11 Ways You’re Sabotaging Your Retirement

Retirement Advice

Retirement isn’t as set it and forget it as it was in previous generations. Today, as traditional pension plans with defined benefits have given way to 401k plans with defined contributions, employees are bearing much more of the burden to fund their own retirement plans.

Without a proactive approach and the right guidance, it’s easy for retirement planning to get off track. Here are a number of ways you might be sabotaging your retirement, and how you can fix it.

1. Not Saving for Retirement

According to data from the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, when it comes to planning for retirement, almost 50 percent of all U.S. households in 2013 said that they had given little to no thought to planning or saving for retirement. Not starting your savings for retirement is the biggest way that you can sabotage your retirement.

What to Do: It’s never too early to begin the process of planning and saving for retirement. Even a small amount saved when you are young can accumulate to significant savings when you are older.

2. Borrowing From Retirement Accounts

Sometimes people treat their retirement accounts more like an emergency fund. “The most significant way folks can sabotage their retirement accounts is to withdraw money during a market downturn,” said Chris Alberta, CEO of Senior Benefits Group Retirement Advisors and president of Alberta Enterprises out of Brighton, Mich. “Sometimes there’s not a choice if income is needed or an emergency arises. Overall, though, the worst possible time to become a spender is when the money needs to be in to recover. Statistically, funds that have not had withdrawals recover losses much faster.”

What to Do: Try to build an emergency fund so there is less need to borrow from your retirement account when emergencies occur.

3. Not Increasing Your Earnings Potential

The Federal Reserve survey found that many of those who had failed to begin planning for retirement reported that they lacked the financial resources to do so. Twenty-eight percent of those earning less than $25,000 indicated that they expected to keep working as long as they were able to.

What to Do: Brainstorm ways to increase your income. You could improve or update your skills, change jobs or get a part-time job. You could also get creative and start a side business. Whatever you do, it’s always a good idea to maximize your earning potential when you are younger.

4. Not Taking Advantage of Employer Matching in 401k Plans

Sometimes an employer might match 401k contributions made by an employee. “Too often people assume that employer matching is extra, as opposed to being part of their total compensation package,” said Michael Tove, president and founder of AIN Services. “Not taking full advantage of the offer to match contributions is literally like asking for a salary reduction.”

What to Do: Always contribute the amount needed to get the full employer match.

5. Putting Off Saving for Retirement Until You Make Enough Money

There will always be a myriad of expenses tugging at your wallet. As long as you have a paycheck, it will always seem as if there is not enough money.

With so many competing claims on your money, it’s often difficult to give retirement planning the attention it deserves. But there will likely never be an ideal time when you feel you have enough in your accounts, so the best time to cultivate the habit of saving for retirement is now.

What to Do: If you are self-employed or your employer does not offer a retirement plan, investigate opening up a traditional individual retirement account or Roth IRA and begin contributing to it.

6. Trading Instead of Investing for Retirement

You’ve likely heard stories about master traders who were able to make millions in the financial markets. And you might dream of being in their shoes and trading your retirement account to make millions. However, even though trading can be lucrative, most people who attempt it ultimately lose because they have not first invested the time to study and master the process.

Trading appears deceptively simple, but it is really very difficult to do well consistently. Tove said a sure way to sabotage your retirement account is to try “to second guess the market and [buy and sell] based on what you think markets are about to do. Research has shown that a buy/sell strategy usually underperforms a buy-and-hold strategy.”

What to Do: If you want to trade, open a brokerage account and put a small amount of money into this account for trading. Only if you can consistently outperform a major index, like the Standard & Poor’s 500 index, should you consider trading with your retirement funds.

7. Not Seeking Retirement Advice

According to a study of the financial habits of affluent investors by TIAA-CREF, most affluent Americans agree that they need to seek financial advice throughout their careers and not just when they approach retirement age. Studying the financial habits of affluent investors can help to identify some of the key strategies successful in building wealth.

What to Do: Seek out well-credentialed financial planners, either by word of mouth from friends or colleagues who have similar financial needs to your own or on websites. The Financial Planning Association is one example of where you can start your search. Look for financial professionals who have achieved the certified financial planner designation.

Related: 30 Times You Should Have Asked for a Financial Advisor’s Help

8. Adding to Your Kid’s College Fund Instead of Your Retirement Accounts

You love your kids, and with the rocketing costs of college education, you want to do all you can to make sure they are not saddled with huge amounts of debt. So, you start a college fund with the goal of freeing them from the burden of student loans. This is well meaning and admirable, but often contributing to that college fund comes at the expense of contributing to our own retirement fund.

What to Do: Remember that your children have more time than you do to pay off loans. They also have access to grant and scholarship opportunities as well as financial aid programs. Do not let your well-intentioned desire to reduce their future indebtedness come at the expense of your retirement nest egg.

Related: 10 Ways You’re Hurting Your Kids Financially

9. Carrying Too Much Debt

According to a study by the Urban Institute, in 2013, the average total debt per American with a credit file stood at $53,850. All debt is not necessarily bad, such as the debt taken on to buy a house or fund a college education. However, there are other types of debt that people carry, such as that for current spending, that can burden them far into the future and sabotage their retirement goals.

What to Do: Do not take on debt for consumption. Make a plan to pay down credit card debt starting with cards charging the highest rates of interest first. As you free up the money used in servicing these revolving loans, make additional payments to your retirement accounts.

10. Being Impatient and Thinking Short Term

People like to see their accounts grow in a linear fashion. But markets rarely move this way. Sometimes, there are market pullbacks, and when this happens, you’ll see declines in your account balances.

“The biggest ‘secret’ to time and compounding is time,” said Tove. The problem is that people switch in and out of funds too frequently. When “people expect short-term results and seek to judge long-term possibility by artifacts of the short term, they become impatient for results and abandon any long-term strategy,” he said.

What to Do: Focus on the long term and not on short-term results. Don’t go chasing mutual funds based solely on past returns. Remember that investing for retirement is all about taking a long-term view.

11. Not Taking Risks Because You Worry About Retirement

Sometimes, people fixate on growing their retirement accounts and the years and months left until retirement. This fixation can actually work to the detriment of living life in the present. People might give up on changing jobs, learning new skills, taking risks and opening themselves up to new opportunities because they fear the unknown.

This thinking might go something like this, “If I stay in this job for the next 18 years, I will be able to retire with X amount.” But, if the job you are in does not challenge you, or if you are stuck or unhappy in your job, you probably won’t maximize your earnings potential and are almost certainly sabotaging your future happiness.

What to Do: Life should be lived in the present. To be sure, investing and planning for retirement is essential, but it should not prevent you from taking risks and exploring ways to live your life fully and in ways that could maximize your earnings potential. Seek retirement advice, but allow yourself to live your life fully.

Related: What Retirement Without Savings Looks Like

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