MONEY 401(k)s

How the New-Model 401(k) Can Help Boost Your Retirement Savings

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Betsie Van Der Meer—Getty Images

As old-style pensions disappear, today's hands-off 401(k)s are starting to look more like them. And that's working for millennials.

If you want evidence that the 401(k) plan has been a failed experiment, consider how they’re starting to resemble the traditional pensions they’ve largely replaced. Plan by plan, employers are moving away from the do-it-yourself free-for-all of the early 401(k)s toward a focus on secure retirement income, with investment pros back in charge of making that happen.

We haven’t come full circle—and likely never will. The days of employer-funded, defined-benefit plans with guaranteed lifetime income will continue their three-decade fade to black. But the latest 401(k) plan innovations have all been geared at restoring the best of what traditional pensions offered.

Wall Street wizards are hard at work on the lifetime income question. Nearly all workers believe their 401(k) plan should have a guaranteed income option and three-in-four employers believe it is their responsibility to provide one, according to a BlackRock survey. So annuities are creeping into the investment mix, and plan sponsors are exploring ways to help workers seamlessly convert some 401(k) assets to an income stream upon retiring.

Meanwhile, like old-style pensions, today’s 401(k) plans are often a no-decision benefit with age-appropriate asset allocation and professionally managed investment diversification to get you to the promised land of retirement. Gone are confusing sign-up forms and weighty decisions about where to invest and how much to defer. Enrollment is automatic at a new job, where you may also automatically escalate contributions (unless you prefer to handle things yourself and opt out).

More than anything, the break-neck growth of target-date funds has brought about the change. Some $500 billion is invested in these funds, up from $71 billion a decade ago. Much of that money has poured in through 401(k) accounts, especially among our newest workers—millennials. They want to invest and generally know they don’t know how to go about it. Simplicity on this front appeals to them. Partly because of this appeal, 40% of millennials are saving a higher percentage of their income this year than they did last year—the highest rate of improvement of any generation, according to a T. Rowe Price study.

With a single target-date fund a saver can get an appropriate portfolio for their age, and it will adjust as they near retirement and may keep adjusting through retirement. About 70% of 401(k) plans offer target-date funds and 75% of plan participants invest in them, according to T. Rowe Price. The vast majority of investors in target-date funds have all their retirement assets in just one fund.

“This is a good thing,” says Jerome Clark, who oversees target funds for T. Rowe Price. Keeping it simple is what attracts workers and leads them to defer more pay. “Don’t worry about the other stuff,” Clark says. “We’ve got that. All you need do is focus on your savings rate.”

Even as 401(k) plans add features like auto enrollment and annuities to better replace traditional pensions, target-date funds are morphing too and speeding the makeover of the 401(k). These funds began life as simple balanced funds with a basic mix of stocks, bonds and cash. Since then, they have widened their mix to include alternative assets like gold and commodities.

The next wave of target-date funds will incorporate a small dose of illiquid assets like private equity, hedge funds, and currencies, Clark says. They will further diversify with complicated long-short strategies and merger arbitrage—thus looking even more like the portfolios that stand behind traditional pensions.

This is not to say that target-date funds are perfect. These funds invest robotically, based on your age not market conditions, so your fund might move money at an inopportune moment. Target-date funds may backfire on millennials, who have taken to them in the highest numbers. Because of their age, millennials have the greatest exposure to stocks in their target-date funds and yet this generation is most likely to tap their retirement savings in an emergency. What if that happens when stock prices are down? Among still more concerns, one size does not fit all when it comes to investing. You may still be working at age 65 while others are not. That calls for two different portfolios.

But the overriding issue is that Americans just don’t save enough and a reasonably inexpensive and relatively safe investment product that boosts savings must be seen as a positive. With far less income, millennials are stashing away about the same percentage of their earnings as Gen X and boomers, according to T. Rowe Price. That’s at least partly thanks to new-look 401(k)s and the target-date funds they offer.

Read next: 3 Ways to Build a $1 Million Nest Egg Despite Lower Investment Returns

MONEY retirement planning

3 Ways to Build a $1 Million Nest Egg Despite Lower Investment Returns

Andy Roberts/Getty Images

Whether your retirement goal is six figures or seven figures, it's harder to achieve in today's market—unless you have a plan.

