MONEY Savings

Retirement Savers, Don’t Count on Washington to Protect You

Regulations that would protect the interests of retirement savers are finally gaining traction in Washington. But don't pop the champagne corks just yet.

After years of talk about how to protect retirement savers, the White House has gotten behind a Labor Department proposal that would require financial advisers to put clients’ interests ahead of their own.

Consumer champion Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who says she is not running for president, is doing wall-to-wall media on her view that the government should do more to regulate providers of 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans and individual retirement accounts.

The Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday in a case challenging high 401(k) fees.

But savers should not pop champagne corks yet. It takes forever and a day to legislate and regulate in Washington. Even if it ends up on a fast track, the Labor Department’s draft rule is expected to leave a loophole big enough to drive the brokerage industry through.

Labor Department officials have said it would allow retirement advisers to continue selling investments on commission, as long as they disclosed that to clients.

There are several issues involved in regulating retirement investment advice. A primary one is the quality of 401(k) and 403(b) plans. Employers, who have a fiduciary responsibility to provide good plans to their employees, often hand over program management to consultants, who can keep program costs to employers low and jack up investment fees that workers pay when they buy funds in their plans.

A second issue involves the quality of advice investors get on their individual retirement accounts. If the advice is from brokers, there is a possibility investors are being put into mutual funds that carry higher fees than are optimal for them or are in other ways being put into funds that are not right for them. Higher fees may compensate brokers who are paid by commission or may compensate fund companies that spend the extra cash in ways that benefit the brokerage firms that offer their funds. That can result in investment advice that is conflicted.

After years of lobbying by the brokerage industry, the Labor Department is leaning toward a rule that would allow conflicts, such as commissions and fund company payments to brokerages, as long as they were disclosed. So investors take note: you are eventually going to have to read all the small print, so you might as well start now.

Here’s how to protect your retirement savings:

Check your 401(k) plan. Numerous large employers have spent big bucks to settle class action lawsuits focused on mutual fund fees in retirement plans, and fees have fallen. Average annual management fees of 401(k) funds are below 0.5 percent at large companies and below 1 percent at small companies. If your company’s fund choices are out of line, talk to your human resources department. If your only choices are substandard funds and high fees, put only enough in your 401(k) to get the employer matching contributions, and then invest additional funds in a personal IRA or Roth IRA.

Choose inexpensive mutual funds. Investing in low cost index funds instead of costlier actively managed funds will put you ahead. A person earning $75,000 a year who starts saving at age 25 would spend $104,033 in fees over a lifetime if fees were capped at 0.25 percent of assets annually. At 1.3 percent, that same worker would spend $409,202, according to the Center for American Progress. That extra $305,169 could support roughly $1,000 a month for life in extra retirement income.

Separate advice from your investments. If you want help figuring out which funds to invest in, pay a fee-only financial adviser, do not depend on “free” advice from a commissioned broker. You can get inexpensive advice from big fund companies like Vanguard, Fidelity Investments, and T Rowe Price, or from so-called “robo advisers” like Wealthfront or Betterment.

Be especially careful about rollovers. When you leave a job, you typically have the right to keep your money invested in your 401(k), an excellent choice if you work for a company that provides good funds within the plan. Or you can roll it over into a so-called “Rollover IRA” at any brokerage or fund company. Choose a low-fee fund company or discount brokerage that will enable you to choose your own investments from a large pool of individual stocks and inexpensive funds, and buy only the advice you need.

MONEY Savings

4 Surefire Strategies for Powering Up Your Savings

piggy banks of assorted colors on wood surface
Andy Roberts—Getty Images

You can't count on high investment returns forever. Take control of your future with these savings tips.

Welcome to Day 7 of MONEY’s 10-day Financial Fitness program. You’ve already seen what shape you’re in, figured out what’ll help you stick to your goals, and trimmed the fat from your budget. Today, put that cash to work.

It’s been a great ride. But the bull market that pumped up your 401(k) over the past six years won’t last forever. Even though the stock market is up so far this year, Wall Street prognosticators expect rising interest rates to keep a lid on big gains in 2015. Deutsche Bank, for example, is forecasting a roughly 4% rise in the S&P 500, far below last year’s 11% increase.

Over the next decade, stocks should gain an annualized 7%, while bonds will average 2.5%, according to the latest outlook from Vanguard, the firm’s most subdued projections since 2006.

While you can’t outmuscle the market, you do have one power move at your disposal: ramp up savings.

