Smart Money Podcast: Outsmart Scammers, and Waiting to Save for Retirement
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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 some tips on outsmarting student debt cancellation money scams.
Then we pivot to this week’s money question from Nina, who wrote us an email: “I recently upgraded jobs, but in my new company, I won't be eligible to participate in the 401(k) program for a year. I don't want to miss out on retirement savings in that year and want to know what you think is the best vehicle to save until I'm eligible. I have typically invested in a Roth IRA, but thanks to a recent marriage and job upgrade, I don't think we will be eligible for the nice Roth tax treatment. I max out my HSA [health savings account] every year and regularly invest in a taxable brokerage account. Is a traditional IRA pretty much the last or best option? Let me know what you think.”
Check out this episode on any of these platforms:
Our take on outsmarting debt cancellation scams
Student debt scams have become increasingly sophisticated, but you can still outwit fraudsters by being aware of scams' telltale signs. First, the Department of Education and student loan servicers do not call borrowers to help them with debt cancellation. Borrowers with eligible student loans must apply for debt cancellation online at studentaid.gov. If you receive a call from someone alleging to be affiliated with either organization, it’s almost certainly a scammer.
Another red flag: an offer to help you do something that you can easily do yourself. The debt relief application is free and takes minutes to fill out. Finally, be extremely wary if someone asks for personal, highly sensitive information such as your email address, Federal Student Aid ID or Social Security number. A bad actor can use this information to access your financial accounts or create new ones in your name.
If you suspect that you’ve been contacted by a scammer, file a report with the Federal Trade Commission.
Our take on 401(k) waiting periods
Federal law allows employers to defer their employees’ participation in 401(k) retirement plans for up to a year. However, it’s possible — and advisable — to find another way to save for retirement until you’re eligible to contribute to a company plan. If you make less than $144,000 as a single filer or $214,000 for married couples filing jointly in 2022, you can set up a Roth IRA, highly favored among many people because withdrawals in retirement are tax-free.
A traditional IRA or a backdoor Roth IRA may be a better fit for higher income earners. There is no income restriction on a traditional IRA, and contributions may be tax-deductible, but the withdrawals in retirement are taxed. It is possible to have both a Roth IRA and a traditional IRA, but the combined contribution limit in 2022 is $6,000, or $7,000 for those 50 or older. With a backdoor Roth IRA, contributions are placed in a traditional IRA first and then converted to a Roth IRA. While Roth IRA withdrawals are tax-free, you’ll pay taxes on the contributions. Or, if you already deducted the contributions on a tax return, you’ll have to pay it back.
Look at the whole package: Before accepting a job offer, scrutinize the benefits package and see if you can negotiate better terms.
Know your retirement options: If you don’t have access to a 401(k), look into traditional or Roth IRA accounts.
Commit to saving: No matter which vehicle you choose, make a plan to invest for your retirement.
More about saving for retirement 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.
Sean Pyles: You want to save for retirement, but your new job won't let you access your 401(k) for a year. Do you give up on retirement savings, or find a creative solution?
Liz Weston: Welcome to the NerdWallet Smart Money Podcast, where you send us your money questions, and we answer them with the help of our genius Nerds. I'm Liz Weston.
Sean Pyles: And I'm Sean Pyles. 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]
Liz Weston: In this episode, Sean and I are talking with our regular co-host, Sara Rathner, about how to save for retirement when your employer makes you wait to access their 401(k) plan. But first, Sean is going to tell you how to outsmart the student debt cancellation scammers who might have called you recently. So, tell us what happened, Sean.
Sean Pyles: Yeah, I've been getting way too many calls and scammers lately. And first, I'll give a little bit of background. The application from the Biden administration to cancel some amount of federal student loans has been live for a number of weeks at this point, and in that time, scammers have been working overtime to try to dupe you and get your personal information, and maybe some of your money.
