Becoming a millionaire is totally possible. Yes, even if you aren't making six figures a year. The bad news is, it might not happen until you hit retirement, and even then, it'll only happen if you plan diligently throughout your working life. But don't let that dampen your spirits.
The road to becoming a retirement millionaire might not be easy, but it is pretty straightforward. As long as you follow the seven steps listed below, you should get there, and you could end up with a lot more than $1 million.
1. Set your goal
A $1 million retirement nest egg might sound like a large sum, but with people living longer and things always getting more expensive, it might not go as far as you'd hoped. Rather than just settling for $1 million because it sounds like a good number, create a retirement plan that will help you to save enough to live comfortably for the rest of your life.
To start, subtract your preferred retirement age from your estimated life expectancy to get a rough retirement length. Then, multiply your estimated annual expenses by the number of years of your retirement, adding 3% annually for inflation. You can do this yourself in a spreadsheet, or use a retirement calculator. A calculator might be easier because it can also help you estimate how much your investments will grow over time. Use a 5% or 6% annual rate of return, even though your investments may grow more quickly than this.
Your calculator should tell you approximately how much you must save per month and overall to reach your goal. Subtract any money you already have saved for retirement as well as money you expect from other sources, such as a pension, Social Security, or a 401(k) match, to estimate how much you still need to save. You can estimate your Social Security benefit by creating a my Social Security account.
2. Trim your budget
Now you must find a way to meet your savings goal each month. If you don't have enough spare cash on hand, you'll have to cut back your discretionary spending. You could also look for ways to reduce some of your basic living expenses, such as moving to a more affordable home or apartment. Canceling subscriptions you no longer use and cooking more at home instead of dining out can also help. Put all the extra cash you free up toward your retirement savings.
3. Pay down debt
Work at paying down any high-interest debt you have to free up even more cash for retirement. You can do this before you begin saving for retirement or in conjunction with your retirement savings. Always make the minimum payment on your debts so you don't get hit with late fees. Then, put any extra cash you have toward your debt with the highest interest rate first. When that's paid off, move onto the debt with the next-highest interest rate, and so on, until you're debt free. Then, put all of that extra cash right into your retirement account.
If you have credit card debt, you could try using a balance transfer card to temporarily halt the growth of your balance, too. A personal loan is another option if you'd prefer a predictable monthly payment.
4. Create an emergency fund
An emergency fund may not seem relevant to your retirement savings at first glance, but it is. If you lose your job, have a medical emergency, or need to file an insurance claim and you don't have an emergency fund, where are you going to turn? You could take on debt, or you could tap your retirement savings, though doing so will cost you a 10% early withdrawal penalty if you're under 59 1/2 in addition to income tax if the money comes from a tax-deferred account. In either case, you're hurting the growth of your retirement savings.
Your emergency fund can help you avoid these setbacks. It should contain three to six months of living expenses, or the amount of your health insurance deductible, whichever is greater. You should build one of these before or in conjunction with saving for retirement so that you have a safety net to fall back on should an emergency arise.
5. Boost your income
Anything you can do to raise your income, such as negotiating a raise or switching employers, will free up more cash that you can put toward retirement. You can also try pursuing advanced certifications or starting a side job to get more money coming in. If you start your own business, though, you must remember to set aside money for taxes every month and pay estimated taxes quarterly so you don't run into problems with the IRS.
6. Take advantage of your 401(k) match
The only good reason to skip a 401(k) match is if you need every cent you have to cover your basic expenses. Your 401(k) match is free money that your employer gives you for your retirement, and if you pass on it, there's no getting it back.
Talk to your plan administrator or your company's HR department if you're unsure whether your company offers a 401(k) match or how it works. Also ask about the vesting schedule. This is what determines when your employer-matched funds are yours to keep if you leave the company. Leaving before you're fully vested will cost you some or all of your employer match.
7. Stash as much as you can in your retirement accounts
Your 401(k) is a good place to start if your company offers one, or you can open an IRA on your own if it doesn't. You're allowed to put up to $19,500 in a 401(k) in 2020, or $26,000 if you're 50 or older. You can also stash an additional $6,000 in an IRA -- or $7,000 if you're 50 or older.
You can store your retirement savings in tax-deferred or Roth accounts. Tax-deferred accounts make the most sense if you think you're in a higher tax bracket today than you'll be in once you retire. Your contributions reduce your taxable income this year, but then you'll owe taxes on your distributions in retirement. Roth accounts work in the opposite way. You pay taxes on your contributions now, but then you don't owe taxes on your distributions in retirement. These accounts make the most sense if you believe you're in the same or a lower tax bracket now than you'll be in once you retire. By paying taxes now instead of later, you'll lose a smaller percentage of your income to the government.
Like I said, becoming a retirement millionaire isn't always the easiest thing to do. It requires careful planning and sometimes financial sacrifices on your part. You just have to keep reminding yourself how important saving for retirement is. Stick with it, and you'll get there eventually.