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Older Americans Are Getting Crushed by Debt, New MagnifyMoney Analysis Shows

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

More American seniors are shouldering debt as they enter their retirement years, according to a new MagnifyMoney analysis of data from the latest University of Michigan Retirement Research Center Health and Retirement Study release. MagnifyMoney analyzed survey data to see whether debt causes financial frailty during retirement. We also spoke with financial experts who explained how seniors can rescue their retirements.

1 in 3 Americans 50 and older carry non-mortgage debt

The Health and Retirement Study from the University of Michigan Retirement Research Center surveys more than 20,000 participants age 50+ who answer questions about well-being. The survey covers financial topics including debt, income, and assets. Since 1990, the center has conducted the survey every other year. They released the 2014 panel of data in November 2016. MagnifyMoney analyzed the most recent release of the data to learn more about financial fitness among older Americans.

In an ideal retirement, retirees would have the financial resources necessary to maintain the lifestyle they enjoyed during their working years. Debt acts as an anchor on retiree balance sheets. Since interest rates on debts tend to rise faster than earnings from assets, debt has the power to destroy the balance sheets of seniors living on fixed incomes.

We found that nearly one-third (32%) of all Americans over age 50 carry non-mortgage debt from month to month. On average, those with debt carry $4,786 in credit card debt and $12,490 in total non-mortgage debt.

High-interest consumer debt erodes seniors’ ability to live a quality lifestyle, says John Ross, a Texarkana, Texas-based attorney specializing in elder law.

“From an elder law attorney perspective, we see a direct correlation between debt and institutional care,” Ross says. “Essentially, the more debt load, the less likely the person will have sufficient cash assets to cover medical care that is not provided by Medicare.”

Even worse, debt leads some retirees to skip paying for necessary expenses like quality food and medical care.

“The social aspect of being a responsible bill payer often leads the older debtor to forgo needed expenses to pay debts they cannot afford instead of considering viable options like bankruptcy,” says Devin Carroll, a Texarkana, Texas-based financial adviser specializing in Social Security and retirement.

Some older Americans may even be carrying debt that they don’t have the capacity to pay.

According to our analysis, 40% of all older Americans have credit card debt in excess of $5,000. More than one in five (22%) Americans age 50+ have more than $10,000 in credit card debt. On average, those with more than $10,000 in credit card debt couldn’t pay off their debt even by emptying their checking accounts.

Over a third of American seniors don’t have $1,000 in cash

It’s not just credit card debtors who struggle with financial frailty approaching retirement. Many older Americans have very little spending power. More than one-third (37%) of all Americans over age 50 have a checking account balance less than $1,000.

Low cash reserves don’t just mean limited spending power. They indicate that American seniors don’t have the liquidity to deal with financial hardships as they approach retirement. This is especially concerning because seniors are more likely than average to face high medical expenses. Over one in three (36%) Americans who experienced financial hardship classified it as an unexpected health expense, according to the Federal Reserve Board report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2015. The median out-of-pocket health-related expense was $1,200.

Debt pushes seniors further from retirement goals

Seniors carrying credit card debt exhibit other signs of financial frailty. For example, seniors without credit card debt have an average net worth of $120,000. Those with credit card debt have a net worth of just $68,000, 43% less than those without credit card debt.

The concern isn’t just small portfolio values. For retirees with debt, credit card interest rates outpace expected performance on investment portfolios. Today the average credit card interest rate is 14%. That means American seniors who carry credit card debt (on average, $4,786) pay an average of $670 per year in interest charges. Meanwhile, the average investment portfolio earns no more than 8% per year. This means that older debtors will earn just $4,508 from their entire portfolio. Credit card interest eats up more than 15% of the nest egg income.

For some older Americans the problem runs even deeper. One in 10 American seniors has a checking account balance with less than $1,000 and carries credit card debt. This precarious position could leave some seniors unable to recover from larger financial setbacks.

Increased debt loads over time

High levels of consumer debt among older Americans are part of a sobering trend. According to research from the University of Michigan Retirement Research Center, in 1998, 36.94% of Americans age 56-61 carried debt. The mean value of their debt (in 2012 dollars) was $3,634.

Over time debt loads among pre-retiree age Americans are becoming even more unsustainable. Today 42% of Americans age 50-59 have debt, and their average debt burden is $17,623.

Credit card debt carries the most onerous interest rates, but it’s not the only type of debt people carry into retirement. According to research from the Urban Institute, in 2014, 32.2% of adults aged 68-72 carried debt in addition to a mortgage or a credit card, and 18% of Americans age 73-77 still have an auto loan.

Even student loan debt, a debt typically associated with millennials, is causing angst among seniors. According to the debt styles study from the Urban Institute, as of 2014, 2%-4% of adults aged 58 and older carried student loan debt. It’s a small proportion overall, but the burden is growing over time.

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in 2004, 600,000 seniors over age 60 carried student loan debt. Today that number is 2.8 million. Back in 2004 Americans over age 60 had $6 billion in outstanding student loan debts. Today they owe $66.7 billion in student loans, more than 10 times what they owed in 2004. Not all that student debt came from seniors dragging their repayments out for 30-40 years. Almost three in four (73%) older student loan debtors carry some debt that benefits a child or grandchild.

Even co-signing student loans puts a retirement at risk. If the borrower cannot repay the loan on their own, then a retiree is on the hook for repayment. A co-signer’s assets that aren’t protected by federal law can be seized to repay a student loan in default. Because of that, Ross says, “We never advise a person to co-sign on a student loan. Never!”

How older Americans can manage debt

High debt loads and an impending retirement can make a reasonable retirement seem like a fairy tale. However, an effective debt strategy and some extra work make it possible to age on your own terms.

Focus on debt first.

Carroll suggests older workers should prioritize eliminating debt before saving for retirement. “Several studies have shown a direct correlation between debt and risk of institutionalization,” he says. Debt inhibits retirees from remodeling or paying for in-home care that could allow them to age in place.

Downsize your lifestyle

As a first step in eliminating debt, seniors should check all their expenses. Some may consider drastic measures like downsizing their home.

Cut off adult children

Even more important, seniors with debt may need to stop supporting adult children.

According to a 2015 Pew Center Research Poll, 61% of all American parents supported an adult child financially in the last 12 months. Nearly one in four (23%) helped their adult children with a recurring financial need.

Wanting to help children is natural, but it can leave seniors financially frail. It may even leave a parent unable to provide for themselves during retirement.

Work longer

Older workers can also eliminate debt by focusing on the income side of the equation. For many this will mean working a few years longer than average, but the extra work pays off twofold. First, eliminating debt reduces the need for cash during retirement. Second, working longer also allows seniors to delay taking Social Security benefits.

Working until age 67 compared to age 62 makes a meaningful difference in quality of life decades down the road. According to the Social Security Administration, workers who withdraw starting at age 62 received an average of $1,077 per month. Those who waited until age 67 received 27% more, $1,372 per month.

Retirees already receiving Social Security benefits have options, too. Able-bodied retirees can re-enter the workforce. Homeowners can consider renting out a room to a family member to increase income.

Consider every option

If earning more money isn’t realistic, a debt elimination strategy becomes even more important. Ross recommends that retirees should consider every option when facing debt, including bankruptcy. He explains, “A 65-year-old, healthy retiree would be well advised to pay down the high-interest debt now. Alternatively, an 85-year-old retiree facing significant health issues is better off filing bankruptcy or just defaulting on the debt. For the older person, their existing assets are a lifeline, and a good credit score is irrelevant.”

