habits early on.
When you start to plan for retirement in your 20s, you’ll learn several lessons that will serve you well for the rest of your financial future. These include:
Learning the value of compounding.
If you’re in your 20s, you have a lot of time before you retire and can use this to your advantage. Making money grow over the course of 40 years is much easier than achieving the same thing in half that time. Even when your money just sits there, over time it can double, triple, or quadruple. The best way to understand the value of compounding is to think about the math behind it.
As a hypothetical situation, imagine you save $6,000 toward retirement each year until the age of 65 at a 7-percent rate of return. If you start saving at age 45, you will have about $246,000 in the account when you reach retirement age. If you begin saving at 35, the account would have about $567,000. However, starting at the age of 25 means you’ll amass nearly $1,198,000. In other words, starting at 25 nearly quintuples the final amount saved, compared to starting at 45. This happens even though you would only contribute an additional $120,000, or $6,000 annually, for the 20 years between age 25 and 45. This math underscores that your savings depend not only on how much you contribute, but also on how long you’ve been contributing.
Understanding how to maximize employee benefits.
Employers often provide some sort of retirement benefit for full-time employees. Most commonly, you’ll have access to a 401(k) plan through your company. Understanding these accounts and how they work sooner, rather than later, will make it easier to use them strategically down the line, when choosing the right investments becomes extremely important. When you start contributing to your 401(k) early, you’ll have some time to play with the account without serious consequences.
A 401(k) typically rises and falls with the stock market and continues to grow over time. Money for the account is taken directly out of your paycheck, so you never see it. If you’re lucky, your employer will match your contributions to the account at some percentage—this can be a major boon and add up quickly. Plus, this matching is essentially free money, so it makes sense to take advantage of it. Some employers will offer profit-sharing instead, which means that a portion of the company’s profits is put into your 401(k) account, reducing your tax liability.
Keeping meticulous records and budgets.
People save money when they spend less than they bring in. The concept is simple, of course, but it’s a lesson many of us learn the hard way. However, saving for retirement will encourage you to become more discerning with your money, and you’ll soon learn to keep track of exactly where it goes. This skill will become more important over time, especially when it’s time to save for a down payment on a house or pay off a big debt. Ideally, people in their 20s should strive to live on about 85 percent of their income and save or invest the rest.
Keeping track of spending has become simultaneously more and less difficult. It’s easier than ever to buy things today; sometimes it only takes a few taps on a screen or one click of a button. Because of this, impulse spending can be hard to avoid.
At the same time, technology does a lot of the recordkeeping for us. Most of us no longer have to spend time adding and subtracting columns of numbers to balance a checkbook. In addition, smartphone apps can help track your spending; basic spreadsheets on your desktop computer are also effective. Whatever method you use, keeping track of spending can help you stay out of debt or pay off a large debt that must be wiped out before you can begin saving for retirement in earnest.
The Bottom Line: When it comes to saving for retirement, there really is no such thing as too soon. People who start saving early will set themselves up for success down the line by learning critical lessons about finance and investing. In addition, starting to save early, even if only a small amount, leads to significant gains because of compounding interest. If you think you can’t save, re-examine your finances to see if you can cut back on spending in some places. Putting aside even a little bit of money each month will help you establish a lifelong habit that will pay off enormously in the end.