What's that old saying about the best-laid plans? Ah, yes: They oft go awry. For too many Americans, that idiom directly applies to their retirement savings plan.
Surveys repeatedly confirm that most Americans know they're supposed to save for retirement. But still, they don't do it. A 2019 Bankrate survey, for example, asked respondents to evaluate their progress on retirement savings -- and 52% admitted they were behind on building their nest egg. Another 20% said they weren't sure if their savings were on the right pace. Only 16% said they were on track, and 11% believed they were ahead of schedule.
The takeaway is this: If you've strayed from your retirement savings plan, you're not alone. Know that it is possible to recover and join the 16% of savers who are on pace to reach financial freedom. Here's your action plan to regain control of your retirement savings.
1. Identify what went wrong
First, figure out where your savings plan fell apart. Stay general in your thought process here, as it helps you decide what to do next. It's not useful to focus on a car accident that led to expensive repairs. It is useful to understand that you borrowed money from your 401(k) because you didn't have an emergency fund.
2. Set yourself up for success
Your next move is to better set yourself up for success. For a savings plan to be sustainable, it has to be both automatic and affordable. Specifically, this means you need a tax-advantaged retirement account, scheduled contributions, and a workable budget that supports monthly savings contributions.
Open a tax-advantaged retirement account
Participation in a 401(k) or IRA is critical to your savings plan. Other account types, like a regular savings account or a taxable brokerage account, are not good options over the long term. You won't earn enough in your savings account and realized earnings in your brokerage account will raise your tax bill. Investments in a 401(k) or IRA, on the other hand, grow tax-free. Plus, there are tax penalties for early withdrawals -- which should discourage you from tapping those funds.
If you don't have access to a 401(k) at work, open up an IRA today. IRAs come in different forms, including the traditional IRA and Roth IRA. Contributions to a traditional IRA may earn you a tax deduction, which is a nice perk. A Roth IRA doesn't offer the tax deduction on contributions, but qualified withdrawals in retirement are tax-free.
There are also SIMPLE IRAs and SEP IRAs, and these are designed for small companies and the self-employed. Like with a traditional IRA, you contribute to SEP IRAs and SIMPLE IRAs with tax-free money.
Automate your contributions
Automatic contributions are easy to implement, particularly if your employer offers a 401(k). You can usually log into your account online to set up those contributions. The money will be deducted, pre-tax, from your paycheck. Always contribute at least enough to max out any company-match contributions. The most you can contribute to your 401(k) in 2020 is $19,500, which is $750 per paycheck if you get paid every two weeks.
Many IRA accounts also allow for automatic contributions. Make use of this feature, and set up the contributions to follow your pay schedule. This will mimic the seamless 401(k) structure where the money never hits your checking account -- tempting you to spend it.
IRA contribution limits for 2020 vary. If you are under age 50, you can deposit up to $6,000 in your traditional or Roth IRA -- which translates to about $230 per paycheck if you get paid every two weeks. If you're 50 or older, you can contribute up to $7,000 annually. Contribution rules for SEP IRAs and SIMPLE IRAs are more complex, but the limits are higher -- up to $57,000 for the SEP IRA and up to $13,500 for a SIMPLE IRA.
For both 401(k)s and IRAs, remember to put your money to work immediately by selecting your investment choices right away.
Budget for savings
A common roadblock for retirement savers is not having a budget. If you don't save because you can't afford it, that's a telltale sign you need a budget.
Take a deep dive into your living expenses with two goals in mind. First, you're on the hunt for savings opportunities. Scouring your credit card statement often reveals subscriptions you don't use and indulgences you don't need. Second, identify what your essential living expenses are. From there, you can define a monthly savings contribution that works for you.
Initially, you might split your savings between your emergency fund and your retirement account. Once you have built up three to six months of living expenses in your emergency fund, you can focus on retirement savings.
3. Get back on board
You've set up your retirement account with automatic contributions and developed a workable budget. Now -- like, right now -- jump back on board with your best-laid plans. Financially speaking, it's tough to make up for lost time and earnings, so get moving now and save as much as you possibly can.