When should you start saving for retirement? Implicit in that question is the fact that you haven't started yet. The answer is, thus, an easy one. Now.
The Department of Labor estimates fewer than half of Americans have calculated how much they need to save for retirement. That number varies, depending on the source. Most financial advisors recommend you have a retirement income equivalent to around 70 percent of your pre-retirement earnings. But Fidelity Investments, one of the largest, most respected mutual companies in the world, contends you should have 10 times as much to retire on as you earned in your final salaried year.
Fidelity projects that only about 45 percent of us are on track to cover essential expenses in retirement. That would mean a whopping 55 percent of us are not.
Savings, or lack thereof, in the United States
Assumptions about how much money you'll need to retire notwithstanding, here are the sobering facts about how much today's workers have managed to save toward retirement. A study published by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) in 2015 found that about half of households age 55 and older have no, that's right, no retirement savings, such as an IRA or 401k. According to the GAO's analysis of the 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances, only 23 percent of these households have a defined benefit plan, the once traditional work retirement plan that paid out a monthly benefit for life.
Among households that have retirement savings, the median amount of those savings is about $104,000 for households age 55–64 and $148,000 for households age 65–74. That is equivalent to an inflation-protected annuity of $310 and $649 per month, respectively.
The GAO states that most of these households depend on Social Security to make ends meet. Their savings fall far short of the 70 percent of pre-retirement earnings goal advocated by many financial advisors and even further behind Fidelity's goal. If a household made $100,000 the last working year and had the median savings of $148,000 for households age 65–74, their savings would soon be exhausted. The picture is that much bleaker for those with no retirement savings and for those without home ownership.
While homeownership can provide a cushion for some, the GAO study finds that, of the 29 percent of households with no retirement savings and no defined benefit plan, only 35 percent own a home with no debt, 24 percent own a home with some debt, and 41 percent do not own a home at all. How much better it would be in retirement to have a home free and clear of a mortgage than have to have to pay down a mortgage, rent or pay to live in a retirement community?
It is estimated that, while Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) make up less than 25 percent of U.S. population, they control 45 percent of investable wealth. That's the good news. The bad news is that Millennials, those born between 1981 and 1997, just overtook the Baby Boomers as the nation's largest living generation. It's bad news because the savings habits of Millennials are virtually non-existent.
The website HowMuch.net recently asked 2,500 Millennials how much they had in savings plans. Fifty percent has less than $1,000. Another 18 percent had between $1,000 and $5,000 in savings. Only 6.4 percent had savings between $10,000 to $20,000. Moreover, Millennials, while they might admit they need to save more, generally have no plans for spending less, and nearly half say they would tap savings or investments to pay for a purchase beyond their income means, about twice the rate of older generations.
Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, aren't doing much better. J.P. Morgan estimates that folks between 35 and 50 will have to double their savings rate to 17.5 percent to enter retirement in as good as financial condition as Baby Boomers, who, after all, were not a model of self-restraint themselves.
Time to panic?
The reasons for this state of affairs can be argued. Some blame goes to mounting levels of student debt, slow growth in jobs and salaries, very low inflation rates, and a "new normal" economy that grows about 2 percent per year. These economic realities, combined with a seemingly widespread inclination toward immediate gratification, all undoubtedly contribute to low savings rates, but speak ever more strongly to the need for those aspiring to a comfortable retirement to begin socking away dough right now.
David Magayna, a certified financial planner, and president of Gemini Financial Services,* based in Stevensville, Md., said that, if you haven't begun a serious retirement savings plan, no matter your age, it's still not time to panic.
"Panic can result in a sort of paralysis that is, of course, counterproductive," he said. "The fact that some folks in their 30s may have neglected to save for retirement is understandable. You may have spent most of your income on children, buying a home, making home purchases, paying for schools, etc."
But that is no reason to continue the deep spend, giving no thought to when you want to leave the workforce and how you want to live when you do.
The first step toward retirement redemption
Magayna suggested starting by sitting down and calmly making a plan, setting forth retirement goals, and mapping out a budgeting and savings process that will help you reach those goals.
"There is no one-size-fits-all retirement plan," he said. "Everyone has different needs, desires and resources."
[SB]All retirement planning is predicated on a desired retirement date. The plan built on that decision will differ greatly for those who want to retire at age 59 and those who want to wait until full retirement age. It will include contemplation of whether you want to take your full social security benefit or take less by retiring earlier. If you want to retire earlier, you'll have to offset the reduction in social security income with retirement savings.
Your plan will also have to be based on assumptions about how you want live. Do you want to go on living in the same style as when you were working, or are you willing to live more simply and spend less in retirement? Do you want to spend your retirement traveling around the world, or do you want to stay at home, pursuing a hobby, fixing up the house, or doing some consulting? Do you want to keep that vacation home, or retire to it, selling your primary residence?
