Iâm a 34-year-old man who just started saving for retirement last year after getting married. My husband is 39 and has been saving for some time. My question is about Social Security. Should someone in our age group expect to receive it at all? Iâm always hearing about how Social Security is going broke.Â
Weâre both somewhat behind on where we should be on retirement. If we canât rely on getting Social Security checks when weâre older, how much more should we be saving? We donât want to live on rice and beans in retirement, but we also want to have enough money to enjoy life now.
Of all the things that keep me up at night, Social Securityâs solvency isnât one of them. At 37, Iâm just a tad older than you. I expect to get benefits someday, and you and your husband should, too.
Thereâs a kernel of truth to the stories you hear about Social Security running dry. Itâs starting to pay out more than it takes in, thanks mostly to people living longer and having fewer children who eventually pay in. Widespread job losses due to the pandemic probably accelerated things a bit.
But weâre still funding Social Security with our payroll taxes. Itâs just that if Social Securityâs reserves were completely depleted, our payroll taxes would only fund about 79% of obligations through 2090. Thatâs in the event that Congress takes zero action to shore up more money, which is highly unlikely given that Social Security is the most sacred of all social programs.
My bigger worry for young-ish workers like us is that our benefits wonât go very far. Even for our parents and grandparents who currently receive benefits, Social Security by itself makes for a meager retirement. The average retiree benefit in January 2021 is just $1,543 per month, or $18,516 annually. Social Security estimates that current benefits cover about 40% of an average workerâs pre-retirement income.
Those benefits buy less and less every year. Health care costs, which eat up a huge chunk of retireesâ budgets, rise way faster than Social Security benefits.
The 2021 cost-of-living adjustment was just 1.3%. Ask any retiree whether thatâs adequate to cover their rising living costs. The younger you are, the less of your income you should expect your benefits to replace.
So while I think you should expect to receive Social Security someday, I donât think it should factor into how much you save today. Knowing nothing about your budget or spending, Iâll give you the standard recommendation: Aim to save 15% of your pre-tax income for retirement. If you get an employer 401(k) match, make sure you contribute to enough to get your companyâs full contribution. Once youâve done that, make sure you have at least three monthsâ worth of emergency savings before you invest more for retirement. That protects your retirement funds so you donât have to tap them when times are tough.
If you can comfortably save more, great. If 15% isnât doable right now, figure out whatâs manageable and work your way up. For example, you could commit to putting half of your next raise toward your retirement account.
Unfortunately, thereâs no level of savings that guarantees you wonât have a rice and beans retirement. The younger you are, the more guesswork goes into retirement planning.
My life plans, at least as told to my Roth IRA brokerage, are as follows: work until age 67, delay Social Security until 70, die at 92. If everything goes as planned, Iâll die with millions. But really all of the above is just wishful thinking on my part. The picture changes drastically if Iâm forced to retire early, take Social Security sooner and stretch my savings over more years than I expected. Or if a prolonged bear market hits right as Iâm starting to withdraw my retirement money.
All that certainly supports the argument that you should save as much as you can muster as early as possible. But too often in personal finance, we only focus on the retirement years, assuming that theyâre guaranteed. The truth is, life can be snatched from us at any moment. So I also want you to have enough room to spend so that you can enjoy life now.
That doesnât mean you get free rein to spend. But if you focus on what really matters to you, I think you can strike that balance.
Youâre 34. You donât have to figure out your entire retirement plan right now. Focus on making saving a regular habit, and you can figure out the specific pieces as retirement gets closer.
Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to AskPenny@thepennyhoarder.com.
This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, which helps millions of readers worldwide earn and save money by sharing unique job opportunities, personal stories, freebies and more. The Inc. 5000 ranked The Penny Hoarder as the fastest-growing private media company in the U.S. in 2017.
One of the most common questions I receive from readers like you—especially since Grow (Acorns + CNBC) published my story last week—asks me how I invest.
All this theoretical investing information is fine, Jesse. But can you please just tell me what you do with your money.
That’s what I’ll do today. Here’s a complete breakdown of how I invest, how the numbers line up, and why I make the choices I make.
Of course, please take my advice with a grain of salt. Why?
My strategy is based upon my financial situation. It is not intended to be prescriptive of your financial situation.
