Saving for retirement has long been a source of concern for many Americans. It's a difficult task, especially with costs rising, pensions fast becoming a thing of the past, and the future of Social Security looking uncertain. Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic slowing our economy to a crawl, some people are writing off retirement as a pipe dream.
Forty percent of Americans are now concerned they won't be able to retire at all, according to a SimplyWise survey. But you don't have to rule it out yet. If you plan carefully, save as much as you can, and check in with yourself regularly, you can probably still retire at some point. Here are a few things you should do to make sure that happens.
Estimate how much you'll spend
Spending is at the heart of every retirement plan. If you don't know roughly how much you're going to spend monthly or annually in retirement, you'll never know how much you need to save. But estimating your spending is complicated, because you can't predict every cost that will come up or how many years of savings you'll need.
You can use your current spending as a baseline, but you must adjust it to reflect the changes you expect in retirement. For example, you might spend less on child care and groceries once you've retired and your children have moved out, but you might spend more on hobbies and healthcare. It doesn't hurt to build a cushion into your budget if you're worried about not having enough.
Plan to live at least into your 90s unless you have a serious health condition that may shorten your life. The Social Security Administration estimates that one in three 65-year-olds retiring today will live past 90, and one in seven will live past 95, so your retirement could last 30 years or more if you retire in your 60s.
Multiply your estimated annual expenses by the number of years of your planned retirement, adding 3% annually for inflation. This should tell you the rough total cost of your retirement. It might seem like an overwhelming number at first, but you don't have to set aside all of those funds out of your own paycheck.
How to save enough for retirement
Much of your retirement savings will come from investment earnings. If you've invested your savings wisely, they'll grow over time. It's possible to earn a 7% or 8% annual rate of return, but you should plan for a 5% or 6% annual rate of return in your retirement plan, just so you don't end up with too little if your investments don't grow as quickly as anticipated.
The money you invest when you're younger ends up worth far more in the end because it has more time to grow before you have to withdraw it. If you invested $1,000, it would only be worth $1,060 after one year with a 6% annual rate of return, but after 10 years, it'll be worth nearly $1,800, and after 30 years, it'll be worth over $5,700.
Contributing as much as you can to your retirement plan while you're young will reduce how much you need to save per month to reach your goal because you'll get more help from your investment earnings, but this isn't always the easiest thing to do.
If you're just a little short of the money you need to save every month, you might be able to make ends meet by cutting back your spending either now or in retirement. Eliminate some of the extras, such as streaming services or unused subscriptions, from your budget, and put that money toward retirement. If you can't save anywhere close to enough, you might have to rethink your retirement plan. Delaying retirement by a few years can make a big difference because it gives you more time to save while also reducing the savings you need.
If your company offers a 401(k) match, you can count on that to help you out. But check with your employer to make sure it's still an option. Some companies are getting rid of employer matching, at least temporarily, because of the pandemic. If you qualify for a match, you should ask about how the matching system works and about the company's vesting schedule. This determines when you get to keep your employer-matched funds if you leave the company. Leaving before you're fully vested will force you to forfeit some or all of your match.
A word on Social Security
Many workers -- including 56% of those SimplyWise surveyed -- are concerned about Social Security running out of money and not being there for them in retirement. This is a common misconception. Most workers should still be able to count on Social Security to provide some support in retirement.
It's true that the latest Social Security Trustees' Report projects the Social Security trust funds will be depleted by 2034, and some studies are suggesting this date could get moved up in light of the pandemic, but the Trustees' Report predicted that even if the government made no changes to Social Security, it could still pay out 76% of benefits until 2090. So, even if nothing changed, you'd likely get some money from Social Security, though it may not go as far as it does today.
The pandemic could potentially drain Social Security's reserves a little more quickly because with people off of work, they're not able to pay into the program. Some seniors may also be tempted to start benefits sooner than they otherwise would have to help them cover expenses. But it's also possible the government will make changes to Social Security in the coming decades to help keep it sustainable for generations to come.
This makes it difficult to know what you can expect from Social Security, but if you've worked at least 10 years, or you're a qualifying relative of someone who did, you will get some money out of the program. You can create a my Social Security account to estimate how much you'll get per month based on your work history and your starting age.
Go over your retirement cost estimates and review your Social Security benefit information and investment growth at least once per year. If you aren't on track, make some adjustments. Small, annual changes are much easier to keep up with than large changes on the eve of retirement, and regular check-ins will help you feel more confident that you're doing all you can to save for retirement.