MONEY retirement planning

One Thing Successful Retirement Savers Have in Common

Gold Eggs
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With the markets rebounding, workers with 401(k)s feel more confident about retirement. Everyone else, not so much.

Retirement confidence in the U.S. stands at its highest point since the Great Recession, new research shows. But the recent gains have been almost entirely confined to those with a traditional pension or tax-advantaged retirement account, such as a 401(k) or IRA.

Some 22% of workers are “very” confident they will be able to live comfortably in retirement, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute 2015 Retirement Confidence Survey, an annual benchmark report. That’s up from 18% last year and 13% in 2013. But it remains shy of the 27% reading hit in 2007, just before the meltdown. Adding those who are “somewhat” confident, the share jumps to 58%—again, well below the 2007 reading (70%).

The heightened sense of security comes as the job market has inched back to life and home values are on the rise. Perhaps more importantly: stocks have been on a tear, rising by double digits five of the last six years and tripling from their recession lows.

Those with an employer-sponsored retirement plan are most likely to have avoided selling stocks while they were depressed and to have stuck to a savings regimen. With the market surge, it should come as no surprise that this group has regained the most confidence—71% of those with a plan are very or somewhat confident, vs. just 33% of those who are not, EBRI found. (That finding echoes earlier surveys highlighting retirement inequality.)

Among those who aren’t saving, daily living costs are the most commonly cited reason (50%). While worries over debt are down, it remains a key variable. Only 6% of those with a major debt problem are confident about retirement while 56% are not confident at all. But despite those savings barriers, most workers say they could save a bit more for retirement—69% say they could put away $25 a week more than they’re doing now.

At the root of growing retirement confidence is a perceived ability to afford potentially frightening old-age expenses, including long-term care (14% are very confident, vs. 9% in 2011) and other medical expenses (18%, vs. 12% in 2011). The market rebound probably explains most of that, though flexible and affordable new long-term care options and wider availability of health insurance through Obamacare may play a role.

At the same time, many workers have adjusted to the likelihood they will work longer, which means they can save longer and get more from Social Security by delaying benefits. Some 16% of workers say the date they intend to retire has changed in the past year, and 81% of those say the date is later than previously planned. In all, 64% of workers say they are behind schedule as it relates to saving for retirement, drawing a clear picture of our saving crisis no matter how many are feeling better about their prospects.

Those adjustments are simply realistic. Some 57% of workers say their total savings and investments are less than $25,000. Only one out of five workers with plans have more than $250,000 saved for retirement, and only 1% of those without plans. Clearly, additional working and saving is necessary to avoid running out of money.

Still, many workers have no idea how much they even need to be putting away. When asked what percentage of income they need to save, 27% said they didn’t know. And almost half of workers age 45 and older have not tried to figure out how much money they need to meet their retirement goals, though those numbers are edging up. As previous EBRI studies have found, workers who make these calculations tend to set higher goals, and they are more confident about reaching them.

To build your own savings plan, start by using an online retirement savings calculator, such as those offered by T. Rowe Price or Vanguard. And you can check out Money’s retirement advice here and here.

Read next: Why Roth IRA Tax Tricks Won’t Rescue Your Retirement

MONEY Investing

Why Wary Investors May Keep the Bull Market Running

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Ernst Haas—Getty Images

Retirement investors are optimistic but have not forgotten the meltdown. That's good news.

Six years into a bull market, individual investors around the world are feeling confident. Four in five say stocks will do even better this year than they did last year, new research shows. In the U.S., that means a 13.5% return in 2015. The bar is set at 8% in places like Spain, Japan and Singapore.

Ordinarily, such bullishness following years of heady gains might signal the kind of speculative environment that often precedes a market bust. Stocks in the U.S. have risen by double digits five of six years since the meltdown in 2008. They are up 3%, on average, this year.

But most individuals in the market seem to be on the lookout for dangerous levels of froth. The share that say they are struggling between pursuing returns and protecting capital jumped to 73% in this year’s Natixis Global Asset Management survey. That compares to 67% in 2013. Meanwhile, the share of individuals that said they would choose safety over performance also jumped, to 84% this year from 78% in 2014.

This heightened caution makes sense deep into a bull market and may help prolong the run. Other surveys have shown that many investors are hunkered down in cash. That much money on the sidelines could well fuel future gains, assuming these savers plow more of that cash into stocks.

Still, there is a seat-of-the-pants quality to investors’ behavior, rather than firm conviction. In the survey, 57% said they have no financial goals, 67% have no financial plan, and 77% rely on gut instincts to make investing decisions. This lack of direction persists even though most cite retirement as their chief financial concern. Other top worries include the cost of long-term care, out-of-pocket medical expenses, and inflation.

