We hear it all the time: "Americans aren't saving enough for retirement." While this is generally true, how much is enough? For example, is it enough to contribute just enough to your 401(k) to take advantage of your employer's match? We asked five of our experts to shed some light on this matter, and here's what they had to say.
Brian Stoffel: As well intentioned as this question is, I think we're looking at the situation backwards. I've long believed that the most important financial task of any human is figuring out what his or her own level of "Enough" is. I think popular blogger Mr. Money Mustache -- who retired at age 30 -- captured the ideal relationship between your money and your life best when he said the following.
If all we're doing here is figuring out how much to save, we're not really tackling the more important question: How much should we be spending? If you do an honest survey of how much contentment each purchase brings into your life, I think you'll find that you can survive on far less than you're spending. The realization can be liberating.
So the next time someone asks you how much you should be saving, turn around and ask them how much they need to spend to be content. From there, just subtract that number from their take-home pay, and you have yourself an answer.
Selena Maranjian: How much money should you save every year for retirement? Well, it depends! Key factors informing the answer are your age now and when you want to retire, how much you need to amass, and how much you already have socked away. There's no one-size-fits-all answer to the question, but if you know you're 45, want to retire at 65, have no money saved yet, and will probably need a nest egg of $400,000, you're very close to your answer.
An online calculator can help you try different saving scenarios out. I like to use this especially simple one that's meant to calculate interest. If you swap in your expected investment growth rate for the interest rate, you'll be all set. As an example, enter that your starting principle is $0, that your money will have 20 years to grow, and that you expect an average annual growth rate of, say, 8%. (The stock market has averaged close to 10% over long periods, but you can't count on that.) Try out $5,000 as your annual addition/contribution. Then click "Calculate." You'll get $247,115. That's clearly less than you need, so up your annual contribution to, say, $8,000, and presto -- $395,383. With a calculator like this, you can see what happens if you save more for fewer years, earn higher or lower returns, and so on.
Once you have your answer, consider playing it even safer by aiming to sock away more than that each year. After all, the coming years may not play out as you expect, and you don't want to come up short at retirement or -- heaven forfend -- have to delay retiring.
Dan Caplinger: It's an ambitious target for most people, but using the maximum contribution for your 401(k) plan at work can be a great motivator to get higher-income workers thinking about saving as much as possible. For 2016, the maximum 401(k) contribution for those under 50 is $18,000, with an additional bump for those 50 or older bringing the total up to $24,000.
Few 401(k) participants choose to contribute the maximum to their accounts. The latest data from Vanguard showed that just 10% of those participants whose accounts it oversees chose to save the maximum amount. Even among those making $100,000 or more, just a third contributed the maximum.
But the value of maxing out your 401(k) can be huge. The tax deferral available can help you shelter hundreds of thousands of dollars of your investment portfolio from taxation during your career, cutting your annual tax bills by thousands of dollars along the way. In retirement, you'll likely be in a lower tax bracket, making it easier to reap tax savings by timing your 401(k) withdrawals to match up with your tax planning. All in all, if you can afford to max out your 401(k), it's worth considering as a stretch goal.
Jason Hall: The key to answering the question is understanding two things: How much money should you have set aside for unexpected expenses today, and how much money will you need when you retire?
The rule of thumb for "rainy day" savings is six months to one year of living expenses, if you or your spouse were to lose a source of income for an extended period of time, or suffer some kind of disaster or illness. If you don't have this safety net, it should probably be your top priority.
How much should you be saving for retirement? As much as you can, as soon as you can. Your dollars are worth a lot more when you invest them at 35 than they are at 55, because of the power of compounding growth. And it doesn't take as much as you think if you start early. But this is only after you've started building up emergency savings, as well as paid down high-interest debt.
Two great ways to boost your retirement savings:
1. Take advantage of employer's matching retirement contributions. If your company matches 2% of your pay and you make $40,000 per year, that's $800 per year in free money. That may not sound like much, but over 20 years it becomes $45,000 at market-average returns, and $125,000 after 30 years.
2. Boost your retirement savings when you get a raise. If you get a 2% pay increase, increase your 401(k) contributions by 1%. Using the preceding math, that's $22,500 after 20 years, and $62,500 after 30 years, just from a single increase.
Matt Frankel: My colleagues all make excellent points, but I'd like to add that the amount of money you save is only one part of the equation. What you do with the money afterward is what really determines if you'll have enough.
It makes my blood boil when I hear friends telling me that they've managed to save, say $10,000 this year – but then stuck it in a savings account. The problem is that not only do savings accounts produce minuscule returns, but they also won't keep up with inflation.
Let's say that you start saving $5,000 per year when you're 25, and that you plan to retire at 65. So over a 40-year period, you set aside $200,000. If you put the money in a savings account, the best interest rate you can reasonably hope to get is about 1%. So your $200,000 will grow to roughly $244,000 by the time you retire.
Meanwhile, inflation has historically averaged about 3% per year. Therefore, you can expect your $244,000 nest egg to only be worth about $72,150 in today's dollars.
On the other hand, if you take your $5,000 each year and invest it (stocks have historically returned about 9.5% per year), your $200,000 total investment could swell to more than $1.9 million. Even accounting for 3% inflation each year, your nest egg would still have purchasing power of $571,000 in terms of today's money.
The bottom line is that a smart combination of saving and investing can put you on the path to wealth.