When you picture retirement, do you imagine relaxing on the beach with your toes in the sand while sipping a cold drink? Or do you see yourself continuing to work into your 70s because you're struggling to make ends meet?
While the first scenario is the one everyone prefers, many workers are at risk of facing scenario No. 2 as they near retirement age. Roughly 42% of Americans have less than $10,000 saved for retirement, according to a survey from GOBankingRates, and of those people, about 14% have nothing saved at all. Considering the fact that the average retirement costs over $800,000, there's a good chance many people will not be able to live the retirement they're hoping for -- or be able to retire at all.
But even if you're falling behind on saving, that doesn't mean all hope is lost. Your 40s are some of your prime earning years, meaning you have a good shot at making up for lost time and retiring rich -- if you're strategic about saving. To give yourself the best chance at retiring comfortably, there are a few things you can do.
1. Invest more aggressively (but don't try to beat the market)
Sometimes, investing seems counterintuitive. You want to ensure your retirement plan is stable and that you're not as likely to lose all your money in a market downturn, so many people assume they need to invest conservatively. But the truth is that, although conservative investments involve less risk, the rewards usually aren't good enough to save what you need for retirement.
For example, say you're currently 40 years old with $10,000 saved for retirement and you're contributing $150 per month to your retirement fund. You're worried about your financial future, so you're putting your money toward more conservative investments, such as bonds and money market funds. Although safer, these investments are only yielding a 2% annual return on your investment. After 25 years, then, you'll have just $75,000 saved for retirement.
If, however, you start investing more aggressively in stocks, you could be earning a higher rate of return. And if you're earning an annual return of, say, 7%, and all other factors are the same, you'd end up with around $172,000 after 25 years.
That being said, it's important to limit your risk. Investing in the stock market is playing the long game, and although some savvy investors are able to beat the market and make a lot of money in a short period of time, that's not a tactic that the average person should attempt. Instead, focus on investments such as low-cost index funds, which are less risky than investing in individual stocks but see higher gains than more conservative investments such as money market funds or CDs.
2. Figure out what you're paying in fees
Every type of retirement fund -- whether you have a 401(k), traditional IRA, Roth IRA, or other type of account -- comes with fees. (After all, the brokerages and account managers need to make money somehow.) The problem is that the majority of workers are clueless about how much they're actually paying. In fact, 73% of Americans don't know what they're paying in 401(k) fees, according to a survey from TD Ameritrade, and of those people, 37% mistakenly believe they're not paying fees at all.
A typical 25-year-old worker making about $30,000 a year and saving 5% of salary in a 401(k) can expect to pay more than $138,000 in 401(k) fees over the course of their careers if they pay 1% of total assets managed in annual fees, according to a study from the Center for American Progress. And although 1% may not seem like much, when you consider how much you're investing over a lifetime, even small differences in fees can add up dramatically. For example, according to the study, if the average person paid an annual fee of 1.3% (all other factors remaining the same), they could expect to pay more than $166,000 in fees over a lifetime.
In other words, fees can eat up a huge chunk of your hard-earned savings, so it's a good idea to figure out what you're paying and whether you could be paying less. The average 401(k) plan charges an annual fee of 1% of assets managed, according to the Center for American Progress, but retirement plans at small businesses with fewer employees tend to charge more -- around 1.32% per year, on average.
To figure out what you're paying, you have a couple of options. First, you could dig through your plan's prospectus, which is a legal document that lays out all the details about your plan. But because the prospectus is typically filled with difficult-to-understand financial jargon, it's often easier to talk to your employer's plan administrator. Then, once you know what you're paying, you can determine whether it would be smarter to move your money to a different plan with lower fees.
Keep in mind, though, that if your 401(k) offers employer matching contributions, it may be a good idea to stay put even if you're paying high fees. Matching contributions are a perk you don't get with other retirement accounts, and that extra money can make up for slightly higher fees.
3. Pay down debt
When you're in your 40s, you're likely reaching your peak earning years, which means it's a good opportunity to pay down any outstanding debts -- such as student loans, car payments, or a good chunk of your mortgage. If you have any high-interest debt (such as credit card debt), it's an especially good idea to pay that off.
For example, say you currently have $10,000 in credit card debt with an annual percentage rate (APR) of 18%. Let's also say that you're paying a minimum payment of $200 per month on your debt. In this case, it will take almost eight years to pay off that debt and you'll pay more than $8,600 in interest -- or a total of more than $18,600.
Meanwhile, if you're also contributing, say, $100 per month to your retirement fund, after that same eight-year span, you'll have around $12,000 saved, assuming you're earning a 7% annual rate of return on your investments. In other words, you'd have saved $12,000 but paid $18,600 to eliminate credit card debt.
If, however, you put a bit more cash toward your debt, you could boost your retirement savings over time. For instance, say that, instead of paying $200 per month toward your debt, you paid $250 per month. You'd pay off your debt in just over five years, paying about $5,400 in interest and $15,400 total. During that time, you'd also be contributing $50 per month to your retirement fund, and after five years at a 7% annual rate of return, you'd have about $3,600. Once you have your debt paid off, if you were to start contributing $300 per month to your retirement fund, after the remaining three years -- the time it would take to reach the age at which you paid off your debt in the first scenario -- you'd have about $16,000 total.
You can see that in both situations, you end up with your debt paid off. But by making bigger payments to pay down debt earlier, you ended up with $4,000 more in retirement savings -- even though you didn't pay a penny more in the total amount going to pay down your debt and investing toward retirement.
When you're behind on your savings, it can seem impossible to catch up if you're already in your 40s. But it's never too late to save more, and if you're smart about how you save, you'll have a good chance of spending your retirement sitting on the beach enjoying your golden years.