These are all thorny issues. But investing for retirement does not have to be a difficult chore. Saving is the hardest part. If you have no plan, getting one can be a simple as choosing a likely retirement year and dumping your savings into a target-date mutual fund with that year in the name. A professional will manage your risk and diversification, and slowly move you into safer fixed-income products as you near retirement.

If you are modestly more hands-on, you can get diversification and low costs through a single global stock index fund like iShares MSCI All Country or Vanguard Total World, both of which are exchange-traded funds (ETFs). You can also choose a handful of stock and bond index funds if you prefer a bit more involvement. (You can find good choices on our Money 50 list of recommended funds and ETFs.) Such strategies will keep you focused on the long run, which for retirement savers never goes out of fashion.

Read next: Why a Strong Dollar Hurts Investors And What They Should Do About It

MONEY Careers

A Good Reason to Tap Your Roth IRA Early

Concentrating surgeons performing operation in operating room
Alamy

You shouldn't always wait until you retire to pull money from your retirement account.

The Roth IRA is a great tool for retirement savings. But here’s something not as well-known: It’s great for developing your career as well.

Many of my young clients in their 20s and 30s struggle to balance current spending, saving for the next 10 years, and stowing away money for retirement. With so many life changes to deal with (weddings, home purchases, children, new jobs), their financial environment is anything but stable. And their retirement will look completely different than it does for today’s retirees.

To my clients, separating themselves from their current cash flow for the next 30 years feels like sentencing their innocent income to a long prison term.

They ask, “Why should we save our hard-earned money for retirement when we have no idea what our financial circumstances will be in 15 years, never mind 30? What if we want to go back to school or pay for additional training to improve our careers? We might also decide to start a business. How can we plan for these potential life changes and still be responsible about our future?”

The answers to those questions are simple. Start investing in a Roth IRA — the earlier you do it, the better.

There is a stigma that says anyone who touches retirement money before retirement is making a mistake, but this is what we call blanket advice: Although it’s safe and may be correct for many people, each situation is different.

The Roth IRA has very unique features that allow it to be used as a flexible tool for specific life stages.

Unlike contributions to a traditional IRA, which are locked up except for certain circumstances, money that you add to a Roth IRA can be removed at any time. Yes, it’s true. The contributions themselves can be taken out of the account and used for anything at all at any time in your life with no penalty. And, like the traditional IRA, you can also take a distribution of the earnings in the account without penalty for certain reasons, one of which is paying for higher education for you or a family member. (Some fine print: You’ll pay a penalty on withdrawing a contribution that was a rollover from a traditional IRA within the past five years. And you’ll have to pay ordinary income taxes on an early Roth IRA withdrawal for higher education.)

Although you shouldn’t pull money from your retirement account for just any reason, sometimes it’s a smart move.

Let’s say you graduate from college and choose a job based on your major. This first job is great and helps you get your feet wet in the professional world. You’re able to gain some valuable real-world experience and support yourself while you enjoy life after school. And this works for a while…until one day, 10 or 15 years into this career, you wake up and begin to question your choices.

You wonder if this career trajectory is truly putting you where you want to be in life. You think about changing careers or starting a business, but you need your income and have no real savings outside of your retirement accounts.

Now, let’s also say that you were tipped off to the magic of a Roth IRA while you were in college and you contributed to the account each year for the past 15 years. You have $75,000 sitting in the account, $66,000 of which are your yearly contributions from 2000 through 2014. It’s for retirement, though, so you can’t touch it, right? Well, this may be the perfect time to do so.

I recently spoke to a someone who did just this. Actually, his wife did it, but he was part of the decisionmaking process.

The wife has been working for years as a massage therapist for the husband’s company. Things were going quite well, but she had other ideas for her future. She wanted to go back to school to get her degree as a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist. The challenge was that this education was going to cost $30,000, and they did not have that kind of money saved.

So, they brainstormed the various options, one being to tap into his Roth IRA money. They determined that this would be a good investment for their future. Once the wife became a CRNA, her annual earnings would rise an estimated $20,000 — money they could easily use to recoup the Roth IRA withdrawal (though the 2015 Roth IRA contribution limit is $5,500 for those under 50 years old).

This decision gave them a sense of freedom. The flexibility of the Roth allowed them to choose an unconventional funding option for their future and gave the couple a new level of satisfaction in their lives.

And, that’s what it’s all about. We have one life to live, and it’s our responsibility to make decisions that will help us live happily today, while still maintaining responsibility for tomorrow.

Whether your savings is in a bank account or a retirement account, it’s your money. Although many advisers will tell you otherwise, you need to make decisions based on what is best for you at various stages of your life. The one-size-fits-all rule just doesn’t work when it come to financial planning. There is no need to rule out a possible solution because society says it’s a mistake.