Don’t take on new debt

It’s also important to avoid taking on new debt during retirement. “The only exception,” Ross explains, “[is taking on] debt in the form of home equity for long-term medical care needs, but then only when all other reserves are depleted and the person has explored all forms of government assistance such as Medicaid and veterans benefits.”

Every senior’s financial situation differs, but if you’re facing financial stress before or during retirement, it pays to know your options. Conduct your research and consult with a financial adviser, an elder law attorney, or a credit counselor from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling to choose what is right for your situation.

Hannah Rounds
Hannah Rounds |

Hannah Rounds is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Hannah at hannah@magnifymoney.com

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Trump Administration Axes Government-Backed Savings Program myRA

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

The U.S. Treasury Department on Friday announced it’s ending the myRA program, a government savings program meant to encourage non-traditional workers to save for retirement, not even two years after the accounts became available nationwide in November 2015, under the Obama administration. In a press release, the department says it will start to “wind down” the program as part of Trump administration efforts to “promote a more effective government.”

“The myRA program was created to help low to middle income earners start saving for retirement. Unfortunately, there has been very little demand for the program, and the cost to taxpayers cannot be justified by the assets in the program,” said Jovita Carranza, U.S. Treasurer in today’s press release.

Carranza also noted demand for myRA had been extremely low. Currently, according to a treasury spokesperson, there are 20,000 myRA accounts with a median balance of $500 and an additional 10,000 accounts with no balance. That’s up from the 15,000 workers who were enrolled in myRA by the program’s first anniversary in November. Still, that’s not much, given the program was intended to help some 40 million working-age households that don’t own any retirement account assets.

In the press release, the department says myRA has cost American taxpayers about $70 million to maintain. The spokesperson told MagnifyMoney myRA would cost taxpayers an additional $10 million annually if continued.

What Is myRA?

The myRA account was free to open, charged no fees, and didn’t require a minimum deposit to open an account. These features were intended to appeal to workers who may not have access to traditional retirement savings accounts like a 401(k) or 403(b). Workers could contribute up to $5,500 annually, or $6,500 if they were 50 or older, up to $15,000 before having to roll the account into a private-sector Roth IRA.

myRA funds earn interest at the same rate as the Government Securities Investment Fund, which earned 2.04% in 2015 and 1.82% in 2016. That’s a larger return, on average, than savers would get keeping their funds in a typical big bank savings account today, which tend to carry fees and offer interest rates as low as 0.01% (though digital banks tend to offer a better rate of return). The single investment option also offered consumers a simpler alternative to choosing from a variety investment options within traditional retirement accounts.

How Does This Affect People With myRA Accounts?

The department has posted a list of FAQs and answers for account holders on myra.gov. For the moment, account holders can continue making deposits, and their balances will continue to accrue interest. The website says the Treasury Department will reach out to all account holders with information about transferring funds from or closing the account and will notify account holders of when it will stop accepting and processing deposits.

In the meantime, account holders should log in and make sure their contact information is accurate, so they can be reached.

Brittney Laryea
Brittney Laryea |

Brittney Laryea is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Brittney at brittney@magnifymoney.com

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A Comprehensive Guide to the Solo 401(k) for Business Owners

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If you run your own business, one of the difficulties in saving for retirement is that you don’t necessarily have easy access to a 401(k).

Enter the solo 401(k). This is a retirement savings option for self-employed business owners who have no employees and their spouses. Read on to find out how it works, who is eligible, and how you can open an account.

The Solo 401(k): Explained

What Is a Solo 401(k)?

Also known as a one-participant or individual 401(k), a solo 401(k) works just like a company-sponsored 401(k) would, except it’s for self-employed individuals who don’t have any other employees other than their spouses and themselves.

Just like a traditional 401(k), you can control how your money is invested. There are different plans, with most comprising stocks, bonds, and money market funds. These are considered “free” prototype plans offered by brokerages, and you’re typically limited to investments offered by that brokerage.

However, there are options for those looking to participate in alternative investments, such as precious metals or even real estate. There are companies that help you open what’s called a self-directed 401(k) and that sponsor “checkbook control” solo 401(k) plans, meaning that individuals can control the type of investments they want to make, whether it’s stocks, bonds, foreign currency, real estate, or commodities. You do so by writing a check for investment purchases, from a bank account dedicated specifically for that purpose.

Who Is Eligible for a Solo 401(k)

Only self-employed individuals and their spouses are eligible for a solo 401(k). This plan is ideal for consultants, independent contractors, or sole proprietors. If you hire part-time workers or contractors, then you’re still safe. However, if they work for you for more than 1,000 hours a year, you cannot participate in a solo 401(k).

Furthermore, you need to have the presence of self-employment activity to be eligible, which includes ownership and operation of an LLC, C, or S corporation, a sole proprietorship, or a limited partnership where the business intends to make a profit. There are no criteria as to how much profit a business needs to generate, as long as you run a legitimate business with the intention to generate a profit.

If you are currently employed elsewhere, you can still open a solo 401(k) account if you’re serious about maximizing your pre-tax savings. If you work for an employer that offers a 401(k) plan, you can still participate in their plan alongside a solo 401(k) plan, as long as you don’t exceed the contribution limits.

Where to Open a Solo 401(k)

You can open a solo 401(k) with most major brokerages. For those looking for a custom plan, there are companies that specialize in providing those plans. Some insurance companies also offer solo 401(k) plans but only if your goal is to invest solely in annuities.

Below are some of the most popular companies offering solo 401(k) plans:

Vanguard – The individual 401(k) offers all Vanguard mutual funds. However, you cannot purchase exchange-traded funds (ETFs) or mutual funds from other companies and cannot take out a loan. There is no setup fee, but there is a $20 fee per account per year to maintain your solo 401(k).

SunAmerica – The SunAmerica Individual(k) offers mainly annuities as part of their plan. You can take out a loan (for a fee). It costs $35 to set up your account, and there is an annual maintenance fee of $75.

E-Trade – The E-Trade Individual 401(k) Plan allows Roth contributions and has a brokerage option with $9.99 trades for any ETF. They accept IRA rollovers and allow for loans. They also will pay you if you transfer your current solo 401(k) to them: $200 for $25,000-$99,000, $300 for $100,000-$249,000, and $600 for a $250,000+ plan.

How to Establish a Solo 401(k)

When opening a solo 401(k) plan, you want to choose the option best for your needs. Once you’ve selected your brokerage, you’ll need to have the necessary documents:

  • 401(k) plan adoption agreement
  • Designation of successor plan administrator, which requires a notary or a witness
  • Brokerage account application
  • Designation of beneficiary form
  • Power of attorney (optional)

If you plan on opening one for your spouse, you’ll need to do twice the paperwork (one form for each person).

Remember, you need to open a solo 401(k) account by December 31 of the tax year. You don’t need to actually fund it until the April 15 filing deadline. If you miss opening an account, you’ll have to wait until the next tax year to do so.

How Much You Can Contribute to a Solo 401(k)

Participants in a solo 401(k) plan can make contributions both as an employee and an employer.

For elective (employee) contributions, you can contribute up to 100% of your earned income, up to the annual contribution limit, which is $18,000 in 2017. Those age 50 or older can contribute an additional $6,000, depending on the type of plan, according to the IRS.

