There’s a very good chance you’re not saving enough.
We know this because there may be no topic surveyed more than retirement savings, and the results are consistently bleak. Generation X — people born from 1965 to 1978 — have a median of just $72,000 in retirement accounts, according to a study last year by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.
Retiring with $72,000 translates to roughly $250 a month in retirement income for 30 years. The average retirement-age household currently spends about $3,800 a month, according to our analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
» Run your numbers: How much do you need for retirement?
There’s no bailout here: Social Security will pick up some, but not all, of the slack; the program replaces about 40% of income for an average earner. The rest must come from savings.
Faced with that reality, ask yourself these three questions:
1. Are you putting money in the right places?
The retirement savings gap is a multifaceted problem: debt levels are high, incomes are relatively stagnant and employer-sponsored retirement plans are more scarce than they should be. When there isn’t enough money to go around, far-off goals get shuffled to the back seat.
For many people, there isn’t much that feels further off than retirement, so it frequently gets shortchanged — literally. After all, there are debts to repay and emergency funds to build, not to mention vacations to go on or houses to buy. But with few exceptions, retirement should come first.
That’s especially true if you have an employer retirement plan that matches your contributions, which could be a quick 50% to 100% return on your investment. You won’t find a return like that anywhere else, so capturing those matching dollars comes before other goals, including paying off debt. (Want to understand how valuable your match is? Run your numbers through a 401(k) calculator).
And if you don’t have an employer retirement plan that offers matching dollars? You should still prioritize saving for retirement by contributing to an IRA, especially when you’re young. Investing early gives your money time to compound. The current annual IRA contribution limit of $5,500 could easily grow to six times that over 30 years without additional contributions from you — and with a Roth IRA, you pocket that growth tax-free.
» No IRA? Here’s how to open one
2. Do you know what you’re spending?
This is not about coffee or the new version of that nickel-and-diming obsession of avocado toast. It’s about spending with intention and being aware of where your money is going.
“I haven’t worked with anyone who couldn’t cut 10% of their spending within a year and make it a permanent philosophy change.”Lynn Ballou, certified financial planner
“I call this the 10% solution,” says Lynn Ballou, a certified financial planner and regional director at EP Wealth Advisors in Lafayette, California. “I haven’t worked with anyone who couldn’t cut 10% of their spending within a year and make it a permanent philosophy change.”
There are certainly people who have already shaved their spending down to the bare minimum. But even if you’ve done that, you would be surprised how quickly your budget starts loosening up again. So take Ballou’s suggestion: Regularly spend some time combing through your spending by reviewing credit card and bank statements. There’s a good chance even the leanest budgeters can surface a few glaring leaks.
If you still don’t know where to make cuts, Ballou suggests taking a look at your insurance coverage. “Most people are undercovered for the big stuff and over-insured for the little stuff. Flipping that around can be a 10% savings right there,” Ballou says.
3. Does the money you save actually make it into savings?
This is the common hole in even the most well-intentioned effort. You take the time to audit your budget, you negotiate your bills, you raise your insurance deductible to lower your premium, you get a raise or bonus … and then that money gets absorbed into some other expense before it ever hits your investment account.
There’s no shame — and often no fee, though you should double-check — in making repeated transfers from your checking account into your savings account. Do that each time you save money, whether you’ve smooth-talked your cell phone provider into a $20 discount, or your new vegetarian diet knocked your grocery spending down a notch.
Then, once a month, move the extra you’ve accumulated into a retirement account like a Roth IRA. (You can also make repeated transfers into that account directly, but be sure you’re not paying a commission or transaction fee for each investment.)
“Investing doesn’t happen accidentally,” Ballou says. “If you just have more money when you cut expenses, and you don’t have a process in place to make sure that money goes into your investment portfolio, you can pretty much guarantee you’re going to spend it on something you don’t really need.”