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Eric Roberge, CFP, is the founder of Beyond Your Hammock, where he works virtually with professionals in their 20s and 30s, helping them use money as a tool to live a life they love. Through personalized coaching, Eric helps clients organize their finances, set goals, and invest for the future.

MONEY Ask the Expert

Which Wins for Retirement Savings: Roth IRA or Roth 401(k)?

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

Q: I am 30 and just starting to save for retirement. My employer offers a traditional 401(k) and a Roth 401(k) but no company match. Should I open and max out a Roth IRA first and then contribute to my company 401(k) and hope it offers a match in the future?– Charlotte Mapes, Tampa

A: A company match is a nice to have, but it’s not the most important consideration when you’re deciding which account to choose for your retirement savings, says Samuel Rad, a certified financial planner at Searchlight Financial Advisors in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Contributing to a 401(k) almost always trumps an IRA because you can sock away a lot more money, says Rad. This is true whether you’re talking about a Roth IRA or a traditional IRA. In 2015 you can put $18,000 a year in your company 401(k) ($24,000 if you’re 50 or older). You can only put $5,500 in an IRA ($6,500 if you’re 50-plus). A 401(k) is also easy to fund because your contributions are automatically deducted from your pay check.

With Roth IRAs, higher earners may also face income limits to contributions. For singles, you can’t put money in a Roth if your modified adjusted gross income exceeds $131,000; for married couples filing jointly, the cutoff is $193,000. There are no income limits for contributions to a 401(k).

If you had a company match, you might save enough in the plan to receive the full match, and then stash additional money in a Roth IRA. But since you don’t, and you also have a Roth option in your 401(k), the key decision for you is whether to contribute to a traditional 401(k) or a Roth 401(k). (You’re fortunate to have the choice. Only 50% of employer defined contribution plans offer a Roth 401(k), according to Aon Hewitt.)

The basic difference between a traditional and a Roth 401(k) is when you pay the taxes. With a traditional 401(k), you make contributions with pre-tax dollars, so you get a tax break up front, which helps lower your current income tax bill. Your money—both contributions and earnings—will grow tax-deferred until you withdraw it, when you’ll pay whatever income tax rates applies at that time. If you tap that money before age 59 1/2, you’ll pay a 10% penalty in addition to taxes (with a few exceptions).

With a Roth 401(k), it’s the opposite. You make your contributions with after-tax dollars, so there’s no upfront tax deduction. And unlike a Roth IRA, there are no contribution limits based on your income. You can withdraw contributions and earnings tax-free at age 59½, as long as you’ve held the account for five years. That gives you a valuable stream of tax-free income when you’re retired.

So it all comes down to deciding when it’s better for you to pay the taxes—now or later. And that depends a lot on what you think your income tax rates will be when you retire.

No one has a crystal ball, but for young investors like you, the Roth looks particularly attractive. You’re likely to be in a lower tax bracket earlier in your career, so the up-front tax break you’d receive from contributing to a traditional 401(k) isn’t as big it would be for a high earner. Plus, you’ll benefit from decades of tax-free compounding.

Of course, having a tax-free pool of money is also valuable for older investors and retirees, even those in a lower tax brackets. If you had to make a sudden large withdrawal, perhaps for a health emergency, you can tap those savings rather than a pre-tax account, which might push you into a higher tax bracket.

The good news is that you have the best of both worlds, says Rad. You can hedge your bets by contributing both to your traditional 401(k) and the Roth 401(k), though you are capped at $18,000 total. Do this, and you can lower your current taxable income and build a tax diversified retirement portfolio.

There is one downside to a Roth 401(k) vs. a Roth IRA: Just like a regular 401(k), a Roth 401(k) has a required minimum distribution (RMD) rule. You have to start withdrawing money at age 70 ½, even if you don’t need the income at that time. That means you may be forced to make withdrawals when the market is down. If you have money in a Roth IRA, there is no RMD, so you can keep your money invested as long as you want. So you may want to rollover your Roth 401(k) to a Roth IRA before you reach age 70 1/2.

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

Read next: The Pros and Cons of Hiring a Financial Adviser

MONEY

4 Retirement Mistakes That Can Cost You $250,000 Or More

Sometimes the costliest errors are ones we make ourselves, often without realizing how much damage we're doing.

We tend to think the mistakes that derail retirement are the ones that are inflicted on us: an investment that implodes; an adviser who dupes us; a market crash that decimates our nest egg. In fact, the costliest errors are ones we make ourselves, often without realizing how much damage we’re doing. Here are four of the biggest, plus tips on how to avoid them.