When making a contribution as an employer, you can contribute up to 25% of your earned income as an employee. Your total contributions cannot exceed $54,000 in 2017 ($53,000 for 2016), not counting extra contributions for those 50 or older.

For example, Mary earned $40,000 from her freelance business in 2016. She put $18,000 in this plan as an employee. As an employer, she contributed 25% of earnings, which is $10,000. In total, she contributed $28,000, which is the maximum she can contribute.

Remember, contribution limits are for each person, not each plan. If you are working full time for another employer and participate in that company’s 401(k) plan, combined contributions to your traditional 401(k) and solo 401(k) cannot exceed the annual limit.

To figure out the maximum contributions you can make, check the IRS website on how to calculate a more accurate amount.

Read more: 9 Essential Tax Tips for Entrepreneurs >

Learn More About Solo 401(k)s

The Pros of a Solo 401(k)

The solo 401(k) has higher contribution limits compared to other retirement savings plans. You can contribute up to $18,000 plus 25% of earned income, compared to a maximum of $54,000 or only 20% your earnings (whichever is less) with a SEP IRA. Your employer contributions are also tax deductible.

You also have the option to borrow up to 50% of your account’s value or $50,000, whichever amount is less.

The Cons of a Solo 401(k)

A solo 401(k) can get complicated to set up and maintain, particularly if you intend on opening a customized plan. Depending on the company you go with, fees can cost you at least a few hundred dollars to set up an account, not including fees to maintain the plan annually.

Even if you open a prototype plan, it can cost you. Yes, it’s free to set up, but they put many requirements on you as the owner. These requirements include filing tax return documents once a year if your plan has more than $250,000 in assets and keeping up to date with all records and transactions.

Alternatives to a Solo 401(k) Plan

There are two alternatives to a solo 401(k) plan — a SIMPLE IRA and a SEP IRA. The main difference between each is the maximum amount you can contribute to each year.

SIMPLE IRA – A Simple IRA plan is for those who as an employee (including those who are self-employed) have earned a minimum of $5,000 any two years before the current calendar year and expect to receive at least $5,000 for the current calendar year. You can contribute up to $12,500, plus an employer match of 3% of employee compensation. Those 50 or older can also contribute up to an extra $3,000. You can find more information about the simple IRA on the IRS website.

SEP IRA – A Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) plan only allows employers to contribute to the plan, unlike a solo 401(k). Employers can contribute a maximum of $53,000 or 20% of their net self-employment earnings, whichever amount is less.

Even with all its benefits, there may be a few reasons why someone is better off not opening a solo 401(k). “If you’re concerned about doing additional paperwork, a SEP IRA might also be a better choice,” advises Robert Farrington, founder of the College Investor. “If you’re working a side hustle and have a regular 401(k) at your day job, the alternatives might be easier.”

Who Solo 401(k) Plans Are Best For

While any of the above options are helpful for self-employed individuals, the solo 401(k) is best for those who are looking to invest heavily in their savings. “The solo 401(k) is best suited for a self-employed individual who wants to maximize their retirement savings,” says Farrington.

“Furthermore, if you’re a husband/wife/spouse team, your spouse can also contribute to the solo 401(k) with the same percentage of ownership, so you can get even more in tax savings and retirement contributions.”

Sarah Li Cain
Sarah Li Cain |

Sarah Li Cain is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Sarah Li here

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Ultimate Guide to Maximizing Your 401(k)

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

You’re probably familiar with the basics of a 401(k).

You know that it’s a retirement account and that it’s offered by your employer. You know that you can contribute a percentage of your salary and that you get tax breaks on those contributions. And you know that your employer may offer some type of matching contribution.

But beyond the basics, you may have some confusion about exactly how your 401(k) works and what you should be doing to maximize its benefits.

That’s what this guide is going to show you. We’ll tell you everything you need to know in order to maximize your 401(k) contributions.

The 4 Types of 401(k) Contributions You Need to Understand

When it comes to maximizing your 401(k), nothing you do will be more important than maximizing your contributions.

Because while most investment advice focuses on how to build the perfect portfolio, the truth is that your savings rate is much more important than the investments you choose. Especially when you’re just starting out, the simple act of saving more money is far and away the most effective way to accelerate your path toward financial independence.

There are four different ways to contribute to your 401(k), and understanding how each one works will allow you to combine them in the most efficient way possible, adding more money to your 401(k) and getting you that much closer to retirement.

1. Employee Contributions

Employee contributions are the only type of 401(k) contribution that you have full control over and are likely to be the biggest source of your 401(k) funds.

Employee contributions are the contributions that you personally make to your 401(k). They’re typically set up as a percentage of your salary and are deducted directly from your paycheck.

For example, let’s say that you are paid $3,000 every two weeks. If you decide to contribute 5% of your salary to your 401(k), then $150 will be taken out of each paycheck and deposited directly into your 401(k).

There are two different types of employee contributions you can make to your 401(k), each with a different set of tax benefits:

  1. Traditional contributions – Traditional contributions are tax-deductible in the year you make the contribution, grow tax-free while inside the 401(k), and are taxed as ordinary income when you withdraw the money in retirement. This is just like a traditional IRA. All 401(k)s allow you to make traditional contributions, and in most cases your contributions will default to traditional unless you choose otherwise.
  2. Roth contributions – Roth contributions are NOT tax-deductible in the year you make the contribution, but they grow tax-free while inside the 401(k) and the money is tax-free when you withdraw it in retirement. This is just like a Roth IRA. Not all 401(k)s allow you to make Roth contributions.

For more on whether you should make traditional or Roth contributions, you can refer to the following guide that’s specific to IRAs but largely applies to 401(k)s as well: Guide to Choosing the Right IRA: Traditional or Roth?

Maximum personal contributions

The IRS sets limits on how much money you can personally contribute to your 401(k) in a given year. For 2017, employee contributions are capped at $18,000, or $24,000 if you’re age 50 or older. In subsequent sections we’ll talk about how much you should be contributing in order to maximize these contributions.

2. Employer Matching Contributions

Many employers match your contributions up to a certain point, meaning that they contribute additional money to your 401(k) each time you make a contribution.

Employer matching contributions are only somewhat in your control. You can’t control whether your employer offers a match or the type of match they offer, but you can control how effectively you take advantage of the match they do offer.

Taking full advantage of your employer match is one of the most important parts of maximizing your 401(k). Skip ahead to this section to learn more on how to maximize your employer match.

3. Employer Non-Matching Contributions

Non-matching 401(k) contributions are contributions your employer makes to your 401(k) regardless of how much you contribute. Some companies offer this type of contribution in addition to, or in lieu of, regular matching contributions.

For example, your employer might contribute 5% of your salary to your 401(k) no matter what. Or they might make a variable contribution based on the company’s annual profits.

It’s important to note that these contributions are not within your control. Your employer either makes them or not, no matter what you do.

However, they can certainly affect how much you need to save for retirement, since more money from your employer may mean that you don’t personally have to save as much. Or they could be viewed as additional free savings that help you reach financial independence even sooner.

4. Non-Roth After-Tax Contributions

This last type of 401(k) contribution is rare. Many 401(k) plans don’t even allow this type of contribution, and even when they do, these contributions are rarely utilized.

The big catch is again that most 401(k) plans don’t allow these contributions. You can refer to your 401(k)’s summary plan description to see if it does.

And even if they are allowed, it typically only makes sense to take advantage of them if you’re already maxing out all of the other retirement accounts available to you.

