For many people, the prospect of saving for the future and planning for retirement is daunting. You may feel like you have no options to increase your savings, or worry that you’ll have to make major sacrifices in retirement. You’re not alone—millions of Americans over the age of 40 lack substantial nest eggs for retirement.
However, don’t despair. There are many strategies to substantially boost your savings, even if you feel behind. People under the age of 40 have even more options to get a jumpstart on retirement savings, considering the power of compounded interest.
Some of the strategies you can use to quickly increase your retirement savings include:
Invest in permanent life insurance.
Most people have heard that they should buy term life insurance and invest the rest of their money, rather than going for the more expensive option of permanent life insurance. This option can work for some people, but many others end up spending the money they would otherwise invest, despite their best intentions. For many retirees, permanent life insurance is a better option.
With permanent life insurance, you’ll pay ongoing premiums, which is a sort of automated savings. Each premium increases the cash value of the policy tax-free, and you can borrow funds against the policy or sometimes withdraw cash from it. In addition, the policy will pay out death benefits, which aren’t subject to income taxes. In other words, permanent life insurance can serve as a way of supplementing your retirement income with non-taxable money. Think of permanent life insurance as a sort of bond or certificate of deposit (CD) that increases in value steadily over time.
Save the raise.
As you advance in you career, you’ll likely receive raises that provide a little extra room in your budget. While a raise can sometimes relieve the pressure on a tight budget, many people can make ends meet without the extra income. Frequently, a raise just leads to a corresponding increase in spending. But what would happen if you saved your raise instead? If you put that extra income into a retirement account rather than buying a nicer car or new home, for example, you’ll set yourself up for a more comfortable retirement where you won’t have to sacrifice much to maintain your standard of living. The best part about this strategy is that you won’t have to make cuts to your budget or feel pinched by the extra savings, since you’ll still enjoy the same monthly income.
Take advantage of Roth savings.
Research has shown that Roth accounts are one of the most underutilized retirement preparation strategies. Many people understand the importance of maxing out a 401(k) and taking advantage of employer matching, but aren’t aware that they can do even more. Roth accounts are funded with after-tax income, but withdrawals during retirement are not subject to taxes. This option is especially good for people who may be in a higher tax bracket in retirement than they currently are. The other value of a Roth account is its potential to diversify your retirement savings. With both tax-deferred and Roth accounts, you can minimize the potential impact of future tax changes.
Purchase a home.
There’s still debate about whether buying or renting makes better financial sense. In some areas, renting a home is certainly cheaper in the short term than a down payment, mortgage, and property taxes. At the same time, research by the Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies shows that people who own homes tend to increase their wealth significantly more than renters, even after controlling for socio-economic differences and other factors. This may be because home ownership is a type of forced savings. Every mortgage payment builds equity in your home. You pay down your debt on the home while its value likely increases. Of course, it’s important to think strategically about home ownership and realize it is a long-term investment. If you buy and sell homes frequently, you’ll squander any gains on closing fees and other one-time expenses.
Fund a Health Savings Account.
Not everyone is eligible for a Health Savings Account (HSA), but those who are often fail to use them strategically as they prepare for retirement. Contributions to an HSA are tax-deductible and can be invested to fund qualified healthcare expenses you’ll encounter later in life, including during retirement. Very few people use an HSA for long-term savings, even though the accounts can be rolled over annually. With healthcare costs typically increasing during retirement, it’s important to have money set aside to deal with these expenses. An HSA can help you offset the costs of healthcare without needing to rely on your primary sources of income. Ideally, you would start investing in an HSA early and invest the money so that it grows over time and serves as a sort of insurance.
Ideally, retirement is a time when people relax and enjoy their lives, but following bad financial advice or not planning enough can keep you from fulfilling your retirement dreams. While it is imperative to understand the key financial steps to take in preparation for retirement, it is equally as important to know the errors that many people make. Knowing these common pitfalls can help you to ensure that you stay on the right track as you plan for retirement.
Read on for some of the most common financial mistakes that people make in relation to retirement:
Paying off a mortgage.
People often want to enter retirement with as little debt as possible. Many think that paying off their biggest monthly expenses, such as their mortgage, early is the quickest way to free up more money. However, home loans tend to have very low interest rates—paying off a mortgage now will not save you much in the long run. In fact, it may be best to refinance your home at a low rate and invest the money that you would have otherwise used to pay off the home loan early.
