When you're young and just starting your career, retirement is probably the last thing on your mind. As you get older, you may start thinking about planning for retirement, but when you're juggling kids, a mortgage, car payments, and a thousand other expenses, it's easy to put off saving for the future for another day. Then before you know it, you're just a few years shy of retirement with next to nothing in the bank.
Regardless of which stage you're at in life, you should be saving for retirement. You may not have a lot of money to spare, but that's no excuse to not save anything. If you wait until your financial situation improves to start saving, it may be too late -- and you may end up among the 74% of people who expect to work past retirement age, according to a Gallup poll.
You don't have to be rich to save for retirement. In fact, there are several easy things you can do right now to boost your retirement savings.
1. Contribute enough to earn the full employer 401(k) match
If your employer offers matching 401(k) contributions, take full advantage of them -- it's essentially free money. And the best part about matching contributions is that you don't need to save much more on your end to see a major difference in your total savings.
For instance, say your employer will match 100% of your contributions up to 3% of your salary. If you're earning, say, $40,000 per year, that's $1,200 per year from your employer, or $100 per month. Right now, say you're saving $50 per month and earning an additional $50 from your employer. If you're earning a 7% annual return on your investments, after 30 years you'd have around $113,000 stashed away.
However, if you were to boost your contributions to $100 per month to earn the full $100 per month match, all other factors remaining the same, you'd have around $227,000 saved after 30 years. In other words, you could double your retirement savings by boosting your monthly 401(k) contributions by just $50. Even if you don't have much money to spare, finding enough room in your budget to earn that full employer match will pay off big-time down the road.
2. Have a retirement number in mind (and a plan to reach it)
When you're running a marathon, you need a finish line. Otherwise, you have nothing to work toward, and you won't know how to pace yourself throughout the race. When you're preparing for retirement, your retirement number -- or the amount you need to have saved by the time you leave your job -- is your finish line. Without a goal in mind, you're just blindly throwing money in your retirement fund and hoping it will be enough.
There are several ways to figure out your retirement number, but the easiest way is to plug your information into a retirement calculator to get a ballpark estimate. Keep in mind, though, that every calculator is slightly different, so it may be a good idea to run your numbers through several calculators to see how the answers compare.
Also, it's important to know whether the calculator you used factored in Social Security benefits. While you shouldn't rely on Social Security benefits just to make ends meet in retirement, they can help cushion your own savings -- so it's OK to factor them into the total amount you'll need by retirement age so that you don't need to save so much on your own.
Once you know how much you'll need to save, you can break it down into more manageable monthly chunks. For example, say you want to retire at age 67 and you'll need to have $700,000 saved by then. If you're 30 years old and are earning a 7% annual return on your investments, that means you'll need to save around $375 per month to reach that goal. (To test your own numbers, use a compound interest calculator to plug and play to see how much you'd need to save each month.)
3. Maintain a budget -- and constantly look for areas to save more
If you've played around with various calculators and know how much you should be saving each month, you're probably either feeling fired up and ready to save or overwhelmed and disheartened at how much money it takes to prepare for retirement. If it's the latter, don't get too discouraged; it's not as hard to boost your savings as you may think.
The first step to saving more is to create a thorough budget so you can keep track of where all your money is going. Be sure to include everything here, from fixed monthly costs like rent and utilities to variable expenses such as groceries and gas. Don't forget about infrequent expenses, too, like yearly membership fees or annual doctor visits.
Next, find areas to make cuts. For example, maybe you can cut down your grocery costs by 10% each month by using coupons and searching for deals. Or perhaps you can carpool to work a couple of times a week to lower your gas costs. Sometimes you don't actually realize how much you spend in certain categories until you see all your expenses written down, which can give you the motivation you need to cut back. And scrounging up even a couple of hundred extra dollars per month to put toward your retirement fund can make a big difference.
No matter how much (or little) you have in your bank account, it is possible to save for retirement. The key is to be conscious of every dollar you spend, and don't overlook what a big difference small, consistent retirement contributions can make.