But if you are maxing out those other accounts, you want to save more, and your 401(k) allows these contributions, they can be a powerful way to get even more out of your 401(k).

Here’s how they work:

Non-Roth after-tax 401(k) contributions are sort of a hybrid between Roth and traditional contributions. They are not tax-deductible, like Roth contributions, which means they are taxed first and then the remaining money is what is contributed to your account. The money grows tax-free while inside the 401(k), but the earnings are taxed as ordinary income when they are withdrawn. The contributions themselves are not taxed again.

A quick example to illustrate how the taxation works:

  • You make $10,000 of non-Roth after-tax contributions to your 401(k). You are not allowed to deduct these contributions for tax purposes.
  • Over the years, that $10,000 grows to $15,000 due to investment performance.
  • When you withdraw this money, the $10,000 that is due to contributions is not taxed. But the $5,000 that is due to investment returns — your earnings — is taxed as ordinary income.

This hybrid taxation means that on their own non-Roth after-tax 401(k) contributions are typically not as effective as either pure traditional or Roth contributions.

But they can be uniquely valuable in two big ways:

  1. You can make non-Roth after-tax contributions IN ADDITION to the $18,000 annual limit on regular employee contributions, giving you the opportunity to save even more money. They are only subject to the $54,000 annual limit that combines all employee and employer contributions made to a 401(k)..
  2. These contributions can be rolled over into a Roth IRA, when you leave your company or even while you’re still working there. And once the money is in a Roth IRA, the entire balance, including the earnings, grows completely tax-free. This contribution rollover process has been coined the Mega Backdoor Roth IRA, and it can be an effective way for high-income earners to stash a significant amount of tax-free money for retirement.

How to Maximize Your 401(k) Employer Match

With an understanding of the types of 401(k) contributions available to you, it’s time to start maximizing them. And the very first step is making sure you’re taking full advantage of your employer match.

Simply put, your 401(k) employer match is almost always the best investment return available to you. Because with every dollar you contribute up to the full match, you typically get an immediate 25%-100% return.

You won’t find that kind of deal almost anywhere else.

Here’s everything you need to know about understanding how your employer match works and how to take full advantage of it.

How a 401(k) Employer Match Works

While every 401(k) matching program is different, and you’ll learn how to find the details of your program below, a fairly typical employer match looks like this:

  • Your employer matches 100% of your contribution up to 3% of your salary.
  • Your employer also matches 50% of your contribution above 3% of your salary, up to 5% of your salary.
  • Your employer does not match contributions above 5% of your salary.

To see how this works with real numbers, let’s say that you make $3,000 per paycheck and that you contribute 10% of your salary to your 401(k). That means that $300 of your own money is deposited into your 401(k) as an employee contribution every time you receive a paycheck, and your employer matching contribution breaks down like this:

  1. The first 3% of your contribution, or $90 per paycheck, is matched at 100%, meaning that your employer contributes an additional $90 on top of your contribution.
  2. The next 2% of your contribution, or $60 per paycheck, is matched at 50%, meaning that your employer contributes an additional $30 on top of your contribution.
  3. The next 5% of your contribution is not matched.

All told, in this example, your employer contributes an extra 4% of your salary to your 401(k) as long as you contribute at least 5% of your salary. That’s an immediate 80% return on investment.

That’s why it’s so important to take full advantage of your 401(k). There’s really no other investment that provides such an easy, immediate, and high return.

How to Find Your 401(k) Employer Matching Program

On a personal level, taking full advantage of your 401(k) employer match is simply a matter of contributing at least the maximum percent of salary that your employer is willing to match. In the example above that would be 5%, but the actual amount varies from plan to plan.

So your job is to find out exactly how your 401(k) employer matching program works, and the good news is that it shouldn’t be too hard.

There are two main pieces of information you’re looking for:

  1. The maximum contribution percentage your employer will match – This is the amount of money you’d need to contribute in order to get the full match. For example, your employer might match your contribution up to 5% of your salary as in the example above, or it could be 3%, 12%, or any other percentage. Whatever this maximum percentage is, you’ll want to do what you can to contribute at least that amount so that you get the full match.
  2. The matching percentage – Your employer might match 100% of your contribution, or they may only match 50%, or 25%, or some combination of all of the above, and this has a big effect on the amount of money you actually receive. For example, two companies might both match up to 5% of your salary, but one might match 100% of that contribution, and one might only match 25% of it. Both are good deals, but one is four times as valuable.

With those two pieces of information in hand, you’ll know how much you need to contribute in order to get the full match and how much extra money you’ll be getting each time you make that contribution.

As for where to find this information, the best and most definitive source is your 401(k)’s summary plan description, which is a long document that details all the ins and outs of your plan. This is a great resource for all sorts of information about your 401(k), but you can specifically look for the word “match” to find the details on your employer matching program.

And if you have any trouble either finding the information or understanding it, you can reach out to your human resources representative for help. You should be able to find their contact information in the summary plan description.

Two Big Pitfalls to Avoid When Maximizing Your 401(k) Employer Match

Your 401(k) employer match is almost always a good deal, but there are two pitfalls to watch out for: vesting and front-loading contributions. Both of these could either diminish the value of your employer match or cause you to miss out on getting the full match.

Pitfall #1: Vesting

Clock time deadline

Employer contributions to your 401(k) plan, including matching contributions, may be subject to something called a vesting schedule.

A vesting schedule means that those employer contributions are not 100% yours right away. Instead, they become yours over time as you accumulate years of service with the company. If you leave before your employer contributions are fully vested, you will only get to take some of that money with you.

For example, a common vesting schedule gives you an additional 20% ownership over your 401(k) employer contributions for each year you stay with the company. If you leave before one year, you will not get to keep any of those employer contributions. If you leave after one year, you will get to keep 20% of the employer contributions and the earnings they’ve accumulated. After two years it will be 40%, and so on until you’ve earned the right to keep 100% of that money after five years with the company.

Three things to know about vesting:

  1. Employee contributions are never subject to a vesting schedule. Every dollar you contribute and every dollar that money earns is always 100% yours, no matter how long you stay with your company. Only employer contributions are subject to vesting schedules.
  2. Not all companies have a vesting schedule. In some cases you might be immediately 100% vested in all employer contributions.
  3. There is a single vesting clock for all employer contributions. In the example above, all employer contributions will be 100% vested once you’ve been with the company for five years, even those that were made just weeks earlier. You are not subject to a new vesting period with each individual employer contribution.

A vesting schedule can decrease the value of your employer match. A 100% match is great, but a 100% match that takes five years to get the full benefit of is not quite as great.

Still, in most cases it makes sense to take full advantage of your employer match, even if it’s subject to a vesting schedule. And the reasoning is simply that the worst-case scenario is that you leave your job before any of those employer contributions vest, in which case your 401(k) would have acted just like any other retirement account available to you, none of which offer any opportunity to get a matching contribution.

However, there are situations in which a vesting schedule might make it better to prioritize other retirement accounts before your 401(k). In some cases, your 401(k) employer contributions might be 0% vested until you’ve been with the company for three years, at which point they will become 100% vested. If you anticipate leaving your current employer within the next couple of years, and if your 401(k) is burdened with high costs, you may be better off prioritizing an IRA or other retirement account first.

You may also want to consider your vesting schedule before quitting or changing jobs. It certainly shouldn’t be the primary factor you consider, but if you’re close to having a significant portion of your 401(k) vest, it may be worth waiting just a little bit longer to make your move.