Usually, this does take the form of a phone call. I have probably received about half a dozen at this point, just from the time the application went live. And it's typically from this organization called Student Loan Support, which is super vague, and doesn't really tell you much of anything, but kind of tells you what you would want to hear. It's crafted in just a way to seem like it might be legitimate. So, I want to use my experience getting these calls and talking with these scammers to help others spot these scams, and outsmart the scammers.
Liz Weston: I love that you did this, because I love scamming the scammers. Just as an aside though, I've been getting these calls and I've never had student loans. So, tell us what happened to you.
Sean Pyles: I just have so many questions, like how did they even get your phone number? But that's a topic for another day. Anyway, last time I got one of these calls, here is what I did. I usually don't answer calls from numbers I don't recognize, so I let the call go to voicemail. I saw that the caller was again from Student Loan Support, my old friend, and my interest was piqued. At the time, I was out walking my dog, and I figured, Hey, I have some time today, I might as well call them back and see what I can do. Also, just to be totally clear from the get-go, I knew I was going to give these scammers fake information purely for the sake of research and seeing what they wanted from me. So, that was my mindset going into it. You never want to give them your own actual information. They already have your phone number, which, in my opinion, is way too much information.
Liz Weston: Yeah, exactly.
Sean Pyles: So I called them back, I went through their automated system, and I quickly got to a real person. The person asked me a few questions, they said they were gathering this information to help them determine whether I was qualified for student debt cancellation and/or an income-driven repayment plan, which I also found kind of odd, why are they doing both of these things instead of one or the other? But that was a red flag to me in the beginning.
Liz Weston: What did they ask you for?
Sean Pyles: First, they asked me for my email, and I gave them a fake email address of course. Then they asked for my income, and I made up a number that was a little bit north of $100,000. And when I said that, the person quickly got a little bit more curt than they were before, and they said I didn't qualify for student debt cancellation. And when I said that that was not true, because individuals qualify if they made less than $125,000 in the 2020 or 2021 tax year, I was promptly hung up on.
Liz Weston: Oh, interesting. They didn't try to pitch you something else, They just went, "Not worth our time."
Sean Pyles: They were like, "No, not worth my time." Not even so much as a courtesy, "Well, sorry, you don't qualify," or whatever. Just hung up on, because I pushed back a little bit.
Liz Weston: What did you do next?
Sean Pyles: Well, I was still out walking my dog, and so I called back that same number, because I figured, might as well see what I can do. And I got through to another person, and they again asked for my email and my income, and this time I made up an income number that was a little bit under $100,000. And I didn't get hung up on, there actually wasn't even an acknowledgement of, "Yeah, OK, this means that you're qualified for it." They just continued to ask for more of my personal information, which, to me, signaled that I got passed to the next level.
After I got past that level, they started asking for more of my personal information, including my Federal Student Aid ID, which is a huge red flag, you do not want to give that out to strangers because they can potentially use that to get into your account. I just said I didn't have it handy, and the person let me slide. Because, I think this is what they really wanted, they then asked for my Social Security number. Huge, huge, huge red flag, sirens going off in my head. I was like, "This is it. I've breached the culmination of what they've been trying to get me to do the entire time."
So then, at that point, I just acted naive and curious and I said, "Oh, can you clarify why you need this information, and who you work for?" And they said, "Oh, well, we work at Student Loan Services, and we're working with the Department of Education." And I asked, "What do you need this information for?" And the person began to get a little bit angry with me, which I found surprising. He said, "We're just trying to help you here. Don't you want to cancel your student debt?" And I was like, "Well, if you are really trying to help me, why do you need this information over the phone right now?" They were trying to say that they needed this information today. And again, I was cool as a cucumber, just asking questions, and yet again, at this point I was hung up on.
Liz Weston: And that's the classic, right? They try to make it seem like it's urgent, that is the scammers’ playbook, that they're trying to push you into making a decision or doing something before you can think twice about it.
Sean Pyles: Absolutely. And by this point, I was back at my house, and I figured I'd call it a day and get back to my regular work. So, that was my recent experience talking with these scammers. And it was really interesting, and I think it's worth dissecting what we saw happening in those dynamics. So, what stands out to you about that interaction, Liz?
