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Why the First $10,000 in Retirement Savings Matters the Most

Here’s one way to stay on track for retirement: Dream of all the places you want to travel while squirreling away the most money you can into your 401(k).

“Morocco, Portugal, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand are all on the list,” said Rachel G., 46, a business analyst who lives in Rochester, NY. Her goal is to save $1 million in her retirement fund by the time she’s 60.

“I’ve worked for the same company for 24 years and started contributing to my 401(k) right away,” she said. “Over the years, as I could afford it, I’ve increased my contributions until they hit the pre-tax contribution limit set by the IRS — $19,000 for 2019.”

Rachel, a Gen X saver, is the gold standard. She’s someone who tackled retirement early and often and who will be reaping the rewards of her retirement long before employees a decade her junior are even close to retiring. She’s already nearly halfway to her goal already, and well ahead of the curve set by industry standards.

Now for the rest of us who are not even 40.

Average retirement savings: are you on track?

Most Americans are not on track for a smooth-sailing retirement. The American family with earners between ages 32 and 61 has just a median amount of $5,000 saved in a retirement account, according to the most recent Economic Policy Institute’s most recent State of American Retirement report.

A far cry from the guidelines suggested by retirement experts. For example, according to Fidelity, employees should aim to have a certain multiplication of their salary set aside for retirement. So if the median U.S. income is $46,800 for a full-time or salaried worker, this is how your optimal retirement savings should look:

Age 30: $46,800

Age 40: $140,400

Age 50: $280,800

Age 60: $374,400

Retirement at age 67: $468,000

A survey conducted by Varo in 2018, showed that 55% of people don’t even have $500 ready to tap in an emergency—and that percentage jumps to 61% when just considering millennials. In the survey, only four in 10 people of all ages said they even had access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan and 45% didn’t have a savings account.

Instead, Americans are relying on pension benefits and Social Security, which experts say is a risky move as both programs are in decline.

“The retirement system does not work for most workers,” writes Monique Morrissey, author of The State of American Retirement. “We can assume that as the value of employer-based retirement plans is declining and retirement savings are growing more unequal, retirement security is declining and growing more unequal.”

It’s never too early or late to start

The good news? It’s never too early, or too late, to start planning. And you can start a nice nest egg with building up just $10,000 in your 401(k) or other retirement investment account.

Part of your success in doing that is developing a saver’s mindset and taking advantage of retirement savings accounts, and other financial services like high-yield savings accounts, automatic savings tools, fee-free or low-cost accounts.

“We go to high school and college and nobody teaches us about personal finance,” said Trent Bryson, a certified financial planner and CEO of Bryson Financial in Long Beach, California. “Something that’s important is just starting to begin the dialogue. So for us, with retirement planning, it’s starting to ask what that really looks like for people.”

For workers in their 20s, 30s and 40s that means also looking at their parents’ and grandparents’ lifestyles, he said. “They are saying ‘I like that’ or ‘I don’t like that’ and trying to figure out what their best course is.”

Why saving is harder for millennials

Whatever your parents tell you, your experience is not going to be like theirs.

Retirement planning and retirement itself has changed significantly in the last few decades. The traditional corporate ladder has been replaced by a patchwork of multiple jobs and side hustles.

The student loan crisis means that the money that past generations may have put toward retirement is now going to pay off tens of thousands of dollars in education debt.

The population is also living longer, said Bryson, which means more money is needed for medical costs and, possibly, long-term care facilities or in-home care.

So what can you do?

How to save for your retirement

Even though it is daunting — and the headwinds against progress are strong — saving up for later in life is still important to do.

  1. Save just even a little every paycheck.
  2. Use your employer-sponsored retirement plan if you have one.
  3. If you don’t have access to a retirement plan or it’s too much to think about, just save in a high-yield savings account.

Bryson recommends everyone start by saving that $10,000 into a retirement account, preferably by age 30 if at all possible. Even if you don’t contribute another cent and you invest wisely with a 10 percent growth, he said, you could double your nest egg every 7 years.

That same $10,000 you invested at age 30 would be worth a whopping $640,000 by the time you retire at age 72, he said.

“The people that have been the most successful are those that put their money to work for them instead of them working for their money. It’s like night and day in terms of their lifestyles.”

Bryson said he’s always stunned how many people fail to take advantage of a 401(k), either through their employer or a self-funded account. At the very least, it putting money into a high-yield savings account.

“All too often there’s the, ‘I’m going to keep it in my bank account,’” he said. “By just letting it sit on the sidelines, it doesn’t grow. You have to take advantage of the growth.”

And if you have an employer that’s offering a matching 401(k), take them up on it from the very first day. (Remember, you always have the right to the money in your 401(k) even if you move employers.)

“It’s insane how many people don’t take advantage of that. They think, ‘That’s so far away, I’m going to pay off my school loans or I’m going to save for a house,’” he said, adding that the number one excuse he hears is, “I don’t know how long I’m going to be here.”

“But whether they’re going to be there a short time or a long time it doesn’t hurt to put money away,” he said. “Nobody else is planning for your retirement.”

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