When it comes to saving for retirement, a 401(k) is one of the most powerful tools out there. Those matching contributions from your employer can double your savings, helping you save more with no added effort.
However, not everyone has access to a 401(k). In fact, only 59% of the American workforce has access to a defined contribution plan, according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Fortunately, all is not lost if you don't have a 401(k). Even without the luxury of an employer match, you can rack up some serious savings -- even $1 million or more -- by the time you retire. Strategy is the key, and there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure your money works for you.
1. Make the most of tax-advantaged accounts
The 401(k) isn't the only retirement plan in town, so if your employer doesn't offer one, don't fret.
One of the most popular alternatives is a traditional IRA. Like a 401(k), a traditional IRA offers a few tax breaks. Your contributions may be tax-deductible (depending on your income and whether you participate in a workplace retirement account), your money grows tax-free until you withdraw it (at which time it will be subject to income taxes), and you may also be eligible for a tax credit of up to 50% of the amount you contribute to your IRA per year up to $2,000 (or $4,000 if you're married filing jointly).
The biggest difference between a 401(k) and traditional IRA (besides the lack of employer matching contributions) is that you can't contribute as much to an IRA. While 401(k)s have an annual contribution limit of $18,500 for 2018, IRAs are limited to $5,500 per year.
That doesn't mean you can't save up six or seven figures through an IRA, though. For example, if you contribute the maximum $5,500 per year for 40 years, assuming a 7% annual rate of return on your investments, you'll end up with around $1,175,000.
A health savings account (HSA) is another tax-advantaged option that you can use alongside a traditional retirement account. You're eligible for an HSA if you're enrolled in a high-deductible health plan. HSA contributions are made with pre-tax dollars, and they can also be withdrawn tax-free to cover qualified medical expenses. If you use these funds for non-medical reasons, you'll be subject to a 20% penalty on the amount you withdraw if you're under age 65. But once you turn 65, you'll pay only income taxes on any withdrawals, regardless of what you use them for, so your HSA can double as an additional retirement fund.
Similar to 401(k)s and IRAs, there are contribution limits to HSAs. For 2018, individuals can contribute up to $3,450 per year, while families have an annual limit of $6,900.
2. Start saving early
Once you set up a retirement account, it's crucial to start saving as early as possible; delaying by even a few years can have a significant impact on your retirement savings. Compound interest allows your savings to grow at an exponential rate, so they will grow by a greater amount with each passing year.
That also means that the longer you wait to start saving, the more you'll need to contribute each month to catch up. For example, if you have a goal of saving $1 million by the time you turn 65, here's how much you'd have to contribute each month starting at age 20, 30, and 40 (assuming you're starting with no savings and earning a 7% annual rate of return on your investments):
|Age||Monthly Contributions||Total Savings at Age 65|
In other words, if you wait until 40 to begin saving, you'll need to contribute more than four times what you'd have to save had you started at 20.
3. Don't be too conservative
Saving $1 million is a lofty goal, and it's more challenging if you don't have the benefit of employer matching contributions through a 401(k). That's why, if you're serious about jump-starting your savings, you can't afford to be too conservative with your investments.
While stocks are inherently riskier than, say, bonds or money market funds, you can earn far more with these types of investments. Bonds, on average, have historically yielded around 5% per year, compared to stocks, which have averaged annual returns of around 10% over the past 90 years. While that may not seem like a major difference, it does add up quickly.
For example, let's say you currently have $10,000 saved and are contributing $200 per month to your retirement fund. Here's where you'd end up after 20, 30, and 40 years if you're earning a 5% annual return versus a 9% annual return:
|Years||Savings With a 5% Return||Savings With a 9% Return|
Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean that you should go all in on the riskiest investments you can find. You should still try to balance your portfolio with a mix of stocks, bonds, and other investments to limit your risk while maximizing your reward. Just keep in mind that the safer you are, the harder it will be to reach the $1 million mark.
4. Use catch-up contributions
One of the perks of getting older is the ability to contribute more to your retirement accounts. Those older than 50 can contribute an additional $6,000 to their 401(k) and another $1,000 to their IRA per year.
That extra $1,000 per year may seem like it won't make much difference, but with the power of compound interest, it can add up quickly. And when you don't have a 401(k) and matching contributions, every dollar counts.
For example, let's say you're 50 years old with $400,000 saved in a traditional IRA. Assuming an annual 7% rate of return on your investments, here's what your savings would look like if you're saving $5,500 per year versus the maximum $6,500 per year:
|Age||Contributing $5,500/Year||Contributing $6,500/Year|
What if you can't contribute $6,500 per year, though? Even if you can't take advantage of the full catch-up contributions, any additional contributions will make a difference. For instance, if you can contribute $5,750 versus $5,500 per year, that extra $250 per year can amount to an extra $10,967 over 20 years (assuming you're starting with $400,000 and earning a 7% annual return).
Saving $1 million is never easy, even with a 401(k) and matching contributions from your employer. Reaching that goal without a 401(k) is even more difficult, and it's not something everyone will be able to achieve. But it is possible -- you just need to start early, take advantage of every resource you have, and keep your eyes on the prize.