Liz Weston: Well, just the call itself. I'm thinking about those, "I'm from the IRS, and you're about to be arrested," calls that, a few years ago, they were all the rage. And then, the Social Security number being canceled, that was another one. But the fact is, the government is not going to reach out and call you, the Department of Education and your student loan servicer just are not going to do it. You need to reach out if you want your student debt canceled, if you have a problem with your student debt. They got way too much to do to be making these prospective calls, as it were.
Sean Pyles: Exactly. Another thing that stood out to me was how cagey they were about who they are and who they work for. Because if they were actually my servicer, I'm certain that they would be really upfront with that fact, and would be able to provide a lot of information. And if they were, hypothetically, from the Department of Education, you think they would want to go out of their way to tell me they were so. But again, a government agency is not going to call you.
Liz Weston: If you are eligible, or you think you might be eligible for student loan cancellation, or you need an income-driven plan, go to studentaid.gov, and that's where you can apply.
Sean Pyles: Another big red flag about this entire process is that they were trying to help me do something that I can do myself for free. And this is another classic in the scammer playbook. And I think whenever someone gets one of these calls, it's important for you to ask yourself, what does this person have to gain by helping me apply to cancel my student debt? And the answer is, nothing.
Liz Weston: Yeah, exactly. They don't get paid for doing that, so they must be after something else.
Sean Pyles: Mm-hmm. It's also worth noting that some scammers are after money rather than information, like the call that I got. And in that case, they would potentially ask for something like a thousand dollars to fill out this application for you to cancel your student debt.
Liz Weston: Or gift cards.
Sean Pyles: Yeah, that too.
Liz Weston: Send us gift cards.
Sean Pyles: That's a really common method.
Liz Weston: Oh, Lord.
Sean Pyles: And one final thing that really stands out to me about getting all of these calls and talking with these scammers is how organized they are. I'm not sure how many people work for this alleged Student Loan Support organization, but I have not received a call or a voicemail from the same person twice. And they seem to have a pretty intricate phone system, so I'm wondering how big is this thing?
Liz Weston: Well, you noticed during the worst of the lockdowns, these calls dropped. I know I got fewer of them, and part of that was because the call centers were shut down overseas. And you think, "Well, a scammer won't care about COVID," well, the scammers did care about COVID because they work in large, large call centers. So, not only is it pretty organized, but keep in mind that so much of your personal information is already out there. They have possibly bought bits and pieces of it, like your phone number, and they're trying to piece together the rest of it so that they can take advantage of you, take your identity, commit fraud, all these other things, so they're just trying to ease a few more bits of information out of you. You may not think it's a big deal, but that's why you have to keep this information really close to the chest and be very cautious about who you give things like your Social Security number to.
Sean Pyles: Right. And I would implore anyone who gets one of these calls, whether or not they've given out their personal information or not, to report the fraud to the Federal Trade Commission, and they can do that at reportfraud.ftc.gov. I filled out a quick form on this page after I got these calls, it took me probably 3 minutes, and it's worth it just to let the government know what numbers are calling people so they can look into it and hopefully stop these calls in the future.
Liz Weston: Yeah, absolutely.
Sean Pyles: All right. Well, before we move on to this episode's money question, we have one quick announcement. Liz and I are gearing up for one of our favorite episodes of the year, and we need your help to make it happen. The past couple of years we've asked you, our beloved listeners, to share your biggest financial accomplishments of the year for a special end-of-the-year episode. And this year we are doing that again, but in a slightly different way. We want to hear your rose, thorn and bud of 2022.
Liz Weston: Rose, thorn and bud, you're going to have to explain what that means.