1. Find Your Saving Target

So how much should you sock away? This year Wade Pfau of the American College launched Retirement-Researcher.com, a site that tests how different savings strategies fare in current economic conditions. He found that households earning $80,000 or more must save 15% of earnings to live a similar lifestyle in their post-work years. While that assumes you’re saving consistently by 35 and retiring at 65, it does include your employer match, so in reality, you may be pitching in only 10% or so.

If you weren’t so on top of it by 35, you have a couple of options: Raise your annual number (Pfau puts it at 23% if you start at age 40) or catch up by saving in bursts. Research firm Hearts & Wallets found that people who boosted savings for an eight-to 10-year period (when mortgages or other big expenses fell away) were able to get back on track for retirement.

2. Think Income

New data show that people save more when they see how their retirement savings translates into monthly income, says Bob Reynolds, head of Putnam Investments. The company found that 75% of people who used its lifetime income analysis tool boosted their savings rate by an average of 25%. To see what your post-work payments will look like, check out Putnam’s calculator (you must be a client to use it) or try the one offered by T. Rowe Price.

3. Take Advantage of Windfalls

Don’t let all your “found money” get sucked into your checking account. Instead, make a point to squirrel away at least a portion of bonuses, savings from cheap gas, FSA reimbursements, and tax refunds. Eight in 10 people get an average refund of $2,800; use it to fund your IRA by the April 15 deadline, says Christine Benz of Morningstar.

4. Free Up Cash

Interest rates remain low. If you’re a refi candidate, you may be able to unlock some money that could be better used. Tom Mingone of Capital Management Group of New York suggests using your refi to pay off higher-rate debt. Say you took a PLUS loan (now fixed at 7.21%, though many borrowers are paying more) for your kid’s tuition: Pay that down.

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MONEY Baby Boomers

How to Work Less—Without Giving Up Your Career

Briefcase with fishing lures
Zachary Zavislak

It's called "phased retirement," and it's catching on.

The youngest baby boomers have just turned 50, bringing retirement within sight for the entire generation. But many boomers don’t expect to work at full throttle until the last day at the office. More than 40% want to shift gradually from full- to part-time work or take on less stressful jobs before retiring, a recent survey by Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies found.

It’s a concept called phased retirement, and it’s catching on. Last November the federal government okayed a plan to let certain long-tenured workers 55 and up stay on half-time while getting half their pension and full health benefits. Says Sara Rix, an adviser at AARP Public Policy Institute: “The federal government’s program may influence private companies to follow their lead.”

Formal phased-retirement plans remain rare; only 18% of companies offer the option to most or all workers. Informal programs are easier to find—roughly half of employers say they allow older workers to dial back to part-time, Transamerica found. But only 21% of employees agree that those practices are in place. “There’s a big disconnect between what employers believe they are doing and what workers perceive their employers to be doing,” says Transamerica Center president Catherine Collinson.

So you may have to forge your own path if you want to downshift in your career. Here’s how:

Resist Raiding Your Savings

Before you do anything, figure out what scaling back will mean for your eventual full retirement. As a part-timer, your income will drop. Ideally you should avoid dipping into your savings or claiming Social Security early, since both will cut your income later. If you’re eligible for a pension, the formula will heavily weight your final years of pay. So a lower salary may make phased retirement too costly.

Cutting back your retirement saving, though, may hurt less than you think. Say you were earning $100,000 and split that in half from 62 to 66. If you had saved $500,000 by 60, and you delay tapping that stash or claiming Social Security, your total income would be $66,700 a year in retirement, according to T. Rowe Price. That’s only slightly less than the $69,500 you would have had if you kept working full-time and saving the max until 66.

Start at the Office

If your employer has an official phased-retirement program, your job is easier. Assuming you’re eligible, you might be able to work half-time for half your pay and still keep your health insurance.

Then ask colleagues who have made that move what has worked for them and what pitfalls to avoid. Devise a plan with your boss, focusing on how you can solve problems, not create new ones with your absence. Perhaps you can mentor younger workers or share client leads. “Don’t expect to arrange this in one conversation—it will be a negotiation,” says Dallas financial planner Richard Jackson.

Without a formal program, you’ll have to have a conversation about part-time or consulting work. To make your case, spell out how you can offer value at a lower cost than a full-time employee, says Phil Dyer, a financial planner in Towson, Md.

