MONEY Ask the Expert

The Secret To Saving For Retirement When You Have Nothing Saved At All

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

A: I am a 52-year-old single mother. I have NO savings at all for any kind of retirement. What can I do? Where should I start? I also want to start something for my daughter who is 13. Please, I would really love your help. – Anita, West Long Branch, NJ

A: No retirement savings? Join the crowd. A recent survey by BankRate.com found that 26% of those ages 50 to 65 have nothing at all saved for retirement. But even in your 50s, it’s not too late to catch up or at least improve your situation, says Robert Stammers, director of investor education at the CFA Institute.

“You shouldn’t panic. People who start late have to forge a fiscal discipline, but there are lots of tools you can use to ramp up your savings,” says Stammers, who recently published a guide to the steps to take for a more secure retirement.

First, figure out your retirement goals. When do you want to retire? What kind of lifestyle do you want? What will your biggest expenses be? The answers will determine how much you need to save. If you want to maintain your current living standard, you’ll need to accumulate 10 to 12 times your annual income by 65, according to benchmarks calculated by Charles Farrell, author of Your Money Ratios.

You’ll probably end up with some scary numbers. If you earn $75,000 a year, you might need $750,000 to $900,000 by age 65. That amount would provide 80% of your pre-retirement income, assuming a 5% withdrawal rate. You probably won’t need 100% of your current income, since some spending eases up after you quit working—commuting costs and lunches out—and your taxes may be lower.

If you can live on less than 70% of your pre-retirement income—and many retirees say they live just fine on 66% —you may be able to retire at 65 with a $500,000 nest egg. Delaying retirement till 67 or later can lower your savings goal further to perhaps $400,000. (All these targets assume you’ll also receive Social Security; see what you’re eligible for at SSA.gov.)

Don’t be daunted if these figures seem out of reach. Even getting part-way to the goal can make a big difference in your retirement lifestyle. To get started, find out if you have access to a 401(k)—if you do, enroll pronto and contribute the max. People over 50 are eligible for catch-up contributions, so you can sock away even more than someone younger and you’ll save on taxes. You’ll also likely benefit from an employer match, which is free money. You can use calculators like this one to see how your contributions will grow over time. Someone saving 17% of a $75,000 salary over 15 years will end up with nearly $400,000, assuming an employer match.

If you don’t have a 401(k), then set up an IRA, which will also permit catch-up savings. Still, the contribution limits for IRAs are lower than those for 401(k)s, so you’ll need funnel additional money into a taxable savings account.

To free up cash for this saving program, review your budget and find areas where you can cut. “You’ll need to make some hard decisions about your lifestyle,” says Stammers. Small moves can help, such as downgrading your cable and cellphone plans and using coupons to lower food costs. But to make real savings progress, you’ll need to go after some big costs too. Can you cut your mortgage or rent payments by downsizing or moving to a cheaper neighborhood? Can you trade in your car for a cheaper model?

You can speed up your progress by tucking away any raises or windfalls that you may receive. And think about ways you can bring in more income to save—perhaps you have a room to rent out or you may be able to earn extra cash with a part-time job.

As for your goal of saving for your daughter, it’s admirable, but you need to focus on your own retirement. In the long run, achieving your own financial security will benefit your daughter as well—you won’t need to lean on her when you’re older. And by taking these steps, Stammers says, you’ll also be a good financial role model for her.

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

MONEY retirement income

5 Tips For Tapping Your Nest Egg

Cracked egg
Getty Images—Getty Images

Forget those complex portfolio withdrawal schemes. Here are simple moves for making your money last a lifetime.

It used to be that if you wanted your nest egg to carry you through 30 or more years of retirement, you followed the 4% rule: you withdrew 4% of the value of your savings the first year of retirement and adjusted that dollar amount annually for inflation to maintain purchasing power. But that standard—which was never really as simple as it seemed— has come under a cloud.

So what’s replacing it?