You should always think about interest rates in relation to debt and strive to get rid of high-interest debt, such as credit cards, first. When it comes to low-interest debt, paying it off is not always the best decision since your money can be invested with a return higher that the interest on the loan.
Investing in variable annuities.
An annuity is a great investment tool for retirees since it provides monthly payouts, sort of like a pension. The most common type of annuity is deferred, which means there is a set payout upon maturity.
However, many people select variable annuities, which invest in the market. While the return can prove higher with variable annuities, they are also vulnerable to market fluctuations and can fees as high as 3 percent. These fees quickly eat into retirement savings, especially when that loss is compounded over the years. For these reasons, variable annuities can actually detract from retirement savings.
Neglecting emergency funds.
Everyone needs an emergency fund, even retirees. In fact, emergency funds become even more important during retirement, a time when many people live on a fixed income.
Emergency funds also prevent you from dipping into retirement accounts, such as a 401(k), during a financial emergency. Borrowing from retirement comes with massive penalties and fees, and doing it even once can significantly lower your overall savings (as the money that would otherwise compound over the years has been taken out). The makeup of an emergency fund will vary according to household, but a good general rule of thumb is to have enough saved to cover living expenses for at least a few months.
Taking Social Security benefits too early.
Too many retirees fail to understand how the value of Social Security benefits changes depending on when they are taken. Though you can get 100 percent of your Social Security benefit at age 66 or 67 (depending on birth year), it pays to wait even longer if you do not have a great financial need. Benefits continue to increase beyond 100 percent after full retirement age until you turn 70 (at that point, it will not grow anymore). Waiting means a significantly higher monthly benefit, and that amount will remain the same for as long as you remain living. The increase in payout starts to outweigh the cost of delaying for anyone who lives past age 82.
Purchasing a timeshare.
Many retirees imagine themselves using a timeshare frequently enough to make the purchase worth it. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. In addition to the upfront cost of the timeshare, you will also need to pay annual fees to maintain the property. Even if you do use your timeshare frequently, the fees may not be any cheaper than simply renting a vacation home, an option that provides much more flexibility. Also, timeshares are not very liquid, so getting rid of them can be quite difficult.
In general, retirees should avoid timeshares altogether unless they get them at a significant discount from a third party and are sure they will use them regularly.
Retiring too early.
Too often, people retire before they are ready because they feel some sort of pressure to do so. Taking the time to work a few more years can keep you from getting bored, and it can also help you save more money for retirement. Then, when you do retire, you will have more spending money to engage in fun activities, like traveling. While you may have expectations about when you should retire, it’s important to be realistic about savings and work for a few more years, if you can.
The decision to retire can cause a great deal of anxiety, especially if you aren’t sure if you’re ready. Some people use milestones like career achievement, age, or even savings to assess their readiness for retirement, but there are other factors you should consider as well.
Ideally, you should create a comprehensive plan for your financial well-being in retirement. Such a plan makes it easier to deal with financial setbacks and other bumps along the road. Furthermore, the plan should help protect against as many contingencies as possible, to minimize the odds of being caught off guard. To ensure you’re prepared for retirement, it can be helpful to create a readiness checklist. While this list will look different for everyone, some of the key items to include are:
It’s probably not possible to say exactly how much you’ll spend in retirement, but estimates can help you get a general sense. A detailed budget will give you a better idea of how much you’ll need, both monthly and annually. This estimate should include all expenses: basic costs such as housing, utilities, food, transportation, and healthcare, as well as irregular expenses like travel and vacation. Your expenses may change in retirement, but it’s still a good idea to figure out how much you’re spending now, to create a baseline estimate. Remember that the more detailed your budget is, the better—don’t leave any expenses out.
During retirement, you may receive income from a wide number of sources, including investments, Social Security payments, and more. You may also have an annuity or pension income. Adding up your expected monthly income from these different sources can give you a better sense of what you’ll need to save to close the gap and ensure you can cover your bills. In addition, this tally will help you determine if you’ll need to reduce your spending or increase your income through options like downsizing to a smaller home or getting a part-time job.
The question of how much you need to save for retirement is a complicated one. Ultimately, you should base this number on the retirement budget you created for yourself, and then add plenty of room for cushion. To get a very broad estimate, multiply your estimated annual spending by 25. If you expect to have other sources of income in your retirement besides savings, subtract them from your annual spending, then multiply that number by 25. If your actual savings are less than the calculated estimate, it is time to revisit your budget and see what adjustments you can make.