Giving up group health insurance will be less of a financial blow if you are 65 and eligible for Medicare, or have coverage through your spouse. If not, you can shop for a policy on your state’s insurance exchange. “Even if you have to pay health care premiums for a couple of years, you may find it worthwhile to reduce the stress of working full-time,” says Dyer.

Do an Encore Elsewhere

This wind-down could also be a chance to do something completely different. Take advantage of online resources for older job seekers, including Encore.org, RetiredBrains.com, and Retirement-Jobs.com. You can find low-cost training at community colleges, which may offer programs specifically to fill jobs for local employers. Or, if you want nonprofit work, volunteer first. Says Chris Farrell, author of Unretirement, a new book about boomers working in retirement: “It’s a great way to discover what the organization really needs and how your skills might fit in.”

Sign up for a weekly email roundup of top retirement news, insights, and advice from editor-at-large Penelope Wang: money.com/retirewithmoney.

MONEY Gas

Here’s What Americans Are Doing With the Gas Money They’re Saving

Gas nozzle and money
Tim McCaig—Getty Images

The government's Energy Information Administration estimates the average household will spend $750 less on gas this year. So where's that money going?

Americans are enjoying a nice raise at the moment, in the form of dramatically lower gas prices. The government’s Energy Information Administration estimates that the average household will spend $750 less on gas this year, which is like getting a roughly $1,000 raise, since the savings aren’t taxed. For a little perspective, the 2008 economic stimulus package passed by Congress designed to save America from the worst of the recession sent a maximum of $600 to American households.

The gas price drop means even more to struggling lower-income earners: the bottom fifth of earners spend 13% of their income on gas.

That’s the good news. The bad news? Retailers aren’t seeing much, if any, of that money.

Americans spent $6.7 billion less on gas in January than November, but retail spending actually fell slightly during that span. That means lower gas prices are not acting as a surprise stimulus plan for the economy.

So where is the money going? To the bank.

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis recently reported that Americans’ notoriously low personal savings rate spiked in December, to 4.9%, from 4.3% the previous month. The cash that’s not going into the gas tank is going into savings and checking accounts instead.

Few Americans save enough money, and many have insufficient rainy-day funds. With the recession fresh in their minds, many Americans appear to be more concerned with restoring their severely damaged net worth than buying stuff.

But Logan Mohtashami, a market observer and mortgage analyst, suspects something else might be at play.

“People don’t think the gas price (drop) is a long-term reality,” Mohtashami said. Despite government predictions to the contrary, he says, consumers aren’t adjusting their spending to a new normal, and instead they’re holding onto their cash for the next rise in prices.

Again, that kind of pessimism is sensible, and it’s good for personal bank accounts, but it’s not so good for growing the economy.

How much are you saving thanks to lower gas prices? What are you doing with the “raise?” saving or paying down debt? Planning a better vacation? Driving a gas-guzzler more often? Let me know in the comments, or email me at bob@credit.com.

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

MONEY retirement planning

The Proven Way to Retire Richer

Looking for more money for your retirement? Who isn't? This study reveals that there is one sure-fire way to get it.

Last June, the National Bureau of Economic Research with professors from the University of Pennsylvania, George Washington University, and North Carolina State University, released a study entitled “Financial Knowledge and 401(k) Investment Performance”.

In it the authors found that individuals who had the most financial knowledge — as measured through five questions about personal finance principles — had investment returns that were on average 1.3% higher annually — 9.5% versus 8.2% — than those who had the least financial knowledge.

While this difference may not sound consequential, the authors noted that it “is a substantial difference, enhancing the retirement nest egg of the most knowledgeable by 25% over a 30-year work life.”

Yes, knowing the answers to five questions had a direct correlation to having 25% more money when you retire.

So what are those questions? For example, and for the sake of brevity, here are the first three:

Interest Rate: Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2% per year. After 5 years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow?

Answers: More than $110, Exactly $110, Less than $110.

Inflation: Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account was 1% per year and inflation was 2% per year. After 1 year, how much would you be able to buy with the money in this account?

Answers: More than today, Exactly the same, Less than today.

Risk: Is this statement True or False? Buying a single company’s stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.

While the questions aren’t complex, they’re tough. And few people can answer all three correctly (with the answers being: More than $110, Less Than Today, and False).

So what did those people who were able to answer those questions most accurately actually do to generate the highest returns? The authors found one of the biggest reasons was that the most financially literate had the greatest propensity to hold stocks (66% of their portfolio was in equity versus 49% for those who scored lowest). And while their portfolios were more volatile, over time, they had the best results.