Depends on whom you ask. Some research suggests that if you really want to avoid running out of money in your dotage, you might have to scale back that initial withdrawal to 3%. Vanguard, on the other hand, recently laid out a system that starts with an initial withdrawal rate—which could be 4% or some other rate—and then allows withdrawals to fluctuate within a range based on the previous year’s spending.

JP Morgan Asset Management has also weighed in. After contending in a recent paper that the 4% rule is broken, the firm went on to describe what it refers to as a “dynamic decumulation model” that, while comprehensive, I think would be beyond the abilities of most individual investors to put into practice.

So if you’re a retiree or near-retiree, how can you draw enough savings from your nest egg to live on, yet not so much you run out of dough too soon or so little that you end up sitting on a big pile of assets in your dotage?

Here are my five tips:

Tip #1: Chill. That’s right, relax. No system, no matter how sophisticated, will be able to tell you precisely how much you can safely withdraw from your nest egg. There are just too many things that can happen over the course of a long retirement—markets can go kerflooey, inflation can spike, your spending could rise or fall dramatically in some years, etc. So while you certainly want to monitor withdrawals and your nest egg’s balance, obsessing over them won’t help, could hurt and will make your retirement less enjoyable.

Tip #2: Create a retirement budget. You don’t have be accurate down to the dollar. You just want to have a good idea of the costs you’ll be facing when you initially retire, as well as which expenses might be going away down the road (such as the mortgage or car loan you’ll be paying off).

Ideally, you’ll also want to separate those expenses into two categories—essential and discretionary—so you’ll know how much you can realistically cut back spending should you need to later on. You can do this budgeting with a pencil and paper. But if you use an online tool like Fidelity’s Retirement Income Planner or Vanguard’s Retirement Expenses Worksheet—both of which you’ll find in the Retirement Income section of Real Deal Retirement’s Retirement Toolboxyou’ll find it easier to factor in the inevitable changes into your budget as you age.

Tip #3: Take a hard look at Social Security. The major questions here: When should you claim benefits? At 62, the earliest you’re eligible? At full retirement age (which is 66 for most people nearing retirement today)? And how might you and your spouse coordinate your claiming to maximize your benefit?

Generally, it pays to postpone benefits as your monthly payment rises 7% to 8% (even before increases for inflation) each year you delay between ages 62 and 70 (after 70 you get nothing extra for holding off). But the right move, especially for married couples, will depend on a variety of factors, including how badly you need the money now, whether you have savings that can carry you if you wait to claim and, in the case of married couples, your age and your wife’s age and your earnings.

Best course: Check out one of the growing number of calculators and services that allow you to run different claiming scenarios. T. Rowe Price’s Social Security Benefits Evaluator will run various scenarios free; the Social Security Solutions service makes a recommendation for a fee that ranges from $20 to $250. You’ll find both in the Retirement Toolbox.

Tip #4: Consider an immediate annuity. If you’ll be getting enough assured income to cover most or all of your essential expenses from Social Security and other sources, such as a pension, you may not want or need an annuity. But if you’d like to have more income that you can count on no matter how long you live and regardless of how the markets fare, then you may want to at least think about an annuity. But not just any annuity. I’m talking about an immediate annuity, the type where you hand over a sum to an insurance company (even though you may actually buy the annuity through another investment firm), and the insurer guarantees you (and your spouse, if you wish) a payment for life.

To maximize your monthly payment, you must give up access to the money you devote to an anuity. So even if you decide an annuity makes sense for you, you shouldn’t put all or probably even most your savings into one. You’ll want to have plenty of other money invested in a portfolio of stocks and bonds that can provide long-term growth, and that you can tap if needed for emergencies and such. To learn more about how immediate annuities work, you can click here. And to see how much lifetime income an immediate annuity might provide, you can go to the How Much Guaranteed Income Can You Get? calculator.

