For many of us, retirement is many years away, so it’s easy to put off planning for it. But the longer you wait, the harder it is to make up the difference later. That’s because the sooner you start saving, the more time your investments have to grow. We all recognize the importance of planning and saving for retirement, but too many of us fall victim to one or more common mistakes. Here are four easily avoidable mistakes that could prevent you from reaching your retirement goals.
1. Putting off planning and saving
Because retirement may be many years away, it’s easy to put off planning for it. The longer you wait, however, the harder it is to make up the difference later. That’s because the sooner you start saving, the more time your investments have to grow.
The chart below shows how much you could save by age 65 if you contribute $3,000 annually, starting at ages 20 ($679,500), 35 ($254,400), and 45 ($120,000). As you can see, a few years can make a big difference in how much you’ll accumulate.
Don’t make the mistake of promising yourself that you’ll start saving for retirement as soon as you’ve bought a house or that new car, or after you’ve fully financed your child’s education–it’s important that you start saving as much as you can, as soon as you can.
2. Underestimating how much retirement income you’ll need
One of the biggest retirement planning mistakes you can make is to underestimate the amount you’ll need to accumulate by the time you retire. It’s often repeated that you’ll need 70% to 80% of your preretirement income after you retire. However, depending on your lifestyle and individual circumstances, it’s not inconceivable that you may need to replace 100% or more of your preretirement income.
With the future of Social Security uncertain, and fewer and fewer people covered by traditional pension plans these days, your individual savings are more important than ever. Keep in mind that because people are living longer, healthier lives, your retirement dollars may need to last a long time. The average 65-year-old American can currently expect to live another 19.2 years (Source: National Vital Statistics Report, Volume 60, Number 4, January 2012). However, that’s the average–many can expect to live longer, some much longer, lives.
In order to estimate how much you’ll need to accumulate, you’ll need to estimate the expenses you’re likely to incur in retirement. Do you intend to travel? Will your mortgage be paid off? Might you have significant health-care expenses not covered by insurance or Medicare? Try thinking about your current expenses, and how they might change between now and the time you retire.
3. Ignoring tax-favored retirement plans
Probably the best way to accumulate funds for retirement is to take advantage of IRAs and employer retirement plans like 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and 457(b)s. The reason these plans are so important is that they combine the power of compounding with the benefit of tax deferred (and in some cases, tax free) growth. For most people, it makes sense to maximize contributions to these plans, whether it’s on a pre-tax or after-tax (Roth) basis.
If your employer’s plan has matching contributions, make sure you contribute at least enough to get the full company match. It’s essentially free money. (Some plans may require that you work a certain number of years before you’re vested in (i.e., before you own) employer matching contributions. Check with your plan administrator.)
4. Investing too conservatively
When you retire, you’ll have to rely on your accumulated assets for income. To ensure a consistent and reliable flow of income for the rest of your lifetime, you must provide some safety for your principal. It’s common for individuals approaching retirement to shift a portion of their investment portfolio to more secure income-producing investments, like bonds.
Unfortunately, safety comes at the price of reduced growth potential and the risk of erosion of value due to inflation. Safety at the expense of growth can be a critical mistake for those trying to build an adequate retirement nest egg. On the other hand, if you invest too heavily in growth investments, your risk is heightened. A financial professional can help you strike a reasonable balance between safety and growth.