You can find all the details on your 401(k) vesting schedule in your summary plan description. And again you can reach out to your human resources representative if you have any questions.

Pitfall #2: Front-Loading Contributions

In most cases, it makes sense to put as much money into your savings and investments as soon as possible. The sooner it’s contributed, the more time it has to compound its returns and earn you even more money.

But the rules are different if you’re trying to max out your 401(k) employer match.

The reason is that most employers apply their maximum match on a per-paycheck basis. That is, if your employer only matches up to 5% of your salary, what they’re really saying is that they will only match up to 5% of each paycheck.

For a simple example, let’s say that you’re paid $18,000 twice per month. So over the course of an entire year, you make $432,000.

In theory, you could max out your annual allowed 401(k) contribution with your very first paycheck of the year. Simply contribute 100% of your salary for that one paycheck, and you’re done.

The problem is that you would only get the match on that one single paycheck. If your employer matches up to 5% of your salary, then they would match 5% of that $18,000 paycheck, or $900. The next 23 paychecks of the year wouldn’t get any match because you weren’t contributing anything. And since you were eligible to get a 5%, $900 matching contribution with each paycheck, that means you’d be missing out on $20,700.

Now, most people aren’t earning $18,000 per paycheck, so the stakes aren’t quite that high. But the principle remains the same.

In order to get the full benefit of your employer match, you need to set up your 401(k) contributions so that you’re contributing at least the full matching percentage every single paycheck. You may be able to front-load your contributions to a certain extent, but you want to make sure that you stay far enough below the annual $18,000 limit to get the full match with every paycheck.

Now, some companies will actually make an extra contribution at the end of the year to make up the difference if you contributed enough to get the full match but accidentally missed out on a few paychecks. You can find out if your company offers that benefit in your 401(k)’s summary plan description.

But in most cases you’ll need to spread your contributions out over the entire year in order to get the full benefit of your employer match.

When to Contribute More Than Is Needed for Your Employer Match

Maxing out your 401(k) employer match is a great start, but there’s almost always room to contribute more.

Using the example from above, the person with the $3,000 per-paycheck salary would max out his or her employer match with a 5% contribution. That’s $150 per paycheck. Assuming 26 paychecks per year, that individual would personally contribute $3,900 to his or her 401(k) over the course of a year with that 5% contribution.

And given that the maximum annual contribution for 2017 is $18,000 ($24,000 if you’re 50+), he or she would still be eligible to contribute an additional $14,100 per year. In fact, this individual would have to set his or her 401(k) contribution to just over 23% in order to make that full $18,000 annual contribution.

3 big questions to answer:

  1. Do you need to contribute more in order to reach your personal goals?
  2. Can you afford to contribute more right now?
  3. If the answer is yes to both #1 and #2, should you be making additional contributions to your 401(k) beyond the employer match, or should you be prioritizing other retirement accounts?

Questions #1 and #2 are beyond the scope of this guide, but you can get a sense of your required retirement savings here and here.

Question #3 is what we’ll address here. If you’ve already maxed out your employer match and you want to save more money for retirement, should you prioritize your 401(k) or other retirement accounts?

Let’s dive in.

What Other Retirement Accounts Are Available to You?

Your 401(k) is almost never the only retirement account available to you. Here are the other major options you might have.

IRA

An IRA is a retirement account that you set up on your own, outside of work. You can contribute up to $5,500 per year ($6,500 if you’re 50+), and just like with the 401(k) there are two different types:

  1. Traditional IRA – You get a tax deduction on your contributions, your money grows tax-free inside the account, and your withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income in retirement.
  2. Roth IRA – You do not get a tax deduction on your contributions, but your money grows tax-free and can be withdrawn tax-free in retirement.

You can read more about making the decision between using a Roth IRA or a traditional IRA here: Guide to Choosing the Right IRA: Traditional or Roth?

The big benefit of IRAs is that you have full control over the investment company you use, and therefore the investments you choose and the fees you pay. While some 401(k)s force you to choose between a small number of high-cost investments, IRAs give you a lot more freedom to choose better investments.

The only catch is that there are income limits that may prevent you from being allowed to contribute to an IRA or to deduct your contributions for tax purposes. If you earn more than those limits, an IRA may not be an option for you.

Health Savings Account

Health savings accounts, or HSAs, were designed to be used for medical expenses, but they can also function as a high-powered retirement account.

In fact, health savings accounts are the only investment accounts that offer a triple tax break:

  1. Your contributions are deductible.
  2. Your money grows tax-free inside the account.
  3. You can withdraw the money tax-free for qualified medical expenses.

On top of that, many HSAs allow you to invest the money, your balance rolls over year to year, and as long as you keep good records, you can actually reimburse yourself down the line for medical expenses that occurred years ago.

Put all that together with the fact that you will almost certainly have medical expenses in retirement, and HSAs are one of the most powerful retirement tools available to you.

The catch is that you have to be participating in a qualifying high-deductible health plan, which generally means a minimum annual deductible of $1,300 for individual coverage and $2,600 for family coverage.

If you’re eligible though, you can contribute up to $3,400 if you are the only individual covered by such a plan, or up to $6,750 if you have family coverage.

Backdoor Roth IRA

If you’re not eligible to contribute to an IRA directly, you might want to consider something called a Backdoor Roth IRA.

The Backdoor Roth IRA takes advantage of two rules that, when combined, can allow you to contribute to a Roth IRA even if you make too much for a regular contribution:

  1. You are always allowed to make non-deductible traditional IRA contributions, up to the annual $5,500 limit, no matter how much you make.
  2. You are also allowed to convert money from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA at any time, no matter how much you make.

When you put those together, high-earners could make non-deductible contributions to a traditional IRA, and shortly after convert that money to a Roth IRA. From that point forward the money will grow completely tax-free.

There are some potential pitfalls, and you can review all the details here. But if you are otherwise ineligible to make IRA contributions, this is a good option to have in your back pocket.

Taxable Investment Account

While dedicated retirement accounts offer the biggest tax breaks, there are plenty of tax-efficient ways to invest within a regular taxable investment account as well.

These accounts can be especially helpful for nearer term goals, since your money isn’t locked away until retirement age, or for money you’d like to invest after maxing out your dedicated retirement accounts.

How to Decide Between Additional 401(K) Contributions and Other Retirement Accounts

With those options in hand, how do you decide whether to make additional 401(k) contributions, beyond the amount needed to max out the employer match, or to contribute that money to other accounts?

There are a few big factors to consider:

  • Eligibility – If you’re not eligible to contribute to an IRA or HSA, a 401(k) might be your best option by default.
  • Costs – Cost is the single best predictor of future investment returns, with lower cost investments leading to higher returns. You’ll want to prioritize accounts that allow you to minimize the fees you pay.
  • Investment options – You should prioritize accounts that allow you to implement your preferred asset allocation, again with good, low-cost funds.
  • Convenience – All else being equal, having fewer accounts spread across fewer companies will make your life easier.

