Reality television shows challenge contestants to lose weight, get fit, survive in remote locations, and cohabitate with strangers. But where is the show that tasks people with a more practical skill, like saving for retirement? Oh, wait. That would be boring.
Saving is not a topic that inspires the masses. Research from Northwestern Mutual estimates that one in three Americans has less than $5,000 in savings. And you don't have to be a financial advisor to know that $5,000 is well short of what a household needs to retire.
If you're struggling to set aside money for retirement, consider this. Reality show contestants are willing to live in a bugged house with strangers for a mere chance of winning $500,000. What if you could complete a different challenge for a guaranteed outcome of $500,000? All you have to do is invest a few hundred dollars every month in a retirement account for a few decades. More specifically, to accumulate $500,000, you'd need to save $475 in your retirement accounts monthly for 20 years. And those funds would need to earn 7% annually -- which is doable, considering that 7% is a rough approximation of the stock market's average long-term growth, adjusted for inflation.
The tough parts of this challenge are finding the $475 to spare and then sticking to your plan over the long haul. Here are four steps to take now to come out on top in the game of life.
1. Review monthly spending
First, figure out how much you are spending today. Your eyes just glazed over, I know. But this doesn't have to be painful. Think of it as a reality show test. If you share finances with someone else, you could even compete to find the most savings opportunities.
Pull out those bank statements and a few highlighter pens. Categorize your expenses as required, nice to have, or unnecessary. Rent is required, internet is nice to have, and eating out is often unnecessary. Add up each category and start making the tough decisions about what to do differently.
2. Create a budget and stick to it
After reviewing your monthly spending, you can build a budget that documents where you'll spend less. You may not be able to lower your rent or utilities, but other expenses can often be cut back. Challenge yourself to lower food costs by planning meals around the supermarket's weekly ad. Establish limits on discretionary spending for clothes, hobbies, and dining out. Shop for lower quotes on services like cellphone plans and car insurance.
Remember the endgame: You're freeing up cash to put toward retirement. For each $1 of savings you uncover, plan on diverting $1 to your retirement account.
With your spending limits and monthly savings goals defined, your next step is to live within your new budget. Plan on reviewing your progress every six months so you can make adjustments to your spending as needed.
3. Pay off credit card debt
If your budget is realistic and you stick to it, your credit card spending should naturally go down. We tend to reach for the plastic to buy things we can't afford. Following a budget keeps you honest on this point -- if the budget doesn't accommodate the purchase, you don't buy it.
As you eliminate the credit card spending, it'll be easier to repay the balances you do have. And here's the best part: Once a credit card balance is repaid, you can divert that card's monthly payment amount into your retirement account or an emergency fund.
4. Set financial goals
Now make a list of short- and long-term financial goals. In the short term, focus on paying down debt, saving in your emergency fund, and making retirement contributions. In the longer term, you can target specific balances in your retirement accounts, such as $500,000 in 20 years and $1 million in 30 years.
Having financial goals keeps you grounded when you feel as if you have extra money to spend. Say you pay down your credit card debt and double your retirement contributions as a result. Then you get a nice raise. Before you start shopping for a bigger place to live, review your progress on those financial goals. You may decide to keep your current living situation so you can increase your savings contributions and reach retirement even faster.
Everyone can win at retirement saving
Saving for retirement isn't among life's most exciting adventures. But unlike reality television competitions, this is a game everyone can win.