Tip #5: Stay flexible. Now to the question of how much you can draw from your savings. If you’re like most people, an initial withdrawal rate of 3% won’t come close to giving you the income you’ll need. Start at 5%, however, and the chances of running out of money substantially increase. So you’re probably looking at an initial withdrawal of 4% to 5%.

Whatever initial withdrawal you start with, be prepared to change it as your needs, market conditions and your nest egg’s value change. If the market has been on a roll and your savings balance soars, you may be able to boost withdrawals. If, on the other hand, a market setback puts a big dent in your savings, you may want to scale back a bit. The idea is to make small adjustments so that you don’t spend so freely that you deplete your savings too soon—or stint so much that you have a huge nest egg late in life (and you realize too late that you could have spent large and enjoyed yourself more early on).

My suggestion: Every year or so go to a retirement calculator like the ones in Real Deal Retirement’s Retirement Toobox and plug in your current financial information. This will give you a sense of whether you can stick to your current level of withdrawals—or whether you need to scale back or (if you’re lucky) give yourself a raise.

MORE FROM REAL DEAL RETIREMENT

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What’s Your Number? Who Cares?

TIME Saving & Spending

The Huge Mistake Most Parents Are Making Now

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Blend Images - Terry Vine—Getty Images/Brand X

Hey kids, hope you’re saving your pennies. They might not have gotten around to telling you yet, but there’s a good chance your parents expect you to fork over your own money to help pay for college. Even if they don’t, there’s a good chance you might have to dig into your own pockets anyway, because even though more parents are setting aside money for their kids’ college funds today, many are still way behind on their savings goals.

A new study from Fidelity Investment finds that just over a third of parents have asked their kids to set aside money to help pay for school, a jump of nearly 10 percentage points in only two years. Keith Bernhardt, vice president of college planning for Fidelity Investments, says there’s a serious disconnect between parents’ intentions and actions.

Even though 85% of parents think kids should kick in something towards their educational expenses, fewer than 60% of those with kids already in their teens have bothered to bring it up, and only 34% have actually come out and asked their kids to contribute.

“With the cost of college rising, it’s increasingly unrealistic for parents to cover the full cost of college,” Bernhardt says. “Families are still struggling. They are on track to save just 28% of their college goal.” Even though more families are saving, and the dollar amounts they are socking away are greater, that 28% is actually a drop compared to previous years.

In spite of these grim numbers, parents today are actually more optimistic about their goals. Respondents told Fidelity they expect to cover, on average, 64% of their kids’ college costs, up from 57% two years ago. What’s more, 44% think they’ll meet these goals, up from 36% in 2007, when Fidelity started conducting the survey.

Most of them won’t, which means today’s generation of kids could be equally unprepared when it comes time to paying for college. “It’s critical that families have open conversations and discuss together how they will approach funding their college education,” Bernhardt says.

Bernhardt calls a dedicated savings vehicle like a 529 plan “a great way for parents to keep their college savings separate from other savings goals.” Today, 35% of parents have a dedicated account for college savings, nearly 10 percentage points more than when the survey began in 2007. About half of the parents in Fidelity’s survey who said they have a plan for retirement savings have a 529 set up, versus only about 10 percent of those who don’t have a savings plan.

Having a strategy for accruing college savings makes a big difference. “Parents with a plan are in better shape with their college savings,” Bernhardt says.

These parents say they’ll cover an average of 71% of their kids’ college costs; those without a plan estimate that they’ll only be able to pay for a little more than half. On average, parents who have planned to save are already almost halfway towards their goal, while those without a plan have only scraped up about 10% of what they want to save. Parents with savings plans have an average of $53,900 socked away, versus the average $21,400 families without a savings plan have amassed.

MONEY Kids and Money

What It Costs to Raise a U.S. Open Champion

Serena Williams of the U.S. raises her trophy after defeating Victoria Azarenka of Belarus in their women's singles final match at the U.S. Open tennis championships in New York September 8, 2013.
Does your kid want to be the next Serena Williams? Start saving now. Mike Segar—Reuters

Want your kid to win the U.S. Open? Start shelling out $30,000 a year.