A new Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies survey found that $1 million is the median savings balance people estimate they’ll need for retirement. And many savers have been able to reach or exceed that goal, according a report last year by the Government Accountability Office showing that some 630,000 IRA account owners have balances greater than $1 million.

But most of these people accumulated those hefty sums in an era of generous investment returns. Between 1926 and 2014, large-company stocks gained an annualized 10.1%, while intermediate-term government bond returned 5.3% annually, according to the 2015 Ibbotson Classic Yearbook. During the go-go ’90s annualized gains were even higher—18.2% for stocks and 7.2% for bonds. Today, however, forecasts like the one from ETF guru Rick Ferri call for much lower gains, say, 7% annualized for stocks and 4% or so for bonds. Which makes building a seven-figure nest egg more of a challenge.

Still, the goal remains doable, if you go about it the right way. Here are three steps that can increase your chances of pulling it off.

1. Get in the game as early as possible—and stay in as long as you can. The more years you save and invest for retirement, the better your chances of building a big nest egg. Here’s an example. If you’re 25, earn $40,000 a year, receive annual raises of 2% during your career and earn 5% a year after expenses on your savings—a not-too-ambitious return for a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds—you can accumulate a $1 million account balance by age 65 by saving a bit more than 15% of salary each year. That’s pretty much in line with the recommendation in the Boston College Center For Retirement Research’s “How Much Should People Save?” study.

Procrastinate even a bit, however, and it becomes much tougher to hit seven figures. Start at 30 instead of 25, and the annual savings burden jumps to nearly 20%, a much more challenging figure. Hold off until age 35, and you’ve got to sock away more a far more daunting 24% a year.

Of course, for a variety of reasons many of us don’t get as early a start as we’d like. In that case, you may be able to mitigate the savings task somewhat by tacking on extra years of saving and investing at the other end by postponing retirement. For example, if our hypothetical 25-year-old puts off saving until age 40, he’d have to sock away more than 30% a year to retire at 65 with $1 million. That would require a heroic saving effort. But if he saved and invested another five years instead of retiring, he could hit the $1 million mark by socking away about 22% annually—still daunting, yes, but not nearly as much as 30%. What’s more, even if he fell short of $1 million, those extra years of work would significantly boost his Social Security benefit and he could safely draw more money from his nest egg since it wouldn’t have to last as long.

2. Leverage every saving advantage you can. The most obvious way to do this is to make the most of employer matching funds, assuming your 401(k) offers them, as most do. Although many plans are more generous, the most common matching formula is 50 cents per dollar contributed up to 6% of pay for a 3% maximum match. That would bring the required savings figure to get to $1 million by 65 down a manageable 16% or so for our fictive 25-year-old, even if he delayed saving a cent until age 30. Alas, a new Financial Engines report finds that the typical 401(k) participant misses out on $1,336 in matching funds each year.

There are plenty of other ways to bulk up your nest egg. Even if you’re covered by a 401(k) or other retirement plan, chances are you’re also eligible to contribute to some type of IRA. (See Morningstar’s IRA calculator.) Ideally, you’ll shoot for the maximum ($5,500 this year; $6,500 if you’re 50 or older), but even smaller amounts can add up. For example, invest $3,000 a year between the ages of 25 and 50 and you’ll have just over $312,000 at 65 even if you never throw in another cent, assuming a 5% annual return.

If you’ve maxed out contributions to tax-advantaged accounts like 401(k)s and IRAs, you can boost after-tax returns in taxable accounts by focusing on tax-efficient investments, such as index funds, ETFs and tax-managed funds, that minimize the portion of your return that goes to the IRS. Clicking on the “Tax” tab in any fund’s Morningstar page will show you how much of its return a fund gives up to taxes; this Morningstar article offers three different tax-efficient portfolios for retirement savers.

3. Pare investment costs to the bone. You can’t force the financial markets to deliver a higher rate of return, but you can keep more of whatever return the market delivers by sticking to low-cost investing options like broad-based index funds and ETFs. According to a recent Morningstar fee study, the average asset-weighted expense ratio for index funds and ETFs was roughly 0.20% compared with 0.80% for actively managed mutual funds. While there’s no assurance that every dollar you save in expenses equals an extra dollar of return, low-expense funds to tend to outperform their high-expense counterparts.