I’ve hesitated writing this before because it feels one step removed from “How I Vote” and “How I Pray.” It’s personal. I don’t want to lead you down a path that’s wrong for you. And I don’t want to “show off” my own choices.
I’m an engineer and a writer, not a Wall Street professional. And even if I was a Wall Street pro, I hope my prior articles on stock picking and luck vs. skill in the stock market have convinced you that they aren’t as skilled as you might think.
All I can promise you today is transparency. I’ll be clear with you. I’ll answer any follow-up questions you have. And then you can decide for yourself what to do with that information.
Are we clear? Let’s get to the good stuff.
How I Invest, and In What Accounts…?
In this section, I’ll detail how much I save for investing. Then the next two sections will describe why I use the investing accounts I use (e.g. 401(k), Roth IRA) and which investment choices I make (e.g. stocks, bonds).
How much I save, and in what accounts:
401(k)—The U.S. government has placed a limit of $19,500 on employee-deferred contributions in 2020 (for my age group). I aim to hit the full $19,500 limit.
401(k) matching—My employer will match 100% of my 401(k) contributions until they’ve contributed 6% of my total salary. For the sake of round numbers, that equates to about $6,000.
Roth IRA—The U.S. government has placed a limit of $6,000 on Roth IRA contributions (for my earnings range) in 2020. I am aiming to hit the full $6,000 limit.
Health Savings Account—The U.S. government gives tremendous tax benefits for saving in Health Savings Accounts. And if you don’t use that money for medical reasons, you can use it like an investment account later in life. I aim to hit the full $3,500 limit in 2020.
Taxable brokerage account—After I achieved my emergency fund goal (about 6 months’ of living expenses saved in a high-yield savings account), I started putting some extra money towards my taxable brokerage account. My goal is to set aside about $500 per month in that brokerage account.
That’s $41,000 of investing per year. But a lot of that money is actually “free.” I’ll explain that below.
Why Those Accounts?
The 401(k) Account
First, let’s talk about why and how I invest using a 401(k) account. There are three huge reasons.
First, I pay less tax—and so can you. Based on federal tax brackets and state tax brackets, my marginal tax rate is about 30%. For each additional dollar I earn, about 30 cents go directly to various government bodies. But by contributing to my 401(k), I get to save those dollars before taxes are removed. So I save about 30% of $19,500 = $5,850 off my tax bill.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that 401(k) contributions are taken out prior to OASDI (a.k.a. social security) taxes. That claim was incorrect. 401(k) contributions occur only after OASDI taxes are assessed.
Many thanks to regular reader Nick for catching that error.
Second, the 401(k) contributions are removed before I ever see them. I’m never tempted to spend that money because I never see it in my bank account. This simple psychological trick makes saving easy to adhere to.
Third, I get 401(k) matching. This is free money from my employer. As I mentioned above, this equates to about $6,000 of free money for me.
Roth Individual Retirement Account (IRA)
Why do I also use a Roth IRA?
Unlike a 401(k), a Roth IRA is funded using post-tax dollars. I’ve already paid my 30% plus OASDI taxes, and then I put money into my Roth. But the Roth money grows tax-free.
Let’s fast-forward 30 years to when I want to access those Roth IRA savings and profits. I won’t pay any income tax (~30%) on any dividends. I won’t pay capital gains tax (~15%) if I sell the investments at a profit.
I’m hoping my 30-year investment might grow by 8x (that’s based on historical market returns). That would grow this year’s $6000 contribution up to $48000—or about $42000 in profit. And what’s ~15% of $42000? About $6,300 in future tax savings.
Health Savings Account (H.S.A.)
The H.S.A. account has tax-breaks on the front (36.7%, for me) and on the back (15%, for me). I’m netting about $1300 up-front via an H.S.A, and $4,200 in the future (similar logic to the Roth IRA).
Taxable Brokerage Account
And finally, there’s the brokerage account, or taxable account. This is a “normal” investing account (mine is with Fidelity). There are no tax incentives, no matching funds from my employer. I pay normal taxes up front, and I’ll pay taxes on all the profits way out in the future. But I’d rather have money grow and be taxed than not grow at all.
Summary of How I Invest—Money Invested = Money Saved
In summary, I use 401(k) plus employer matching, Roth IRA, and H.S.A. accounts to save:
About $7,100 in tax dollars today
About $6,000 of free money today
And about $10,500 in future tax dollars, using reasonable investment growth assumptions
Don’t forget, I still get to access the investing principal of $41,000 and whatever returns those investments produce! That’s on top of the roughly $25,000 of savings mentioned above.