Serena Williams won her first U.S. Open at age 17 and her fifth at age 31, just last year. But can she defend her crown against the newest upstarts? It all starts on August 25, when Williams goes head-to-head with rising star Taylor Townsend. And 18-year-old Townsend won’t be the only young talent to watch in Queens: 20-year-old Canadian Eugenie Bouchard is seeded no. 7, and 19-year-old Australian Nick Kyrgios will try to build on his surprise upset against Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon.

If those youthful feats fuel your kid’s dream of tennis stardom, then get ready to open your wallet. In the United States, families of elite tennis players easily spend $30,000 a year so their kids can compete on the national level, says Tim Donovan, founder of Donovan Tennis Strategies, a college recruiting consulting group. That can start as early as age 11 or 12. At the high end, Donovan says, some parents spend $100,000 a year.

On what, you might ask. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Court time. Practice makes perfect, but practice can be expensive, especially if you need to practice indoors in the winter. In Boston, where Donovan is based, court time costs about $45 an hour. In New York City, court time can run over $100 an hour.
  • Training. Figure $4,500 to $5,000 a year for private lessons, plus $7,000 to $8,000 for group lessons—in addition to the aforementioned court fees to practice on your own.
  • Tournaments. National tournament entrance fees run about $150. Plus, you have to travel to get there. Serious players will go to 20 tournaments a year. Donovan estimates that two-thirds of the tournaments might be a few hours away, but elite athletes will need to fly to national events six or seven times a year. Want to bring your coach with you? Add another $300 a day, plus expenses.
  • School. You’ve already racked up $30,000 in bills. But if your kid is really serious, you might also spring for a special tennis academy. Full-time boarding school tuition at Florida’s IMG Academy costs $71,400 a year.

So what’s the return on investment? While most parents don’t expect to see their kids at Wimbledon, many still hope that tennis will open doors when it comes time to apply to college. But the reality is that athletic scholarships are few and far between. In 2011-2012, only 0.8% of undergrads won any kind of athletic scholarship, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors.com.

Opportunities are particularly limited for boys. Donovan notes that because of Title IX—which requires that schools provide an equal number of scholarships for men and women—a Division I college with a football program might offer eight full tennis scholarships for women, but only half as many for men, because male scholarships need to go to the football players.

Bottom line: If you spend $30,000 a year hoping your tennis star will go to college for free, you’ll probably be disappointed with your ROI.

“Recipients of athletic scholarships graduate with somewhat less debt than other students but not significantly so,” says Kantrowitz. “The main benefit of athletic scholarships is providing access to higher-cost colleges without increasing costs, moreso than reducing the cost of a college education.”

That’s where Donovan comes in: For $3,500 to $10,000, Donovan Tennis Strategies provides different levels of assistance with the college application process. Oftentimes, Donovan’s clients are able to pay full tuition but want additional help leveraging tennis to get their kids into better (and more expensive) schools.

The strategy can pay off. According to Donovan, recruited athletes have a 48% higher chance of admission, sometimes even with SAT scores that are more than 300 points lower than those of non-athletes. “The coach can go in and significantly advocate for somebody and change the outcome,” he says.

So if you’re a parent to a budding tennis star, can you foster his or her talent for less? The IMG Academy does offer scholarships to promising young athletes whose parents can’t pay full freight, and the United States Tennis Association offers some grants and funding. But ultimately, players need to log hours on the court to get good, and that costs money.

“The more you’re playing, the better you’re going to be,” Donovan says. “That’s pretty well documented … and that adds up over time.”

TIME gratuity

And America’s Best Tippers Live In…

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Finnbarr Webster / Alamy

Data from the mobile payments company Square reveal some huge regional differences in the generosity of customers

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This post is in partnership with Fortune, which offers the latest business and finance news. Read the article below originally published at Fortune.com.