This is critical because it underscores the utter importance of understanding asset allocation. This measures how much of your retirement savings should be put in stocks relative to bonds. A general guideline is the “Rule of 100,” which suggests your allocation of stocks to bonds should be 100 minus your age. So, a 25-year-old should have 75% of their retirement savings in stocks.

Some have suggested that rule should be revised to the rule of 110 or 120 — and my gut reaction is 110 sounds about right — but you get the general idea.

This vital distinction is important because over the long-term stocks outlandishly outperform bonds. If you’d invested $100 in both stocks and bonds in 1928, your $100 in bonds would be worth roughly $7,000 at the end of 2014. But that $100 investment in stocks would be worth more than 40 times more, at $290,000, as shown below:

Of course, between the end of 2007 and 2008, the stock investment fell from $178,000 to $113,000, whereas the bonds grew from $5,000 to $6,000, displaying why someone who needs the money sooner rather than later should stick to bonds. But a 40-year-old who won’t retire for another 20 (or more) years can weather that storm.

Whether it’s $100 or $1,000,000, watching an investment fall by nearly 40% in value is gut wrenching. But in investing, and in life, patience is key, and as Warren Buffett once said, “The stock market serves as a relocation center at which money is moved from the active to the patient.”

While everyone’s personal circumstances are different (my risk tolerance is vastly greater now than it will be in 30 years) knowing that you can be comfortable allocating a sizable amount of your retirement savings to stocks will yield dramatically better results over time.

MONEY Saving & Budgeting

3 Ways to Cut the Fat From Your Budget—and Save More

male athlete drinking 100% Mega Wealth fitness shake
Gregory Reid

Nowadays technology makes it easier to whip your spending into shape.

Welcome to Day 6 of MONEY’s 10-day Financial Fitness program. You’ve already seen what shape you’re in and started to track your spending. Today, look for ways to free up cash.

Even if you hit the gym regularly, you can probably still pinch an inch here and there.

Your spending, too, is bound to have a little flab. But here’s the good news: If you haven’t combed through your budget in a while, you may be surprised to discover how new technologies, shifting business models, and other recent developments can help you find more money to save.

1. Join the Sharing Economy

Are there any big-ticket items you could get away with renting rather than buying? For instance, maybe now that the kids are in college or you’ve retired you could do without that second car, which, according to AAA, costs almost $9,000 a year to own and operate. Consultancy Alix-Partners found that by 2020 more than 1 million families will use carsharing services to avoid buying a second ride. In some areas, Zipcar and Enterprise Car Share charge less than $50 a day for fully insured cars with gas, while a one-way car-pooled ride with Uber or Lyft can cost as little as $2.25.

For vacations, how about trying a home-swapping service such as Intervac or HomeExchange.com to chop that hefty hotel bill? Then there’s the pricey item you need only once or twice. Rent that fancy camera from BorrowLenses.com or see if your area has a tool-lending library where you can borrow a rototiller or other item for free.

2. Take a “Financial Health” Day

To cut regular expenses such as cable, phone, or insurance bills, set aside a few hours to compare rates from different firms or to ask your current provider for a discount, says Joe Ridout of advocacy group Consumer Action: “A lot of companies rely on your inertia to keep business they no longer deserve.”

To really dig in, take a day off to devote to haggling with insurers, banks, and more. Robert Brokamp, a financial planner and writer for Motley Fool, persuaded his firm to set aside a day for employees to deal with finances. “A lot of these things have to be done during work hours,” he says.

3. Tap Technology

Sites and apps that monitor your spending are great for catching expenses that could fall through the cracks. BillGuard, for one, flags mistaken or duplicate charges and allows you to challenge them right from the app.

Technology can also help rein in impulse purchases and find deals on the things you do buy. These top shopping apps and browser add-ons help you pay the lowest price every time you shop online. To avoid the daily deluge of online shopping temptations, use Unroll.me to pull all retailer emails into a single message. Out in the real world, try the GroceryIQ app before you hit the market. Create a shopping list using the app and it will search for coupons for those specific items. Finally, gas may be cheap, but don’t just fuel up willy-nilly; use an app like GasBuddy to get the best price possible.

