It's never too late to start saving for retirement, but now that you've put it off - don't wait any longer.
Question: I’m 41 years old and have no retirement savings. Is it too late for me to do anything worthwhile? If not, what would be the first couple of steps I should take? - Brian, Phoenix, Arizona
Answer: Too late to make difference in your retirement prospects just because you’re starting at age 41? No way.
Granted, you’d be in a lot better position if you had begun saving earlier in your career. But you’ve still got a good 25 or more years of your career ahead of you. If you get started now and really make a concerted effort, that’s plenty of time to build decent nest egg that, combined with Social Security and any other resources you might have, should be able to support you in reasonable comfort in retirement.
The key, though, is shaking off the lethargy, procrastination or whatever it was that prevented you from getting your act together and make a commitment to ratcheting up your retirement-planning effort now. And I mean right now.
As for what steps you should take, let’s be honest. There are no miracle strategies I can give you that will make an extra decade or two’s worth of retirement savings magically appear overnight. And while it would be nice if there were a “Make Up For Lost Time” mutual fund I could recommend that guaranteed 20% annual returns, we both know no such fund exists (except, perhaps, in the dreams of fund marketing execs).
So if you want to dramatically improve your retirement prospects, your choices are pretty clear. Specifically, you’ve got to resolve to take the first two steps below immediately, and then follow through with the third once you’ve got your catch-up plan underway.
Step #1: Save your you-know-what off
Barring a huge inheritance or very minimal needs, you can’t realistically expect to retire in comfort unless you save. And since you’ve got to make up for all those years when you set aside not a cent, you’ve got to pull out the stops. For specific suggestions on how to free up money for saving, click here, and here.
You can get an idea of how much you need to stash away on an annual basis given your age and income by checking out our cleverly named What You Need To Save calculator.
I warn you that the figure you’re going to get will probably appear daunting. But don’t freak out if you can’t afford to save as much as the calculator recommends. Just do as much as you can and then try to boost your savings each year.
To get the biggest bang for each buck you do manage to save, you want to first funnel money into tax-advantaged retirement plans. If you have a 401(k) plan at work, contribute the max, or at least enough to get the full employer match, if there is one. If you can save more, move on to a regular IRA or Roth IRA. (For tips on choosing between the two, click here. If you still have money left over, invest in tax-efficient index funds or tax-managed funds within taxable accounts.
But don’t get hung up on coming up with the best strategy. Just start saving as much as you can somewhere right now; you can always refine your approach later. The most important thing is to start putting bucks away.
Step #2: Invest aggressively, but not recklessly
When people know they’re playing catch-up, behind in their retirement there’s often a temptation to go all-out for huge investment gains. Which often leads to people plowing their money into whatever area of the market is hot - housing a few years ago, oil, gold and commodities more recently.
The problem is that you may be buying in at prices so inflated that you’re setting yourself up for subpar gains or outright losses. Just ask investors who thought real estate was a sure thing but are now sitting on properties worth 20% or 30% less than they paid for them.
So resist the impulse to swing for the fences and instead invest your savings in a diversified blend of stock and bond funds. The key is to create a portfolio that’s aggressive enough to generate reasonable long-term growth, but that isn’t likely to lead to a flameout.
There’s no single “correct” mix of stocks and bonds, but for a person your in situation, a blend of 85% stocks and 15% bonds is a good starting point. You can adjust the stock portion up or down according to your own tolerance for risk. (For suggested portfolios at different career stages, click here.)
Step 3: Keep the momentum going
Once your plan is underway, you want to check in to see how you’re doing. I’m not talking about 24/7 monitoring. Rather, you want to look in maybe a couple of times a year just to make sure your investment strategy hasn’t gone seriously awry and to see how your account balances are faring. The knowledge that your retirement savings are growing might also make you more likely to stick with your plan.
I’d also recommend that once a year or so you check out a calculator like our Retirement Planner that can project the amount of savings you’ll need for retirement and tell you your odds of reaching that target given your current saving and investing regimen. Again, don’t get too flustered if initially your odds of building a large enough nest egg seem small. The main idea is too assure that you’re making progress.
Of course, your prospects will improve greatly if you save more. So look for opportunities to boost the amount you sock away, whether it’s using funds freed up from paying off credit cards, extra money you have after the kids have moved out or the mortgage is paid off or whatever.
If you follow these steps, you should still have plenty of time to build a decent sized nest egg - and you’ll definitely be much better off than if you procrastinate or end up doing nothing at all. But, remember, it’s all got to start with saving. Which is to say, if you don’t do Step 1, doing Steps 2 and 3 won’t do you much good.
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