Mistake #1: Stinting on saving. Asked by researchers for TIAA-Cref’s Ready-to-Retire survey what they could have done differently to better prepare for retirement, nearly half of the near-retirees polled said they wished they’d saved more. Good answer. Because over the course of a career, failing to push yourself to save can cost you big time.

To see just how much, let’s take the case of a 25-year-old who earns $40,000 a year, gets 2% annual raises and contributes 10% of salary to a 401(k) or similar plan each year—a good effort, but hardly Herculean. Assuming our hypothetical 25-year-old folows that regimen over a 40-year career and his investments earn 7% a year before fees of 1.5% a year for a 5.5% net return, he would end up with a nest egg of just under $740,000.

That’s a tidy sum to be sure. But look how much more he could have with a more diligent savings effort. By stashing away just two additional percentage points of pay each year—12% vs. 10%—his nest egg at retirement would total just under $890,000. That’s an extra $150,000. And if he can pushes himself to save 15%—the target recommended by many pros—he would be sitting on a nest egg of roughly $1.1 million, fully $360,000 more than its value with a 10% savings rate.

Of course, some people are so squeezed financially that they simply can’t save more than they already are, or for that matter save at all. But unless you’re one them, then you may be effectively giving up hundreds of thousands of dollars in future retirement spending by not pushing yourself to be a more committed saver. To avoid that, look for as many ways as you can to save at least 15% of your income consistently.

Mistake #2. Getting a late start. Call this mistake “the price of procrastination.” It’s the potential savings balance you give up by failing to get going early with your savings regimen. To put a dollar figure on this error, let’s assume that our fictive Millennial above takes the advice of retirement pros, saves 15% a year, earns 5.5% after expenses annually on his savings and ends up with that $1.1 million nest egg at 65.

But look how much that nest egg shrinks if he postpones his savings regimen. For example, if he puts off contributing to his 401(k) for five years until he hits age 30, his age-65 nest egg would total about $875,000 instead of $1.1 million. So procrastination cost him $225,000. If he waits 10 years to age 35 to begin saving for retirement, his nest egg would weigh in at roughly $680,000, putting the cost of a late start at $420,000.

The way to avoid or at least cut the cost of procrastination is to start your savings regimen as soon as possible—and do your best to maintain that regimen despite the inevitable ups and downs you’ll experience during your career.

Mistake #3. Overpaying for investments. Many investors are simply unaware of how much high costs can dramatically reduce a nest egg’s growth. Consider: By getting an early start and saving 15% of income a year, the 25-year-old builds a $1.1 million nest egg. But that assumes he earns 7% a year before investing costs, and 5.5% a year net after annual expenses. If he cuts his annual expenses by half a percentage point to 1% a year, his nest egg would total just over $1.2 million at retirement. And if manages to whittle investing costs down to 0.5% a year, he’s looking at an eventual nest egg of $1.4 million. In short, higher-cost investing options are effectively costing him as much as $300,000 in potential retirement savings.

Granted, your potential savings from cutting costs may be limited if you do most of your savings through a 401(k) that’s short on investment options. Still, you can at least reduce the cost of this mistake by sticking as much as possible to inexpensive index funds and ETFs (some of which charge as little as 0.05% a year) in your 401(k), IRAs and taxable accounts.

Mistake #4. Grabbing Social Security without a plan. Many people put more thought into which breakfast special to order at Denny’s than when to claim their Social Security benefits. That’s a shame, because taking the money at age 62 (still the most popular age for claiming, according to a recent GAO study) or shortly thereafter can cost you tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Each year you postpone claiming benefits between age 62 and 70, your payment rises roughly 7% to 8%, which can significantly increase the total amount you collect throughout a long retirement. Married couples have the biggest opportunity to boost their potential lifetime benefit by coordinating when they claim.

For example, if a 62-year-old man and his 59-year-old wife earning $75,000 and $50,000 respectively each take benefits at 62, they stand to collect just over $1 million in joint benefits, according to estimates by Financial Engines’ Social Security calculator. But if the wife takes the benefit based on her earnings at age 63, her husband files at age 66 for spousal benefits based on his wife’s work record and then switches to his own benefit at age 70, their projected lifetime benefit jumps to roughly $1,250,000. Or to put it another way, by taking benefits as soon as possible, this couple may be giving up $250,000 in lifetime benefits.

The potential increase for singles isn’t quite as impressive, as the benefit for only one person rather than two is at stake. But the upshot is the same: Whether you’re single or married, taking benefits without a well-thought-out plan can be a costly error. And, as with the other mistakes above, it’s one you can likely minimize or avoid with a little advance planning.