Sean Pyles: Yeah, this is a little game that my friends and I play sometimes when we get together, and it's a fun way to catch up on what we've been doing in our lives lately. The rose is the best thing that's happened to you lately, the thorn is something that is a little bit pokey or more difficult and the bud is what you are most excited about. And here's an example, my rose for the past week was having a really fun weekend with my friends at my place up in Washington, and my thorn would be that the days are getting noticeably shorter up here, it's getting pretty dark pretty early and the bud would be that I recently signed up for a 10-mile race for next year, something that I've never done before.
Liz Weston: Oh, congratulations. Good for you.
Sean Pyles: Thank you. We have a lot of training to do to get there. What would yours be, Liz?
Liz Weston: Well, the rose was reconnecting with an old friend that I haven't seen since before the pandemic, so that was really wonderful. Thorn, open enrollment, honestly. I love having so much choice when it comes to our health insurance, but figuring out which deductible, which plan, oy, that's a lot.
Sean Pyles: Time intensive.
Liz Weston: Yes, exactly. And then finally, the bud would be I am hosting Thanksgiving for the first time in ages, and I'm really looking forward to that.
Sean Pyles: Oh, fun. Great. Well, like last year, we really want to hear from as many of our listeners as possible, so leave us a voicemail on the Nerd hotline by calling 901-703-6373 with your roses, thorns and buds. You can also email a voice memo to [email protected]
Liz Weston: OK, and let's get on to the money question.
Sean Pyles: Let's do it.
Liz Weston: This episode's money question comes from Nina, who wrote us an email. Here it is, "Hi nerds, I recently upgraded jobs, but in my new company I won't be eligible to participate in the 401(k) program for a year. I don't want to miss out on retirement savings in that year, and want to know what you think is the best vehicle to save until I'm eligible. I've typically invested in a Roth IRA, but thanks to a recent marriage and job upgrade, I don't think we'll be eligible for the nice Roth tax treatment. I max out my HSA," that's health savings account, "every year, and regularly invest in a taxable brokerage account. Is a traditional IRA pretty much the best or last option? Let me know what you think. Thanks, Nina."
Sean Pyles: To help us answer Nina's question, we are joined on this episode of the podcast by our regular co-host, Sara Rathner. Welcome back, Sara.
Sara Rathner: Let's rage against the man today, let's do it.
Sean Pyles: All right, let's do it. I know that 401(k) waiting periods are a topic both of you feel very strongly about, so let's start by defining what they are. Sara, can you give us a quick rundown?
Sara Rathner: Yeah, this is something that is allowable by the IRS. As we know, the IRS, it sets the rules for 401(k) plans and other employer-sponsored retirement plans. And it's essentially a provision that allows companies to decide to put in a waiting period for new employees of up to one year, which means that, should the employer decide to do this, then you have to work for that employer for at least a year before you're eligible to participate in their retirement plan. Companies can choose to be more generous and shorten the waiting period, but they don't have to.
Sean Pyles: Right. And Liz, I know these make you particularly mad. Do you want to spell out why?
Liz Weston: Yeah, because even a short delay is costing you money when it comes to your retirement savings. Say somebody is 35 years old, and they run into one of these one-year waiting requirements, so they miss out on contributing to their 401(k). And let's say they could contribute the max, which next year is a whopping $22,500 if they're under 50. So, not being able to contribute that could end up with them having $183,000 less for retirement, assuming 7% average annual return, missing one year has that cost.
If they are prevented from contributing while they're in their 20s, the damage is even higher. That could increase to $367,000. So, you can pretty much assume that every dollar that you're not allowed to contribute in your 30s means $8 less in retirement savings once you hit retirement age. If you are prevented from contributing to one of these in your 20s, you can double that damage, so $1 that you can't contribute turns into $16 less in retirement funds. And I just think that's an outrageous cost to inflict on a worker.
Sean Pyles: It's enormously costly, and then it also puts the burden of trying to scramble and figure out retirement savings on the employee.
Liz Weston: Yeah, figure out what their alternatives are.
Sara Rathner: And in your 20s and 30s, it is more typical to switch jobs more often. The days of staying at the same company for 35 years and getting a gold watch are over. If you are changing jobs every one to two years during your career building years, you're potentially missing out on the ability to contribute at all, or only for a limited amount of time before you move on to your next job.