Prior to retiring, you’ll need to plan how you will draw from your retirement accounts. It’s important to be strategic about how you draw down, especially if you have a variety of different accounts. Typically, tax-advantaged accounts should go untouched for as long as possible. Of course, traditional 401(k) and IRA plans have minimum required distributions once you reach 70.5 years of age, but Roth accounts do not have the same requirements. Roth accounts can continue to grow well into retirement, so try to keep as much money as possible in these accounts, for as long as you can.
Carefully consider your anticipated healthcare costs in retirement and figure out what insurance you’ll need. For most people, healthcare is the most significant cost in retirement. Medicare is a given, but many people find that they need supplemental insurance. You should also have an emergency fund for expenses not covered by insurance plans. Keep in mind that the cost of long-term care can quickly lead to bankruptcy, because traditional insurance does not cover it. If you know you won’t be able to shoulder the cost of long-term care, it’s vital to research insurance for this level of care. Long-term care policies become more expensive as you age and your health declines, so you may want to purchase a policy sooner rather than later.
While you might wait until you’ve actually retired to begin legacy planning, start thinking about what you want to leave behind before leaving the workforce. Your legacy could influence your retirement savings target, the timing of your retirement, and your estimated retirement budget. You should also draw up an estate plan. Be sure to revisit it regularly (at least every five years) to ensure everything remains up to date. During retirement, it’s important to have regular conversations with your spouse and heirs, so that everyone knows what to expect and any transition of assets proceeds smoothly.
No one wants to think about the possibility of losing their spouse. However, if you are married, it’s important to consider how your death or the death of your spouse will affect the survivor’s finances. Failing to plan for this could put one of you in a terrible financial situation during one of the most emotional times in life. Talk to your partner about what the surviving person should do; consider things like whether you should stay in the same home or whether you’d need additional sources of income. Some sources of retirement income are tied to one partner, so their death could mean the loss of a specific income stream. Identifying these potential gaps early will help you and your spouse protect each other and your family.
One of the biggest risks that people face in retirement is the cost of healthcare. People frequently underestimate the cost of healthcare and often do not get adequate insurance to protect themselves.
That said, sometimes it’s impossible to correctly anticipate the coverage you’ll need in retirement. While some people know the health issues they will face in the future, most people must guess. Either way, underestimating healthcare needs can put a significant strain on your finances and make it difficult to make ends meet. Many people believe that Medicare will cover them completely. While Medicare Part A covers some levels of hospitalization, you’ll have to pay premiums for Medicare Part B, and you may need supplemental insurance. Even with this, you’ll still have out-of-pocket expenses.
Some of the Issues with Health Insurance Coverage in Retirement
During your working years, your employer will often pick up the majority of healthcare insurance premiums, so it’s understandable that many retirees are caught off guard with the amount they suddenly have to pay. At the very least, you will need to pay Medicare Part B premiums. These premiums depend on income; costs are higher for people who make more money. While the premiums are low, starting around $140 per month, Medicare Part B does not cover all health expenses, which leaves many people needing a Medicare Advantage Plan or a Medigap policy to fill in the cracks. Even still, Medigap policies may not provide dental or vision coverage, both of which could also leave you with costly bills. Medicare Advantage covers dental and vision needs, but it offers fewer hospitalization benefits, so a serious illness could come at a very high expense.
The other issue you’ll need to consider as you approach retirement is long-term care coverage. Long-term care is one of the most expensive healthcare needs for older adults, and Medicare does not cover the majority of the cost. Luckily, long-term care insurance is available, but it’s not always cheap, especially if you wait until retirement to purchase it.
As a general rule, purchasing insurance earlier in life makes the premiums much more affordable. The downside is that you’ll be making monthly payments during a time when you’re less likely to actually need long-term care. At the same time, long-term care can quickly bankrupt you in retirement, so this type of insurance shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. This is especially true if you have a family history of a serious geriatric disease, or if you have a serious chronic health condition.
The Average Healthcare Costs Faced by Today’s Retirees
As you approach retirement, it can be helpful to use an online calculator to help estimate the costs of care you’ll face in the years to come. For the average, 65-year-old male, the typical cost for premiums and out-of-pocket healthcare expenses is about $4,500 per year, which translates to $375 per month. You should try to factor at least this amount into your monthly expenses.
