Americans are behind on saving enough for retirement for many reasons. They’ve been uninformed about personal finance and made poor decisions. They’ve taken on too much debt. They’ve suffered setbacks from health problems and unemployment. They’ve paid too much to send their kids to college. They’ve felt powerless to improve their circumstances. And there was that Great Recession in 2008. But now you’re ready for a change. Maybe you are fed up with how things have been, panicked about your future or have just overcome a big hurdle and are ready to start saving again. Here are some tips to help for retirement catch up when you’re starting late on saving.
If you don’t have enough money saved for retirement, it’s time to take a hard look at your expenses. Which things are genuine must-haves and which are merely nice-to-haves?
Must-haves include housing, groceries, utilities, transportation to work, health insurance and healthcare. Everything else is a nice-to-have. That includes your brand-new cell phone and pricey data plan, your cable television subscription, your annual vacation and restaurant meals. And even within the must-haves, you can find ways to cut costs.
Rent out a room in your home for extra income, downsize to reduce your mortgage or cash-out equity, become a renter instead of a homeowner. Can you carpool, bike or take public transit to work? For groceries, cut out all flavored drinks (alcoholic and non), create a weekly or monthly budget, go to the store with a list, total up the cost of items as you add them to your cart and plan meals carefully to avoid wasting food.
For healthcare, price-shop for procedures whenever possible; your health insurance company’s website may have an online comparison tool. Also, what could you do to reduce medication costs or to improve your health so that you need less healthcare? Could you lose weight? Start walking 30 minutes a day, five days a week? Get more sleep? Reduce your sugar intake?
Get Out of Debt
If you have any kind of high-interest consumer debt—namely, credit card debt—paying it off will give you a great guaranteed return. Let’s say you owe $2,000 on a credit card with a 20 percent annual percentage rate. You’ll pay $400 in interest on that balance over a year. The real amount would be different, as your monthly payments and new interest charges would affect the balance, but let’s keep things simple for this example.
If you save up $2,000 and pay off your credit card balance with it, you’ll save $400 in interest. By contrast, if you save up $2,000 and invest it, you might make 10 percent, or $200. Paying off your debt clearly has a better return, so do that before worrying about your retirement portfolio. You’ll also want to build an emergency fund to help you stay out of debt.
Max Out Workplace Retirement Contributions
Does your employer offer a retirement savings plan? If so, find out if there is a company match and, given one, how much you need to contribute to get the full match. Then, contribute that amount to get the extra money.
Even if you don’t get a match, it’s still worth contributing as much as possible to your retirement accounts. Money grows faster in a retirement account than in a non-retirement account, because you invest pretax dollars and don’t pay taxes on your investment returns each year, both of which help your money grow faster. You don’t pay taxes on any of this money until you withdraw it during retirement. With luck, your tax rate then will be lower than it is now.
Make Individual Retirement Account Contributions
Whether you have a workplace retirement account or not, you can usually contribute to a Traditional or Roth IRA as well (taxpayers with incomes above certain thresholds may be ineligible for a Roth). In an ideal world you would max out your contributions to both your employer-sponsored retirement account and a traditional or Roth IRA. You could put $18,000 in your 401(k) and $5,500 in your IRA this year, for example (more, if you’re 50 or over). Talk about a huge leap forward in savings.
Reaching such goals isn’t realistic for everyone, but the expense cutting and debt repayment should at least free up your cash flow and allow you to contribute more than in the past.
Make Catch-Up Contributions
If you’re in the fortunate group that can max out those contributions and will be 50 or older at the end of the calendar year, great news: You’re eligible to make annual catch-up contributions to your retirement accounts as follows:
- 401(k)—Up to $6,000 (if the plan allows it)
- 403(b)—Up to $6,000 (if the plan allows it, with additional catch-up contributions available for employees with at least 15 years of service)
- 457(b)—Up to $6,000 (with possible special catch-up contributions in the three years before the employee reaches normal retirement age)
- Traditional IRA—Up to $1,000
- Roth IRA—Up to $1,000
- SIMPLE IRA—Up to $3,000
- SIMPLE 401(k)—Up to $3,000
Why is there an “up to” caveat for these catch-up contributions? It’s because, as with regular contributions, you can only set aside so much based on what you earn. The rules vary by plan type.
With a Traditional IRA, for example, the most you can contribute is $5,500, plus a $1,000 catch-up contribution or your taxable compensation for the year, whichever is less. So if your taxable compensation was $6,000, you would only be able to make a catch-up contribution of $500.
It’s Never Too Late
You might feel frustrated by how far behind you are because of the bad luck you’ve had or the poor decisions you’ve made. That’s fair. What’s not fair is cheating yourself out of a better future. As long as you still have income, it’s never too late to add to your retirement savings.
You may need to work past retirement age. You may not be able to retire at all. However, if you commit to making smarter decisions with your money from today forward, you’ll have a greater likelihood of living comfortably and remaining in control of your life as you get older and a lesser chance of needing to rely on others to make ends meet.