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  • Day 7: Find Ways to Save More
  • Day 8: Boost Your Earning Power
  • Day 9: Learn How Better Health Can Help Your Finances
  • Day 10: Shore Up Your Safety Net

 

MONEY Budgeting

How to Start Tracking Your Spending in 7 Minutes Flat

stopwatch with money/dollar on it
George Diebold—Getty Images

If you want to save more or get out of debt, knowing where your money goes now is an essential first step.

As part of our 10-day series on Total Financial Fitness, we’ve developed six quick workouts, inspired by the popular exercise plan that takes just seven minutes a day. Each will help kick your finances into shape in no time at all. Today: The 7-Minute Spending Tracker

Seven minutes is a little tight to create a budget, but it’s enough to tackle the first step: pulling together all your spending info using a budgeting tool such as Mint. You’ll need your credit and debit cards to get started.

0:00 Surf to Mint.com and register for a free account.

0:42 Mint asks for your credit card providers and bank. As you type in each one, a list of possible matches will pop up. Select the right one and enter the online login and password you use for that account. (Mint is a secure site and cannot get to your money.)

3:02 Mint will need a minute to pull in all of your transactions, which it automatically slots into categories like “Cellphone” and “Groceries.” Problem is, the app doesn’t always get it right. To fix that, click the “Transactions” tab.

3:34 See those “uncategorized” charges? You can select them to choose a correct label. This is pretty tedious, so tick the box that says “always re-categorize X as Y.” That way, Mint will put all future transactions from that retailer in the right place.

5:02 When you did that, you probably also noticed some charges Mint tried to identify but placed into the wrong bucket. Scroll through those and correct them the same way.

6:30 Grab your phone and download the Mint app. Having the program handy will help you keep on top of charges.

7:00 Now you’re ready to click the “Budgets” tab and create a spending plan. For more help with that, check out our Money 101 stories on creating a budget you can stick to and setting financial priorities.

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  • Day 6: Cut the Fat From Your Budget
  • Day 7: Find Ways to Save More
  • Day 8: Boost Your Earning Power
  • Day 9: Learn How Better Health Can Help Your Finances
  • Day 10: Shore Up Your Safety Net
TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: February 20

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Hollywood’s diversity problem goes beyond “Selma.” Asian and Latino stories and faces are missing.

By Jose Antonio Vargas and Janet Yang in the Los Angeles Times

2. Shifting the narrative away from religion is key to defeating ISIS.

By Dean Obeidallah in the Daily Beast

3. Innovation alone won’t fix social problems.

By Amanda Moore McBride and Eric Mlyn in the Chronicle of Higher Education

4. When the Ebola epidemic closed schools in Sierra Leone, radio stepped in to fill the void.

By Linda Poon at National Public Radio

5. The racial wealth gap we hardly talk about? Retirement.

By Jonnelle Marte in the Washington Post

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY IRAs

This Innovative Idea Could Improve Your Retirement

State governments are starting to step in to help workers save. Here's why that's a good thing.

A rare innovation in retirement saving is taking shape right now in, of all places, Illinois. In January the state became the first to okay an automatic IRA for workers at certain small businesses that don’t offer retirement plans. Those companies will be required to funnel 3% of their employees’ paychecks into a state-run Roth IRA, though workers can opt out.

It may seem surprising that Illinois is breaking ground in this area—after all, the state’s pension plans are among the worst funded in the nation. But Illinois is actually part of a broad movement. Some 30 states, including California and Connecticut, are developing similar savings programs. Says Sarah Mysiewicz Gill, senior legislative representative at AARP: “We’re reaching a critical mass of states.”

A Local Approach

Why are states taking on retirement planning? Half of private-sector employees don’t have an employer plan—a crucial tool for building a nest egg. In fact, just having access to a retirement plan through work makes a huge difference in whether you save. While 90% of those with a workplace plan have put aside money for retirement, only 20% of those without one have, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

So states will face a huge drain on their budgets as workers with no savings reach retirement and need services such as Medicaid and food assistance. “If Washington were moving faster on this, the states wouldn’t have to,” says Illinois state senator Daniel Biss, who sponsored the new IRA.

No question, Congress has long dodged addressing the looming retirement crisis; it has failed to fix Social Security or create a federal automatic IRA, which President Obama proposed again in his most recent State of the Union address. Obama did introduce the myRA last year, which will allow savers without employer plans to put away as much as $15,000 in Treasury securities. But without auto-enrollment, the myRA’s effectiveness will be limited.