By Miguel Helft

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New Yorkers are stingy with their cabbies (though not quite as stingy as their neighbors in New Jersey). Indeed, New Yorkers are among the worst tippers in the country in a number of categories — but not when it comes to personal hygiene. For some reason, a visit to the barber or stylist inspires generosity in the Empire State. Folks in Seattle and Portland reserve that same kind of giving spirit, no surprise, for their baristas, and Floridians and Texas extend it to their bartenders.

The observations derive from tipping data collected for FORTUNE by Square, the San Francisco-based mobile payments company, whose smartphone and tablet credit card readers have become a feature of thousands of small businesses across the country.

Interestingly, some tipping trends are fairly uniform across the country. Beauty and personal care professionals tend to receive the biggest tips — on average closer to 20% than to 15%. Taxis and limousines skew lower, with average tips below 16% in many states. Tips at restaurant bars show the most variability, with New York fast-food joints receiving an average of 14.77% and bars and lounges in Texas getting 19.66%.

For the full list, please go to Fortune.com.

TIME Saving & Spending

This 1 Mistake Could Cost You Hundreds of Dollars

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Read the fine print—or pay

Everybody hates bank fees, but what’s even more worse is not knowing when or why you’re getting dinged with those charges.

In a new study, the website WalletHub.com finds the average checking account has 30 different fees that can ding you, and banks aren’t always transparent about the details. “Some banks disclose their fees only after a customer has opened an account,” the site warns. “Others disclose their fees in inconspicuous sections of their websites.”

In particular, those $35 overdraft fees that can be triggered by buying something as small as a cup of coffee can really pack a wallop, yet many of us don’t bother paying attention to the fine print that spells out the details of how financial institutions process transactions. We should, though — a new interactive tool from the Pew Charitable Trusts shows how seemingly insignificant differences in transaction-processing practices can make the difference between having enough money in your account to tide you over until your next payday or getting socked with more than $100 in fees.

Pew looks at three different variables: Letting people overdraw their balances when they make purchases or ATM withdrawals versus declining these attempts, processing transactions in the order they happen versus in order of highest-to-lowest dollar amount and offering a $5 “grace period” threshold before an overdraft fee kicks in versus no threshold.

In a trio of scenarios, Pew follows three hypothetical customers in a scenario many Americans are all too familiar with: navigating the demands of daily expenses with less than $200 until the next paycheck comes. In each case, everything is identical for the variable under scrutiny.

The differences are huge. For instance, a customer whose bank processes transactions in the order they happen winds up getting hit with a single $35 fee — while her alter ego who banks with an institution that practices high-to-low transaction ordering gets nailed for FOUR $35 fees when conducting the exact same transactions.

The other two examples show a similar disparity. For many of us, the difference between ending the month 10 bucks in the black versus more than $80 in the red is huge, especially if our spending habits are such that this happens frequently.

Consumer advocates criticize banks for their overdraft practices, pointing out that the customers who pay the bulk of these charges tend to be younger, minority customers who are poorer to begin with and often don’t have the financial education to know a raw deal when they see one. Fewer than 10 percent of bank customers are responsible for three-quarters of overdraft charges, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “[This] is especially pertinent as the CFPB continues to study overdraft and will release new rules based on these studies in 2015,” Pew says.

The CFPB says it’s still looking at how these fees impact bank customers. “We need to determine whether current overdraft practices are causing the kind of consumer harm that the federal consumer protection laws are designed to prevent,” CFPB director Richard Cordray said in a statement last month, saying the agency’s most recent research “compound[s] our concerns” about whether overdraft practices leave vulnerable customers at risk.

Until the CFPB acts, it’s buyer-beware out there, so don’t forget to read the fine print.