With those factors in mind, here’s a reasonable guide for making the decision:

  1. Max out your employer match before contributing to other accounts.
  2. If your 401(k) offers low fees and investments that fit your desired portfolio, you can keep things simple by prioritizing additional contributions there first. This allows you to work with one account, at least for a little while, instead of several.
  3. If your 401(k) is high-cost, or if you’ve already maxed out your 401(k), a health savings account may be the next best place to look. If you can pay for your medical expenses with other money, allowing this account to stay invested and grow for the long term, that triple tax break is hard to beat.
  4. An IRA is likely your next best option. You can review this guide for a full breakdown of the traditional versus Roth debate.
  5. If you’re not eligible for a direct IRA contribution, you should consider a Backdoor Roth IRA.
  6. If you maxed out your other retirement accounts because your 401(k) is high-cost, now is probably the time to go back. While there are some circumstances in which incredibly high fees might make a taxable investment account a better deal, in most cases the tax breaks offered by a 401(k) will outweigh any difference in cost.
  7. Once those retirement accounts are maxed out, you can invest additional money in a regular taxable investment account.

The Bottom Line: Maximize Your 401(k)

A 401(k) is a powerful tool if you know how to use it. The tax breaks make it easier to save more and earn more than in a regular investment account, and the potential for an employer match is unlike any opportunity offered by any other retirement account.

The key is in understanding your 401(k)’s specific opportunities and how to take maximum advantage of them. If you can do that, you may find yourself a lot closer to financial independence than you thought.

Matt Becker
Matt Becker |

Matt Becker is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Matt at matt@magnifymoney.com

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7 Money Moves New Empty Nesters Should Make Now

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Raising one child to age 17 costs a middle-income married couple on average $233,610, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Once your kids leave the nest, all of the money you spent feeding, clothing, and entertaining them is suddenly up for grabs. But if empty nesters don’t earmark their newfound savings for specific goals, it’s easy to fall into the so-called “lifestyle creep” trap — when your lifestyle suddenly becomes more expensive as soon as your discretionary income increases.

A 2016 study by Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research found that a couple collectively earning $100,000 per year should be able to put an additional 12% toward their retirement savings after their children fly the coop. But in reality, researchers found that same couple would only increase their 401(k) contribution by 0.3 to 0.7 percent.

Covington, La.- based certified financial planner, Lauren Lindsay encourages empty nesters to put their extra pocket money to work.

“In general, when people have money ‘available’ they tend to spend it and not even be conscious about how they’re spending it,” Lindsay told MagnifyMoney. “I think it’s really important to refocus our goals now that we are in a different stage and, hopefully, on that home stretch towards retirement.”

Lindsay says the empty-nester stage is a really good time to circle back and revisit your budget to focus and make a plan for your financial goals. “Depending on where you are in the scale of retirement, you could use the extra funds to pay off a car, pay down the mortgage, save towards a trip, fund the emergency fund, or other goals,” she says.

As a new empty nester, there’s likely an endless list of purchases and lifestyle upgrades your newfound savings could go toward. You may even think you deserve a new car or boat, or to go on a luxury vacation every year after 18 or more years of child-rearing.

You can certainly treat yourself if you’d like, but you should make sure to get your financial house back in order before celebrating your freedom.

Here are a few things you can do to make sure your empty-nest savings go to the right places.

Put a number on what you’re saving now that the kids are gone

You may not be aware of exactly how much money you are really saving now that there are fewer mouths to feed at home. Creating or revising your budget gives you an opportunity to see the numbers behind the decrease and adjust your spending to maximize potential savings.

Peachtree City, Ga.-based certified financial planner Carol Berger suggests new empty nesters take the opportunity to complete a cash flow analysis — either on your own or with a financial adviser.

“This will allow you to identify how much discretionary income you have and then develop a plan on how to use it,” says Berger. Tally up the reduction in your spending to get an idea of how much potential cash you could be diverting to your own financial goals.

Shrink your lifestyle

If you’ve spent decades shopping for a family of three or more, it’s hard to break that habit right away. You might still be shopping for more groceries than you really need, for example, and wasting money in the process.

It might be time to take an even bigger step toward minimizing your housing costs — downsizing. Not only could this reduce your overall housing costs, but it’ll give you an opportunity to shop around for a home that better fits your needs as you age or to consider a residence in an active adult community with homes and amenities designed specifically for those ages 55 and older.

Check out what you’re paying for utilities, too. While you may have needed the tricked-out cable package when your kids were living at home full time, you may not care about paying for premium channels any longer. Call your provider and negotiate a less-expensive package. Try using a service like BillFixers or Trim to renegotiate or cancel bills and features you may no longer have use for.

Review your insurance policies

The same goes for your insurance policies like car and health insurance. Under the current health care law, kids can stay on their parents’ health insurance plan until they turn 26. But if your adult child already has employer-provided insurance, you don’t need to pay for their coverage anymore.

Contact your employer’s human resources department to discuss removing members from your family plan, or switching to a lower-cost individual plan when you’re on your own. The same goes for any vision or dental insurance plans you may still be paying the family price for.

If you’re still paying for your child’s life insurance policy, you may want to speak with them about transferring the plan into their name or canceling the plan if they have access to a better one through an employer.

It couldn’t hurt to ask for a discount on your car insurance or switch to lower-cost coverage because the kids aren’t there to drive your car.

Put your newfound money toward any outstanding debts

Saving for retirement is important and paying off your outstanding debts should be your top priority. The interest rates on unsecured debts like credit cards are generally higher than any returns you’d receive on potential savings. So if you pay off your debts first, you’ll actually save yourself more money in the long run.

According to a 2017 Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report, the number of Americans 60 and older with student loan debt rose from 700,000 to 2.8 million individuals between 2005 and 2015. The average amount of student debt owed by older borrowers almost doubled during that time, from $12,000 to $23,500.

One of the worst things you can do for retirement planning is ignore past-due debts. If debts go unpaid for too long, you could see your wages or even your future Social Security benefits garnished. The same CFPB report shows the number of retirees who had their benefits cut to repay a federal loan rose from about 8,700 to 40,000 borrowers over the 10-year period.

Don’t sacrifice your retirement goals to pay for college

College has never been more expensive. But remember: Your kids can take out a loan for school and pay it off as their income grows. You can’t necessarily take out a loan for your retirement.

That’s why financial planners often advise parents not to put themselves at financial risk by sacrificing their nest egg to pay for their child’s college education — unless they can afford to take the hit.

“Many people believe that they must send their kids to college, and they pay a hefty sum for that — sometimes at the expense of their retirement,” says Oak Brook, Ill.-based certified financial planner Elizabeth Buffardi.

If you’ve covered your debts and have room to save more, you still have plenty of time to contribute to your retirement funds.

Let’s say a married couple has $200,000 already saved for retirement with 15 years left to go. They collectively earn $100,000 per year, and they have diligently been saving 15% of their monthly pre-tax income for retirement. If they double their savings to 30% — putting away $2,500 each month — and their investment grows at an average annual rate of 6%, they could have well over $1 million saved by retirement.

Plan for long-term health care needs

A couple retiring today will spend an estimated $260,000 on health care needs in retirement, according to Fidelity.

Think of what other health care needs you could have in retirement. Buffardi says she always asks clients if they are worried about needing long-term care in the future. While most workers will qualify for Medicare once they turn 65, Medicare does not cover all long-term care needs. If you know you have a family history of dementia or other age-related illnesses that may require long-term care, this may be a concern for you. You may consider taking out a long-term care insurance policy or setting aside funds in a regular savings account.

Learn to say NO

Even after your kids move out, they can still treat you like the Bank of Mom and Dad. They may come to you for a wedding loan or to ask you to co-sign something they can’t afford, like a mortgage. Even though their pleas may pull at your heartstrings, consider your own financial needs first.

