Although there is little functional difference between $999,999 and $1 million, the round number of a million dollars is appealing and saving $1 million for retirement is a major milestone. Individuals who save that much money have a substantial nest egg set aside to enjoy their retirement, and $1 million can be a reasonable retirement goal for most people to aspire to.
While saving $1 million can be reasonable, it might not be easy. Reaching the finish line requires perseverance, avoiding the temptation of squandering savings on other expenses and intelligent decision-making.
People saving with a goal of reaching $1 million will find the task much easier if they choose investments with higher interest rates and look for opportunities to maximize the tax savings available to them. Use the following strategies to reach your retirement savings goal.
1. Start Saving Early
The first thing most people should do to maximize their chances of reaching $1 million in savings at retirement is to start saving early. Financial advisors and planners often advocate that clients start saving for retirement as early as possible to maximize the time their savings have to grow. Even a few years can make a big difference in the amount a person needs to save each year to reach retirement.
Someone who plans to retire at age 68 will have a much easier time — that is, less money they have to save each year — if that person starts saving at age 18 rather than at age 58. People who are 18 and have a job often don’t make much money, especially to sock away in a retirement account. So someone saving at age 18 might need to save a significant portion of their income from a part-time job during college or over the summer.
But at a 7% interest rate, a person only needs to save about $2,300 annually when they start saving at age 18. At an 11% interest rate — roughly the average return of the U.S. stock market over the last century — an individual only needs to save $539.86 annually to reach $1 million — again, if they start at age 18.
Starting at age 28, with 40 years to retirement, increases these numbers somewhat, but not dramatically. For instance, a 28-year-old saving for retirement at a 9% interest rate needs to save $2,715.24 per year to reach $1 million at age 68.
The biggest challenge for most people in putting this tip into practice is actually starting early. Very few 18-year-olds are thinking about retirement, and many 28-year-olds aren’t thinking about retirement planning, either. People who are 58 are thinking about retirement, but by that age, reaching $1 million requires substantially larger savings each year. Bottom line: save early!
2. Adjust IRA Contributions
One of the biggest expenses each year for most people is their taxes. Whether you are rich or poor, Uncle Sam takes a big piece of income from everyone in the form of income taxes, Social Security, Medicare, state taxes, etc. Although it’s difficult to get out of paying taxes completely without breaking the law, there are some things you can do to minimize these taxes.
One of the things you can do is use an individual retirement account, commonly referred to as “IRAs.” An IRA lets individuals deposit after-tax money and then earn interest on that money, tax-free. The money stays in the IRA until the saver is ready to withdraw it at retirement.
Putting money into an IRA is an effective way to avoid having to pay more taxes on savings income. The problem many people have with this rule is that they end up raiding their IRAs early and paying taxes and penalties on the withdrawal. Avoiding the temptation to dip into an IRA for money to buy a new TV or go on a vacation goes a long way toward helping ensure a prosperous retirement.
3. Adjust 401(k) Contributions
One of the most common forms of retirement plans today is the 401(k), which is a major employee benefit. Workers who are eligible for a 401(k) should take advantage of this opportunity to save.
A 401(k) often comes with a double benefit:
First, 401(k) contributions are taken out of an employee’s income before any taxes are deducted. So contributing to a 401(k) lets individuals save money without having to pay taxes on that money upfront.
Second, 401(k)s are often matched by employers. A matched 401(k) is an outstanding benefit — it’s like getting free money. If an employee agrees to contribute 3% of their paycheck to a 401(k), many employers will also agree to contribute a matching 3%. Although there are limits on how much you can contribute to a 401(k), they are not a major issue for most people.
4. Invest In the Stock Market
The single biggest challenge many people face in saving to reach $1 million at retirement is the interest rate they earn on their savings. Interest rates make a huge difference in how fast money grows. To help maximize the return on savings, individuals should consider investing at least a portion of their retirement funds in the stock market, usually through a mutual fund or a broader market exchange-traded fund. Be careful not to take on more risk than you are comfortable with, though.
The stock market has an average return of about 10% to 11% over time compared with only about 4% cap for short-term Treasury bills. That interest rate difference has a significant effect on how much a person needs to save annually to reach $1 million.
5. Pay Yourself First
Individuals looking to have $1 million for retirement often start with good intentions of saving but find that all of their money is gone at the end of every month, with nothing left for savings.
To minimize this problem, savers should pay themselves first. Doing this means taking funds out of your paycheck and moving them to savings accounts first before paying other expenses. That’s not always easy to do, but with discipline, it can make a big difference in helping ensure you save enough.
6. Avoid Racking Up Debt
A common pitfall many people succumb to is racking up debt. Nothing puts a damper on savings plans faster than taking on debt, especially if it is high-interest credit card debt, which is often compounded monthly at 24% per year.
To meet your savings goals, avoid taking on debt that you can’t pay off very quickly. The only exception to this is a mortgage on a house because depending on the market and the economy, owning a home can be a profitable investment. Or at least one that saves you money compared to renting.
7. Don’t Live Above Your Means
Finally, perhaps the ultimate key in meeting your savings goal of reaching $1 million at retirement is to not live above your means. Some people with large incomes spend nearly all of it on fancy cars, vacations and expensive clothes. Then at retirement age, they find themselves financially limited — and their lifestyle and health suffers as a result.
Try to avoid spending more than 80% to 90% of your overall income, leaving at least 10% to 20% for savings and investments. If you avoid living above your means for the long term, then a $1 million retirement goal should be feasible.
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Jake Arky contributed to the reporting for this article.