At this point, it's pretty clear that the COVID-19 crisis isn't about to just blow over. Even if treatments are rolled out quickly that prove to be effective and a vaccine is mass-produced in record time, the economic impact of COVID-19 is likely to last a long time.
To be clear, millions of Americans have already seen their finances go belly up during the pandemic. Many who are unemployed have lost a large chunk of their income, while small business owners risk the possibility of never opening their doors again.
It's not surprising, then, to learn that 55% of Americans are rethinking their retirement savings plans, according to new data from MassMutual. And of those who plan to make changes, 54% say they'll be contributing less money to their 401(k)s or IRAs, while 22% plan to start contributing more.
If you've been impacted financially by COVID-19 or fear you will be, you may be wondering whether it pays to alter your retirement savings plans. The answer? It depends.
When to cut back on retirement plan contributions
Funding a retirement plan is almost always a smart idea. But if you need money right now to pay for near-term expenses, then it absolutely makes sense to put less into a 401(k) or IRA and allocate more of your limited cash to your immediate needs, like food, medication, and housing.
Along these lines, if you don't have a healthy emergency fund, then building one should take priority over saving for retirement. Under normal circumstances, you should aim for three to six months' worth of living expenses in the bank. But these aren't normal circumstances, and given the many months of economic uncertainty that could lie ahead, you'd be wise to aim for the higher end of that range -- even if you need to scale back on retirement plan contributions to pull that off.
When to increase your retirement plan contributions
A down market gives you an opportunity to load up on quality investments in your 401(k) or IRA on the relative cheap. As such, if you're in a strong enough financial position, right now's a good time to ramp up your retirement plan contributions. But before you do, assess your income and savings.
If you don't anticipate a drop in earnings (say, your job is extremely conducive to being done remotely and you're in an industry that isn't expected to decline due to the crisis), and you have a healthy emergency fund, then by all means put as much money as you can into your 401(k) or IRA.
If you stick with a traditional 401(k) or IRA, you'll also reap added tax savings by boosting your contribution rate. And in the case of a 401(k), contributing more money could mean snagging a larger employer match.
What's the right move for you?
Many Americans, unfortunately, are not in a position to fund their retirement plans at all right now. If that's the category you fall into, don't feel guilty about it. Rather, focus on your near-term needs and explore your options for financial relief, like putting your mortgage into forbearance or your rent payments on hold.
On the other hand, Americans who haven't had their paychecks cut have a real opportunity to boost their savings. If you're still earning your regular salary but are stuck at home during the crisis, the money you're not spending to eat out or fuel your vehicle can instead be used to boost your long-term savings so you're in a better place financially once retirement rolls around. And that's an opportunity you'd certainly be wise to capitalize on.