Brittney Laryea
Brittney Laryea |

Brittney Laryea is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Brittney at brittney@magnifymoney.com

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Here’s How to Find Out How Much Social Security Income You’ll Receive

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

At what age will you retire? How much can you expect to receive each month when you do? These are important questions even if you are decades away from retirement, and there’s an easy way to get answers anytime. We’re going to show you how to get your Social Security benefits statement online and what to do with it once you’ve got it.

A little background:

Depending on your age, you may remember getting a printed Social Security benefits statement in the mail. Prior to 2011, the Social Security Administration (SSA) mailed statements to all workers every year. Those annual mailings were discontinued in 2011 as a cost-saving measure. The following year, the SSA made the statements available online, but their decision caused a bit of an uproar. Despite the agency’s outreach campaign, far fewer people registered for an account than there were eligible workers. So in 2014, Congress required the agency to resume sending printed statements every five years to workers age 25 and older who hadn’t registered for an online account.

That schedule remained until earlier this year when the agency announced that due to budget restraints, paper benefit statements will only be mailed to people who are 60 or older, have not established an online account, and are not yet receiving Social Security benefits. Simply put, don’t expect to get a printed statement anytime soon.

How to get your Social Security benefits statement

Accessing your Social Security benefits statement online is pretty simple, as long as you have an email address and can provide some basic identifying information.

First, go to ssa.gov/myaccount and click on “Sign In or Create an Account.”

If you’ve never created an online account with the SSA, you’ll click on “Create an Account.” If you’ve set up an account before, you won’t be able to create a new account using the same Social Security number. If you’ve forgotten your username or password, the SSA website offers tools to help recover them.

When you select “Create an Account,” the site will lead you through a few questions to verify your identity. You’ll need to provide personal information that matches the information on file with the SSA as well as some information matching your credit report.

Ryder Taff, a Certified Financial Adviser with New Perspectives, Inc. of Ridgeland, Miss., helps many of his clients set up Social Security accounts and says the questions often have to do with past residences or vehicles that may have been registered in your name.

If you have trouble setting up your account online, you can call the SSA for help at 1-800-772-1213.

Information in a Social Security benefits statement

Your Social Security benefits statement provides several valuable pieces of information:

  • A record of your earnings, by year, since you began having Social Security and Medicare taxes withheld.
  • Estimated retirement benefits if you begin claiming Social Security at age 62, full retirement age, or age 70.
  • Estimated disability benefits if you became disabled right now.
  • Estimated survivor benefits that your spouse or child would receive if you were to die this year.

Here’s a sample of what your benefits statement will look like:

Keep in mind that the estimated benefits shown are just that — estimates. The amounts shown are calculated based on average earnings over your lifetime and assume you’ll continue earning your most recent annual wages until you start receiving benefits. They are also calculated in today’s dollars without any adjustment for inflation. The amount you receive could also be impacted by any changes enacted by Congress from now until the time you retire.

What to do with your Social Security benefit statement

It’s a good idea to check your earnings record for errors once per year. It’s not uncommon for earnings from certain employers or even all of your earnings from an entire year to be missing, and you’ll want to get that corrected right away because benefits are calculated on your highest 35 years of earnings. “Any missing years will be just as damaging as a zero on a test was to your GPA,” Taff says. “Gather your documents and correct ANY missing years, even if they aren’t the highest salary. Every dollar counts!”

If you do spot any errors, grab your W-2 or tax return for the year in question and call the SSA at 1-800-772-1213. You can also report errors by writing to the SSA at:

Social Security Agency
Office of Earnings Operations
P.O. Box 33026
Baltimore, MD 21290-3026

Reading your statement is also a good reminder of how much you need to save for retirement outside of Social Security. Chances are, you won’t be happy living on just your Social Security income in retirement.

The good news is, the longer you delay taking your benefit, the higher your annual benefit will be. You can begin taking Social Security retirement benefits at age 62, but your payments will be smaller than they would be if you waited until full retirement age (FRA). Currently, your annual benefit increases by 8% for each year you delay taking your benefit from FRA until age 70.

Colin Exelby, president and founder of Celestial Wealth Management in Towson, Md., says that using your Social Security benefits statement can be particularly useful for retirement planning for couples. “Depending on your age, health, family health history, and financial situation there are a number of different ways to claim your benefits,” he says. “Each individual situation is different, and many couples have different views on the decision.”

If you are nearing retirement, you can use your benefits statement to work with a financial adviser to help you maximize total benefits, or run through various scenarios using a free online tool like the one provided by AARP.

Setting up your Social Security account is simple, free, and helpful for retirement planning, but it’s also a good security measure. It’s impossible to set up more than one account per Social Security number, so registering your account is a good way to prevent identity thieves from establishing an account on your behalf.

Take the time to set up your Social Security account and find out how much you might be entitled to receive in benefits. It could help you feel more empowered to take charge of your retirement plan.

Janet Berry-Johnson
Janet Berry-Johnson |

Janet Berry-Johnson is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Janet here

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College Students and Recent Grads, Retirement, Strategies to Save

Why the ‘Save 10% for Retirement’ Rule Doesn’t Always Work

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

To keep saving simple, many retirement experts and financial planners tout a general 10% rule for most savers: If you start saving at least 10% of your income in your 20s, you should have plenty saved up by the time you’re ready to retire.

Why save for retirement?

Social Security might not be around to help you make ends meet in retirement; that’s even more likely for millennials and the cohorts that follow. With the nation’s current birth and death rates, it’s estimated that Social Security funds will be exhausted by 2034.

Whether or not the future retirees of America will have Social Security to rely on, their benefit check alone likely won’t be enough to meet all of their needs in retirement.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, retired households need to bring an average $42,478 to meet their annual expenses.

And yet, as of March 2017, the average monthly Social Security benefit for retirees was $1,365.35, or about $16,384 annually. That’s only slightly more than the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 poverty threshold for two-person households 65 and older ($16,480). Even in households where two spouses are receiving Social Security income, that’s still less than $32,000 per year.

That’s why it’s so important for workers to set additional income aside during their working years. When Social Security falls short, those extra savings will be essential.

Who does the 10% retirement rule work best for?

It’s likely that 10% became the rule of thumb simply because it’s easy to remember and makes the mental math a lot easier. But it’s important to understand who the rule is targeting: younger workers.

Since younger workers have more time to let their money grow, they can afford to save a bit less in their early days. But the advice changes as workers’ savings windows narrow with age. A 40-something worker, for example, who never saved for retirement may be encouraged to save twice as much for retirement since they have a shorter timetable.

“Ten percent may be enough, it may not be enough, and it may even be too much,” depending on your age and financial picture, says Amy Jo Lauber, a certified financial planner in Buffalo, N.Y. Someone paying off student loans or high-interest credit cards simply may not be able to put away 10% of their income.

It gets increasingly complicated when you consider your personal income and ability to save as well as your retirement goals.

“Typically, younger clients do not have complex situations and can get by with simple strategies. Once there are competing priorities, such as saving for a home, kids, and kids’ college, then things get complicated and more sophisticated strategies are required,” says Howard Pressman, a certified financial planner and partner at Egan, Berger & Weiner.

As Pressman suggests, you might need to tweak the rule if you’re starting to stash away retirement funds at an earlier or later age or want to put more money away now for a more lavish retirement.

Timing is everything

This chart from JP Morgan’s 2017 Guide to Retirement demonstrates the power of saving early for retirement.