Liz Weston: Yeah, and all those costs that I was citing, that doesn't even include the company match that you're forgoing. Most 401(k) plans have a match to encourage people to contribute. If you can't contribute, you can't get the match. All of these issues are why waiting periods are no longer the norm, and they haven't been for a while. Vanguard's most recent How America Saves report basically showed that 72% of the retirement plans that Vanguard administered do not have a waiting period, people can contribute immediately. One-year waiting periods were a feature in only 8% of plans. So, the vast majority allow you to participate much, much sooner.
Sara Rathner: You know what that means, listeners? If you're facing a job offer where they have a waiting period for your 401(k), keep looking for different job.
Sean Pyles: Yeah.
Liz Weston: Honestly, yeah. Or-
Sean Pyles: Well-
Sara Rathner: You're not getting the best you can. We live in a time where it's still a job hunter's market. If you are not happy with the benefits, just move on. Somebody else will give you something better.
Sean Pyles: I'm wondering about whether there's any ability to negotiate on a case-by-case basis.
Sara Rathner: No.
Sean Pyles: Or is this a blanket policy?
Sara Rathner: Absolutely not. And I'll tell you why. Employers work with 401(k) providers, and other benefits providers as well, like health insurance companies, to negotiate these packages that they offer employees. This is tremendously complicated. There are legal minimums that employers have to follow based on their size and other factors, and then there are limitations on what the providers will actually offer, so you can only customize this to a certain extent. With a 401(k), what you can customize is your own contribution every year, and then, most likely, what you can invest your contributions in, in terms of different investment choices. But you can't really negotiate an earlier start to your 401(k).
Liz Weston: However, you can negotiate, perhaps, a signing bonus. If this is really the job you want, if you see long-term prospects there, and you're willing to wait out that year, ask for more money, ask for a signing bonus, ask for something that will offset the damage to your future retirement savings.
Sean Pyles: I really feel for our listener, because it seems like they are in quite a bind. They're saying that this job is an upgrade for them, but then they have to deal with trying to figure out how to save for their retirement. A 401(k) isn't going to be an option for a year. Let's talk about some of the other options. They said that they aren't really going to be eligible for a Roth IRA because of the income that they have, most likely. I think we should talk about Roth IRAs, traditional IRAs and maybe even backdoor Roths, which are something that people may not know about. And we can give a quick rundown of a Roth IRA first, because that's what our listener mentioned.
An IRA is just an individual retirement account. And a fun fact that I learned recently is that Roth, for the Roth IRA, comes from the last name of one of the senators who actually spearheaded this account's creation. And one of the tax advantages of it is that withdrawals in retirement are tax-free, but the issue is that there are income contribution limits for Roth. So, the ability to contribute is phased out at higher income levels. Married couples filing jointly cannot contribute if they make $214,000 or more for the 2022 tax year, and for individuals that number is $144,000.
Sara Rathner: Yeah, that's the thing with getting married. There are lots of benefits to it, but one thing to keep in mind is if you do decide to file jointly, it's a way for your household income to dramatically increase overnight. So, it's something to just consider. But how does that affect your overall household income, or at least your adjusted gross income, which is after a number of deductions, because that's considered for Roth IRA contribution limitations. It might be a year where you contribute like you normally do, and then you find out after the fact that you have to take that money back because you earned too much money that year.
Sean Pyles: Well, traditional IRAs are still an option. How do you think this comes into play with our listener's question?
Liz Weston: Well, you mentioned limits on being able to contribute. The contribution limits themselves are pretty restrictive if you compare them to a 401(k) or other workplace retirement plan. I mentioned that next year you can put in $22,500 pretax money to your 401(k), with a Roth IRA or a traditional IRA, the maximum is $6,000 this year and $6,500 next year. So, it's substantially less.