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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Your 3 Biggest Social Security Questions Answered

4 Tips For Finding The Right Financial Adviser

 

 

 

MONEY Savings

Why Many Middle-Class Households Are Outsaving the Wealthy

big piggy bank and gold piggy bank
Kyu Oh/Getty Images (left)—Alamy (right)

It might seem counterintuitive, but the best savers can be found in the middle class.

Can it be that Americans are finally getting the message about saving for retirement?

Granted, studies have repeatedly confirmed America’s lack of savings. And the overall results of a new Bankrate.com survey seem to add to the pile: One in five Americans is saving nothing at all, while 28% are saving just 5% of their income or less. Overall, a mere 24% are saving more than 10% of their incomes, and only 14% of Americans are stashing away more than 15%.

But the survey also highlights an emerging countertrend: Many Americans are saving a lot—and, shocker, they’re folks in the middle class. Some 35% of households earning between $50,000 and $74,999 are putting away more than 10% of their incomes, including 14% who are saving more than 15%, according to Bankrate.com’s Financial Security Index. By contrast, only 19% of higher-income households (those earning $75,000 or more) are saving at that rate.

Why are middle-class savers outpacing their wealthier peers? “The middle class are increasingly aware that the saving for retirement is on them, and many have the discipline to do what’s necessary,” says Greg McBride, Bankrate.com’s chief financial analyst. “And they know they won’t have the resources of wealthier households if they fall short.”

The strengthening economy and improved job outlook have also provided a boost, since more households have additional money to put away. Americans also are also increasingly optimistic about their future income. Overall some 27% of workers are feeling more secure in their jobs than they did a year ago, which is twice the percentage of those who feel less secure (13%). And nearly 30% of those surveyed say their financial situation has improved vs. 18% who say it has deteriorated.

Still, most Americans remain financially challenged, as Bankrate’s study shows:

  • While 23% of those surveyed feel more comfortable with their debt level compared with a year ago, some 20% are feeling less comfortable, while the rest feel about the same.
  • Some 24% of respondents feel better about their savings vs the previous year, but 27% are less comfortable—though, as Bankrate pointed out, that margin was the smallest to date.
  • When asked about their net worth, only 24% reported it to be higher compared with last year, while most said it was lower (14%) or about same (57%).

The Bankrate.com survey did not ask whether workers were participating in a 401(k), but other research shows that consistent saving in a plan throughout your career is key to reaching your financial goals. As a recent study by Empower Retirement found, those with access to a 401(k) or other retirement plan had lifetime income scores (a measure of retirement readiness) of 74%, while those who lacked plans had an average score of just 42%. Unfortunately, only about half of workers have access to an employer plan.

Even if you do have a 401(k), it’s difficult to save consistently, and avoid tapping that money, over the course of three decades. Stuff happens, including job changes, layoffs, and health emergencies. Still, those who at least try to save end up much better off than those who don’t, as a 2014 study shows. And for the lucky few who stick to their plan—who knows?—you may even end up a 401(k) millionaire.

Read next: Here’s How to Tell If You’re Saving Enough for Retirement

MONEY 401k plans

The Secrets to Making a $1 Million Retirement Stash Last

door opening with Franklin $100 staring through the crack
Sarina Finkelstein (photo illustration)—Getty Images (2)

More and more Americans are on target to save seven figures. The next challenge is managing that money once you reach retirement.

More than three decades after the creation of the 401(k), this workplace plan has become the No. 1 way for Americans to save for retirement. And save they have. The average plan balance has hit a record high, and the number of million-dollar-plus 401(k)s has more than doubled since 2012.

In the first part of this four-part series, we laid out what you need to do to build a $1 million 401(k) plan. We also shared lessons from 401(k) millionaires in the making. In this second installment, you’ll learn how to manage that enviable nest egg once you hit retirement.

Dial Back On Stocks

A bear market at the start of retirement could put a permanent dent in your income. Retiring with a 55% stock/45% bond portfolio in 2000, at the start of a bear market, meant reducing your withdrawals by 25% just to maintain your odds of not running out of money, according to research by T. Rowe Price.

150320_MIL_TameMix
Money

That’s why financial adviser Rick Ferri, head of Portfolio Solutions, recommends shifting to a 30% stock and 70% bond portfolio at the outset of retirement. As the graphic below shows, that mix would have fallen far less during the 2007–09 bear market, while giving up just a little potential return. “The 30/70 allocation is the center of gravity between risk and return—it avoids big losses while still providing growth,” Ferri says.

Financial adviser Michael Kitces and American College professor of retirement income Wade Pfau go one step further. They suggest starting with a similar 30% stock/70% bond allocation and then gradually increasing your stock holdings. “This approach creates more sustainable income in retirement,” says Pfau.

