Are you saving for retirement? Here’s your guide to getting on track with securing your financial future.

Saving for retirement can often feel so daunting that you push it to the back of your mind. When trying to manage your career and other personal finance goals such as buying a house and paying down debt, retirement planning and investing often takes a back seat. You know you should ask your HR department about the 401(k) plan your company offers, but you never get around to it. But it’s worth the effort now so that you are well-prepared for the future.

The truth is many Americans are not saving for their golden years. According to a 2018 survey by Northwestern Mutual, one in five Americans has nothing saved for retirement. And 78% of Americans are “extremely” or “somewhat” concerned about affording a comfortable retirement. One in three Baby Boomers (33%), the generation closest to retirement age, have between $0-$25,000 in retirement savings.

Generations X and Y are often saddled with student loan debt and stagnant wages, making it a struggle to save.

While these are scary facts, the good news is that once you take the time to educate yourself on the basics of retirement planning and you take a few smart steps to invest, you can largely put retirement investing in the back of your mind and not feel guilty that you aren’t taking necessary action.

Jane Bryant Quinn, author of How to Make Your Money Last: The Indispensable Retirement Guide, says many people don’t want to think about retirement planning. She also says that making projections and calculating retirement budgets can be a pain but is important to do.

“You have to add up your savings, estimate what you’ll get from Social Security, make an investment plan, estimate how much income your investments will provide, and estimate your retirement expenses,” says Bryant Quinn.

To help figure all of this out, Bryant Quinn says to create budgets. “If you’re married, make three estimated budgets—one for you as a couple, one for you if your mate dies first, one for your mate if you die first. For example, married couples get two Social Security checks (one for each). When one of you dies, the survivor will get the larger check but lose the other one. So, you have to plan for all circumstances,” she says.

Daniel Burke, CFP, ChFC, president of Burke Financial Group, LLC, says nurses spend their entire working careers caring for the needs of others, but often by doing this, they tend to neglect important planning components for themselves.

Are you ready to take action? Below are answers to the most common questions about retirement planning and investing to get you started on the road to a secure future.

What Are My Retirement Dreams?

Start with finding your why. What motivates you when you dream about your retirement? Do you want to spend a year traveling around the country in an RV? Do you want to move to a new city? Do you want to spend more time on hobbies such as gardening, crafts, or learning to speak Spanish? Or perhaps you want more time to devote to friends and family or a cause close to your heart.

Identifying the life you’d like to retire to can serve as a strong motivator as you start down the path of savings. It’s much easier to devote 15% of your income to your retirement account versus spending that money on something fleeting when you can envision the life you’re saving for.

How Do I Get Started?

“Benefits through the employer are a great place to start as nurses begin planning for themselves and their families,” says Burke.

Educate yourself on the retirement benefits offered by your employer. If your employer offers a 401(k) or 403(b) option with a matching benefit, sign up for the match immediately. If you are not taking advantage of your employer’s match, you are literally leaving free money on the table.

If your employer doesn’t offer a 401(k) option, then open a Roth IRA through a brokerage such as Fidelity or Vanguard. Contributions made to a Roth are after-tax contributions, but your money and earnings grow tax-free (meaning you will not pay taxes on any returns you earn from your investments).

What If I Haven’t Been Saving?

If you haven’t been saving anything for retirement, it’s important not to beat yourself up. You can’t go back and change the past, but you can commit to saving going forward.

Bryant Quinn offers the following advice, depending on your age.

New Grads: “Start a savings account, to have a little cash on hand. Put a little into your employer’s retirement plan, despite your student loan. If you change jobs, don’t cash out the amount you saved, take it with you to a new job,” says Bryant Quinn.

Mid-Career: Higher earning years means higher savings. “In your retirement plan, chose funds that lean heavily to stock market investments. It doesn’t matter if stocks go down. Throughout history, they have always come back,” says Bryant Quinn. “You have the time to wait. It’s your best shot at a nest egg. Keep contributing to your plan, even if your kids are in college (or at least try to).”

Near Retirement: Time to plan. “Keep investing in stock-owning mutual funds,” says Bryant Quinn. “You will probably live another 30 years (or more—my mom made it to 103). Over such a long period of time, stocks always go up.”

How Much Should I Save?

If you’re starting from scratch, a good starting point is to invest enough to get any company match offered by your employer. This is essentially free money and everyone should take advantage of it. For instance, if your company offers a 5% 401(k) match, you should invest no less than 5%. But that’s just a starting point.

Another strategy that Bryant Quinn suggests is to simply start by taking at least 5% out of every paycheck and putting it into your 401(k) or 403(b). “If you’re already contributing, increase the amount. What will happen when you get a slightly smaller net paycheck? Nothing will happen. We all tend to spend whatever money we have in our checking accounts. If there’s less in your account, you’ll spend less—even without a budget,” she says. “You’ll make small adjustments without realizing it. It’s the only magic I know in personal finance.”

If your company does not offer a 401(k) program or a match, you can open a Roth IRA through a brokerage service on your own.

“If you have no plan [at work], Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) can be purchased at low-cost no-load mutual fund groups such as Vanguard. They’re available at banks, too, but usually with higher fees. Always choose low-cost investments,” says Bryant Quinn.

Once you start gaining some confidence in your knowledge and are eager to save more Bryant Quinn suggests utilizing financial resources, such as online retirement calculators and budgeting tools to estimate retirement living expenses.

Overall, determine a percentage goal that works for you and challenge yourself to increase it incrementally (e.g., every six months or annually). You can also boost your savings effortlessly by automatically investing any annual or performance raises you receive. If you were living on what you made before you got a raise, just keep living off of that amount and invest the extra income.

Do I Need A Financial Planner?

If all of this sounds complicated and you would like a helping hand, consider working with a financial advisor. But choose wisely as many financial advisors get paid by selling you on specific mutual funds, often with high fees. These fees will eat away at your nest egg.

Your best bet is to hire an independent advisor who is fee-only or paid directly by you by the hour. Your company may provide consultations with an advisor from the administrator of your 401(k)/403(b) plan, but it’s important to remember that their loyalty is first and foremost with their employer, not you.

What Is the Biggest Mistake I Could Make?

“Not saving enough,” says Bryant Quinn. “You can save money, even if you’re living paycheck to paycheck.”

Denene Brox

Denene Brox is a freelance writer based in Kansas City.

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