In my CARE presentations, I always talk about the importance of getting into the habit of saving as early in life as possible. For young children I suggest that they save a family agreed upon percentage of everything they receive — any allowance and any gifts, for example. I also encourage parents to match all, or a percentage, of anything they save over that agreed upon amount. For high school students, everything they receive includes money from that after-school or summer job. Once they save on a formalized basis like that, all the studies show that the reinforcement will incentivize them to save more, and the habit that they have now built will hopefully stay with them throughout life.
Once a person permanently enters the workforce, just like any other kind of saving, it is important to start saving for retirement as early as possible. With Social Security possibly being less generous in the future than it is for those currently retired, and with life expectancies certain to continue to increase, it will be more important than ever to SAVE MORE.
As important as it is to save for retirement, it is equally important to first have an appropriate emergency savings account. For me, six to eight months of expenses is still a good rule of thumb for adults in the workforce.
Unfortunately, fewer and fewer American workers work for companies that have a well managed 401(k) or 403(b) plan that they can take advantage of. Also, fewer employers that do offer such a plan are continuing to offer any kind of a match, as a benefit and an incentive for employees to participate. More and more Americans, especially young people, are working for companies with fewer than 100 employees, and only about 50 percent of those small businesses offer retirement plans.
So what are the options for employees with no access to an employer-sponsored plan?
FIRST, there are IRA’s, Traditional and Roth. The Traditional IRA, like a 401(k), allows the contributions, ($5,500 per year for those under 50), to be deducted on your tax return, when there is no employer plan available, and the earnings grow tax deferred until you retire and withdraw the funds. Like a 401(k) there are penalties for an early withdrawal, except in the case of Traditional IRA’s, a limited withdrawal for education or a first-time home purchase.
For Roth IRA’s , the contributions are made with after-tax dollars, so they are not tax-deductible, but the earnings grow tax-free and withdrawals in retirement are also tax-free. Any pre-retirement withdrawals of contributions are tax-free, but there are taxes and penalties due for early withdrawals of earnings, except for those limited education and first-time home purchase exceptions. There are not to exceed income restrictions for Roth IRA’s.
For both Traditional and Roth IRA’s, there are many qualified investment vehicles available, but, as is always the case in this column, I am not qualified to make any specific recommendations, except to say that you want to minimize any fees and expenses.
SECOND, a myIRA, is a federal government sponsored plan, again with income restrictions, which is essentially a Roth IRA, but contributions are invested only in government bonds. It is essentially risk-free, but the returns are fairly low — 2 to 3 percent. On the other hand, there are no fees, and no minimum investment requirement, so it may be good for younger, lower-paid workers who want to start saving for retirement. The myIRA for many is not a long-term retirement investment vehicle, because it must be rolled over into a Roth when the balance reaches $15,000, or after 30 years.
THIRD, if you have more money to invest in a retirement with dignity, after you have invested in these other vehicles, you can just open a brokerage account with your after-tax dollars, knowing there are no tax advantages other than paying lower capital gains taxes on your earnings.
This is just a quick overview. You obviously need to look more into the details of these investment vehicles, and what investments and investment companies you will go with, other than the myIRA, where you don’t have an investment choice.
Also, consider these two tips to help ensure that you will meet you retirement savings goals. Make sure you contributions are made by direct deposit. That way it comes off the top and you don’t have to decide each pay period whether to make a contribution. Also, consider contributing all, or at least a part, of any tax refunds to you retirement account(s). Decide the percentage even before you file your returns, and then follow through with it.
John Ninfo is a retired bankruptcy judge and the founder of the National CARE Financial Literacy Program.