There's a lot of information out there about the ideal way to save for retirement, and it can be overwhelming and downright stressful trying to absorb it all and make the best financial choices. In fact, roughly half of Americans report feeling anxious, insecure, or even scared about their finances, a survey from Northwestern Mutual found.
Fortunately, you don't have to be a money whiz to successfully prepare for retirement. As long as you know these three critical numbers, you'll be in good shape to live out your golden years comfortably.
1. Your retirement number
Your retirement number is the amount you should have saved by the time you leave your job. Yet surveys have found that the majority of workers have no clue what to aim for.
If you don't know how much you should be saving, you could be putting your entire retirement at risk. Even if you're saving what you can, without a goal in mind, you might reach retirement age with far less in savings than what you need. And if you run out of money a few years into retirement, you'll either have to go back to work or try to make do with your Social Security checks.
To figure out your retirement number, first think about how much you expect to spend each year in retirement. The oft-cited advice is to assume you'll be spending around 70% to 80% of your preretirement salary, but that's just a guideline. Your expenses may decrease in retirement, but they could also increase depending on the lifestyle you expect to live. Next, think about how many years you think you'll spend in retirement. While you can't predict your life expectancy exactly, the longer you live, the more you'll need to save -- so it's important to estimate this number the best you can. With those numbers in mind, run your information through a retirement calculator to get an idea of how much you should be saving.
2. Your withdrawal rate
Saving for retirement is only half the battle; the other challenge is figuring out how much you can withdraw from your savings each year once you retire. Because even if you work your whole life to save enough to reach your retirement goals, if you spend more than you should each year, you risk running out of money too soon.
There's no one withdrawal rate that will work for everyone. One option is to use the 4% rule, a guideline that states you can withdraw 4% of your total savings the first year of retirement then adjust your withdrawals each year after to account for inflation. If you expect your spending to remain relatively constant each year in retirement, the 4% rule might be a good solution. However, if you anticipate your spending levels will fluctuate year to year -- for example, if you plan on traveling extensively during your first few years of retirement then settling down and spending less as you age -- you might need a more dynamic withdrawal strategy that accounts for these changes.
Also, you might have to adjust your spending based on how your investments are performing. If the economy is in the midst of a recession and your savings have taken a beating, you might need to live a more frugal lifestyle until your retirement fund bounces back and you can afford to spend more frivolously. If you're unsure of how much you can safely withdraw from your retirement fund each year, it might be a good idea to talk to a financial advisor. He or she can help you create a withdrawal strategy tailored to your individual situation, ensuring your money lasts as long as possible.
3. The size of your Social Security checks
Your Social Security benefits can help you afford a more comfortable retirement, but you likely won't be able to survive on your monthly checks alone. Your benefits are only intended to replace around 40% of your preretirement income, so depending on how much you're spending each year in retirement, a good chunk of your income will need to come from your savings.
That said, knowing how much you can expect to receive from Social Security can make it easier to figure out how much you'll be spending from your retirement fund. This is where all the pieces of the puzzle come together. For example, say you expect to spend $50,000 per year in retirement, and you'll be receiving $20,000 per year from Social Security. That means $30,000 per year will have to come from your savings. Knowing this number can help you calculate your retirement number, and it can also give you a baseline when determining your withdrawal rate.
To estimate your Social Security benefit amount, create a mySocialSecurity account. Here you can see how big your monthly checks will be based on your real earnings. Keep in mind, though, that your basic benefit amount is the amount you'll receive if you claim at your full retirement age (FRA) -- which is age 66, 67, or somewhere in between, depending on the year you were born. If you start claiming benefits before your FRA, your checks will be reduced. But if you delay claiming until after your FRA, you'll receive bigger checks each month to compensate for the time you weren't receiving any benefits.
It's tough to plan for retirement, especially when there's so much information surrounding best practices and how to effectively prepare. But at its core, saving for retirement comes down to a few key components. When you know how much you need to save, how much you can withdraw from your savings each year, and how much you can depend on Social Security benefits, you'll ensure you're on the right track to creating a robust retirement fund that will last the rest of your life.