So, for example, if instead of paying 1% a year in investment expenses, the 25-year-old in the example above pays 0.25%—which is doable with a portfolio of index funds and ETFs—that could boost his annual return from 5% to 5.75%, in which case he’d need to save just 13% of pay instead of 15% to build a $1 million nest egg by age 65, if he starts saving at age 25—or just under 22% instead of 24%, if he procrastinates for 10 years. In short, parting investment expenses is the equivalent of saving a higher percentage of pay without actually having to reduce what you spend.

People can disagree about whether $1 million is a legitimate target. Clearly, many retirees will need less, others will require more. But whether you’ve set $1 million as a target or you just want to build the largest nest egg you can, following the three guidelines will increase your chances of achieving your goal, and improve your prospects for a secure retirement.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

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MONEY 401(k)

How the Supreme Court Just Improved Your Retirement

The Supreme Court just ruled on an obscure aspect of ERISA. It could be great news for your retirement nest egg.

The Supreme Court just handed millions of retirement savers a helping hand.

You many not know much about ERISA, the body of rules that governs retirement accounts. But chances are you have a 401(k). That means Monday’s Supreme Court decision could indirectly lower investment fees you’re paying. And that’s great news.

On Monday the Supreme Court made it easier for 401(k) investors to sue employers over needlessly costly 401(k) investments. The actual point of contention in the case, known as Tibble vs. Edison, was pretty obscure. It involved how the statute of limitations should be applied to a breach of fiduciary duty.

But because ERISA law is so complicated, companies almost always choose to fight such suits on technical grounds. This time around, the typically business friendly U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of investors, unanimously overruling the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. As a result, employers will be forced to think a little harder about whether similar arguments are likely to prevail in the future.

But the fact is, employers have grown increasingly proactive about regulating plan fees. The reason: Tibble vs. Edison is just a high-profile example of a series of lawsuits launched in the past decade over employers’ failure to police exorbitant retirement plan fees. And many large employers have already reacted to the threat by urging investment firms to lower fees for their employees. As a result, 401(k) plan fees have come down, and investors have had greater access to low-cost options like index funds.

With the Supreme Court weighing in on investors’ side, you can expect that trend to continue.

 

MONEY Personal Finance

Oh No! Needing a Fridge, Rubio Raids Retirement Account

Larry Marano/Getty Images

Dipping into retirement savings to fund an everyday expense is a common but costly error.

If Florida Sen. Marco Rubio intends to lead by example, he’s off to a rocky start. The Republican presidential hopeful raided his retirement account last September, in part to buy a new refrigerator and air conditioner, according to a recent financial disclosure and comments on Fox News Sunday.

In liquidating his $68,000 American Bar Association retirement account, Rubio showed he’s no Mitt Romney, whose IRA valued at as much a $102 million set tongues wagging coast to coast during the last presidential cycle. Rubio clearly has more modest means, which is why—like most households—if he doesn’t already have an emergency fund equal to six months of fixed living expenses he should set one up right away.

He told Fox host Chris Wallace: “It was just one specific account that we wanted to have access to cash in the coming year, both because I’m running for president, but, also, you know, my refrigerator broke down. That was $3,000. I had to replace the air conditioning unit in our home.”

Millions of Americans treat their retirement savings the same way Rubio did in this instance, raiding a 401(k) or IRA when things get tight. Sometimes you have no other option. But most of the time this is a mistake. Cash-outs, early withdrawals, and plan loans that never get repaid reduce retirement wealth by an average of 25%, reports the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. Money leaking out of retirement accounts in this manner totals as much as $70 billion a year, equal to nearly a quarter of annual contributions, according to a HelloWallet survey.

Rubio’s brush with financial stress from two failed appliances probably won’t set him too far back. He has federal and state retirement accounts and other savings. And let’s face it: The whole episode has an appealing and potentially vote-getting Everyman quality to it. Still, it is not a personal financial strategy you want to emulate.

 

 

MONEY Social Security

How to Choose the Social Security Claiming Age That’s Right for You

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More people are catching on to the benefits of delaying Social Security. But the real issue isn't when everyone else claims—it's finding the strategy that fits your goals.

Retirement experts have been pounding the drums for years about deferring Social Security benefits and allowing them to grow until claimed at age 66 or even as late as 70. Yet average retirement ages have moved little—most people continue to file at or near age 62, the earliest that standard retirement benefits can be claimed, Social Security data show.

