Smart Money Podcast: Data Breaches, and Catching Up on Retirement Savings

Jae Bratton
Liz Weston, CFP®
Sean Pyles
By Sean Pyles,  Liz Weston, CFP® and  Jae Bratton 
Edited by Sheri Gordon

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Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions. 

This week’s episode starts with a primer on what to do if your data is breached.

Then we pivot to this week’s money question from Melanie, who sent this message: 

"Hi, Sean. My name's Melanie. I am a millennial and I have not been contributing to my IRA or 401(k) in quite a while. So I read a blog article recently about how much I'm supposed to have saved by now, and of course, I'm not even halfway to that point and I know there's a lot of people out there in my shoes who are doing even worse. So I was wondering if you knew of any tricks or hacks, things to get around that limit so I can start contributing a lot more.

I've heard that there's one, but I don't know the details about it, that if you have a business license like an LLC, you can possibly contribute no limit to a 401(k) or an IRA. Can you tell me a little bit more about that or if you know any of the details around that or maybe that's a myth? I don't know. All right. I'm looking forward to hearing more. Thanks for your help."

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Our take on data breaches

When data breaches make national news, as has been the case in early 2023 with Experian, Sequoia and even the password management system LastPass, they remind us to secure our own accounts. Prevention really is the best strategy, and one of the best tools is a credit freeze. When a freeze is in place, new accounts that require a credit check cannot be opened in your name unless you lift the freeze. 

A fraud alert is another defensive measure that prompts lenders to contact you whenever someone tries to open an account with your Social Security number. Other best practices include regularly monitoring your credit reports, creating complex passwords and turning on two-factor authentication. Setting up all of these protections takes time, but it’s time well spent if it safeguards against identity theft that can damage your finances. 

Our take on catching up on retirement savings

Perhaps nothing is more personal in personal finance than the amount you need to save for retirement. However, as a general guideline, many experts recommend saving enough to replace 80% of your pre-retirement income. If you find yourself behind on saving for retirement, there are ways to get back on track.

Many financial advisors recommend that people take advantage of any 401(k) matching that their employer may offer, and max out their IRAs. For 2023, the maximum contribution limit for a 401(k) is $22,500 and $6,500 for an IRA. For those 50 or older, contribution limits increase to allow soon-to-be retirees to cover ground more quickly. Called catch-up contributions, they allow you to save an additional $7,500 in a 401(k) and an additional $1,000 in an IRA.

Delaying when you receive Social Security payments is another way to boost your nest egg. Each year you put off your application after your full retirement age, currently between 66 and 67, can add 8% to your check until age 70, when your benefit maxes out.

Our tips

  1. Remember that you are not a number. Saving for retirement can be stressful, but don’t let the balance of your retirement account define you.

  2. Save where you can: 401(k) plans and IRAs can be easy ways to save. And remember that contribution limits are increasing for 2023.

  3. Be wary of social media advice: Apps like TikTok and Instagram are full of misinformation — personal finance and otherwise. Turn to trusted sources of information (like NerdWallet) for help.

More about catching up on retirement savings on NerdWallet:

Have a money question? Text or call us at 901-730-6373. Or you can email us at [email protected]. To hear previous episodes, go to the podcast homepage.

Episode transcript

Liz Weston: You are nowhere near where you should be when it comes to saving for retirement. So how do you catch up? We'll help you figure it out in this episode.

Sean Pyles: Welcome to the NerdWallet's Smart Money podcast where you send us your money questions and we answer them with the help of our genius Nerds. I'm Sean Pyles.

Liz Weston: I'm Liz Weston. If you have a money question for the Nerds, call or text us on the Nerd hotline at 901-730-6373. That's 901-730-NERD, or email us at [email protected] Also, this year, we're talking with our listeners live on the podcast, so if you want to chat with us, let us know when you send us your money question.

Sean Pyles: In this episode, we answer a listener's question about how to catch up on retirement savings, but first, in our This Week in Your Money segment, Liz and I are talking about data breaches and what you can do about them.

Liz Weston: Oh boy. In just the past few months alone, a number of big companies have had significant data breaches or security vulnerabilities, including the credit bureau Experian, the password security manager LastPass and the HR and payroll company Sequoia.

