No matter what your age, your work-based retirement savings plan can be a key component of your overall financial strategy. Following are some age-based points to consider when determining how to put your plan to work for you.
Just starting out
Just starting your first job? Chances are you face a number of financial challenges. College loans, rent, and car payments all compete for your hard-earned paycheck. Can you even consider contributing to your retirement plan now? Before you answer, think about this: The time ahead of you could be your greatest advantage. Through the power of compounding--or the ability of investment returns to earn returns themselves--time can work for you.
Example: Say at age 20, you begin investing $3,000 each year for retirement. At age 65, you would have invested $135,000. If you assume a 6% average annual rate of return, you would have accumulated $638,231 by that age. However, if you wait until age 45 to invest that $3,000 each year, and earn the same 6% annual average, by age 65 you would have invested $60,000 and accumulated $110,357. By starting earlier, you would have invested $75,000 more but would have accumulated more than half a million dollars more. That's compounding at work. Even if you can't afford $3,000 a year right now, remember that even smaller amounts add up through compounding.
Finally, time offers an additional benefit to young adults: the ability to potentially withstand greater short-term losses in pursuit of long-term gains. You may be able to invest more aggressively than your older colleagues, placing a larger portion of your retirement portfolio in stocks to strive for higher long-term returns.
Getting married and starting a family
At this life stage, even more obligations compete for your money--mortgages, college savings, higher grocery bills, home repairs, and child care, to name a few. Although it can be tempting to cut your retirement plan contributions to help make ends meet, try to avoid the temptation. Retirement needs to be a high priority throughout your life.
If you plan to take time out of the workforce to raise children, consider temporarily increasing your plan contributions before leaving and after you return to help make up for the lost time and savings.
Also, while you're still decades away from retirement, you may have time to ride out market swings, so you may still be able to invest relatively aggressively in your plan. Be sure to fully reassess your risk tolerance before making any decisions.
Reaching your peak earning years
This stage of your career brings both challenges and opportunities. College bills may be invading your mailbox. You may have to take time off unexpectedly to care for yourself or a family member. And those pesky home repairs never seem to go away.
On the other hand, with 20+ years of experience behind you, you could be earning the highest salary of your career. Now may be an ideal time to step up your retirement savings. If you're age 50 or older, you can contribute up to $24,000 to your plan in 2015, versus a maximum of $18,000 if you're under age 50. (Some plans impose lower limits.)
Preparing to retire
It's time to begin thinking about when and how to tap your plan assets. You might also want to adjust your allocation, striving to protect more of what you've accumulated while still aiming for a bit of growth.
A financial professional can become a very important ally at this life stage. Your discussions may address health care and insurance, taxes, living expenses, income-producing investment vehicles, other sources of income, and estate planning.
You'll also want to familiarize yourself with required minimum distributions (RMDs). The IRS requires you to begin taking RMDs from your plan by April 1 of the year following the year you reach age 70½, unless you continue working for your employer.
Throughout your career, you may face other decisions involving your plan. Would Roth or traditional pretax contributions be better for you? Should you consider a loan or hardship withdrawal from your plan, if permitted, in an emergency? When should you alter your asset allocation? Along the way, a financial professional can provide an important third-party view, helping to temper the emotions that may cloud your decisions.
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