How Much Should You Save for Retirement?

Photo illustration to accompany article on how much to save for retirement with a unicorn, interrobang, and Erin Lowry Image courtesy of Erin Lowry
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Retirement? Please! The odds of even being able to retire are slim.

With so many other pressing financial demands — combined with living through a global pandemic and recession — it’s completely understandable why you may scoff at the notion of retirement. 

However, you’ll lock yourself into that reality if you don’t invest for retirement now, or at least soon. Even in a crisis situation, it is often prudent to keep investing for your future. Here’s how you can decide if and how much to invest for retirement. 

Can You Still Cover Your Essential Needs? 

In a time of crisis, whether it’s a global crisis like a pandemic or an individual one, the ultimate goal is to still contribute to a retirement account, such as a 401(k) or IRA. There is, however, a huge caveat. You need to be able to at least cover your essential needs like shelter, food, utilities, transportation, medicine. If you’re unable to cover your bare essential needs with any income still remaining or unemployment benefits, then you should press pause on retirement contributions.

Do You Still Have an Employer Match?

If the answer is yes, then keep contributing what it takes to at least get that full match. Don’t leave free money on the table, especially in times of a crisis. If you’re really feeling squeezed and want to have some more cash on hand, contribute at least 1 or 2% to get it matched instead of totally pressing pause. Continuing to invest for retirement, even in turbulent times, is going to be a huge gift to your future self.  

For the self-employed who never have an employer-match, you should set a goal — even a modest one like 3% — to contribute to a SEP IRA or Solo 401(k) each month. Unless your income has completely dried up in a crisis, it’s critical you treat yourself as both employer and employee. Your employer self needs to look out for your employee self. 

Weird Question, But: Are You a Unicorn? 

In the time of a crisis, like a recession or a pandemic, some people unlock unicorn status. Unicorns have at least six months of emergency savings, modest to no debt, and are still earning income. Unicorns should definitely be contributing to retirement accounts, even in an uncertain climate or turbulent stock market. In fact, if you feel safe with your level of liquidity (fancy jargon for accessible cash), you might even want to increase how much you’re contributing to retirement if you aren’t currently maxing out with an annual contribution of $19,500 for a 401(k) and $6,000 for an IRA.  

Maybe You Can Redirect Some Nonessential Spending 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, nationwide shelter-in-place orders offered a unique opportunity to assess nonessential spending, especially on services we suddenly couldn’t use anymore (finally, a reason not to go to the gym!). 

In any crisis, nonessential spending should be significantly reduced. But you can always boost your retirement savings by switching to a bare essentials budget. Any money that’s in excess of your basic needs can be used to save, pay off debt, and invest for retirement. 

Whatever You Do, Don’t Panic 

One of the biggest mistakes investors make is panicking during a bear market and pressing pause on investments. Don’t. Keep steady with your contributions (assuming you can meet your basic needs). This will enable you to buy in during a dip and ensure you won’t miss out on the market’s rebound. It’s incredibly difficult (read: impossible) to time the market, so it’s a better bet to just stay consistent with regular contributions to your retirement account — a method better known as “dollar cost averaging.”

In Non-Pandemic Times, How Much Should I Be Saving? 

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to how much you need to save for retirement. It’s completely based on factors like lifestyle desires, health concerns, cost of living in your area, and number of dependents. 

It’s not an easy decision to make and requires some introspection, flexibility, and acknowledgement that you don’t know what you’ll even be like in the future. Do you think the 70-year-old version of you will need or want $200,000 a year, or does $40,000 seem like more than enough? Personally, I err on the side of going big with this number instead of being conservative, especially with the prospect of wildly unpredictable health care costs. In a worst-case scenario, there will be ample money leftover to create generational wealth and/or donate upon my death. 

There isn’t a wrong answer per se, but the number you come to for your annual expenses will be the cornerstone of answering, “How much should I be investing into my retirement accounts?” 

One shortcut to assessing how much you need in your retirement account is to use the “multiply by 25” rule. 

(How much you need each year to maintain your lifestyle) x 25 = your retirement nest egg. 

Let’s say you decide you need $75,000 per year for a comfortable life. 

$75,000 x 25 = $1,875,000

That might sound like a really intimidating number. In fact, you might’ve done some quick math and punched something into your calculator like $1,875,000 divided by 35 years (or however many years until you want to retire) = $53,571.42. That’s A TON of money to save each year! 

But you shouldn’t be trying to save your way to this goal. You should be investing. The money in your 401(k) or IRA should be used to invest in the stock market and not just sit in cash. The expression “save for retirement” is really a misnomer. Instead, you’re investing for retirement, because when you invest, compound interest does a lot of the work for you. 

Try playing around with a compound interest calculator to see for yourself. I recommend using 6% or, at most, 7% as your estimated interest rate to be on the conservative side. For the “initial investment” field, input how much is currently in your retirement accounts, or $0 if you’re about to get started. Then play around with the “monthly contribution” to see how much it would take to get to your goal. Don’t be discouraged if the number is high. You can always slowly push your way up to investing more. 

The other helpful retirement calculation to know is the “4% rule.” The 4% rule is a rule of thumb used to determine how much you can safely take out of your retirement fund each year and not outlive your assets. Let’s use the often-cited $1 million nest egg. Four percent of $1,000,000 is $40,000. That means you can withdraw $40,000 from your retirement account each year in retirement. If you’d rather be even more conservative to be on the safe side, some people use 2 or 3% in their calculations. 

Whatever your nest egg goal, this shouldn’t be a “set it and forget it” situation. You need to check in on your goal as your life changes. Set a reminder in your phone or on your calendar to do an annual check-in on your retirement fund. As a bonus, challenge yourself to increase contributions by at least 1% each time you do a check-in until you reach your contribution goal.