Sean Pyles: Yeah, and I'm affected by at least two of these, and Liz, I think you might be affected by all three, so great. Another-

Liz Weston: Trifecta.

Sean Pyles: Yep, another wonderful day living on the internet, but between all of these breaches, it's a good time to remind folks that the less personal information that you can put online, the better. However, as we just said, for a lot of us, our information's already out there, so what can you do about it?

Liz Weston: Well, obviously, we need to talk about credit freezes because this is still our most powerful weapon to shut down a lot of identity fraud, particularly new account fraud, which is when somebody is trying to open a credit card or get a loan in your name using your information.

Sean Pyles: You will have to lift the freeze if you want to apply for credit, but you can do a temporary thaw for just a few days. I will put out a fair warning that freezing can be just a little cumbersome, especially the first time you do it. You have to freeze your credit with each bureau. That's very important and you'll have to log in to your account with each bureau and set this up, or you can potentially do it by phone, but you'll likely have to provide additional information to do that.

Liz Weston: Yes, and I've been using credit freezes for quite a while. It gets to be a reflex. You just need to have the information handy and it actually happens pretty quickly. Now, the bureaus offer something called a credit lock, which is supposed to be even easier. The unfortunate thing is that you're not covered by the same federal law that you are when you put in place a credit freeze, and the credit freeze is free.

A lot of times, the bureaus will charge for a lock. That's something else to keep in mind. The other possibility is a fraud alert, and in this case, if you put a fraud alert on one of your accounts at one of the bureaus, the bureau is supposed to alert the other two. It's not as foolproof as a credit freeze, but it is something to consider if you want to keep your account safer.

Sean Pyles: The idea with a fraud alert is that if someone goes to apply for a line of credit in your name, the potential creditor will have to confirm the identity of whoever is trying to apply for that. It is supposed to make it a little bit more secure.

Liz Weston: I'm much more comfortable having credit freezes. I don't think it's a huge hassle to deal with that. The other thing we need to tell people though is that credit freezes are not foolproof. There are still a lot of other ways that your identity can be compromised, so even if you have a freeze, you still need to periodically check your credit reports.

Sean Pyles: Another thing folks should do if they don't do it regularly is review their credit card and bank statements for fraud. It's a really simple way to stop fraud in its tracks. I was talking with a Nerd who had a subscription on their credit card that was being charged for almost a year before they realized it and they contacted their credit card company and they got that money reimbursed, which is nice because the credit card company didn't technically have to do that given how long it had been since these charges started. You generally have at least 60 days from the date the statement was created with the fraudulent charge to report those charges.

Liz Weston: Yeah, something similar happened to us and I've written a column about it that'll appear in a few weeks, but we buy a lot of stuff from Apple. When I saw the charges ticking up, I thought, well, it's just my husband and my daughter buying more stuff, and it turned out it wasn't. It was a scamster. Something similar can happen with Amazon or any place where you have recurring charges that can vary month to month. You actually have to dig in a little bit and find out what you are paying for and make sure that those charges are charges that you've actually agreed to.

Sean Pyles: One thing that can be even more complicated to navigate is medical ID theft, and this is a particular concern to those who are affected by the Sequoia breach. Since a lot of sensitive information including ID info, which could include your insurance card info, was compromised. There isn't an equivalent to a credit freeze for your medical information, so if it's out there, it could potentially be used by a bad actor to access your health care benefits in your name.

That is really scary. There are also credit implications, especially if someone accrues medical bills in your name and doesn't pay them. 

Liz Weston: Be vigilant. You need to look for bills from medical providers for services that you didn't get or explanation of benefits from your insurer that you don't recognize either the services or the provider, and collection notices showing up on your credit report or in your mailbox can be another sign that you've been the victim of medical identity theft.

Sean Pyles: If you do think you've been the victim of medical identity theft, start by gathering your records. Contact the medical offices where the fraudster used your information, explain what happened and try to get the information that they have. Unfortunately, this can sometimes require you to submit records requests and pay fees and it can be time consuming, but it is pretty much the best way to correct the record and resolve medical ID theft.

Liz Weston: We should also talk about password managers because this is something a lot of us use and the LastPass information, that there had been a breach at LastPass, that was not exactly welcomed.

