Our article this week comes from the Wall Street Journal and discusses the importance of saving diligently in order to be able to retire comfortably.
Are You Saving Enough for Retirement?
By WALTER UPDEGRAVE
It doesn't take a heroic effort to boost the eventual size of one's nest egg.
Fueled by surging stock prices, average 401(k) balances have come back from the beating they took in the financial crisis and now stand at or near record highs.
But hold the confetti.
The tailwind of stocks' nearly 18% of annualized gains of the past five years—almost double the stock market's long-term average—clearly isn't sustainable for the long term. Indeed, given today's low interest rates and high stock prices relative to earnings, average annual stock returns over the next decade or so could come in at well below half the pace of recent years.
Which means if you want to accumulate enough savings during your career to sustain you in retirement, you will have to do it the old-fashioned way: by saving diligently.
On that front, the news isn't quite so upbeat. A survey of 144 large 401(k) plans covering some 3.5 million employees released in July by benefits consulting firm Aon Hewitt found that the annual contribution for employees and employer matching funds combined averaged just under 11% of salary last year, down a tad from the year before.
And although the survey also showed that the average employee-plus-employer contribution rises with age—starting at 7.6% of salary for participants in their 20s and climbing to 10.1%, 11%, 12.7% and 13.4% for participants in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, respectively—not a single age group averaged the 15% a year that retirement experts generally recommend if you want to maintain your preretirement lifestyle after calling it a career.
Fortunately, it doesn't take a heroic savings effort to appreciably boost the eventual size of your nest egg and enhance your retirement prospects.
Let's assume you are 25 years old, earn $50,000 a year and receive 2% annual raises, and that you make an "average" effort to fund a retirement account such as your 401(k). That is, throughout your career the total of your contributions plus employer matching funds mirrors the age-group averages in the Aon Hewitt survey.
If you invest your savings in a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds that earns a reasonable rate of return—say, 6% a year after fees—your 401(k) balance would total roughly $1.1 million at age 65.
That is a tidy sum, to be sure. But it probably isn't enough to replace enough of your income over at least 30 years of retirement.
Generally, advisers say personal savings should generate 50% to 60% of your preretirement income, so that withdrawals from savings plus another 20% to 25% from Social Security and other sources (part-time work, a pension) replace at least 75% to 80% your preretirement income—a level experts generally consider the benchmark for maintaining your preretirement standard of living after you retire.
Increasing the amount you save by even a relatively small amount can significantly improve your chances of reaching that level.
For example, if instead of saving at that average level, reported by Aon Hewitt, you set aside just an extra 1% of salary each year, your 401(k) account's value would climb to just under $1.2 million at age 65. Assuming a 4% initial withdrawal of $48,000, your savings would now be able to replace nearly 45% of pre-retirement income from savings alone. Boost your savings rate another 1% each year, and your account's projected value rises to almost $1.3 million, which allows for a withdrawal of $52,000, bringing you just within reach of replacing 50% of your preretirement income from savings.
And if you manage to stash away the 15% a year that advisers recommend, you would have a nest egg at age 65 valued at almost $1.6 million, providing for an initial withdrawal of $64,000, or about 60% of preretirement income. Throw in an additional 20% to 25% from Social Security and other sources, and your retirement income now meets or exceeds that 75% to 80% benchmark.
Aside from the obvious benefit of a larger nest egg generating more income in retirement, saving at a higher rate during your career also makes your retirement strategy less vulnerable to setbacks from financial shocks.
For example, the hypothetical 25-year-old in the scenarios above saved like a machine each and every year over four decades. In the real world, job losses, health problems, unexpected expenses and all manner of other unanticipated events can prevent even the most diligent saver from sticking to a savings regimen uninterrupted over an entire career. By making the effort to save at a higher rate when things are going well, however, you effectively will build a cushion that will help you better absorb any financial setbacks and get your retirement planning back on track.
Such a cushion can come in especially handy late in your career. For example, if you are on the verge of retiring and the stock market takes a dive, having $1.6 million in savings instead of $1.1 million could mean the difference between scaling back your lifestyle a bit but still going ahead with your retirement plans versus having to postpone your employment exit and spend extra years on the job.
The single best way to maximize your savings effort is to sign up for your company's 401(k) or similar plan. Aside from the benefit that your contributions and investment earnings in a 401(k) account go untaxed until withdrawal, the fact that money is automatically deducted from your paycheck makes it more convenient to save, and more likely you actually will do so.
That said, some features in 401(k) plans that were designed to spur savings can sometimes have the opposite effect. For example, the lure of "free money" in the form of company matching contributions clearly creates an incentive to save. But the Aon Hewitt survey shows that nearly a third of 401(k) participants contribute just enough to get the full company match.
While doing that may seem smart, in that you get the largest company match while you shell out as little as possible, it also can leave you short of the savings rate required to assure a secure retirement.
Keep in mind, though, that while 15% is generally a reasonable goal, the actual amount you should be setting aside can vary considerably depending on your salary, how much you already have stashed away and the number of years until you retire.
There are many online retirement planning tools that can help you home in on the right annual savings target for you. Whether you use a basic calculator or a more comprehensive one that allows you to vary such assumptions as how you invest your savings and your planned retirement date, you will want to reassess every year or so to see whether your current savings rate is adequate.
As exciting as it may be to watch the value of your nest egg swell as stock prices soar, over the long run it is how much you save that will determine how well you can live in retirement.
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