I choose to invest a lot today because I know it saves me money both today and tomorrow. That’s a high-level thought-process behind how I invest.
How I Invest: Which Investment Choices Do I Make?
We’ve now discussed 401(k) accounts, Roth IRAs, H.S.A. accounts, and taxable brokerage accounts. These accounts differ in their tax rules and withdrawal rules.
But within any of these accounts, one usually has different choices of investment assets. Typical assets include:
Stocks, like shares of Apple or General Electric.
Bonds, which are where someone else borrows your money and you earn interest on their debt. Common bonds give you access to Federal debt, state or municipality debt, or corporate debt.
Real estate, typically via real estate investment trusts (REITs)
Commodities, like gold, beef, oil or orange juice
Here are the asset choices that I have access to in my various accounts:
401(k)—my employer works with Fidelity to provide me with about 20 different mutual funds and index funds to invest in.
Roth IRA—this account is something that I set up. I can invest in just about anything I want to. Individual stocks, index funds, pork belly futures etc.
H.S.A.—this is through my employer, too. As such, I have limited options. But thankfully I have low-cost index fund options.
Taxable brokerage account—I set this account up. As such, I can invest in just about any asset I want to.
How I invest and my personal choices involve two layers of diversification. A diverse investing portfolio aims to decrease risk while maintaining long-term investing profits.
The first level of diversification is that I utilize index funds. Regular readers will be intimately familiar with my feelings for index funds (here 28 unique articles where I’ve mentioned them).
By nature, an index fund reduces the investor’s exposure to “too many eggs in one basket.” For example, my S&P 500 index fund invests in all S&P 500 companies, whether they have been performing well or not. One stellar or terrible company won’t have a drastic impact on my portfolio.
But, investing only in an S&P 500 index fund still carries risk. Namely, it’s the risk that that S&P 500 is full of “large” companies’ stocks—and history has proven that “large” companies tend to rise and fall together. They’re correlated to one another. That’s not diverse!
To battle this anti-diversity, how I invest is to choose a few different index funds. Specifically, my investments are split between:
Large U.S. stock index fund—about 40% of my portfolio
Mid and small U.S. stock index fund—about 20% of my portfolio
Bond index fund—about 20%
International stocks fund—about 20%
This is my “lazy portfolio.” I spread my money around four different asset class index funds, and let the economy take care of the rest.
Each year will likely see some asset classes doing great. Others doing poorly. Overall, the goal is to create a steady net increase.
Twice a year, I “re-balance” my portfolio. I adjust my assets’ percentages back to 40/20/20/20. This negates the potential for one “egg” in my basket growing too large. Re-balancing also acts as a natural mechanism to “sell high” and “buy low,” since I sell some of my “hottest” asset classes in order to purchase some of the “coldest” asset classes.
Any Other Investments?
In June 2019, I wrote a quick piece with some thoughts on cryptocurrency. As I stated then, I hold about $1000 worth of cryptocurrency, as a holdover from some—ahem—experimentation in 2016. I don’t include this in my long-term investing plans.
I am paying off a mortgage on my house. But I don’t consider my house to be an investment. I didn’t buy it to make money and won’t sell it in order to retire.
On the side, I own about $2000 worth of collectible cards. I am not planning my retirement around this. I do not include it in my portfolio. In my opinion, it’s like owning a classic car, old coins, or stamps. It’s fun. I like it. And if I can sell them in the future for profit, that’s just gravy on top.
Summary of How I Invest
Let’s summarize some of the numbers from above.
Each year, I aim to save and invest about $41,000. But of that $41K, about $15K is completely free—that’s due to tax benefits and employer matching. And using reasonable investment growth, I think these investments can save me $15,000 per year in future tax dollars.
Plus, I eventually get access to the $41K itself and any investment profits that accrue.
I take that money and invest in index funds, via the following allocations:
40% into a large-cap U.S. stock index fund
20% into a medium- and small-cap U.S. stock index fund
20% into an international stock index fund
And 20% into a bond index fund
The goal is to achieve long-term growth while spreading my eggs across a few different baskets.
And that’s it! That’s how I invest. If you have any questions, please leave a comment below or drop me an email.
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