MONEY retirement planning

The One Retirement Question You Must Get Right

Man slamming his head into chalkboard of theorems in frustration
Getty Images

Figuring out how big a nest egg you need is a huge financial planning challenge. Here are some helpful tips from an expert who retired at 50.

How much money do you need to retire? This is one of the most difficult questions in all of financial planning. Countless words are written, endless fees are charged, and plenty of sleep is lost, just trying to answer it!

But I’ll tell you a secret—a truth that none in financial services and few in the financial media will admit. We don’t know how much you need to retire! Beyond some broad ranges that have worked in the past, it’s practically impossible to calculate the precise amount of money needed to carry you through a retirement lasting decades or more into the future.

Why? Because, in addition to predicting a host of smaller factors, computing how much you need to retire requires pinning down two huge and essentially unknowable variables: the length of your life, and the real return on your investments. (That’s the actual return, after inflation.)

If you misjudge your life expectancy by even a few years, you could potentially die broke, or with tens of thousands of unspent dollars on the table. If you misgauge your real rate of return by just 1% (and the pros miss it by more than that, all the time), the error in a half-million dollar portfolio over a 30-year retirement will be about $175,000—one-third of the starting value, and a lot of money to go missing!

So there can be no precise answer to this question. And, yet, you must answer it, in some fashion, if you don’t want to go on working forever. So where do you begin?

As I’ve written before, knowing your expenses is an essential first step to retirement planning. You simply must know what it costs you to live each month, in order to get any sense for what you must save to retire.

From that monthly expense number you can subtract any guaranteed, inflation-adjusted income that you are certain to receive in retirement: Social Security for many of us, pensions for a fortunate few, and annuities for those who buy them.

Your remaining expenses must be funded from your investment portfolio. The traditional approach has been the 4% Rule, which states that you can withdraw 4% of your portfolio in the first year, then adjust that withdrawal amount for inflation each year, without fear of running out over the course of a 30-year retirement. However, some experts say this rule is too optimistic for the current difficult economic times, with low interest rates and high market valuations. On the other hand, if you retire in better economic times, or if you choose to annuitize your assets, the rule might be too conservative. (You can find online tools that will let you see the impact of using different economic assumptions—I mention three of the best retirement calculators in this article.)

Boiling down all the research papers, case studies, and opinions that I have read on this topic—and I read about it nearly every day—I can tell you this: The safe withdrawal rates from your retirement savings probably range from about 5% on the optimistic side to about 3% on the conservative side.

That means, for example, if your living expenses not covered by guaranteed inflation-adjusted income were $3,000 a month in retirement, then you would need between $720,000 in savings on the optimistic side, to $1.2 million on the conservative side, to provide for your lifestyle over a several-decade retirement.

Thus if your savings were in that range you could consider retiring. But there is more to it than that, especially for an early retiree. You would also need to factor in the risk that you would run low, and your ability to do something about it. That risk would be a function of the economic environment you retire into, and the longevity factors in your family. The ability to do something about it would be a function of your age and health at retirement, your professional skills, and your lifestyle flexibility.

In the end, there is no simple answer to the question “Do I have enough to retire?” But, there is a range of possibilities, based on historical data and your own risks and capabilities. And, even after you’ve made the retirement decision, you still need to assess and drive your retirement, especially in the early years. So, once you’ve started on the retirement journey, don’t fall asleep at the wheel!

Darrow Kirkpatrick is a software engineer and author who lived frugally, invested successfully, and retired in 2011 at age 50. He writes regularly about saving, investing and retiring on his blog CanIRetireYet.com. This column appears monthly.

MONEY retirement planning

How Today’s Workers Can Dodge the Retirement Crisis

For Millennials and Gen X-ers, it all depends on whether we can rein in spending after we stop working.

Trying to figure our whether mid-career folks like myself are adequately preparing for retirement can get a bit confusing. If you look at Boston College’s National Retirement Risk Index (NRRI), as of 2013 as many as 52% of households aged 30-59 are at risk of falling at least 10% short of being able to produce an adequate “replacement rate” of income.