Sean Pyles: And that's spread across both a traditional and a Roth, so if you have both types of accounts that $6,500 amount for the 2023 tax year would include both of those IRAs.
Liz Weston: Yeah, you can't put $6,500 into each, in other words. That's the total limit, so you could put half or half, or however you want to divide it up. And the other issue with a traditional IRA is that your contribution is tax-deductible if you're not covered at work. And I believe, in this case, our listener will be considered not covered, because they're not allowed to contribute for a year. However, if you do have a workplace plan and you are eligible to participate, then your ability to contribute to an IRA is limited by your income. If you make more than a certain amount, you can't write off that contribution.
The bottom line to that is a traditional IRA could be an option. We generally recommend contributing to a Roth when you can. If your income makes that not possible, then consider a traditional IRA. But really, the next best thing to a direct contribution to a Roth would be a backdoor Roth IRA.
Sean Pyles: Yeah, and this is a sneaky way to contribute to a Roth if you don't qualify for it because of income caps, perhaps. And in simplest terms, the process goes something like this, you put money into a traditional IRA, and then you convert the traditional IRA contributions into a Roth account, and that is it. It requires some paperwork, and there's plenty of fine print to sort through. But it's a nice way to get the tax advantage of a Roth IRA when you don't generally qualify for one. However, you could owe taxes, and that's something people need to keep in mind, too.
Sara Rathner: It's sort of a pain now or pain later situation. Paying that large amount of taxes on a backdoor Roth could be pretty painful, but you're doing it at a time where you're still working and earning income. The idea is that having money set aside to use in retirement that you've already paid the taxes on means that you can enjoy that money without owing additional taxes at a time where you might not be working for income anymore, and so money is a little bit tighter.
Liz Weston: One of the ways this really works best is if you don't have a massive traditional IRA, because your tax bill's going to be based on how much pretax you have in that traditional IRA. So, if you only have a small one, or you don't have one at all, when you make this initial contribution and then you convert it, there might not be a huge tax bill. We did this for my husband because, for a while, he didn't have a traditional IRA. And our tax bill was minimal, we would just put the money in, and then a few weeks later we would convert it. And basically, there was a few dollars in taxes out from whatever the increase was in the value of the account during that short period. But again, not a big deal. However, if you have a big traditional IRA, then you're going to face a much bigger tax bill, so that requires some more math.
Sean Pyles: One thing I also want to talk about in our listener's question is that they mention that they have an HSA that they max out, and they regularly invest in a taxable brokerage account. And that got me thinking about the order of operations for investing. Some people invest in a 401(k) just enough to get the match, and then would maybe invest into a Roth or maybe traditional IRA, and then max that out, and then maybe go more into their HSA. And I want to say off the bat, we're not financial advisors, we're not going to tell you how to invest your money, but I want to talk about different strategies for this because people can feel pretty strongly about this, too.
Sara Rathner: The rationale behind starting with the 401(k) to get the match is the free money. The match is money that your employer is putting into the account for you, that's going to grow, hopefully, along with the money that you contribute yourself. And so, it really amplifies your ability to save for retirement. So, that is obviously the ideal. I know our listener is faced with a situation where they're not going to be eligible for that for a while, but once you are, it's absolutely something to look into to find out what the match terms are for your company.
And then from there, you start looking at other accounts. And I think part of it, and Liz, you might be able to talk about this a little bit more too, is tax diversification in your retirement accounts. Some are pretax and some are post-tax, so once you're retired you can strategize as to where to draw money from, based on what taxes you might owe at the time. That gets complicated, that's definitely something to talk to a financial advisor about. It is something to think about, but not agonize over, just really the important thing is to start saving and investing for retirement as early as you can.
Liz Weston: And the health savings account has something known as a triple tax break, so the money is deductible when you put it in, it grows tax-deferred, and when it comes out, it is tax-free when used for medical expenses, including medical expenses in retirement. So, a lot of people who have these actually try not to tap them. The money can be rolled over from year to year and invested, so it's kind of like a nice supplement to your 401(k).
