Most workers plan to use Social Security to help them cover their retirement expenses, but many don't realize the program was only intended to cover about 40% of the average worker's preretirement income. That leaves a lot for people to self-fund.
It can be a daunting task, but the right savings strategy can make it a lot easier. Here's a closer look at how to prepare for what Social Security won't cover.
How much can you expect from Social Security?
While 40% might be the average amount of income Social Security replaces, it could cover more or less for you. The first step in figuring out how much you need to save on your own is to know approximately how much you'll get from the program.
The easiest way to do this is to create a my Social Security account and use its benefit calculator to estimate the size of your monthly checks at your chosen starting age. This calculator uses actual data from the IRS on how much you've paid in Social Security taxes over the years, so it should give you a good idea of what to expect. If you're married and your spouse also plans to claim benefits, repeat this process for them.
Then, compare your estimated annual Social Security benefit to your estimated annual retirement expenses. For example, if you qualify for the average monthly Social Security benefit of $1,560, you'd have an annual benefit of $18,720. If you believe you'll spend about $50,000 per year in retirement, your Social Security checks would cover about 37% of your annual expenses.
That would leave you with about $31,280 you had to cover every year on your own, not counting inflation. If you planned to retire before starting Social Security, you'd also have to save enough to fund all of your expenses during those years on your own.
Where should you stash your savings?
Once you know approximately how much you need to save for retirement on your own, you need to decide where you're going to stash your savings for maximum benefit.
401(k): If you qualify for a 401(k) with a company match, this is the best place to begin. Put your money here first, and try your best to claim the full match every year. This will relieve some of the savings burden on you. Once you've gotten your match, you can continue to stash your savings here, or you can try another account.
IRA: An IRA is a solid choice if you want more investment options. You can also decide when you want to pay taxes on your funds. Paying taxes upfront with a Roth IRA is a popular choice for those who believe they'll be in the same or a lower tax bracket when they retire than they're in right now. This will help them save money compared to paying taxes on their withdrawals in retirement with a traditional IRA.
HSA: You could also try a health savings account (HSA) if you have a health insurance plan with a deductible of $1,400 or more for an individual or $2,800 or more for a family. This isn't technically a retirement account, but your contributions to it give you a tax break, just like contributions to most retirement accounts. Even better: You can withdraw the money for medical expenses tax-free at any age. However, you should try to avoid this if you're using the account for retirement savings.
You may need more than one retirement account, depending on how much you plan to contribute each year. IRAs only allow you to contribute $6,000 per year or $7,000 if you're 50 or older. HSA limits are even lower. You may contribute up to $3,600 if you have an individual health insurance plan or $7,200 if you have a family plan in 2021. These limits will rise to $3,650 and $7,300, respectively, for 2022.
A 401(k) enables you to contribute up to $19,500 or $26,000 if you're 50 or older in 2021, so one of these accounts is a good choice for those hoping to set aside substantial sums. These limits will rise to $20,500 and $27,000 for 2022.
How do you keep yourself on track?
Ideally, you can save enough in your retirement accounts every month to make steady progress toward your goals. If you're unsure how much you need to save monthly, you can use a retirement calculator to help you.
But it isn't always possible to save as much as you want for retirement. You should still set aside as much as you're able to, but you can't just leave it at that. If you know you're falling short, you have to alter your retirement plan.
You may have to delay retirement to give yourself more time to save. Or you might have to save even more money going forward if you have a few months where you're not able to save as much as you'd like. The important thing is to make these decisions right away so you know how to keep yourself on track.
Check in with yourself at least once per year and whenever you experience a major financial change. You don't have to spend a lot of time on it, but make these regular check-ins a habit so you always know what you need to do to reach the retirement you envision.