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New Grads, This Strategy Could Mean Retiring Sooner

May 3, 2018
401(k), Investing, IRA, Retirement Planning
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That first job after college brings the excitement of a long-awaited paycheck, but the thrill may evaporate as the financial to-do list grows: Make student loan payments. Pay off the credit card. Buy a work wardrobe and some furniture. And, oh yeah, start saving for retirement.

With so many competing goals, it’s tempting to put off retirement savings for years.

Do your future self a favor and resist that temptation, because starting early pays off in a big way. The more time your money has to work for you, the earlier you can retire.

Putting money to work

When investments grow, the reinvested earnings generate returns, too. That’s called compounding, and over the years it adds up.

“Time is a huge factor,” says Steve Branton, a certified financial planner with Mosaic Financial Partners in San Francisco. “Assuming an 8% return, a 35-year-old would have to save twice as much as a 25-year-old and still wouldn’t catch up.”


Say you start at 25 and save $100 a month in a retirement account with an average annual return of 8%. By age 65, the account would total about $311,000: your contributions of $48,000 would have reaped about $263,000 in earnings.

Now suppose you wait until you’re 35, but double your monthly savings to $200. By age 65, you would have contributed more but earned less. The account would total about $272,000, with your $72,000 in contributions having led to about $200,000 in earnings.

Get started, even if only in a small way

Have a 401(k) at work? At the bare minimum, contribute enough to take advantage of any matching dollars your employer offers. Play with NerdWallet’s 401(k) calculator to see how different contribution levels could affect your results.

“Make sure you’re at least getting the employer match because that’s free money,” says Tess Downing, a certified financial planner with FJY Financial in Reston, Virginia.

If you don’t have a 401(k), open an IRA account. There’s no minimum amount needed to open an IRA with several top online brokers.

“What I like about the 401(k) is it comes right from the paycheck,” says Linda Rogers, a certified financial planner and owner of Planning Within Reach in Memphis, Tennessee. You won’t miss money that never reaches your checking account. If you have an IRA, set up automatic payments from your bank account for a similar “set it and forget it” feel.

In 2018, you can contribute up to $5,500 to an IRA and as much as $18,500 to a 401(k). Even if you can’t max out accounts, start with what you can do. Every dollar helps.

You can do it, with a strategy

Use this strategy to juggle competing financial goals as you enter the work world.

  1. Set a budget. “Most people don’t even know what they’re spending,” Downing says, which makes it difficult to plan savings.
  2. Tackle high-interest debt first. Credit cards have double-digit interest rates, so prioritize paying them off. Then avoid charging stuff you can’t pay for right away. An incentive to pay your full card balance each month: It helps your credit score.
  3. Start an emergency savings account. Shoot for $500 as an initial goal; that’s enough so you don’t run up credit card balances every time you get in a jam. Eventually, you’ll want enough to cover three to six months of fixed expenses, but don’t delay retirement savings till you hit that goal. “It took me years to build up my emergency fund,” Downing says. “It doesn’t have to be done overnight.”
  4. Make student loan payments — but don’t blindly chase an early payoff. Sure, killing off student loans feels more rewarding than saving for a retirement that seems eons away, Branton acknowledges. But with low-interest loans, you’re better off making the minimum payments and saving the extra money for retirement. If you’ve taken care of other needs, you can consider accelerating payoff for loans with 6% or higher interest. But don’t overlook options such as loan consolidation, forgiveness programs and refinancing to cut interest rates, Downing says.
  5. Boost retirement saving painlessly. When you come across extra money, shift some of it to retirement before you get used to spending it. Every bonus, raise, tax refund or zeroed-out credit card balance is a chance to pad your retirement.

Do whatever it takes to nudge up your savings rate early in your career. “If people would save 10% right out of the gate, then in their 50s they wouldn’t have to save 40 or 50%, which is really hard,” Branton says.

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