That doesn’t sound too good, does it? But a discussion of the methodology of this survey and others at a recent meeting of the Retirement Research Consortium in Washington D.C., shows that things might not be so dire after all.

It turns out that the NRRI might be setting an unrealistically high bar for retirement income. The index’s replacement rate assumes that a household’s goal is to maintain a spending level in retirement that is equal to their pre-retirement living standard. It also includes investment returns on 401(k)s and IRAs in its calculation of pre-retirement income, even though those earnings are specifically earmarked for post-retirement. By including those investment gains, the NRRI may be targeting a replacement rate that is too high, causing more households to fall short, as Sarah Holden, director of retirement and investment research at the Investment Company Institute, pointed out in the meeting.

It’s already hard for someone in their 30s or 40s to figure out how much they need to be contributing today to replace the income they will have right before they retire. Adding to this guessing game is the debate over whether spending really goes down in retirement. You’ll pay less for work lunches, commuting expenses, and so on, but you might spend more for travel in the early years of retirement and, later on, more for health care costs.

In contrast to the NRRI calculations, many financial planners assume that would-be retirees will automatically cut spending when their children turn 21, and therefore only need to replace about 70% to 80% of their pre-retirement income. But as Frederick Miller of Sensible Financial Planning explained at the consortium’s meeting, that’s simply not the case anymore. He sees many clients continuing to support their adult children, helping them to pay for health insurance, rent, graduate school or a down payment on a home. While generous, this support obviously detracts from retirement savings.

So which assumption is correct? Should we be saving with the expectation of spending less in retirement or not? In reality, we should certainly prepare for eventually reducing consumption since, in the long run, we may have no choice about doing so. When spending does decline after retirement, it is almost twice as likely due to inadequate financial resources rather than voluntary belt-tightening, as Anthony Webb of Boston College discovered in a small survey of households.

The question of how much is enough will vary greatly by household. But it’s clear that my generation, and those that follow, face stiff headwinds—longer life expectancy, a likely reduction in Social Security benefits, and low interest rates, which greatly reduce the ability to generate income. Cutting back on spending during retirement, as well as during our working years, may be the single greatest contributor to our financial security that we can control.

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.

MONEY First-Time Dad

Why New Parents Deserve to Splurge on Themselves Sometimes

Illustration of parents eating at elevated table above baby toys
Leif Parsons

Living in an apartment stuffed with all kinds of toys for his son, this reporter found that spending $350 to create an oasis for himself and his wife was totally worth it.

Part of the joy of raising an infant is accumulating his toys and books and play mats and teethers and clothes and pacifiers and chairs and bottles and strollers and carriers and … well, you get the idea. Clutter is a part of life, and the fact that Luke, our 6-month-old son, is gathering enough junk to take over our apartment means he’s becoming a person. I own, therefore I am.

Still, there is one tiny section of our tiny Brooklyn home that’s off-limits to Luke’s stuff. It’s an alcove just big enough to hold a circular marble table and two tall cushioned chairs. If the rest of our home is a Gymboree, this patch of paradise is the Four Seasons.

We carved out this island of adulthood a few weeks ago, buying the $200 marble table secondhand and plucking the marked-down chairs off the Internet for $150.

Spending $350 on ourselves might not sound like a big deal, but Luke’s goodies aren’t cheap, so most of our discretionary spending is earmarked for the little guy. My wife is a teacher and I’m a journalist. We’re in the early stages of our careers and must make rent while still chipping away at our student loans. In our world of limited sleep and vanishing funds, a vacation, dinner out, or even a night at the movies is a rare treat.

Yes, we could have used the dining set we already owned. But our old furniture felt as though it belonged to cohabitating grad students, not a married couple. My wife and I tied the knot a few months before Luke’s birth, so our friends and family look at us more as new parents than as newlyweds. That’s usually the way we see ourselves too. Marriage, though, requires as much attention and devotion as parenting. You can easily get lost in the wonder of watching your son explore the world around him and forget that less than a year ago you stood in front of the people you love and pledged to be with each other forever.