Sean Pyles: I'm at this point where I'm thinking, how do you protect your passwords when even the password protectors are not secure? And having had your information compromised, Liz, how are you thinking about this right now?

Liz Weston: LastPass is saying that the information that was encrypted like your master password is still safe. Unfortunately, the bad guys have a list of all the websites you use and that can help them plan an attack against you since they know where you bank, they know where your email is, all that good stuff. If you use or used LastPass, your first job should be changing all your sensitive passwords. 

I'm not going to give up on password managers. I think you can still use them, but you need to create complex and unique passwords for every single account and turn on two-factor authentication where that's available. Now, two-factor authentication can be as simple as being texted a code. That's not the most secure, but that at least is something. You can use authentication apps on your phone. The only thing is: That's something else to remember. When you get a new phone, you need to transfer those accounts from one authenticator to another.

I found that out the hard way. I'd already given away the old phone when I realized I have to restart from scratch. Also, you can use a password manager that does not keep your information in the cloud. I think it's more convenient to have it on the cloud because I want to use it on different devices, but there are a lot of people who are well versed in security that just keep it with a non-cloud-based option.

Sean Pyles: If you are like me and don't want to mess with these potentially overly complicated and maybe not secure password management companies, I think there's nothing wrong with using the notes app on your phone. That's what I do to store all of my passwords. I have a locked note that stores a lot of my passwords and maybe it's time to return to good old fashioned pen and paper on a Post-It note that you keep somewhere safe because that is for sure not online unless you maybe take a photo of it and upload it, but that way you can refer to your passwords, have them all in one place, and then hopefully keep them out of scammers' hands.

Liz Weston: One bit of good news is that passkeys, which are going to replace passwords, seem to be making progress. They seem to be coming. Apple, Google and Microsoft are all working together to make authentication a lot more easy, so hopefully soon, there will be a new way for people to log in to their accounts that's just as easy as say, opening your phone or other device.

Sean Pyles: Just to wrap this up, I think one good piece of advice for everyone is: Don't provide sensitive information unless you absolutely have to. One example is at medical offices, you'll often be asked to provide your Social Security number and you really don't have to do that. I'm in the habit of leaving that box blank and I've never been pressed on it at any office I've been to. Just do what you can in small ways to guard your information so that fewer people have access to it.

OK, well, I think that covers it for now. Before we move on, we have some exciting news. We are running another book sweepstakes for our Nerdy book club series. Next month, we are talking with Axton Betz-Hamilton, author of “The Less People Know About Us: A Mystery of Betrayal, Family Secrets and Stolen Identity,” a book about what happens when the person who steals your identity is your own family member.

Liz Weston: To enter for a chance to win our book giveaway, send an email to [email protected] with the subject "book sweepstakes" during the sweepstakes period. Entries must be received by 11:59 p.m. Pacific Standard Time on Feb. 16. Include the following information: Your first and last name, email address, ZIP code and phone number. For more information, please visit our official sweepstakes rules page.

Sean Pyles: All right, and now let's get on to this episode's money question segment.

Liz Weston: All right.

Sean Pyles: This episode's money question comes from Melanie, who left us a voicemail. Here it is:

Listener: Hi, Sean. My name's Melanie. I am a millennial and I have not been contributing to my IRA or 401(k) in quite a while. So I read a blog article recently about how much I'm supposed to have saved by now, and of course, I'm not even halfway to that point and I know there's a lot of people out there in my shoes who are doing even worse. So I was wondering if you knew of any tricks or hacks, things to get around that limit so I can start contributing a lot more.

I've heard that there's one, but I don't know the details about it, that if you have a business license like an LLC, you can possibly contribute no limit to a 401(k) or an IRA. Can you tell me a little bit more about that or if you know any of the details around that or maybe that's a myth? I don't know. All right. I'm looking forward to hearing more. Thanks for your help.”

Liz Weston: To help us answer Melanie's question on this episode of the podcast, we're joined by investing Nerd Alana Benson. Welcome to the podcast, Alana.

Alana Benson: Hey guys, thanks for having me.

Sean Pyles: Good to have you back. A question that we get a lot at NerdWallet, as I'm sure you've received many, many times in your tenure here, is how much should folks have saved for retirement at specific ages? What's your answer to that?