That said, if you have a pension or other guaranteed source of income, or feel confident you can manage a market plunge, you may do fine with a larger stake in stocks.

Know When to Say Goodbye

You’re at the finish line with a seven-figure 401(k). Now you need to turn that lump sum into a lasting income, something that even dedicated do-it-yourselfers may want help with. When it comes to that kind of advice, your workplace plan may not be up to the task.

In fact, most retirees eventually roll over 401(k) money into an IRA—a 2013 report from the General Accountability Office found that 50% of savings from participants 60 and older remained in employer plans one year after leaving, but only 20% was there five years later.

Here’s how to do it:

Give your plan a shot. Even if your first instinct is to roll over your 401(k), you may find compelling reasons to leave your money where it is, such as low costs (no more than 0.5% of assets) and advice. “It can often make sense to stay with your 401(k) if it has good, low-fee options,” says Jim Ludwick, a financial adviser in Odenton, Md.

More than a third of 401(k)s have automatic withdrawal options, according to Aon Hewitt. The plan might transfer an amount you specify to your bank every month. A smaller percentage offer financial advice or other retirement income services. (For a managed account, you might pay 0.4% to 1% of your balance.) Especially if your finances aren’t complex, there’s no reason to rush for the exit.

Leave for something better. With an IRA, you have a wider array of investment choices, more options for getting advice, and perhaps lower fees. Plus, consolidating accounts in one place will make it easier to monitor your money.

But be cautious with your rollover, since many in the financial services industry are peddling costly investments, such as variable annuities or other insurance products, to new retirees. “Everyone and their uncle will want your IRA rollover,” says Brooklyn financial adviser Tom Fredrickson. You will most likely do best with a diversified portfolio at a low-fee brokerage or fund group. What’s more, new online services are making advice more affordable than ever.

Go Slow to Make It Last

A $1 million nest egg sounds like a lot of money—and it is. If you have stashed $1 million in your 401(k), you have amassed five times more than the average 60-year-old who has saved for 20 years.

But being a millionaire is no guarantee that you can live large in retirement. “These days the notion of a millionaire is actually kind of quaint,” says Fredrickson.

Why $1 million isn’t what it once was. Using a standard 4% withdrawal rate, your $1 million portfolio will give you an income of just $40,000 in your first year of retirement. (In following years you can adjust that for inflation.) Assuming you also receive $27,000 annually from Social Security (a typical amount for an upper-middle-class couple), you’ll end up with a total retirement income of $67,000.

In many areas of the country, you can live quite comfortably on that. But it may be a lot less than your pre-retirement salary. And as the graphic below shows, taking out more severely cuts your chances of seeing that $1 million last.

150320_MIL_Withdrawals
Money

What your real goal should be. To avoid a sharp decline in your standard of living, focus on hitting the right multiple of your pre-retirement income. A useful rule of thumb is to put away 12 times your salary by the time you stop working. Check your progress with an online tool, such as the retirement income calculator at T. Rowe Price.

Why high earners need to aim higher. Anyone earning more will need to save even more, since Social Security will make up less of your income, says Wharton finance professor Richard Marston. A couple earning $200,000 should put away 15.5 times salary. At that level, $3 million is the new $1 million.

MONEY 401(k)s

How to Build a $1 Million Retirement Plan

$100 bricks and mortar
Money (photo illustration)—Getty Images(2)

The number of savers with seven-figure workplace retirement plans has doubled over the past two years. Here's how you can become one of them.

The 401(k) was born in 1981 as an obscure IRS regulation that let workers set aside pretax money to supplement their pensions. More than three decades later, this workplace plan has become America’s No. 1 way to save. According to a 2013 Gallup survey, 65% of those earning $75,000 or more expect their 401(k)s, IRAs, and other savings to be a major source of income in retirement. Only 34% say the same for a pension.

Thirty-plus years is also roughly how long you’ll prep for retirement (assuming you don’t get serious until you’ve been on the job a few years). So we’re finally seeing how the first generation of savers with access to a 401(k) throughout their careers is making out. For an elite few, the answer is “very well.” The stock market’s recent winning streak has not only pushed the average 401(k) plan balance to a record high, but also boosted the ranks of a new breed of retirement investor: the 401(k) millionaire.

Seven-figure 401(k)s are still rare—less than 1% of today’s 52 million 401(k) savers have one, reports the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI)—but growing fast. At Fidelity Investments, one of the largest 401(k) plan providers, the number of million-dollar-plus 401(k)s has more than doubled since 2012, topping 72,000 at the end of 2014. Schwab reports a similar trend. And those tallies don’t count the two-career couples whose combined 401(k)s are worth $1 million.

