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3 Ways to Get Your Retirement Savings Back on Track Before It's Too Late

By Ryan Downie - Feb 13, 2021 at 10:20AM

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Most Americans aren't saving enough for retirement, so consider these three tips on building wealth for comfortable golden years.

You're going to need savings in retirement to maintain your lifestyle. The average couple receives around $35,000 annually from Social Security, so most people require income from elsewhere to cover their basic needs, healthcare, and fun. You can generally withdraw 3% to 4% of a retirement account each year without running the risk of depleting it too early, so you might require a fairly large number to supplement Social Security. However, many people have little or no retirement savings, even into their 40s and 50s.

Consider these three strategies to set effective goals and maximize your retirement savings plan.

Increased savings rate

This might sound simplistic, but the best way to increase the amount of assets you'll accumulate in retirement is to save the right portion of your income along the way. Saving 15% to 20% of income throughout your working life should be enough to comfortably maintain your lifestyle in your retirement years. That's hard to do even when things are going well -- the savings rate for Americans has been between 5% to 10% in recent decades. When life gets in the way with unexpected expenses or losses of income, it's even tougher to keep building retirement assets.

Woman putting coins in a jar labeled Savings

Image source: Getty Images.

Luckily, there are a few strategies that can improve your savings rate. Committing to a realistic, attainable budget and tracking monthly expenses is a great way to ensure that you reserve a certain proportion of income for retirement. There are several great apps for tracking and visualizing expenses. Many people also find it helpful to dedicate a bank account to wealth creation, separating those funds from dollars in checking accounts that are utilized for regular expenses. If you can automatically deposit a fraction of income in a wealth creation account, that's even better.

Finally, many people's savings are hampered by higher monthly expenses from things like unnecessarily high debt. If you are paying high interest rates, you should consider opportunities to refinance or restructure debt. If you have an older mortgage, today's low-rate environment might allow you to reduce monthly payments without incurring any additional debt. If you're carrying high-interest credit card debt or personal loans, you might be able to eliminate that debt by accessing the equity in your home. Reducing interest payments can free up hundreds of dollars each month that can be redirected to savings and retirement investments.

Retirement account catch-up contributions

If you're getting closer to retirement and hoping to make up for lost time, you can take advantage of catch-up contribution provisions for retirement accounts. People with 401(k), 403(b), or 457 plans who are over 50 years old can contribute an additional $6,500 annually. That's $52,000 a year for a household with two income earners maxing out those limits. 

Traditional IRA and Roth IRA accounts have a similar provision that raises the limit from $6,000 to $7,000 annually. However, IRA contributions are subject to income limitations. Roth eligibility is phased out for individual filers exceeding $124,000 of adjusted gross income and $198,000 for married households filing jointly. Technically, there are no income limits for traditional IRA contributions, but high income can eliminate the tax deduction, which is the primary benefit delivered by those accounts.

Investing for responsible growth

If you're able to save the right amount, it's also crucial that you invest those accumulated assets to balance growth and risk. Capital sitting in the bank or misallocated to securities isn't doing enough work for you.

Younger people with time to ride out temporary market downturns should focus on growth. This doesn't mean taking on reckless amounts of risk and making huge bets on individual companies, but you may want to consider building a portfolio of stocks and ETFs that are relatively volatile but likely to outpace the market over the long term. Stocks capitalizing on disruptive tech and global megatrends, such as the expansion of the middle class in emerging markets, are good places to find this upside. If you aren't intending to sell out of your retirement investments any time soon, then volatility can actually work in your favor. You can avoid selling in bear markets and strategically identify times to move into lower volatility stocks in the future.

If you're a bit closer to retirement, then seeking balance is much more important. You may not have enough time to recover from a market crash, and you never want to be in a position where you're forced to make withdrawals during a bear market to meet your cash needs. In your 50s, it's smart to start allocating more to bonds and defensive, dividend-paying stocks. You can't move entirely away from growth, and at least half of your portfolio should be spread among stocks in your 50s. Your approach just needs to limit some of the downside risk.

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