Americans are wrapping up the year feeling pretty dismal about their retirement savings, according to a new survey from NerdWallet: Less than a third say they feel good about how much they put away this year.
The year-end survey, which was conducted online by Harris Poll, found that while 70% of Americans are saving for retirement, only 21% plan to max out an individual retirement account like a traditional or Roth IRA in 2016. Of those who have a workplace retirement plan like a 401(k), only 15% intend to max it out. Both are opportunities that won’t come back around, as retirement plans have annual contribution limits that make it hard to make up for lost time.
The potentially bigger problem, though, is that most people are unlikely to do better next year, with only 32% of those who have a workplace retirement account reporting plans to increase contributions in 2017. That’s despite potential 3% pay raises — the expected average, according to a survey of U.S. companies — and a median income that was up last year for the first time since 2007.
But there’s still time to sing a more positive tune, and you can use the momentum of the New Year to help you. Here are three ways to make 2017 the year of the retirement savings comeback.
1. Calculate retirement savings needs
You can’t save for retirement if you don’t know how much you need for retirement; without running the numbers, you’re likely to save too little or too much. Though the results of the NerdWallet survey reinforce the fact that the latter scenario is relatively rare, it’s worth identifying a target.
Luckily, this isn’t an exercise that requires math, or even pencil and paper. An online retirement calculator will quickly tell you how much you should save on a monthly basis based on factors you plug in: your income, age, expected spending needs and investment return. The next step is hitting that monthly target.
2. Make small increases part of your annual routine
The easiest way to save more is one step at a time, so consider this a new ritual: Take 10 minutes on Jan. 1 to bump up your retirement contribution by 1%. With all due respect to the old Southern tradition of eating black-eyed peas and greens to bring on luck and money, these incremental but annual increases will actually bring on money, in the form of investment returns.
Consider this: NerdWallet’s math found that if someone earning $40,000 and currently saving 5% increases his savings rate 1% per year until he’s saving 15% of income — the typical retirement savings goal — he’ll have $1,053,455 after 40 years (the analysis also assumes a 6% return and 2% annual raises). That’s over twice what the same earner would wind up with had he held steady to that 5% savings rate.
One note here: Some employers do this for you by automatically escalating your contribution to a 401(k) plan each year. If you’re worried about accidentally doubling your increase — though that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing — check in to see if your plan automates this before bumping the contribution up manually. (You can also try a 401(k) calculator to see how the numbers add up.)
3. Use the right retirement accounts
According to the NerdWallet survey, 55% of Americans who are saving for retirement — and 63% of those ages 18 to 34 — report doing so at least in part within a bank savings account.
Those consumers could be missing out on the big tax savings of tax-advantaged retirement accounts, not to mention employer matching dollars in workplace plans and the opportunity to invest their money for a higher return rather than settle for a bank interest rate of 1% or less.
Retirement savings dollars should always go into a workplace plan with matching dollars first. Once that match is fully captured, investors can consider a Roth or traditional IRA. The difference there comes down to taxes; generally, the money in a Roth will be more valuable. (To see just how valuable, plug your numbers into a Roth IRA calculator).
If all retirement account options are maxed out for the year, the last stop for extra dollars is a taxable brokerage account.