Published Monday, May 23, 2016 at: 7:00 AM EDT
When should you start saving for retirement? There's no time like the present, whether you're fresh out of school or in the middle of your career. And even if you haven't been able to set aside much, if anything, during your main working years, realize that it's never too late to begin.
Of course, you're more likely to secure a comfortable retirement if you can save consistently over your lifetime. Keeping that in mind, here's an overview of what you might do during different stages of your life.
Ages 20-40: It makes sense to get in on the ground floor when you can. For many people, the best place to start is with a 401(k) plan or another such employer-sponsored retirement plan that offers substantial tax advantages.
For instance, if you're eligible to participate in a 401(k), you can defer up to $18,000 to your personal account in 2017. (This figure is indexed for inflation annually and may be adjusted upward.) Your contribution isn't taxed now. Your employer may provide matching contributions, too, based on how much you put in. So if you're eligible and not actively participating in your company's plan, you're leaving money on the table.
But don't stop there. If possible, supplement your 401(k) or similar plan with an IRA or other kind of saving plans. With a traditional IRA, your contributions may be wholly or partly tax-deductible. Then, as with a 401(k), money withdrawn during retirement is generally taxable. With a Roth IRA, you can't deduct contributions, but future distributions are generally exempt from tax.
Starting to save early in one or more of these retirement plans puts time on your side, and the power of tax-deferred investment compounding can be formidable. Suppose you're age 30 and plan to retire at 67. Let's assume that you earn $100,000 a year and contribute 5% to your 401(k), while your employer provides an annual 50% match of 3% of your salary. If you earn a hypothetical return of 7% annually on account funds, your yearly contributions of $5,000, bolstered by your employer's $1,500, will grow to $1,081,038 by the time you're ready to retire.
Of course, this is a busy time of life, and the cost of buying a house and starting a family, among other expenses, could affect how much of your income you can earmark for retirement savings. But if you can manage to save regularly and steadily, the potential payoff could be substantial.
Ages 40-60: If you're able to sustain a sound retirement saving strategy that you began in your 20s and 30s, you'll be ahead of the game. But financial obligations during this 20-year stretch sometimes can be overwhelming. You might move to a larger home, expand your family, and shoulder part or all of the cost of putting your kids through college.
However, if you can keep saving, your retirement plan and IRA contributions will continue to bolster your nest egg during a time when your job income may rise substantially. You can continue IRA contributions even if they're nondeductible. Moreover, once you reach age 50, you can make "catch-up" contributions that increase the maximum amount you can put in a 401(k) each year. The maximum catch-up contribution for 2017 is $6,000. (This figure, too, is indexed annually for inflation.) These extra amounts can help you make up for lost ground once you've paid those college tuition bills. Depending on your situation, you also might decide to convert traditional IRA funds to a Roth IRA. You'll owe current taxes on the amount you convert, but you may secure tax-free payouts in retirement.
Furthermore, if you can manage to pay off your mortgage during these years, you could earmark the money that had been going for monthly loan payments to increase the amount you put away for retirement.
Ages 60 and up: Now is the time for a final savings surge. Be sure to maximize retirement and IRA contributions, and set aside extra money in other accounts if you can.
At the same time, consider several crucial decisions that could affect your retirement lifestyle. One very important question is when to apply for Social Security benefits. For most Baby Boomers, full retirement age (FRA) is age 66, but it gradually increases to age 67 for younger people. If you apply before you reach FRA, as early as age 62, you'll receive lower monthly benefits. Waiting longer, until as late as age 70, will produce higher benefits. Other decisions about Social Security may affect married couples.
Another decision involves your home. Downsizing to a smaller, cheaper house, perhaps in an area with lower costs, could help you minimize your expenses as you approach retirement.
Finally, remember that retirement planning doesn't end when you retire. It's an ongoing process, and from now through the rest of your life, you'll probably need to make periodic adjustments to your investment strategy and your plan for tapping your savings.
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