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Make no mistake about it, most Americans working in the private sector are on their own when it comes to saving for retirement.
According to a study released in 2013 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of 2011, only 18% of this segment was participating in a pension (or defined benefit) plan. About two decades prior it stood at 35%, almost double. What’s more, only 10% of private industry firms even offer a pension plan.
Why have once solid pension plans been eroding from the private sector?
One reason is that labor has shifted more to global markets, making it more challenging for companies that employ domestic workers to compete. In developing countries, labor is less expensive and companies often don’t need to pay for pensions.
To remain competitive, firms employing workers in the U.S. have been trying to manage costs, which includes saving on labor. Cutting or eliminating pension plans has been their version of low-hanging fruit.
Problem is, individual Americans have been slow to keep up with this trend and have not shifted the onus onto themselves as much as they need to.
For some, 401(k) plans sponsored by their companies are a good start, but they won’t solve everything.
The BLS reported last year that only 66% of private sector companies offer access to retirement benefits, and only 49% of private sector employees participate.
What about Social Security? Well, it helps, but whether it will keep people in decent financial shape is open to debate.
If you don’t have a pension and have been slow in getting your 401(k) funded, now is the time to start considering other ways to have an income stream for your future self.
Three reasons (OK, excuses) people cite for not saving more earlier in their careers: They can’t afford to; their investments won’t add up to anything; and they don’t know how.
Let’s look at each and offer some solutions.
I can’t afford to save
Expenses. We all have them. Maybe they’re what’s keeping you from putting extra money away. Maybe you feel that you just don’t have any extra to go around each month.
There are financial realities we can’t avoid: housing costs, food, clothing and, for many, student loans. But we don’t have to live in an area we can’t afford or shop at a pricey online retailer for a new pair of jeans.
First take a look at where your money is going. Here are some examples of what the average family (defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as a household of 1.8 adults and 1.9 children under 18) spends on different items each month:
● Housing — $1,535 (includes shelter, utilities, furnishings and equipment) (BLS, 2015)
● Vehicle, gas and maintenance — $500 (BLS, 2015)
● Cable TV — $99 (NBC News)
● Smartphones — $140 (J.D. Power and Associates, 2013)
● Netflix — $10 (Standard plan)
● Food away from home — $250 (BLS, 2015)
● Coffee — $92 (Time/The Consumerist, 2012)
● Apparel and services — $155 (BLS, 2015)
● Soft drinks — $70 (Time/The Consumerist, 2012)
These figures may or may not be what you spend. For example, you may not drink soda, so you won’t have any soft drink expenses. But you may spend much more on meals on the go or dinners out.
Also, I haven’t included things like vacations, since they’re more of a one-time purchase per year. But don’t overlook them — there’s real savings to be had if we shop smarter and take more manageable trips.
The idea is to look at each of these categories and ask, “Do I need this?”
Can you drive a slightly less expensive car? Or move to a slightly more affordable area with a shorter commute? You’ll be surprised where you can find money.
Let’s say you can lower your rent by $100 by moving somewhere less expensive, find a better cell phone plan and cable package for another reduction of $50, cut out a few coffees and make dinner at home one extra night for another savings of $50. That’s $200 a month.
My savings won’t add up to anything
Another reason people delay funding their 401(k)s is they don’t believe what they’re investing is going to make an impact.
Let’s go back to our example. If we take that $200 each month and invest it, starting when we’re 25 through the time we’re 65, here’s what we get:
● Annual contributions — $2,400.
● Total years — 40.
● Total principal contributed — $96,000.
● Interest rate — 5%.
● Total interest — $209,000.
● Total principal and interest — $305,000.
So, by moving two towns over, not paying for data you don’t need or shows you don’t watch, and planning meals a fraction more, you’ve managed to create over $300,000 for your nest egg. That’s pretty good.
I don’t know how to save
This is where today’s investing landscape is vastly different from before. The barriers to putting money away are lower than ever, and you don’t need huge sums of cash to give to a broker to buy stock for you.
If you have an employer-sponsored 401(k), start there. Sometimes you’ll get to take advantage of a company match, which is essentially the closest thing to free money you can find. Establishing your 401(k) account is often as easy as a visit to your employer’s human resources office or signing up online.
If you’re struggling with putting anything away, start with even 1% of your income and increase it incrementally. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it will add up.
If you don’t have access to a 401(k), open an individual retirement account, or IRA. There are numerous IRA providers, so consider consulting a financial advisor to see what options make sense for your personal situation. You’ll need to work other investments into your portfolio over your career, but it’s a great start, especially if you’re just beginning to invest.
If you’re not ready for either, make sure you’re at least putting money consistently into a savings account. While this by itself is certainly not a recommended long-term strategy, it will get you in the habit of putting something away while you’re deciding on your next step.
While there are challenges in saving for retirement, you don’t need to put it off. Start today and your future self will thank you.