Keep in mind that the cost of healthcare is rising at a rate double that of inflation. In other words, your out-of-pocket healthcare expenses could easily be closer to $675 in another decade. If you have a chronic condition, you may have to pay even more, and couples will need to double that figure. In addition, this amount does not account for long-term care. In other words, the cost of healthcare in retirement can be extraordinarily high.
The Key Strategies for Reducing Healthcare Costs in Retirement
Luckily, retirees aren’t completely helpless when it comes to the extremely high costs of healthcare. One of the most important things that you can do to control your costs is to stay healthy by receiving proper preventative care. Healthcare plans prior to and during retirement will cover preventative visits and services. While routine check-ups and such may seem unnecessary and come across as a hassle, they are all aimed at keeping you healthy and helping you avoid costly treatments and procedures. Skipping out on these visits can cause a small health problem to become more serious and therefore more difficult and expensive to treat. In addition, some cancers are curable only when detected and treated early.
The other side of the strategy for keeping your healthcare costs low involves managing distributions in a strategic way. As mentioned above, the cost for Medicare increases as your income rises, but you can manage your distributions in such a way that your premiums are kept in check.
For example, income from HSA accounts, Roth IRA accounts, and cash value life insurance policies do not factor into the formula that determines monthly Medicare Part B premiums. Income from a reverse mortgage is also not included in this calculation. If you have significant amounts of money in a traditional IRA, you may want to consider transferring some to a Roth account before turning 65 to avoid being forced to take large minimum withdrawals down the line. These minimum withdrawals do not apply to Roth accounts. You can also use deductible healthcare expenses to offset the money withdrawn from a traditional retirement account.
Figuring out the best way to save for retirement can be tricky—everyone’s financial situation is different, which can make it hard to find the right balance between saving for retirement, putting money aside for other goals, and maintaining a comfortable lifestyle.
There is a lot of retirement advice out there, but not all advice is created equal. In fact, most of the advice commonly shared about retirement savings should be altogether ignored. To help you determine which savings plan is right for you, first you have to learn what not to do. Here are five of the most frequently shared—but ultimately ill-advised—retirement advice tips.
Monthly expenses go down in retirement.
If you assume your monthly expenses will go down once you retire, you may end up not saving enough. Many people think that they will save on commuting expenses or they will no longer have a mortgage, but the reality is that the majority of retirees replace their old expanses with new ones. While you may no longer drive to work every day, you will likely still drive to volunteer or recreational activities, not to mention incur the increased costs of travel that often occur during retirement.
Also, when homeowners pay off their mortgage, they may funnel that money into new hobbies or making lifelong dreams come true. Though research has shown that about 20 percent of retirees have lower monthly expenses, another 20 percent spend more. The remaining 60 percent tend to have about equivalent monthly expenses.
People need X amount of money to retire.
Many people will offer an exact figure for how much money you need to save to be able to retire. Unfortunately, these numbers rarely reflect the truth for everyone—though you will need a significant chunk of money to retire, choosing an arbitrary number is not helpful. If you choose an amount that’s too high, you may become discouraged because you feel like you will never hit that amount. Or you may become so focused on saving enough that you forego important opportunities in the present.
In reality, future retirees need to think about how much they will likely spend each month in retirement and use that number to come up with a figure that more accurately reflects their personal goals and lifestyle preferences. Financial advisors and other professionals can help you set more realistic goals.
Social Security will run out in the next few years.
Over the years, many people have talked about how Social Security is going broke. While Social Security has been more robust in the past, it is not in imminent danger of going bankrupt. Most often, retirement professionals hear people bring this fact up when they want to draw on Social Security early (even though this involves a penalty). These people tend to want to get in on the money while they can. However, Social Security is funded through a payroll tax, so as long as people are paying their taxes, there will be benefits for retirees. Taking a permanent reduction in monthly income can cause a lot of issues down the line. While you may be tempted to hedge your bets and plan for retirement without factoring in Social Security, the truth is that this money is not running out anytime soon.
There is always time to catch up with savings.
If you have not been able to save for some reason, do not despair—there are things you can do over time to help you boost savings. However, thinking that there is always time to catch up and using that as an excuse to delay savings is unwise. When you start saving early, you maximize the benefit of compounding returns and also give yourself some leeway when it comes to investing decisions.
Individuals who start down the road put themselves at a serious disadvantage since their money will never grow at the same rate it could have if they had started earlier. Sometimes, extenuating circumstances get in the way, but you should be diligent about saving as much as possible—now.