Alana Benson: This is a tough question because there's a lot of things in life that you should do and there's a lot of things in life that you are prevented from doing for a lot of very legitimate reasons. I just want to caveat this entire thing by saying that everyone is different and where you are at in your savings journey is going to just depend on a lot of factors. One of those factors is where you live and your living expenses and how much you make, but a general rule of thumb that people tend to use is saving 100% of your salary by age 30.

There's another rule that people also use that's the 80% rule, which says that you should aim to replace 80% of your pre-retirement income. Another rule says to aim to save between 10% to 15% of your pre-tax income for retirement. What I personally use, and I am not a financial advisor, and this is not personal investment advice, but I go with aiming to save between 10% to 15% of my pre-tax income for retirement.

I am looking to get to that 15% number, and what's cool is that all of your retirement accounts ladder up to that. If you have an employer match and say your employer match is 4% and then you are also contributing 4%, that means you're already up to 8% and if you're trying to get to 15%, that's great. Then, if you have a Roth IRA for instance, you add on your money that you're putting into that every year, see where it gets you in that percentage, and you may be closer to 15% than you think.

Sean Pyles: Yeah, I'll say I'm with you, Alana, with the trying to save 10% to 15% of my pre-tax income for retirement, because I think when a lot of folks look at the goal or the prospect of having 100% of their annual salary saved by age 30, it seems really daunting and it can encourage people to throw in the towel and think, "I'm never going to get to that point, so why should I even try if I'm already so far behind?"

Alana Benson: Absolutely. I completely agree with that. It's a really scary number, especially if like me, I did a lot of living in my 20s. I was not focusing on saving for retirement. I was having a good time and I was traveling a lot and I wasn't saving. That means that now, I'm working on saving more aggressively and I'm trying to catch up, but it's going to depend so much on where you're at. I know folks who are older than me who have nothing saved for retirement, and I know folks who are younger than me who have way more saved for retirement, and it's a personal thing.

Sean Pyles: It might also be worth throwing out that whether you have 100% of your annual salary in your retirement account by age 30 can also depend on the state of the stock market. There could have been someone who had that amount in their retirement account starting out about a year ago, early in 2022, and then given the way the last 12 months have gone, they now have less than that.

Alana Benson: Yeah, that's a really, really great point.

Liz Weston: I think what people should take from this is that they should start as early as possible and keep going. It just gets harder and harder to catch up the longer that you put it off. I totally get it that people would look at that 100% at age 30 and go, "Forget it. Never going to get there. I'm never going to be able to catch up," but really, anywhere you start is good, and just do what you can and keep adding to it as you can.

Sean Pyles: That's such an important point, Liz, about leveraging your time horizon because you could argue that time is almost more important than the money that you're putting into the account because in order for saving for retirement to really pay off, you have to invest enough money for long enough for it to compound, meaning that you're earning interest on your savings and on your interest, which is a hugely powerful force that a lot of folks underestimate, but it can take years and years for the compounding to pay off.

Liz Weston: Yeah, it really shoots up towards the end. When you're putting money in, day in, day out, week in and week out, and you don't see much change and then all of a sudden, boom, at the end you're going to see a real surge.

Sean Pyles: I'm taking your word for that because I haven't experienced that yet. I've seen the charts. I know you're correct, but I'm waiting for that to happen to mine.

Liz Weston: Trust me on this. OK, Alana, so let's talk tactics. How do you get started? How do you catch up?

Alana Benson: If you have the opportunity to get an employer's 401(k) match, definitely do it. You can open an IRA. You can consider maxing them out if that is financially feasible for you. You can automate your savings. There's all of these tools that we typically talk about that can help you save, but if you are really trying to get after it and you can do these things, there are some lesser-known tactics and one of those is catch-up contributions.

Now, this only applies if you're 50 or older, but it does mean that you can contribute more than the standard amount to both the 401(k) and to IRAs. 

Liz Weston: There's also tactics regarding Social Security that can help, right?

Alana Benson: Absolutely. You can consider delaying Social Security as you get closer to retirement. So these benefits, they increase by about 5% to 7% each year that you delay between the earliest claiming age, which is 62, and your full retirement age. This gets a little complicated, but stay with me. The return that you get increases if you can wait past your full retirement age.

