While Social Security may not be going away anytime soon, I've known for a long time that relying heavily on those benefits for retirement income isn't a great idea. Plus, with the potential for benefit cuts in the near future, I'm not risking a scenario where I'm short on cash as a senior. It's for this reason I've been making an effort to sock away as much money as I can in a series of retirement plans. Here are three strategies that have worked well for me so far.
1. Starting at a young age
I wrapped up college in my early 20s and got my first full-time job within a few months of graduation. Back then, retirement wasn't on my mind at all. Rather, I was focused on shaking my student debt and saving some money for emergencies and vacations. Furthermore, my employer at the time didn't offer a 401(k) plan, so I wasn't particularly motivated to save for the future.
But early on in my career, I read an article about the importance of retirement savings, and so I decided to head to a bank and open an IRA. I was around 22 or 23 at the time. Since I earned a good salary, I was able to max out that account, and it was one of the best decisions I've ever made. Starting early has allowed me to capitalize on investment growth in my retirement plan, and had I waited even a few years to start savings, I'd have thousands less to my name right now.
2. Investing aggressively
When I first opened my IRA, I didn't know much (OK, anything, really) about buying stocks. But I did know how to look up advice on the internet, and so I wound up investing my retirement savings in a handful of stocks that seemed promising. I was worried, of course -- stocks have always been riskier than bonds and the potential for losses in my retirement plan definitely existed. But I also knew I had no plans to touch that money for years, and that stocks were the way to go if I wanted decent returns. Now, years later, those stock investments have served me quite well, allowing me to turn a modest IRA balance into a more impressive sum.
3. Saving "found" money
A few years into my career, my employer started offering a 401(k) plan, so at that point, I switched over to it. But 401(k)s have long offered much higher annual contribution limits than IRAs, and back in my mid-20s, I didn't earn enough to max out my 401(k) completely. What I did do, though, was make an effort back then to put "found" money into my retirement plan -- things like tax refunds and birthday gifts. Those small boosts have really added up over time.
These days, I do generally manage to max out my 401(k). But I realize I may have years when that's not possible -- such as if large expenses pop up, like extensive home repairs. Having that cushion already means that if I cut back on contributions here and there, I still have a good chance of retiring with a nice sum.
Building wealth for retirement isn't easy. It takes commitment, and it takes a lot of self-control. Trust me when I say that as a 23-year-old recent college grad, it wasn't always fun sending money to my IRA that could've paid for some extra trips with friends or a bigger apartment. But I'm really glad I made that effort back then, and that I also made a point to invest aggressively and eke out extra savings when possible, because it's made me a lot more comfortable about the idea of paying for my senior years.