Now, thanks to some new research by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, this puzzling contradiction has been solved. It turns out that people are aware of the benefits of delayed filing and, in fact, have been claiming later for many years.

Why the discrepancy in these numbers? In its analysis, Social Security looks at when people file for retirement benefits and does a year-by-year calculation of average claiming ages. This approach works fine during periods of stable population growth, but not so much today.

Social Security’s method fails to account for the soaring numbers of Baby Boomers reaching retirement age. For example, nearly 900,000 men turned 62 in the year 1997, while in 2013, roughly 1.4 million men did so. Even so, a smaller percentage of 62-year-old men filed for Social Security in 2013 than in earlier years. But because the number of 62-year-old retirees make up such a big share of all claims, the average age has remained largely unchanged.

To get a better picture of claiming trends, the Center also used a lifecycle analysis. Instead of tracking the ages of everyone who began benefits in a certain year, such as 2013, it calculated the claiming ages of everyone by the year in which they were born. Looking at this so-called “cohort” data, it became clear that average claiming ages actually had increased far more than people thought.

In 2013, for example, 42% of men and nearly 48% who claimed that year were 62 years old. But only 36% of men and nearly 40% of women who turned 62 in 2013 actually filed for Social Security. “The cohort data reveal that the claiming picture has really changed,” the Center said.

I am cheered by these new findings. People should consider deferring their Social Security benefits and see how doing so would affect their retirement plan. But the key word in that sentence is “plan.” You need one, and it should include figuring out the best Social Security strategy for you, not what’s best for other retirees. Here are the steps to get there:

  • Compare the tax benefits. Our hearts tell us that preserving 401(k) dollars in our nest eggs is essential. But when it comes to spending down those assets in order to delay claiming Social Security, the deferral strategy looks very good. Between the ages of 62 and 70, Social Security retirement benefits rise 7% to 8% a year. They are adjusted upward each year to account for inflation. They are guaranteed by Uncle Sam. Federal taxes are never levied on more than 85 cents of each dollar of Social Security benefits, and most states don’t tax them at all. Compare these terms with 401(k) gains and taxation, and then decide which dollars are most worth preserving.
  • Assess the cost of early claiming. Social Security benefits claimed before Full Retirement Age (66 for people now nearing retirement) are hit with early claiming reductions and, if you are still working, subject to at least temporary benefit reductions caused by the Earnings Test.
  • Weigh the Medicare impact. If you have a health savings account (HSA) through employer group insurance and are eligible for Medicare, filing for Social Security will force you to take Part A of Medicare. It’s normally free but the consequences are not: the filing will force you to drop out of your HSA.
  • Consider longevity risk. Review your family health history, complete an online longevity survey, and estimate your probable lifespan. What does this number say about how long your retirement funds need to last and when you should begin taking Social Security?
  • Think about your family. Will you still have school-age children at home when you turn 62? If so, filing early for Social Security may allow your kids to claim benefits based on your earnings record. This is one case when filing early may put more money in your pocket.
  • Plan for your spouse. Survivor’s benefits are keyed to the Social Security benefits received by the deceased spouse. So, the longer a spouse waits to claim, the higher their partner’s survivor benefit will be. This is a real issue for millions of women who survive their husbands and whose own retirement benefits are smaller than their husbands because they have earned less money in their lives.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is co-author of The New York Times bestseller, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” and is working on a companion book about Medicare. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: How the Social Security Earnings Test Could Wipe Out Your Income

MONEY caregiving

Why Family Caregivers Won’t Do What’s Best for Aging Parents

Technology and online communities can enrich the lives of older people and make them more independent. But who's got time to teach them?

For all their good intentions, family members caring for an aging parent may be stifling their parent’s independence and enrichment by failing to expose them to online communities and other technology, new research shows.

Older people want to learn. About half of those needing care already email, text, and share photos online, according to a study by the Global Social Enterprise Initiative at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and Philips. Some 82% of caregivers believe technology can make aging a better experience, and 63% agree that the person in their care is ready to learn.

So what’s the hangup? Simply that most family caregivers are stretched for time. About three-quarters either have full-time jobs or small kids in the house; they are too tired or don’t have another minute to spend on their care-giving duties, the study shows.