Only one savings tool is necessary.
One of the biggest traps that people fall into is putting all of their savings into a single type of account. There are many different types of savings accounts, and they all have their unique benefits and drawbacks. You can look into other options, like an IRA, to supplement the money you put into your work-related savings accounts, such as a 401(k).
The problem with having one savings tool is that you may start to feel like you have maxed out your savings. For example, when you have gotten as much matched from your employer as possible, you may stop saving. At this point, you need to look at other options and figure out what will benefit you the most once you have achieved the maximum for an employee-sponsored account. Often, it makes sense to have at least one traditional and one Roth account, giving you options for lowering your taxes in retirement.
Nowadays, the majority of workers do not have a traditional pension that they can depend on for income once they retire. As a result, saving through a 401(k) has become more important than ever. However, maximizing your savings through this vehicle is not always as simple as it seems. You will need to pay close attention to the rules governing deposits into your account, as well as current tax policy. Otherwise, you may end up costing yourself money down the line.
Importantly, rules and policies change every year, so it is imperative that you pay close attention as you continue to save for retirement. However, there are some general tips that you should follow to maximize your savings:
1. Avoid fees
When choosing your 401(k) provider through your work, you should opt for one with the lowest or fewest amount of fees. While fees may not sound like much, they can add up quickly and significantly cut into the account value down the line, especially when accounting for compounding over time. Of course, the plan should also have the right risk tolerance. You should never feel like you have been cornered into a particular plan because of fees. If that happens, it is time to talk to human resources and consider an alternate savings plan, such as an IRA. Taking advantage of employee matches may still make sense, but once that is maxed out, another product may prove to be the best choice.
2. Diversify savings
When it comes to investing for the future, diversification is important—but many people do not understand how to do so. Diversification reduces your portfolio’s risk by making it more stable during market volatility or downturns. Financial planners recommend choosing both stocks and bonds to provide some degree of balance, as well as periodically rebalancing the portfolio to target allocations.
For example, individuals may rebalance their portfolio to reduce their investment risk as they get closer to retirement to protect the stability of their overall investment. One piece of advice that all financial planners agree with is that investors should never make impulsive changes to their risk profiles without consultation and great need.
Diversification may also mean investing in more than one 401(k) product. A Roth account can offer several benefits to people who max out their contributions to a traditional account.
3. Get matched
Perhaps the most important aspect of maximizing 401(k) savings is taking advantage of employer matching programs. Most often, employers offer 50 cents on every dollar from the employee, up to 6 percent of total pay (although the policies differ between companies). You should know exactly what your company will match and plan to take full advantage of the program. After all, matching is basically free money in your account. This matching program is an easy way to significantly boost your account and provide a larger base for further compounding in the future.
4. Get vested
Importantly, companies also have different policies on getting vested, which means that employees who leave the company too early may not get their 401(k) contributions matched. At some companies, getting vested takes as long as five or six years of service. While some will not pay out at all until an employee becomes vested, other companies will allow employees to keep a portion of their matched contributions when they leave early.
Often, becoming vested means thousands of dollars directly to the retirement fund, so it makes sense to stay as long as possible. However, you should never let the promise of getting vested drive you to stay in a bad job.
5. Rollover balances
When people do switch jobs, they have the opportunity to cash out their 401(k) plan—this is rarely a good idea. Before the age of 59 1/2, you will face a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty and you will be required to pay income tax on the balance. This can be problematic even if you want to reinvest your money in a different account rather than spend it.
Luckily, there are other options. You can choose to keep the money in the 401(k) and let it grow over the years, but it can be difficult to keep track of your different accounts from each company you have worked at. Another option is asking your former employer to transfer the balance to a new account, which helps to avoid any fees or penalties and keeps all of your retirement money in a more centralized location.
6. Take distributions
Just because you’ve finished adding to the principal of your 401(k) account does not mean that you’re finished managing your account. These accounts have required minimum distributions starting at the age of 70 1/2. At this point, you must make minimum withdrawals on an annual basis or face a hefty penalty: 50 percent of the amount that should have been withdrawn. Since you may draw on multiple accounts during retirement or you may not be retired come this age milestone, making the withdrawal can sometimes fall through the cracks and result in a significant loss. Notably, this rule only applies to a traditional 401(k) account. With a Roth 401(k), there are no mandatory annual distributions.