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This Is the No. 1 Reason Millennials Struggle With Retirement Savings

By Maurie Backman - Oct 9, 2019 at 7:04AM

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Hint: It's not student debt.

Setting money aside for retirement is no easy feat, especially when near-term bills monopolize your limited income. Such is the plight for a large number of younger workers -- millennials whose earnings have yet to peak and who are grappling with various forms of debt, from student loans to credit card balances.

But surprisingly, younger workers don't cite debt as the primary reason they're behind on retirement savings. According to TD Ameritrade's 2019 Retirement Pulse Survey, 66% of millennials say they need to catch up on building their nest eggs. But the No. 1 reason they're behind is none other than high housing expenses.

If your housing costs are preventing you from building long-term savings, you should know that that's a dangerous path on which to continue. And the sooner you change course, the greater your chances of giving your nest egg a much-needed boost and salvaging your senior years.

Smiling man and woman standing in front of house


You can't afford to overspend on housing

Whether you rent your home or own it, your housing costs shouldn't exceed 30% of your take-home pay. And if you fall into the latter category, that 30% threshold should include your mortgage payments, property taxes, and homeowners insurance. If you're currently spending well above that level, it could easily explain why you're struggling to build retirement savings.

But here's the problem: If you don't build retirement savings, you're apt to suffer when your senior years roll around. That's because most companies today don't offer pensions, which means that without personal savings, your only means of paying the bills in retirement will be Social Security. And while those benefits are certainly helpful, they'll only replace about 40% of the average earner's former income. Most seniors, meanwhile, need a good 70% to 80% of their previous earnings to maintain a decent lifestyle, which means that counting on Social Security alone is a dangerous thing.

Furthermore, if your goal is to travel a lot in retirement or live in a city you've always dreamed of spending time in, then you may need more than 70% to 80% of your former income to make that a reality. And that's why you can't afford to continue putting off your retirement savings. If you do, you'll likely end up falling short in the future.

What's the solution? If you're a renter, it's fairly simple: Move to a cheaper apartment once your lease is up. Switch neighborhoods if that's what it takes, or find a roommate to bunk with to lower your housing costs and free up cash for your nest egg. If you're already a homeowner, things do get a little bit trickier, but as long as you're not underwater on your mortgage, you can sell your home and downsize to a smaller one or buy a similarly sized property in a more affordable neighborhood with lower taxes.

Is moving a major sacrifice? Yes. But if your housing costs are keeping you from building savings, it's a worthwhile one to make.

Imagine that by slashing your housing expenses, you manage to free up $500 a month to sock away for retirement. If you do so over 35 years and invest that money at an average annual 7% return (which is more than doable with a stock-centric portfolio), you'll wind up with $829,000. Free up $600 a month, and you'll be looking at $995,000, all other things being equal.

The younger you are when you start saving for retirement, the more opportunity you'll give your money to grow. If housing expenses are getting in the way of your nest egg, do something about them -- before you lose out on even more valuable time.

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