Workers with high salaries have a leg up, for sure. But not all members of the seven-figure club are in because they make big bucks. At Fidelity thousands earning less than $150,000 a year have passed the million-dollar mark. “You don’t have to make a million to save a million in your 401(k),” says Meghan Murphy, a director at Fidelity.

You do have to do all the little things right, from setting and sticking to a high savings rate to picking a suitable stock and bond allocation as you go along. To join this exclusive club, you need to study the masters: folks who have made it, as well as savers who are poised to do the same. What you’ll learn are these secrets for building a $1 million 401(k).

1) Play the Long Game

Fidelity’s crop of 401(k) millionaires have contributed an above-average 14% of their pay to a 401(k) over their careers, and they’ve been at it for a long time. Most are over 50, with the average age 60.

Those habits are crucial with a 401(k), and here’s why: Compounding—earning money on your reinvested earnings as well as on your original savings—is the “secret sauce” to make it to a million. “Compounding gives you a big boost toward the end that can carry you to the finish line,” says Catherine Golladay, head of Schwab’s 401(k) participant services. And with a 401(k), you pay no taxes on your investment income until you make withdrawals, putting even more money to work.

You can save $18,000 in a 401(k) in 2015; $24,000 if you’re 50 or older. While generous, those caps make playing catch-up tough to do in a plan alone. You need years of steady saving to build up the kind of balance that will get a big boost from compounding in the home stretch.

Here’s how to do it:

Make time your ally. Someone who earns $50,000 a year at age 30, gets 2% raises, and puts away 14% of pay on average will have $547,000 by age 55—a hefty sum that with continued contributions will double to $1.1 million by 65, assuming 6% annualized returns. Do the same starting at age 35, and you’ll reach $812,000 at 65.

Yet saving aggressively from the get-go is a tall order. You may need several years to get your savings rate up to the max. Stick with it. Increase your contribution rate with every raise. And picking up part-time or freelance work and earmarking the money for retirement can push you over the top.

Milk your employer. For Fidelity 401(k) millionaires, employer matches accounted for a third of total plan contributions. You should squirrel away as much of the boss’s cash as you can.

According to HR association WorldatWork, at a third of companies 50% of workers don’t contribute enough to the company 401(k) plans to get the full match. That’s a missed opportunity to collect free money. A full 80% of 401(k) plans offer a match, most commonly 50¢ for each $1 you contribute, up to 6% of your salary, but dollar-for-dollar matches are a close second.

Broaden your horizons. As the graphic below shows, power-saving in your forties or fifties may bump you up against your 401(k)’s annual limits. “If you get a late start, in order to hit the $1 million mark, you will need to contribute extra savings into a brokerage account,” says Dirk Quayle, president of NextCapital, which provides portfolio-management software to 401(k) plans.

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2) Act Like a Company Lifer

The Fidelity 401(k) millionaires have spent an average of 34 years with the same employer. That kind of staying power is nearly unheard-of these days. The average job tenure with the same employer is five years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only half of workers over age 55 have logged 10 or more years with the same company. But even if you can’t spend your career at one place—and job switching is often the best way to boost your pay—you can mimic the ways steady employment builds up your retirement plan.

Here’s how to do it:

Consider your 401(k) untouchable. A fifth of 401(k) savers borrowed against their plan in 2013, according to EBRI. It’s tempting to tap your 401(k) for a big-ticket expense, such as buying a home. Trouble is, you may shortchange your future. According to a Fidelity survey, five years after taking a loan, 40% of 401(k) borrowers were saving less; 15% had stopped altogether. “There are no do-overs in retirement,” says Donna Nadler, a certified financial planner at Capital Management Group in New York.

Even worse is cashing out your 401(k) when you leave your job; that triggers income taxes as well as a 10% penalty if you’re under age 59½. A survey by benefits consultant Aon Hewitt found that 42% of workers who left their jobs in 2011 took their 401(k) in cash. Young workers were even more likely to do so. As you can see in the graphic below, siphoning off a chunk of your savings shaves off years of growth. “If you pocket the money, it means starting your retirement saving all over again,” says Nadler.

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Resist the urge to borrow and roll your old plan into your new 401(k) or an IRA when you switch jobs. Or let inertia work in your favor. As long as your 401(k) is worth $5,000 or more, you can leave it behind at your old plan.

Fill in the gaps. Another problem with switching jobs is that you may have to wait to get into the 401(k). Waiting periods have shrunk: Today two-thirds of plans allow you to enroll in a 401(k) on day one, up from 57% five years ago, according to the Plan Sponsor Council of America. Still, the rest make you cool your heels for three months to a year. Meanwhile, 40% of plans require you to be on the job six months or more before you get matching contributions.