This borders on tragic, because 74% of caregivers say teaching older adults about online communities would be fun and 72% feel qualified to do so. What’s more, 44% of family caregivers are concerned that their parent is lonely or depressed, but 67% say the older adult in their care has not started any new enrichment activities in the past two years and most often resorts to watching TV and talking on the phone.

To a degree, this is a pocketbook issue. Long-term care is costly and choosing how to pay for it is a difficult calculation. Two-thirds of those past age 65 and receiving care at home get it exclusively from a family member, for free. About a third get some family care and some paid care. Family caregivers provide an average of 75 hours of support per month, according to the federal government. The Georgetown study estimated average service at 88 hours per month. This free care has an annual value of $234 billion, according to government estimates.

Some of that value could be recovered at the family level if older people were savvier about technology in a way that kept them occupied, safe, and made them more self-sufficient. Family caregivers could spend more time earning income—and that’s what most likely would choose to do. Caregivers say if they had more time they’d spend only 17% of it on care giving, the Georgetown study shows.

Perhaps with that in mind, family caregivers are high on the agenda at this year’s White House Conference on Aging; a forum convened just once a decade and which Monday holds a full-day event focusing entirely on caregivers. According to the conference materials, a promising development is the growth of publicly financed professional care through Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. In some states, resources are also available through the Veterans Health Administration. Older adults report high levels of satisfaction with professional care through these channels, which can give family caregivers a break.

The Georgetown study suggests that more professional care would lead to more technology training—not so much by the professionals, many of whom make just $10 an hour and are fighting for a raise, but by family members who found a little more time in their schedule and have the most incentive to help an older family member get the most from exploring online enrichment.

MONEY retirement planning

This Popular Financial Advice Could Ruin Your Retirement

two tombstones, one saying $-RIP
iStock

The notion of "dying broke" continues to appeal to many Americans. That's too bad, since the strategy is ridiculously flawed.

You may have heard of the phrase “Die Broke,” made popular by the bestselling personal finance book of the same name published in 1997. The authors, Stephen M. Pollan and Mark Levine, argue that you should basically spend every penny of your wealth because “creating and maintaining an estate does nothing but damage the person doing the hoarding.” Saving is a fool’s game, they claim, while “dying broke offers you a way out of your current misery and into a place of joy and happiness.”

I love a good contrarian argument, but for whom did this plan ever make sense? Perhaps people like Bill Gates who have so much money that they decide to find charitable uses for their vast fortune. But for the rest of us, our end-of-life financial situation isn’t as nearly pretty, and we’re more likely to be in danger of falling short than dying with way too much.

In a recent survey, the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that 20.6% of people who died at ages 85 or older had no non-housing assets and 12.2% had no assets left at all when they passed away. If you are single, your chances of running out of money are even higher—24.6% of those who died at 85 or older had no non-housing assets left and 16.7% had nothing left at all.

Now, perhaps some of those people managed to time their demise perfectly to coincide when their bank balance reached zero, but it’s more likely that many of them ran out of money before they died, perhaps many years before.

And yet the “Die Broke” philosophy seems to have made significant headway in our culture. According to a 2015 HSBC survey of 16,000 people in 15 countries, 30% of American male retirees plan to “spend it all” rather than pass wealth down to future generations. (Interestingly, only 17% of women said that they planned to die broke.)

In terms of balancing spending versus saving, only 61% of men said that it is better to spend some money and save some to pass along, compared to 74% of women. Perhaps that’s why, as a nation, only 59% of working age Americans expect to leave an inheritance, compared to a global average of 74%.

There are so many things wrong with this picture. The first is that Pollan and Levine’s formula of spending for the rest of your life was predicated on working for the rest of your life. “In this new age, retirement is not only not worth striving for, it’s impossible for most and something you should do you best to avoid,” they wrote. Saving for retirement is certainly hard, and I don’t believe that all gratification should be delayed, but working just to spend keeps you on the treadmill in perpetuity.

Besides, even if some of us say we’re going to keep working all our lives, that decision is usually dictated by our employer, our health and the economy. Most of us won’t have the choice to work forever, and the data simply don’t support a huge wave of people delaying retirement into their 70s and 80s. And as I have written before, I don’t buy into the current conventional wisdom that planning for a real retirement is irrational.

But perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the “Die Broke” philosophy is that it takes away the incentive to our working life—to get up in the morning and do your best every day, knowing that it’s getting you closer to financial security—and the satisfaction that goes with it. In the end, I believe what will bring us the most happiness is not to die rich, or die broke, but to die secure.

Konigsberg is the author of The Truth About Grief, a contributor to the anthology Money Changes Everything, and a director at Arden Asset Management. The views expressed are solely her own.

Read next: This Retirement Saving Mistake Could Cost You $43,000

MONEY Financial Education

The Surprising New Company Benefit That’s Helping Americans Retire Richer

chalkboard with graph showing increase in money over time
Oleg Prikhodko—Getty Images

Financial education at the office is booming—and none too soon.

Like it or not, the job of educating Americans about how to manage their money is falling to the corporations they work for—and new research suggests that many of those employers are responding.

Some 83% of companies feel a sense of responsibility for employees’ financial wellness, according to a Bank of America Merrill Lynch Workplace Benefits Report, which found the vast majority of large companies are investing in financial education programs. Among other things, companies are using the annual fall benefits re-enrollment period to talk about things like 401(k) deferral rates and asset allocation, and enjoying impressive results.

Workers are responding to other programs too. Another Merrill report found that retirement advice group sessions in the workplace rose 14% last year and that just about all of those sessions resulted in a positive outcome: employees enrolling in a 401(k) plan, increasing contributions, or signing up for more advice. Calls to employer-sponsored retirement education centers rose 17.6% and requests for one-on-one sessions more than doubled.

So a broad effort to educate Americans about money management is under way, including in government and schools—and none too soon. This year, Millennials became the largest share of the workforce. This is a huge generation coming of age with almost no social safety net. These 80 million strong must start saving early if they are going to retire. Given this generation’s love of mobile technology, it’s notable that Merrill found a 46% increase in visits to its mobile financial education platform. That means employers are reaching young workers, who as a group have shown enormous interest in saving.

“There is not a single good reason—none—that should prevent any American from gaining the knowledge and skills needed to build a healthy financial future,” writes Richard Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in a guest blog for the Council for Economic Education. His agency and dozens of nonprofits are pushing for financial education in grades K-12 but have had limited success. Just 17 states require a student to pass a personal finance course to graduate high school.

That’s why it’s critical that corporations take up the battle. Even college graduates entering the workplace generally lack basic personal money management skills. This often translates into lost time and productivity among workers trying to stay afloat in their personal financial affairs. So companies helping employees with financial advice is self serving, as well as beneficial to employees. Some argue it helps the economy as a whole, too, as it lessens the likelihood of another financial crisis linked to poor individual money decisions.

 

 

 

 

MONEY retirement planning

The 5 Best Free Online Retirement Calculators

Calculator
Charlie Surbey—Gallery Stock

To be sure you'll reach your retirement goals, you've got to run some numbers. These 5 tools can help you get started.

If you want to be serious about retirement, you’ve got to crunch some numbers. Otherwise, you can’t really tell amidst the ups and downs of the economy and the market whether you’re on track toward an acceptable post-career lifestyle. These five tools, all free, can help improve your planning and your prospects. You’ll find links to all five in RDR’s Retirement Toolbox.

1. Retirement Income Calculator This T. Rowe Price tool allows you to provide detailed information about your finances—how your savings are invested, pension and Social Security payments, income from part-time work, if any, etc.—so you can come away with a nuanced sense of your retirement readiness. Once you know where you stand, you can then run alternative scenarios to see how you might improve your prospects. If you’ve already retired, this tool will help you determine whether your current level of spending is sustainable throughout retirement or whether you need to tighten your belt.

Rather than estimating the size nest egg you’ll need in retirement as many calculators do, this tool focuses on sustainable income. Specifically, you enter the amount of income you expect you’ll need in retirement (say, 80% of pre-retirement salary) and the tool uses Monte Carlo simulations to estimate the likelihood that the resources you’re projected to accumulate (or have already accumulated if you’re retired) will generate sufficient income throughout retirement. Generally, you want to see a success rate of at least 80%. If you fall short of that level, you can see how changing different aspects of your finances—saving more, spending less, cutting investment fees, etc.—might improve your chances of success. Revving up this calculator every year or so and making small tweaks as needed can prevent you from falling behind in your planning and help you avoid having to make dramatic and painful adjustments to your lifestyle later in life.