If you delay, that can boost your check that you get by about 8% for every year that you hold off applying until you’re 70 when your benefit maxes out. Most people are better off delaying, and that's according to a lot of research that takes into account longer life spans, prevailing interest rates, survivor's benefits ... And many financial planners encourage their clients to tap into other resources like retirement funds if that means that they can put off getting those Social Security benefits.

Liz Weston: Now, our questioner is actually a millennial and apparently millennials are more likely to believe in UFOs than they are to believe that Social Security will be there for them in retirement.

Alana Benson: Good point.

Liz Weston: So just to reassure you, Social Security is the most popular federal program ever, and there's no politician in his right mind that's going to let the government stop sending checks to granny. Keep that in mind when you hear these talks about Social Security going bankrupt. Actually, even if it does run out of the so-called trust fund money, the system will collect enough in taxes to pay more than 75% of the promised benefits. That's one thing. Another thing, again, it's such a popular program, Congress will have to fix it at some point, so don't just assume that Social Security won't be there because most likely, it will.

Sean Pyles: That is somewhat reassuring, Liz, although I'm guessing that some folks are listening to this thinking there are plenty of politicians who are maybe not in their right mind and could potentially go about slashing Social Security.

Liz Weston: Point taken, point taken.

Sean Pyles: OK. Well, speaking of maybe not being in your right mind, I want to dive into something that really stood out to me in our listener’s question, and it was about this myth that they came across about whether if you have a business license like an LLC, that you can possibly contribute to a 401(k) with no limits. Is that a real thing or is that not real?

Alana Benson: So unfortunately, there is no such thing as no limits. It's life, so there are always limits. There is always an asterisk, there is always fine print, especially with–

Liz Weston: We are getting really deep here.

Alana Benson: Well, especially with these kinds of accounts. 401(k)s, Roth IRAs, there are a lot of small rules and it's hard to know the whole picture of what you're getting yourself into. It's really important to learn the limitations, but what this person may have been thinking of is a solo 401(k). These are for people who are self-employed and they do have contribution limits, and in 2023, that number is $66,000 a year.

Liz Weston: Wow.

Alana Benson: Yeah, it's a lot. To help understand the contribution limits, it helps to pretend that you are two people. We're going to do some role playing here. You're both an employer of yourself and you're an employee, also of yourself. In your capacity as the employee, you can contribute as you would to a standard 401(k) with salary deferrals of up to 100% of your compensation or $22,500 in 2023, plus that $7,500 catch-up if you're eligible, whichever is less.

Liz Weston: That's really important though, whichever is less. I think what happened here is somebody heard, "OK, you can put in 100% of your income," and thought, oh, no limits, but actually the limit is 100% of your income up to $22,500 if you're under 50, or with the catch-up of $7,500 if you're 50 or over.

Alana Benson: Yeah. This is not like "Mean Girls." "The limit does not exist" is not actually a thing in this capacity. In your capacity as the employer, you can make an additional contribution of up to 25% of compensation.

Liz Weston: OK. That's what adds up to the $66,000 or whatever.

Alana Benson: Exactly.

Sean Pyles: This makes me think a lot about the misinformation that I see on TikTok, especially around personal finance, where there's maybe some kernel of truth, and maybe someone who was making a video saw that, oh, you can contribute 100% of your earned income potentially, and they interpreted that as not having a limit at all. And then someone views that, they take the top 80% of the truth, and then they miss the crucial 20%, and then they run with it, and they're trying to make decisions that are right for them off of not entirely correct information.

Alana Benson: I think that's a great point, and it's true. I've seen some very upsetting things on TikTok when it comes to personal finance. I've seen people saying that instead of investing in a 401(k), you should buy life insurance. I think that really comes back to what I was saying about fully understanding these accounts and fully reading the fine print.

I know it's hard and I know it's daunting, but it's something that's so important to our futures — to make sure that we understand it and we have resources; and there are resources even aside from NerdWallet, though they're not as good, I have to say, in my personal opinion. But the information is out there, and it is worth taking the time to make sure you understand this and not just hear that part of a TikTok video or part of something on Instagram and then go out and commit to it. You want to make sure you're really setting yourself up for success, and that means doing the legwork of understanding these accounts.

