Q: The company I work for doesn’t offer a 401(k). I am young professional who wants to start saving for retirement but I don’t have a lot of money. Where should I start? – Abraham Weiser, New York City
A: Millions of workers are in the same boat. One-quarter of full-time employees are at companies that don’t offer a retirement plan, according to government data. The situation is most common at small firms: Only 50% of workers at companies with fewer than 100 employees have 401(k)s vs. 82% of workers at medium and large companies.
Certainly, 401(k)s are one of the best ways to save for retirement. These plans let you make contributions directly from your paycheck, and you can put away a large amount ($18,000 in 2015 for those 49 and younger), which can grow tax sheltered.
But there are retirement savings options beyond the 401(k) that also offer attractive tax benefits, says Ryan P. Tuttle, a certified financial planner at Connecticut Wealth Management in Farmington, Ct.
Since you’re just getting started, your first step is to get a handle on your spending and cash flow, which will help you determine how much you can really afford to put away for retirement. If you have a lot of high-rate debt—say, student loans or credit cards—you should also be paying that down. But if you have to divert cash to pay off loans, you won’t be able to put away a lot for savings.
That doesn’t mean you should wait to put money away for retirement. Even if you can only save a small amount, perhaps $50 or $100 a week, do it now. The earlier you get going, the more time that money will have to compound, so even a few dollars here or there can make a big difference in two or three decades.
You can give an even bigger boost to your savings by opting for a tax-sheltered savings plan like an Individual Retirement Account (IRA), which protects your gains from Uncle Sam, at least temporarily.
These come in two flavors: traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs. In a traditional IRA, you pay taxes when you withdraw the money in retirement. Depending on your income, you may also qualify for a tax deduction on your IRA contribution. With a Roth IRA, it’s the opposite. You put in money after paying taxes but you can withdraw it tax free once you retire.
The downside to IRAs is that you can only stash $5,500 away each year, for those 49 and younger. And to make a full contribution to a Roth, your modified adjusted gross income must be less than $131,000 a year if you’re single or $193,000 for those married filing jointly.
If your pay doesn’t exceed the income limit, a Roth IRA is your best option, says Tuttle. When you’re young and your income is low, your tax rate will be lower. So the upfront tax break you get with a traditional IRA isn’t as big of a deal.
Ideally, you’ll contribute the maximum $5,500 to your IRA. But if you don’t have a chunk of money like that, have funds regularly transferred from your bank account to an IRA until you reach the $5,500. You can set up an IRA account easily with a low-fee provider such as Vanguard, Fidelity or T. Rowe Price.
Choose low-cost investments such as index funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs); you can find choices on our Money 50 list of recommended funds and ETFs. Most younger investors will do best with a heavier concentration in stocks than bonds, since you’ll want growth and you have time to ride out market downturns. Still, your asset allocation should be geared to your individual risk tolerance.
If you end up maxing out your IRA, you can stash more money in a taxable account. Look for tax-efficient investments that generate little or no taxable gains—index funds and ETFs, again, may fill the bill.
Getting an early start in retirement savings is smart. But you should also be investing in your human capital. That means continuing to get education and adding to your skills so your earnings rise over time. Your earnings grow most quickly in those first decades of your career. “The more you earn, the more you can put away for retirement,” says Tuttle. As you move on to better opportunities—with any luck—you’ll land at a company that offers a great 401(k) plan, too.
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