A health savings account has to come with a high-deductible health insurance plan, and those are not a good fit for everybody. But if they are a good fit for you, this can be an additional way to save for retirement that allows you to put aside money that can be tax-free when you pull it out. The same is true of a Roth, except you don't get the tax break going in. As Sara said, this is complicated, it's different for different people. But thinking about getting some kind of tax diversification so that not every pot of money you have is taxed the same way when you pull it out in retirement, that can be a really good thing, to have some control over your tax bill in the future.
Sean Pyles: And Sara, I remember you talking with me about someone that you worked with in the past that said that they didn't recommend you invest in any sort of brokerage account or individual investment account until you max out your 401(k). What do you think about that now?
Sara Rathner: Yes. That was somebody that I worked with who has a lot more financial expertise than I do, so that was advice that she gave me. I don't know if that applies to every one person. Because first of all, the ability to max out your 401(k), which again, like we said, this year it's $20,500, next year it's going up to $22,500, that's a lot of money to put aside every year. That's a pretty high percentage of your paycheck, depending on what your income is. And so, a lot of people will never get to that point. What is helpful, I think, from that is prioritizing retirement savings, especially at a younger age, earlier in your career, and giving that money a lot of time to grow. Because you're going to need a pretty substantial amount of money to support yourself with a sense of financial stability when you retire. And unfortunately, for a lot of Americans, we just don't reach that point where we can retire with that sense of financial stability. That's definitely something that's a problem for many people.
And so, I think where she was going with that was, at the time, she was like, "You're early in your career, you have money to set aside, you've committed to contributing as generously as you can to your 401(k), so do it." And I'm realizing, now that I'm a little bit further along in my career, and I've been given the advice by several people that I've worked with in the finance world, save as aggressively as you can for as long as you can, because life gets more expensive the older you get. And I'm already reaching a point where I've had to back off of how much money I put into different investment accounts, just to free up cash for other things I need to do right now. And I feel comfortable doing that because I spent half of my 20s and most of my 30s saving as much as I could, saving until it hurt, basically. But obviously, it was somewhat personal advice based on my own situation at the time, so I wouldn't say to everybody who's listening, "Hey, blanket rule, you should do this," because it's not going to fit for everyone's situation.
Liz Weston: Well, and I would add that tax brackets should be a factor that's considered as well. When you're young and earlier in your career, you might have the lowest tax bracket you'll ever have. So, putting aside money in a 401(k) that gives you a tax break, OK, great, but you're going to need the tax break more, likely, down the road. So, that's why you hear the advice sometimes to contribute enough to your 401(k) to get the match and, then put money in a Roth or an HSA, or both, just so you have the ability to pull the money out when you're in a higher tax bracket and get some kind of a break at that point. It varies by person, it varies by situation, it's not just a one size fits all thing.
Sara Rathner: The advice to contribute enough to your 401(k) to get the full employer match, that's just a start. You don't have to stop there. If you have additional money available after your bills are paid and things like that, you can contribute more than that. You won't get a higher match, but you will be putting more money aside for retirement. And you can change your contribution levels at any time, so maybe you have a six-month period where you feel comfortable contributing more, but then some circumstances happen in your life and you need to pull back, then you can do that. You're not locked into a contribution rate for an entire year, for example, the way that you are locked into, say, a health insurance plan, unless you get married or have a baby or something like that. So, it's very flexible.
Sean Pyles: Well, do you guys have any other thoughts around employee waiting periods and trying to save for retirement when you aren't really able to through your job?
Sara Rathner: Hot take, I hate how tied retirement savings and other benefits like health insurance are to employment in this country. I'm not an expert in how it's done in other countries throughout the world, there's a wide variety of ways to save for retirement and attain health insurance in different countries. But I can only speak to what's going on here.
