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Your Financial New Year's Resolution: Save for the Future

By Alice Gomstyn – Jan 14, 2016 at 11:09AM

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How to put money away for retirement and college.

This is the first in a four-part series on steps Americans can take in the new year to get their finances in shape.

When it comes to saving for the future, many Americans are falling short. More than 40% have no retirement savings, while more than 60% of parents haven't set aside money for their children's college tuition, according to a study by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

If you fall in either (or both) of these camps, the new year is a great time to change your ways. Here are some tips on saving for retirement and college.

Gone are the days when American workers could rely on employer-sponsored pensions to fund their golden years. Though some workers are still eligible for pension benefits, many must take a more active role in their retirement savings.

To understand how much money you'll need after retirement, it's helpful to be able to estimate roughly how long you'll live. Find out through the Social Security Administration's Life Expectancy Calculator.

Once you know approximately how many years to plan for, you can use FINRA's Retirement Calculator to estimate out how much you'll need to save each year until retirement.

When you have a rough sense of how much you need to save, it's time to start exploring retirement savings vehicles. Your best option is almost certainly a tax-advantaged retirement plan.

The most common employer-sponsored retirement plan is the 401(k), in which employees contribute money on a regular basis and invest those funds. Many employers also match an employee's contributions up to a certain percentage of his or her salary. Click here for more information about 401(k) plans, including a calculator to help you determine how much you can contribute per pay period. The maximum contribution in 2016 is $18,000. You can contribute an extra $6,000 if you are 50 years old or older.

If you work for yourself, you can still reap many of the benefits of a 401(k) plan through a solo 401(k).

Whether or not you participate in a 401(k) plan, you can also open and invest money through an individual retirement account or IRA, which also comes with tax advantages, depending on your income.

Here's a valuable IRA tip: Don't wait until the end of the year to fund a traditional or Roth IRA—you might not have enough money to make a maximum investment. Rather, start early and see if your IRA provider will allow you to make incremental payments.

College costs keep climbing every year. By 2030, the annual tuition at private colleges is projected to run as high as $130,000. Most college students receive some form of financial aid, but on average that aid doesn't cover more than 49% of tuition and fees, according to a study by the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

In other words, saving for college tuition, now more than ever, is a good idea. To determine how much you'll need to set aside each year to reach a certain savings goal, check out FINRA's College Savings Calculator.

Once you've figured out how much money to allocate to college savings, you'll want to choose a college savings plan. As with retirement plans, the most prudent choice for most of us will be a college savings tax-advantaged account -- more specifically, a 529 plan.

There are two types of 529 plans: a college savings plan and a prepaid tuition plan. At least one is offered by every state.

The 529 college savings plan is similar to retirement plans in that they allow individuals to invest money while reaping certain tax advantages. In 529 savings plans, earnings grow free of federal income taxes, while many states also offer state income tax benefits.

Prepaid 529 college plans allow families to pay tuition at certain colleges years before a student matriculates, allowing them to save money by paying today's lower tuition rates. Some states offer state income tax benefits related to the plans, but the availability of prepaid 529 plans may be limited depending on where you live.

A good place to start inquiring about 529 plans is your home state. The College Savings Plan Network site provides state-by-state contact information, so you can learn about, and sign up for, college savings plans in your state of residence.

Additional information on college savings, including alternatives to 529 plans, can be found on FINRA's Saving for College page.

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