Will you be spending your retirement ticking items off your bucket list, or will you be living in a shack and eating Ramen noodles? The answer depends on how good you are at coming up with an adequate amount of retirement income. Americans aren't very good at saving, which is probably why 22% of us say our top financial regret is not saving for retirement earlier. But if you adopt these tips, you can maximize the profits on whatever retirement savings you do have.
Use retirement savings accounts
Could you up a sum of money so large that you'd be able to live on it indefinitely after you retire? Probably not, but there's a hack you can use to make the money you save grow to a balance far higher than your total contributions. The secret is using a tax-advantaged retirement account such as a 401(k) or IRA and investing the money in the account in stocks and bonds.
Using a regular bank savings account to hold your retirement money is like running a marathon with a 50-pound weight on your back. 401(k)s and IRAs allow your money to grow tax-free, which means that you can keep your gains instead of handing a percentage over to the government. Plus, these accounts give you a tax break on either your contributions (for traditional 401(k)s and IRAs) or withdrawals (for Roth accounts).
The other problem with bank savings accounts is that your returns will be pitifully low. IRAs and 401(k)s allow you to invest your retirement savings, which gives you access to far higher average annual returns. As of this writing, the highest interest rate you can get on a savings account is 1.5%. Compare that to the long-term average annual return on stocks, which hovers around 10%. Even bonds do far better than savings accounts, with average annual returns around 5% to 6%.
Grab the company match
Many employers who offer a 401(k) account also provide what's called a company match. That means that if you contribute to your 401(k), your employer will also put some money in the account. For example, your employer might match up to 5%, meaning that if you contribute at least 5% of your paycheck to your 401(k), your employer will throw in an extra contribution equal to 5% of your paycheck.
Failing to contribute enough to max out the company match is throwing away free money. Company matches are typically set at well below the amount you'd want to contribute anyway, so missing out on the company match also means that you're not saving nearly enough for retirement. Most workers should be saving at least 10% of their paycheck – 15% is better – and there are few companies generous enough to have company matches higher than that.
Buy income investments
Certain investments offer a special bonus to their purchasers: not only can the investment itself increase in value, but the company or agency behind that investment will actually pay you money just for owning it. With stocks, these special payments are called dividends; for bonds, they're called interest.
When you buy a bond, the bond provider will tell you how much interest you'll be receiving, typically as a percentage of the bond's value. For example, if you buy a $1,000 bond and it pays 1% interest, you'll get $10 per year in interest. The issuer will continue to pay you that interest year in and year out until the bond matures or you no longer own it. Bond returns are pretty dismal right now, but over the long haul, they average around 5% to 6% per year.
Stock dividends are a bit dicier. When you buy a bond, the bond issuer commits to paying you the promised interest; when you buy a stock, it's up to the company whether or not to issue dividends. However, many companies make a point of not only issuing dividends every quarter but also steadily increasing the dividend amount. If you find a stock that's consistently paid a dividend every quarter for several decades, you can feel pretty safe about it continuing to pay dividends in the future.
While you're young and decades from retirement, you'll want to emphasize stocks over bonds for their much higher average returns. As you approach retirement, gradually shift your holdings so that you've got more bonds and fewer stocks, since bonds are a lot more stable. An easy way to decide how to split your retirement investments is to subtract your age from 110 and put that percentage of your holdings in stocks, with the remainder in bonds.
Stick to low-fee options
Investing these days is not only easy, it's quite cheap as well. Discount and deep-discount brokers will let you trade at extraordinarily low commissions; some will even give you trades for free if you meet certain requirements (for example, if you're buying and selling the broker's own funds). These brokers will also often set up and maintain an IRA for you at no charge.
Mutual funds and ETFs have also gotten a lot cheaper in the past few decades. In particular, passively managed funds such as index funds have extremely low expenses. These funds do a lot less trading than actively managed funds do, meaning that their trading expenses (i.e. commissions) are far lower. And index funds, which simply hold the investments listed on a particular index, can save money by not needing to hire a stock-picker (or bond-picker, for bond funds).
The most important step
If you want a generous retirement income, you've got to buckle down and save a decent percentage of your salary. If your contribution rate is less than 10% to 15% of your income, you're unlikely to have enough money to fund your retirement – even if you take advantage of every one of these suggestions. So sit down today and review your retirement contribution plan, and if you're not contributing enough to hit your goals, now's the time to fix things. No matter how old you are, it's never too late to save your retirement.
The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.