And the issue is it forces you to tie a lot of your very important personal life financial decisions to your employer. And that means that you are at the behest of how generous your employer decides to be. It means it's hard to switch jobs, it's hard to decide to become self-employed and start your own company. In some cases, it makes it hard to leave a bad relationship because you will lose out on the benefits that your spouse or partner gets that you have access to. And I wish that we could save more for retirement independent of where we work, I wish that it were easy to attain a lot of benefits independent of where we work. And unfortunately, that's just not the system we live in.
Liz Weston: I will propose that if you work for an employer, or you're considering a job at a company where there is a waiting period, that you say something about it. Ask them to reduce or drop it because, as Sara said, it's hard enough for workers to save enough for retirement without these restrictions, without being handicapped by their companies. And I actually did this with the Los Angeles Times when I was a reporter there many moons ago. They had a one-year waiting period, and I just pointed out the cost to me and to other workers, and sure enough, they dropped it. So, sometimes it's just a matter of having to say something.
Sara Rathner: Yeah, you can always ask for these things, especially if you have other like-minded coworkers you can approach as a group that makes your argument even stronger. We do live in a time where it's a workers’ market when it comes to job hunting. So, if there is a company that you really like, they have competition for you and other talent, and it is worthwhile to point out that something in their benefits package is actually not competitive.
Sean Pyles: Right. Well, what I am stuck with at the end of the day is simply how much money individuals can lose on their own because they aren't able to contribute for a certain amount of time, whether it be a few months or a year. And I think a lot of folks who are listening to this podcast are probably pretty proactive about their finances, but there are many other people who aren't as educated, and maybe don't have the resources to figure out how to navigate something like this, and so they are leaving tons of money on the table. Or I guess they don't even have access to all of this money, because of the way their employers have their benefits package structured. And it's such a loss.
Sara Rathner: And a lot of Americans are not eligible through their employers for 401(k)s at all. Even if you're working full time at a company that doesn't offer a retirement plan, it's just not something you have access to. And that limits your ability to save a substantial amount of money every year because you're limited to what you can contribute to an IRA, for example.
Liz Weston: A new AARP study that came out this summer showed that nearly half of workers in the U.S. don't have access to a retirement plan at work. That's nearly 57 million people, or 48% of American private-sector employees ages 18 to 64, work for an employer that does not offer either a traditional pension or a retirement savings plan. And without that plan at work that's automatically taking money out of your paycheck, it's much, much, much less likely that you will save for retirement.
Sean Pyles: Geez. Well, I guess one of the bottom lines is, like with many things when it comes to finances and managing your life in this country, "You're on your own, kid. You better figure it out some way or another," because help may not be coming.
Sara Rathner: To work for a company that does offer generous benefits to its employees, it's a true privilege. I have been lucky in my career to work for a number of very progressive employers who firmly believe as a value that they are going to offer the best benefits they can to their employees. And I think that I have benefited from that over the years financially. And I don't like that many people I know who work really hard are not offered the same benefits, simply because of the industry that they work in, and these are very important jobs. And so, I wish, if I could put it out in the universe, is that more American workers have access to the kinds of benefits that only some get access to currently.
Sean Pyles: Well, Sara, thank you for talking with us today.
Sara Rathner: Thank you for having me.
Sean Pyles: And with that, let's get on to our takeaway tips. Liz, will you please start us off?
Liz Weston: Absolutely. First, look at the whole package. Before accepting a job offer, scrutinize the benefits package and see if you can negotiate better terms.
Sean Pyles: Next up, know your retirement options. If you don't have access to a 401(k), look into a traditional or Roth IRA account.
Liz Weston: Finally, commit to saving. No matter which vehicle you choose, make a plan to invest for your retirement.
Sean Pyles: And that is 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], and visit nerdwallet.com/podcast for more info on this episode. And remember to follow, rate and review us wherever you're getting this podcast.
Liz Weston: This episode was produced by Sean Pyles and myself. Kaely Monahan edited our audio, Jae Bratton wrote our show notes. And a big thank you to the wonderful folks on the NerdWallet copy desk for all their help. And here's 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.
Sean Pyles: And with that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.