Answering these questions years before you actually retire may seem difficult, but retiring without enough money to live in the manner you want is much harder.
Setting budgeting goals is a crucial part of retirement planning. Immediate gratification feels good but can cause long term pain. There are many opportunities to cut down spending, but you have to look for them.
Magayna suggested, for instance, "if you have a college age son who doesn't have a firm hold on what his career path will be, consider enrolling him in a community college, sampling some courses while trying to find academic direction. It might be a better plan than sending him to an Ivy League school at $50,000 a year to pursue a degree in liberal arts and perhaps incurring a mountain of debt."
Some families take exotic vacations a few times a year, going to Cozumel for a winter getaway, and flying the family to France to ski over spring break. Opting for a "staycation" once a year could save a significant amount of money that could be diverted to a retirement savings programs. Either stay at home and catch up on some always looming house projects or take car trips to points of interest within driving distance.
Cars and car insurance offer opportunities for savings without totally blowing up your life style. Instead of buying that Lexus, buy a Chevy Malibu. Car payments for a Lexus could easily double those for a Malibu. If you put that extra $400 a month into a retirement savings plan over a 20-year period and made absolutely no capital gains, you would still have saved close to a $100,000. Off-the-cuff calculations show that a 6-percent annual gain in a stock index fund, for instance, or a in money market fund, should interest rates ever rise to that level again, would result in a nearly $200,000 nest egg.
Magayna also recommends taking a close look at your car insurance.
"Many of us pay more in car insurance than we need to," he said. "Once we have bought insurance, we tend to ignore it. And insurance companies are not in the business of pointing out how you can save money. You have to take the initiative. You can raise your deductibles to lower premiums. You can decrease your yearly mileage by carpooling to work and earn a discount if you keep mileage under a certain ceiling. As your car gets older, you may need less collision coverage than when it was new. Safe driving discounts are available. If you have all your cars and your house covered by the same company, you can get an umbrella discount."
Some of these savings may seem trivial, but they add up. Eating out once a week, rather than twice a week could easily save a family $200 a month. If you banked that amount instead eating it, you might be able to save half the money you saved when you decided on the Malibu instead of the Lexus. Not a bad start toward a substantial retirement fund.
How much you invest and when again depends on the individual and his or her goals.
"Five people may come into my office," Magayna said. "Their investment options are all the same, but they are likely to have different needs, different investing time frames and different risk tolerance."
Risk tolerance is an investor's willingness to stomach what may be huge swings in the value of his or her investment over a short period of time. If you look at the market over a hundred-year period, the average annual return seems fairly stable. But investors don't have the luxury of investing for that long. So, if they are investing in the stock market, which holds the greatest long-term potential for growing one's nest egg, some short-term pain may be inevitable. In the last year alone, for example, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has swung 20 percent.
"Risk tolerance varies from investor to investor," Magayna said, "so that has to be taken into consideration. If someone can't handle a lot of risk, there are investment vehicles that are more stable. The investor may have to take a lower return but will be able to sleep at night. "
Long term, sleep at night comes in part from knowing you'll have enough money to live on when you retire. And that may be earlier than you might think or want. While research indicates more people expect to retire at a later age or not retire at all, a large number of them won't make it to goal line. A 2014 Employee Benefit Research Institute found that about half of all retirees say they left the workforce earlier than planned, often to cope with health problems of their own or family members, or because of change at the workplace, e.g., downsizing.
There are plenty of retirement savings vehicles, but oftentimes, they are complicated and take a lot of time and effort to understand them and how they fit into a robust retirement plan. A fairly simple and effective means of saving is the well-regulated 401k or other tax-deferred plan many employers offer. Employers often match such tax plans. If so, it's a no-brainer. It's free money. As long as you do your share and contribute.
Outside of plans offered by employers, the investment landscape may become a bit overwhelming. If you're not willing or able to do your own research on competing investment vehicles, there are plenty of professional financial advisors who are willing and able to help you. Care in choosing one is just as important as deciding to make a plan and some due diligence is necessary. Check regulatory websites; check licenses; ask for examples and explanation of a quarterly report; find out how the advisor is paid; as painful as it might be, read the fine print of any of any agreement you make and any investment you purchase; and, finally, determine whether the advisor is a good communicator and personally a good fit for you.
*Gemini Financial Services, Inc., offers securities and investment advisory services through H. Beck, Inc., Member FINRA/SIPC, Gemini Financial Services and H. Beck are unaffiliated companies.
About The Author
Rae Hamilton, a former vice president of communications for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, is a freelance writer and artist living in Parkton, Md., and can be reached at [email protected].