Confession time: Finances have never been my specialty. As a creative professional, sometimes what I dream up and what happens in the real world need to come together for a little tête-à-tête. Now that we’ve gotten that on the table, you may ask, “So why are you writing about saving for retirement?” Fair question. Here’s why: in my quest to crack the “retirement savings code,” I resolved many previous unknowns (to me) and ultimately rethought my personal approach to saving for retirement.
I will also conjecture that there are a lot of people who are similarly lost when it comes to saving for retirement. In fact, the numbers support this hypothesis: according to an Economic Policy Institute (EPI) study, “nearly half of families have no retirement savings at all.” With that in mind, here are some of the major questions that I had while digging into how I should be saving for retirement.
How much do I really need to have set aside to coast through retirement?
AKA, what is the magic number? A seemingly innocuous question, right? Not exactly. Turns out it depends on who you ask. This is where I learned there are many schools of thought on how to best approach your number. Below summarizes the three different methods I found, but you can learn more about each at 3 Ways to Calculate Your Retirement Number by money.usnews.com.
This involves multiplying your income by a factor to determine how much you need to retire. There’s a little more to it than just that, and exactly how much you should multiply it by is debatable, but the article does a nice job of breaking down the different variables and assumptions you should account for.
This method asks you to analyze your monthly budget to arrive at your retirement number. You’ll need to think through what expenses you anticipate having then, what gets added, and what falls off, which brings up the subject of a mortgage… I’ll get into that a little later. There are, of course, a few other considerations which you can see in more detail here, but that’s the main idea.
This method involves setting aside a percentage of your annual salary in retirement accounts. This might be the most prevalent approach I encountered in my research; however, the “right percentage” to set aside can vary from source to source. My takeaway: 15% is a good goal on the conservative end and 20% on the aggressive end. Anything beyond that gets you gold-star status.
That’s a lot to digest. I get it. Luckily, I stumbled upon this article by CNBC with features a more digestible timeline of savings goals from Fidelity that follows the Income Method. And visuals are always helpful.
How much do I need to save for retirement?
Fidelity Investments suggests you should aim to have 10 times your salary in savings.
Here is how much to set aside by age in order to stay on track for retirement at 67.
Age Ballpark Savings Goals
Keep in mind this is a ballpark diagram. Consult a financial advisor for exact numbers.
Epperson, Sharon. “What’s the Magic Number for Your Retirement Savings?” CNBC. 11 Feb. 2016. Accessed 8 Feb. 2018.
Where all will this money come from?
Here are the key players. Getting a general sense of each will help you understand how they all work together. This video from CNBC Money also does a nice job of explaining the differences.
401(k) - A 401(k) is an employer-sponsored type of retirement plan. It allows an employee to dedicate a percentage of their salary to a retirement account. Contributions are tax-free and taxes are paid upon withdrawal. Putting money into your 401(k) can be a great place to start, as many companies offer a match program up to a certain percentage. Ideally, you should strive to at least contribute up to the full match since that is free money for you! Learn more about 401(k)s here.
IRA - An IRA is an Individual Retirement Account that can be opened up by anyone, whether they're associated with an employer or not. There are two types of IRAs — a traditional and a Roth — which have a few differences, but the main one being the time at which you’re taxed. (Roth contributions are taxed the year you deposit them, traditional IRAs are taxed upon withdrawal.)
HSA - An HSA or Health Savings Account offers a way to set aside money for your healthcare expenses while receiving some tax advantages. Another nice thing is if you don't use it all in a year, you can hang on to it and, in some cases, invest it!
Investments (other) - Whether it be in real estate, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, or any combination of these and more, this is anywhere you’re setting aside money in the eventual hope of reaping a return on top of your initial deposit.
Pension - Employer-provided retirement income (from companies with pension plans) that requires an employee to work for them a certain number of years. The benefit usually increases with the length of time employed at the company. This often applies to government jobs, like military, police, and fire departments. According to The Balance, “Large corporate employers may also offer pension benefits, but it is not as common as it was thirty years ago.”
Social Security - It is hotly debated how much longer we should rely upon this as a source of retirement income. Regardless of its endurance, according to CNN Money, “your Social Security benefits will only replace about 40% of your previous income, which won't cut it even under the most frugal circumstances.” So the best bet is to think beyond Social Security.
Do I count my home equity as income?
You’re right to realize that some of the expenses you have today won’t necessarily be around by retirement age. The amount you’re currently setting aside for retirement is one, ideally your student loans are another, and of course, that brings you to a major investment — your home (assuming it’s paid off).
But according to TheBalance, “you'll also have retirement costs that you don't carry today, like certain out-of-pocket health and end-of-life care costs. And ideally, you'll also travel more, enjoy more hobbies, and indulge a bit. As a result, you may want to budget for retirement by assuming you'll spend roughly the same amount you spend now.” The Huffington Post further supports this outlook in Is Your Home Equity Part of Your Retirement Savings?, saying that “If you don’t plan to sell, then your home equity, while still an important part of your overall net worth, shouldn’t be included in your retirement savings calculation.”
Should I focus on paying off debt or saving for retirement?
According to Dave Ramsey, it’s important to start with a firm foundation, and that includes addressing your debt first. In his post on The Truth About Retirement, Mr. Ramsey recommends that:
“You begin investing for retirement after you’ve done two things: you’re debt-free, and you have saved an emergency fund of three to six months of expenses. Three-fourths of the people on Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest people in America say getting and staying debt-free is the most important thing you can do when it comes to handling your money. The full emergency fund ensures you have a cushion in case of an illness or job loss and that your retirement funds stay where they are and keep growing.”
When is the best time to start saving for retirement?
The short answer: Now. Or as soon as possible. That’s because there’s also another factor in play that could really work to your advantage — compounding interest — or the interest you can earn on interest. According to Tony Robbins, “by not saving, and by not investing, you are losing out on more money by waiting than you stand to lose by taking a small risk and starting your retirement account.” For a more in-depth breakdown of how compounding interest over time can make a big difference, see Tony Robbins’s article: Create a Money Machine.
My final thoughts:
Although I’m no financial guru, I have wised up to a few things over time. First of all: processing your current age never feels any less like an alien/host-type situation; at 7 years old, the coveted teen years felt oh sooo far away, your 20s felt unimaginably grown up (hilarious), and every decade that passes thereafter… more of the same. Second: Seeking the “right time” is futile, because it doesn’t exist.
So when you factor in those “constants,” waiting to perfect a master retirement savings plan feels less critical (and daunting) than just getting the ball rolling in the right direction. That’s not to say you should become lax in your research and planning. By all means, get out there and speak to a certified financial advisor (they get paid to do this stuff for a reason). Just try to avoid getting stuck an endless loop of analysis and become your own enemy to progress. That’s not how you’ll make it to that little beach bungalow or another perfect retirement of your dreams.