Liz Weston: And perhaps hiring some help. I think a really important member of your financial team you should be building over the years is a tax pro, so either a CPA, which is a certified public accountant, or an enrolled agent, which is somebody that can represent you in front of the IRS and typically a little bit less expensive than a CPA. But having somebody like that who understands your situation and can answer questions based on your individual circumstances can be hugely helpful. And I know not everybody's in the position to hire help, and financial planners can be pretty expensive, but starting out with a tax pro can be a great way to help you get reliable information, particularly about taxes and retirement savings, and again, help you start building that team.

Alana Benson: Yeah, agreed.

Sean Pyles: One last thing that I want to touch on that I picked up on listening between the lines of our listener’s question is that I think that they're feeling a little bit stressed out and maybe a little bit like they're falling behind their peers when it comes to saving for retirement. I think it's important to acknowledge that there is an emotional component to feeling like you're not saving enough. It can make you feel really anxious and like you won't be prepared for retirement.

I want to talk a little bit about how to overcome this feeling. For me, it's really helpful to focus on what I can control, and do what I can, and especially with retirement savings, to not delay doing that because of how important your time horizon is, and being able to take advantage of compounding interest. Taking action can help you feel less helpless, and doing it as soon as you're ready can ensure that you do have enough time before retirement for your savings to grow to where they need to be.

Alana Benson: Yeah, I think that's a great point, and as I've said throughout this episode, this is a super personal journey. And realistically, if you are at a place in your life where you just can't be saving for retirement right now, that's OK. It's not the end of the world. There are a lot of other people in that same situation. I think what Sean's saying about doing what you can control is super important here. In an episode a while ago, I talked about my own personal journey of being able to max out a Roth IRA from getting to a point where I was waitressing and not able to save anything for retirement, and something that I say again and again is that it may come down to increasing your income.

If you're really at that bottom line where you can't put money away, that's understandable, but it's not going to be the latte that you don't buy or the avocado toast that you don't get. It's going to be the amount of money that you have coming in that's really going to impact your ability to start saving.

Liz Weston: If you are able to save and you have a 401(k) at work, check into automatic escalation. A lot of plans will sign you up automatically at some point, but they also offer the opportunity to boost your contribution by tiny amounts every year, maybe 1%, something like that. What they've discovered is that it's easier for us to commit to, quote, "saving more tomorrow."

In other words, to say, "OK, I'm going to increase my retirement contributions down the road," and sign up for that, and then when it kicks in, there's nothing else you have to do, versus trying to save more right now. These auto-escalation programs take advantage of that human tendency to be able to promise to do something tomorrow and then forget about it, because they kick in and they allow us to save more.

Alana Benson: That's such a great idea, and it's great too because it clicks into that ... If you don't have that money in your bank account, you can't spend it.

Sean Pyles: Right.

Liz Weston: Exactly.

Sean Pyles: Well, Alana, thank you so much for talking with us.

Alana Benson: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me.

Sean Pyles: With that, let's get on to our takeaway tips. First up, you are not a number. Saving for retirement can be stressful, but don't let the balance of your retirement account define you.

Liz Weston: Next, save where you can. 401(k) plans and IRAs can be easy ways to save, and remember that contribution limits are increasing for 2023.

Sean Pyles: Finally, be wary of social media advice. Apps like TikTok and Instagram are full of misinformation, personal finance and otherwise. Turn to trusted sources of information like NerdWallet for help.

Liz Weston: That's all we have for this episode. Do you have a money question of your own? Turn to the Nerds and call or text us your questions at 901-730-6373. That's 901-730 NERD. You can also email us at [email protected] Also visit nerdwallet.com/podcast for more information on this episode, and remember to follow, rate and review us wherever you're getting this podcast.

Sean Pyles: Here is our brief disclaimer: We are not financial or investment advisors. This Nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes and may not apply to your specific circumstances. This episode was produced by Liz Weston and myself, audio wizard Kaely Monahan and I mixed our audio. Jae Bratton wrote our show notes. And a big thank you to the folks on the NerdWallet copy desk for all their help.

Liz Weston: With that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.