When you face a gap, keep saving, either in a taxable account or in a traditional or Roth IRA (if you qualify). Also, keep in mind that more than 60% of plans don’t allow you to keep the company match until you’ve been on the job for a specific number of years, typically three to five. If you’re close to vesting, sticking around can add thousands to your retirement savings.

Put a price on your benefits. A generous 401(k) match and friendly vesting can be a lucrative part of your compensation. The match added about $4,600 a year to Fidelity’s 401(k) millionaire accounts. All else being equal, seek out a generous retirement plan when you’re looking for a new job. In the absence of one, negotiate higher pay to make up for the missing match. If you face a long waiting period, ask for a signing bonus.

3) Keep Faith in Stocks

Research into millionaires by the Spectrem Group finds a greater willingness to take reasonable risks in stocks. True to form, Fidelity’s supersavers have 75% of their assets in stocks on average, vs. 66% for the typical 401(k) saver. That hefty equity stake has helped 401(k) millionaires hit seven figures, especially during the bull market that began in 2009.

What’s right for you will depend in part on your risk tolerance and what else you own outside your 401(k) plan. What’s more, you may not get the recent bull market turbo-boost that today’s 401(k) millionaires enjoyed. With rising interest rates expected to weigh on financial markets, analysts are projecting single-digit stock gains over the next decade. Still, those returns should beat what you’ll get from bonds and cash. And that commitment to stocks is crucial for making it to the million-dollar mark.

MONEY retirement planning

The Growing Divide Between the Retirement Elite and Everyone Else

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Americans are on track to replace 60% of income, but only one in five pre-retirees report good health. That's likely to prove costly.

There’s a growing retirement savings gap between workers with 401(k)s and those without.

Overall the typical American worker is on track to replace about 58% of current pay through savings at retirement. That’s according to a new Lifetime Income Score study, by Empower Retirement, which calculated the income workers are on track to receive from retirement plans and other financial assets, as well as Social Security benefits.

“Those who have workplace plans like 401(k)s aren’t doing too badly, but there’s a big savings deficit for those who don’t have them,” says Empower president Ed Murphy. (Formed through a recent merger, Empower combines the retirement services of Putnam, Great-West and J.P. Morgan.)

Those with access to a 401(k) or other retirement plan had lifetime income scores of 74%, while those lacked plans had an average score of just 42%. It’s one reason this year’s overall score of 58% is a slight dip from last year’s score of 61% .

Living well on just 58% of current income is certainly possible—many retirees are doing just fine at that level. But financial planners typical suggest aiming for a 75% to 80% replacement rate to leave room for unexpected costs. And for many workers, it’s possible to close the savings gap by stepping up 401(k) contributions by staying on the job longer.

But truth is, most workers end up retiring well before age 65, and few have enough saved by that point. The least prepared workers, some 32% of those surveyed, were on track to receive just 38% of their income in retirement, which would be largely Social Security benefits.

By contrast, an elite group of workers, some 20%, are on track to replace 143% of their current income, Empower found. And it’s not just those pulling down high salaries. “The key success factors were access to a 401(k) and consistently saving 10% of pay, not income,” Murphy says.

Access to a financial adviser also made a big difference in whether workers were on track to a comfortable retirement income. Those who worked with a pro were on track to replace 82% of income vs 55% for those without. And for those with a formal retirement plan, their lifetime income score hit 87% vs the average 58%.

For all retirement savers, however, health care costs are a looming problem. Only 21% of those ages 60 to 65 reported having none of six major medical issues, such as diabetes or tobacco use. For the typical 65-year-old couple, health care expenses, including Medicare premiums and out-of-pocket costs, might reach $220,000 over the course of retirement, according to a Fidelity analysis. Those in worse health can expect to pay far higher costs, which means you should plan to save even more.

Here are other key findings from the Empower study:

  • Nearly two-thirds of workers lack confidence about their ability to cover health care costs in retirement
  • Some 75% say they have little or no concern about job security, vs. 60% in 2012.
  • Some 72% of workers are somewhat interested or very interested in guaranteed income options, such as annuities.
  • The percentage of workers considering delaying retirement is falling—some 30% now vs. 41% from a peak in 2012.
  • Many are hoarding cash, which accounts for 35% of retirement plan assets. For those without advisers, that allocation is a steep 55%.

Clearly, estimating your retirement income is crucial to achieving your financial goals—and studies have shown that going through that exercise can help spur saving. More 401(k) plans are offering tools and other guidance to help savers estimate their retirement income and help you choose the right stock and bond allocation. For those who aren’t participating in a 401(k) plan, try the T. Rowe Price retirement income calculator, which is free.

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