The Illinois program may prove to be an appealing prototype. (First it will need approval by the Department of Labor and IRS.) Still, each state is crafting its own version. In Connecticut, the automatic IRA may be paid out as a lifetime annuity or in a lump sum. Indiana is looking at setting up a voluntary plan with a tax credit. “States are a great laboratory for experimentation,” says Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, founder of Georgetown University’s Center for Retirement Initiatives.

Reason to Hope

Of course, it’s far from certain that state savings plans will make much headway: at 3%, Illinois’s minimum contribution is far below the 10% to 15% of pay that retirement experts generally recommend. And a hodgepodge of state IRAs would be less efficient and more costly than a national plan.

That said, states can sometimes get it right. State-run 529 college savings plans have helped countless families with tuition bills. The Massachusetts health care plan was a model for the national plan that has meant coverage for millions. Perhaps the states’ efforts will push retirement savings higher up the federal government’s priority list. If Illinois can lead the way on retirement, anything’s possible.

 

MONEY Financial Planning

10 Days to Total Financial Fitness

Bench press with gold painted weights
Gregory Reid

Presenting MONEY's 10-day program designed to pump up your finances for 2015. 

When you think about what kind of shape your finances are in nowadays, you may be feeling downright buff. Retirement plan balances are at record highs, home prices are back to pre-recession levels in most parts of the U.S., and the job market is the strongest it’s been since 2006.

No wonder Americans are more optimistic about their finances.

Given that, it’s understandable that some bad habits may be creeping back into your routine. Americans, overall, are slipping into a few: Household debt is at a record high, fueled by an uptick in borrowing for cars and college and more credit card spending. Vanguard reports that investors are taking risks last seen in the pre-crash years of 1999 and 2007.

What’s more, the financial regimen that’s been working well for you of late may not cut it anymore. In this slow-growth, low-interest-rate environment, both stock and bond returns are expected to be below average for several years to come.

To pump up your finances in 2015, you need to shake up your routine. The plan that follows can help you do just that. Every day for the next two weeks, we’ll target-train you for a different financial strength. This program includes seven quick workouts, inspired by the popular exercise plan that takes just seven minutes a day, that will push you to raise your game in no time at all. What are you waiting for?

See What Shape You’re In

Even if you’re a dedicated exerciser, you could be ignoring whole muscle groups, leaving yourself susceptible to injury. For example, 39% of people earning more than $75,000 a year wouldn’t be able to cover a $1,000 unexpected expense from savings, according to a 2014 Bankrate survey. So the first step is to establish your baseline by asking yourself these questions.

How are my vital signs? Tick off the basics: Check your credit, tally up your emergency fund (aim for six months of living expenses), look at how much you are contributing to your retirement plans, and get a handle on how you’re splitting up your savings between stocks and bonds.

Less than half of workers have tried to calculate how much money they’ll need for retirement, EBRI’s 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey found. Take five minutes to use an online tool that will show you if you’re on track, such as the T. Rowe Price Retirement Income Calculator.

What’s my day-to-day routine? The very first thing Rochester, N.Y., CPA David Young does with his clients is go over their spending. Budgeting apps, he notes, “make the invisible credit card charges visible.” As important as the “how much” is the “on what,” says Fred Taylor, president of Northstar Investment Advisors in Denver. Divide your expenses into the essential costs of living, investments in your future (savings, education, a home), and the discretionary spending you have the flexibility to cut.

Am I juicing my finances too much? In other words, how toxic is your borrowing? Your total debt matters. But the kinds of debts you have and the implications for your future are crucial too, says Charles Farrell, author of Your Money Ratios and CEO of Northstar. As a young saver, you shouldn’t be worried about high debts due to a house and education, Farrell says, as long as you can handle the payment, will be debt-free by your sixties, and are using debt only to fund investments in a low-cost or high-earning future, such as a low-maintenance home or new job skills. Farrell suggests in your twenties and thirties you should limit total mortgage debt to less than twice your family income. In your fifties, you should have a mortgage no higher than what you make. At any age, total education debt should not exceed 75% of your pay.

What’s my biggest weak spot? You need to guard against familiar risks, like insufficient insurance. But David Blanchett, head of retirement research for Morning-star, says you should also think about less obvious threats. Will new technology put your livelihood at risk? Are you counting on a pension from a financially shaky firm? Do you live in an area, such as Northern California, where home values hinge on the success of one industry?

Once you know how much progress you’ve made so far and what areas need the most work, you’re ready to get going on your financial fitness plan.

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