If I said you could significantly boost the size of your nest egg without setting aside even a single penny more than you already are and do so without taking on a scintilla of extra investing risk, you’d be skeptical, right? Well, you can. Here’s how.
It’s no secret that the best way to increase your chances of achieving a secure retirement is to boost the amount you save. Problem is, given all the other demands on your paycheck (mortgage, car payments, child expenses, the occasional night out, etc.) how do you find ways to free up more dough for saving?
Actually, there’s an easy way boost your retirement account balances without further squeezing your budget: Stash whatever money you do manage to save in the lowest-cost investments you can find. This simple tactic has the same effect as contributing more to your retirement accounts, making it the financial equivalent of upping your savings rate.
How big a jump in your effective savings rate are we talking about? That depends on how much you cut investment fees and how long you reap the benefits of those lower costs. But over time the increase in your effective savings rate can be quite meaningful, as this example shows.
Let’s say you’re 35, earn $50,000 a year, receive 2% annual raises, and contribute 10% of your salary to a 401(k) that earns a 7% a year before fees. If you shell out 1.5% annually in investment expenses, by the time you’re 65 your 401(k) balance will total just under $465,000.
Reduce your annual investment costs from 1.5% to just 1%—hardly a heroic effort—and you’re looking at a nest egg worth roughly $505,000. To end up with that amount while still paying 1.5% in annual fees, you would have to boost your annual 401(k) contribution to 10.8%. Which means that lowering expenses by a half percentage point in this case is essentially the same as saving nearly a full percentage point more each year, except you don’t have to reduce your spending to do it.
And what if you take an even sharper knife to investing costs?
Well, cutting expenses from 1.5% to 0.5% a year would give our hypothetical 35-year-old a 401(k) balance of just under $550,000 at age 65, or the equivalent of saving 11.8% a year instead of 10%. And if you’re able to really cut investment fees to the bone—say, to 0.25%—that nest egg’s value would balloon to just over $573,000. To reach that size while paying 1.5% annually in investing costs, our 35-year-old would have to contribute 12.3% of pay.
By the way, lowering investment costs can also have a big payoff after you’ve stopped saving and have begun tapping your nest egg for retirement income. For example, a 65 year-old with a $1 million nest egg split equally between stocks and bonds who wants an 80% chance that his savings will sustain him for at least 30 years would have to limit himself to an initial draw (that would subsequently rise with inflation) of just under 3.5%, or a bit less than $35,000, assuming annual expenses of 1.5%.
Cut that levy from 1.5% to 0.5%, and he would be able to boost that inflation-adjusted withdrawal to almost 4%, or $40,000, while maintaining the same 80% probability of savings lasting 30 or more years.
Of course, the results you get may vary for any number of reasons. For example, if you’re doing most of your saving through a 401(k) and your plan lacks good low-cost investment options, your ability to turn lower expenses into a higher account balance will necessarily be limited. And even if you are able to home in on investments with rock-bottom costs, there’s no guarantee that every dollar of cost savings will translate to an extra dollar in your account.
That said, unless every cent of your savings is locked into an account that offers only high-expense investments, you should be able to get some money into cost-efficient options. At the very least you can steer savings in IRAs and taxable accounts into low-fee index funds and ETFs (some of which charge as little as 0.05%). And while cutting investing costs can’t guarantee a larger nest egg, Morningstar research shows that funds with the lowest expense ratios tend to outperform their higher-fee counterparts.
One final note. While targeting low-expense investment options is certainly an effective and painless way to boost the size of your nest egg, you shouldn’t let low costs do all the work. Indeed, if you focus on low-fee investments and increase your contributions to 401(k)s, IRAs and other retirement accounts, that’s when you’ll see your savings balances really take off.