At a modest 6% annual growth rate, Consistent Chloe, a 25-year-old who puts away $5,000 a year until she reaches age 65 should have a retirement account balance of more than $820,000, according to the bank. And when all’s said and done, only $200,000 would have come out of her own pocket — the rest would have resulted from the power of compounding interest.

In comparison, Nervous Noah, a more timid 25-year-old saver, could put away the same $5,000 a year in a savings account earning far less annual interest on his cash. After the same 40-year period, he would only have a balance of $308,050.

Investing earlier can bring even greater success. If a person starts putting away $5,000 a year at 20, growing at 6%, their balance at 65 would be about $1,132,549, which we calculated using the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s compound interest calculator. That’s more than $300,000 added to Consistent Chloe’s retirement balance for beginning just two years earlier.

The final balance at 65 drops below $1 million for anyone starting after 25. As you can see above, those who begin saving will have less and less to live on in retirement.

7 retirement savings tips

  1. Start early

The emphasis of this rule is starting early. The earlier you save, the more you can take advantage of compound interest.

“Compounding is earning interest on interest earned in prior periods and is the most powerful force in all of finance,” says Pressman. To make the most of this rule, start saving 10% of your income for retirement by the time you turn 25.
Start by maxing out your 401(k) or IRA contribution limits for the year. If you still have additional funds, it might be time to meet with a financial planner to find out how to best invest your surplus.

  1. Know your options

The best place to stash retirement savings is either an IRA or a 401(k). Your money simply won’t grow enough to beat inflation if you leave it in a low-interest-bearing account like a checking or savings account.

  1. Make debt and emergency savings a priority

“Before anyone starts focusing on retirement saving, the first thing they should do is to establish an emergency cash reserve. This is to protect them from a job loss, a health emergency, or even an expensive car repair,” says Pressman. He recommends saving three to six month’s worth of expenses in a savings account.

If placing 10% of your income in a retirement account is too much of an ask because you have more pressing financial obligations like higher-interest debts, or don’t earn enough to cover your expenses, you should address those before increasing your retirement contribution.

Generally speaking, if the interest rate on any debts you owe is higher than what you’d earn on your retirement savings, you’ll make more progress toward your financial goals by addressing the higher-interest debt first.

  1. Plan differently if you have irregular income

Lauber says those who are freelancing and cobbling together a living may need to put several financial policies in place to help them navigate with irregular income.

“The 10% rule works for them but only if other measures are in place for the immediate day-to-day needs,” says Lauber. You can still create a budget with irregular income, but you might need to approach retirement saving more aggressively when income is higher, and strategize your saving to compensate for months when income is nonexistent or low. Find more tips on how to manage irregular income here.

  1. Make the most of your match

Don’t leave free money on the table. If your employer offers to match your contribution, Kristi Sullivan, a certified financial planner with Sullivan Financial Planning in Denver, Colo., advises individuals to save as much as your employer matches immediately or 6% if there is not a match. That way, you won’t miss out on free additions to your retirement nest egg.

  1. Automate your contribution

Out of sight, out of mind. Automate your retirement contribution to ensure you pay yourself first.

“Typically, once it’s done through payroll deduction, the person seldom misses it,” says Lauber.

  1. Check in regularly

Don’t just “set it and forget it.” Mark R. Morley, certified financial planner and president of Warburton Capital Management, stresses “clients must be ‘invested’ in their own plan.”

He says to check periodically on your retirement account and make adjustments where necessary. If you have a financial adviser, you may want to schedule regular progress meetings.

“When a client is engaged in their own plan and can see real results, we can work on the two variables that affect the retirement accounts: time and money,” says Morley.

Brittney Laryea
Brittney Laryea |

Brittney Laryea is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Brittney at brittney@magnifymoney.com

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Retirement, Strategies to Save

Why You Should Open Up a Roth IRA for Your Kids

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

A Roth IRA is probably one of the most powerful retirement vehicles available on the market. Unlike a traditional IRA, the contributions made to a Roth IRA are pre-tax, which allows you to withdraw your money tax-free after age 59½ .

When it comes to a Roth IRA, it’s important to think of how you can use it in other ways too, namely, how your kids can use one to become financially successful one day. There are two ways unique ways you can use a Roth IRA to help your children.

The first way is to open one in their name that they can use to save for their eventual retirement. The second is to use a Roth IRA in your name as a college savings account.

Both of these options come with pros and cons, and it’s important to know them before deciding if either of them is right for you.

Opening an IRA in Your Child’s Name for Their Retirement

The challenge of opening an IRA in your child’s name is that in order to open an IRA in your child’s name, the child has to have a paycheck. You can see exactly what qualifies as earned income here. It might seem like this is impossible, but it’s not. Entrepreneurial parents all over the country who see the value in early retirement savings are taking advantage of this.

For example, if you run a business, you can employ your children to stamp your mail, be models for your brochures, and even manage your social media. As long as you issue them a 1099 or a W2 for their work, they are eligible to open a Roth IRA.

Another negative is that you can’t supplement your child’s income to reach the $5,500 cap on Roth IRA contributions. They can only put in what they earn up to $5,500. So if your child only earns $1,500 from working part-time at an ice cream shop one summer, they can only invest $1,500. However, if they earn $6,000 from that same ice cream shop, they can only invest $5,500.

When children have a Roth IRA in their names, the money is officially theirs. This is different from earmarking a savings account for them in your name. Instead, this is money that they earned going into an account that can benefit them in retirement. The biggest pro is that this is an awesome teaching tool for them. You can really show them how their money can compound and grow over the years.

Even if you start the Roth with a small amount and never touch it again, a one-time $5,500 investment (the current Roth IRA contribution limit) can grow to over $100,000 at a 6% return if your child lets it grow from age 12 to age 62. Fifty years of compounding interest will do that!

What an awesome gift that would be if your child never touched this until they were at their retirement age and got a bonus six-figure payout from work they did when they were a kid. That’s a good memory to leave with them.

Opening a Roth IRA in Your Name as a College Savings Account

Many people don’t realize that another great benefit of a Roth IRA is that you can use it as a college savings account. You could use a Roth IRA in your child’s name for their college savings, but let’s say your child doesn’t work, or if they do, you’d rather they kept the IRA for their own retirement one day.

If that’s the case, you could use your own Roth IRA for their college savings, and here’s why. According to Certified Financial Planner, Matt Becker, “If the money is used for higher education expenses for you, your spouse, your child, or your grandchild, there is no 10% penalty.” (Usually, if you withdraw earnings from a Roth before age 59 ½ there would be a penalty, but not if the money is used for college.)

The downside to all this is that if you use this money for your child’s college education, then you’re not saving it in your Roth for your own retirement someday, and that’s pretty important! The pro is that your money isn’t locked into a 529 plan where you have to use the money for qualified higher education expenses. Another interesting pro is that 529 assets are counted toward your Estimated Family Contributions on the FAFSA, but investment accounts, like Roth IRAs are not.

That said, it’s important to look very closely at the differences between 529 plans and Roth IRA plans if you want to use your Roth as a college savings vehicle. Additionally, if you are a high-income earner, you might not be able to contribute to your own Roth IRA unless you do what’s called a backdoor IRA. The current 2017 income limit for Roth IRA contributions is a $186,000 annual income for those who are married and filing jointly or $118,000 for those who are single.

As you can see, Roth IRAs are great accounts for a variety of different savings purposes, and you should try to think outside the box when it comes to using them to help your children create a bright financial future.

Cat Alford
Cat Alford |

Cat Alford is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Catherine at cat@magnifymoney.com

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