2. Risk Questionnaire—Allocation Tool One of the most important aspects of setting an investing strategy is choosing a stocks-bonds mix that jibes with your appetite for risk. Invest too aggressively, and you may end up selling stocks in a panic when the market dives. Invest too conservatively, and you may not earn the returns you need to achieve your goals. This questionnaire from Vanguard can guide you to an appropriate stocks-bonds allocation. Just answer 11 questions designed to probe, among other things, your investing habits and how you might react to major market setbacks, and you’ll receive a suggested mix of stocks and bonds (and, in some cases, cash). Click on the “other allocations link,” and you’ll get stats showing how your recommended portfolio as well as ones more aggressive and conservative have performed on average and in good and bad markets since 1926.

3. Retirement Income Planner (and Retirement Budget Worksheet) Estimating that you’ll need 80% or so your pre-retirement income after you retire may be okay for establishing a savings target during your career. But once you’re within 10 or so years of retiring, you want to get a better handle on what your actual retirement expenses might be. This interactive retirement budget sheet, which you’ll find within Fidelity’s Retirement Income Planner tool, will help you do just that. It not only has slots for 49 different expense items, ranging from cable and internet fees to health care and travel; it also allows you to check a box next to each expense designating whether it’s essential. The tool then provides a tally of all your expenses, plus a breakdown of essential vs discretionary ones. This can give you a sense of how much wiggle room you have to pare expenses if necessary, plus show you which areas are prime candidates for cuts. Of course, no level of detail will be able to sure 100% accuracy. But that’s not the goal. The point is to make the best estimate you can and then refine your budget (and your actual spending) as needed as you go along.

4. Financial Engines’ Social Security Calculator One of the single most important decisions retirees face is when to claim Social Security. Unfortunately, many retirees don’t give this issue the serious thought it deserves, and just take benefits as soon as they can (age 62) or soon thereafter. That can be a costly mistake. Each year you postpone benefits between age 62 and 70, your payment increases about 7% to 8%, dramatically boosting the amount you may collect during your lifetime. By taking advantage of a number of different claiming strategies, married couples may be able to boost their potential lifetime benefit several hundred thousand dollars.

Which is why in the years leading up to retirement, it’s a good idea to check out Financial Engines’ Social Security calculator. You just enter such information as your age, current income, the age at which you expect to begin collecting Social Security. The tool will then estimate the amount you’ll collect in today’s dollars over your lifetime if you claim benefits as planned—and show how much more you might collect by claiming at a different age. If you’re married, the tool will show how you and your spouse might maximize lifetime benefits by better coordinating when each of you claims. Another nifty feature: you can see how the projections changed depending on whether your life expectancy exceeds or falls short of average.

While this tool is a good way to start thinking about how and when you might claim Social Security benefits, the amount of money at stake is large enough that you may want to hire an adviser to help you with this decision or go to a Social Security claiming service, such as Maximize My Social Security or Social Security Solutions, that, for a fee, will help you devise a strategy.

5. Will You Have Enough To Retire? I know that no matter what I or anyone else says, some people simply aren’t going to spend more than a minute with any tool. If you’re one of those people—or you just want a quick update to see if you’re on the path to a secure retirement—this tool is for you.

Just enter your age, the age you expect to exit your job, the amount, if any, you have saved so far, the percentage of income you’re saving each year and the tool will immediately estimate the amount you’ll need at retirement and the amount you’re projected to have. At a glance, you can quickly see whether you’re likely to have an adequate nest egg if you continue on your current path. If it appears you’re falling short, you can see how your chances improve by, say, saving a higher percentage of pay or delaying retirement a few years (or both). My only gripe about this tool: I wish it couched its estimates in sustainable annual income in retirement rather than giving you your retirement “number.”

Are there other worthwhile free tools that can help you better plan for retirement? Sure, you’ll find at least a dozen more listed in RDR’s Retirement Toolbox, including one that will show you how much guaranteed lifetime income a specific sum of savings might generate, another that can help you decide between a traditional and Roth IRA and one that can help you compare the cost of living in different cities.

But to create an overall retirement strategy and monitor it to make sure you stay on track, you can start with these five.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

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MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Save For Retirement When You Don’t Have a 401(k)

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

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.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write to AskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

Read next: Quick Guide to How Much You Need to Retire

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