Now, after Luke falls asleep, Ali and I sit down in our new cream-colored chairs. We rest our glasses of wine on the table and talk about our day. And for a moment, it’s only us.

Taylor Tepper is a reporter at Money. His column on being a new dad, a millennial, and (pretty) broke appears weekly. More First-Time Dad:

MONEY

5 Secrets to Saving for the Future While Enjoying Life Now

Piggy bank enjoying life in a field
iStock

A financial planner explains how to prepare for retirement while living the good life now.

Save? Spend? Or both?

In my work with younger clients, that’s one of the main conflicts I see: The desire to prepare for the future and save versus the impulse to live for the present and enjoy earnings now. People know that nobody is promised tomorrow, but they also don’t want to live out their retirement years with limited choices, or none at all.

So how can people strike a successful balance between these seemingly competing desires? Based on my work with financial planning clients, here’s my five-step plan:

  1. Understand your cash flow. I’m going to make a bold statement here: Nothing will affect your financial future more than your ability to understand your household cash flow. If you want more money to save for the future or to spend now, you have to understand your current spending patterns and habits to get there. Check in on your spending weekly; that takes far less time than a monthly review, and it’s easier to catch places you may have spent more than you planned. It’s easy to live lean for a week if you’ve overspent in a previous week. It’s a lot harder to catch up if you’ve been overspending for a month.
  2. Learn to say “no” by deciding on your “yes.” The clearer you are about what you want to do in the short and long term, the easier it is to make spending choices that you’ll be happy with when you look back at them. Before I married the woman who became my wife, I used to feel deprived if we weren’t going out to eat often. On our honeymoon, I discovered that what I really wanted to do was to travel the world with her. Once that became the big yes, I wasn’t depriving myself if I didn’t go out to eat. If I did go out to eat, I was depriving myself of what I really wanted, which was to travel more. That single idea helped me change my habits entirely and build up the money we needed to take a big trip every year.
  3. Limit your monthly bills. Eric Kies talks about Money Past, Money Present, and Money Future in his First Step Cash Management system. Money Past is all of the money you’ve agreed to spend at the beginning of the month — things like rent, utilities, and student loan payments. While buying a new car may not seem like a big deal if you think you can afford it, adding on a car loan to your Money Past comes with a major tradeoff: It limits your day-to-day spending (Money Present), and it cuts into your ability to save for the future as well (your Money Future). Be careful; I regularly see young couples adding to their Money Past bucket, limiting their present and future spending choices.
  4. Automate your savings for present and future goals. Chances are you get paid by direct deposit, and it’s easy to direct funds into multiple accounts. Beyond your basic emergency fund, I’ve seen clients have a lot of success in setting up multiple savings accounts to have balances grow for specific goals (a trip to Europe, for example, or a new car). This allows you to see the specific progress you’re making. The same concept applies for retirement plans at work. If you can save that money automatically before it reaches your bank account, you’re far more likely to continue saving those funds in the future and even to increase your contributions over time.
  5. Plan for spontaneity. This may sound contradictory, but I think it’s essential. Many people I’ve spoken to resist tracking their spending because it feels constraining. A good solution to this is to build in money that is purely for spontaneous spending. If you know there’s money in your budget that is there for the sole purpose of spending it, it protects the money that you’re saving into other accounts by providing an outlet for a spur-of-the-moment decision.

Follow these suggestions and you’ll soon find you have money for both your current needs and your long-term goals.

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H. Jude Boudreaux, CFP, is the founder of Upperline Financial Planning, a fee-only financial planning firm based in New Orleans. He is an adjunct professor at Loyola University New Orleans, a past president of the Financial Planning Association‘s NexGen community, and an advocate for new and alternative business models for the financial planning industry.

 

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