Retirement might be decades away for some of us, but the choices we're making right now will determine exactly when we can afford to leave the workforce for good. If your goal is to retire as soon as possible, you need to be strategic about where and how you save money for retirement. Here are a few tips you can use to speed the growth of your savings.
1. Claim your full employer 401(k) match
Employees who qualify for a 401(k) match should make claiming this their top priority every year when saving for retirement. The only time you shouldn't pursue this match is if you need all of your income to help pay for your living expenses.
A 401(k) match could potentially be worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars this year, and after several decades in your retirement account, it could be worth five figures or more. That takes some of the pressure off you.
Check with your company's HR department if you're unsure how its matching system works and ask about its vesting schedule, too, if you haven't been at the company for long. This determines when you're eligible to keep your 401(k) match if you leave the company. Quitting too soon could be costly, so it's best to stay there until you're fully vested if you can.
2. Use the right accounts
When most people think of retirement accounts, they think of 401(k)s and IRAs. There's a good reason for this. Both have tax advantages that can help you hold onto more of your money. Depending on the account type, you either pay taxes in retirement to get a tax break today or you pay taxes now for tax-free withdrawals in retirement.
But retirement accounts have their limitations too. In 2021, you may only contribute up to $19,500 to a 401(k) and $6,000 to an IRA if you're under 50. Adults 50 and older may contribute up to $26,000 and $7,000, respectively. These accounts also have 10% early withdrawal penalties if you try to take money out before age 59 1/2.
If you wish to avoid these drawbacks, you might consider stashing some money in alternative accounts. Self-employed people looking to save a little more can consider self-employed retirement accounts, like a SEP IRA or solo 401(k). And taxable brokerage accounts are great places to keep money you plan to use before 59 1/2, if you're thinking about retiring early.
You could also consider a health savings account (HSA), as long as your health insurance has a deductible of $1,400 or more for an individual or $2,800 or more for a family. You may contribute up to $3,600 to an HSA in 2021 if you have an individual plan or $7,200 if you have a family plan. Your contributions reduce your taxable income, and if you use the money for medical expenses at any age, it's tax-free.
3. Focus on low-cost investments
You can't talk about maximizing your profits without talking about minimizing fees. All investments have some costs associated with them, and over time, these can hamper the growth of your savings.
Mutual funds have expense ratios — annual fees written as a percentage of your assets — that all shareholders pay. Ideally, you'd like to keep these under 1% whenever possible. That means you'd be giving away $1 or less per year for every $100 you have invested in the fund.
Index funds are a great option for those who want to quickly diversify their portfolio while keeping costs down. These are mutual funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that mimic a market index, like the S&P 500. They tend to generate strong returns, and their expense ratios can be as low as 0.03%.
It all depends on you
Investing in index funds, claiming a 401(k) match, and choosing the right retirement accounts can help you retire more quickly, but they all depend on a steady stream of contributions. It's not always easy to find money for retirement, but you should aim to contribute as much as possible every month.
If you're struggling to do so, take a look at your budget to see if there are any areas where you can reduce your spending. When that's not possible, look for ways to increase your income. It could be as simple as working overtime here and there or applying for a promotion. Or it could involve switching jobs or starting your own side business. Just make sure that whenever you experience a change to your finances, you're thinking about your retirement first.
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