Thursday, January 2, 2014

Playing Catch-Up on a Retirement Plan Over 50

retirement (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)
People ask me all the time what is the best way to catch up on a retirement fund after a couple of decades of procrastination. Should start by paying off all debt, start putting all you can muster into a 401k, start heavily playing the lottery with crossed fingers? The answer is a combination of paying off debt and investing in low cost bond funds.

Paying off debt can be better than saving money.

Well, it can actually save you more money because of the obvious interest charges you are paying. You need at least 10 percent of your gross income saved, and a good way to do that is to pay down any debt with a high interest rate (that isn’t tax deductible). Paying off credit cards or car loans with annual percentage rate of 15 percent will give you a 15 percent return on every dollar you pay off. This is definitely the first thing you need to do when playing catch up.

It’s important to note that you MUST make it a point to live within your means, and perhaps a bit below them if you want to really save for the future. This calculator from NewRetirement is a good starting point that brings the future into the harsh light of day. It might be a good idea to downsize your living space; get a smaller house or a car that doesn’t require a monthly payment. Ask yourself if you really are okay with running out of money before you reach 75? 

Low cost bond funds

Once you have settled any high-interest, non-tax deductible debt (or if you miraculously didn’t have any) you need to catch up with a 401(k) plan. It would be ideal if your employer match at least some of your contributions, but even if they don’t this is a great way to save because of the tax-free savings aspect of the retirement fund.

Take a day or two out of your schedule and figure out which fund options your employer offers, and which are best for you to invest in. It’s best to choose the lowest cost bond funds and you can do so by comparing fund expense ratios, and choosing those with a ratio less than one percent. These investment firms will pass on the most return to investors by keeping costs down, and will make a difference in twenty years by the time you retire.

You may have lost sweet time for investments to compound and grow to their fullest potential in your procrastination, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late. An investment will take 15 years to double at a five percent rate, and 18 years at a four percent rate. If you get going now, with the goal of contributing to the 401(k) the maximum amount you are allowed to add, you can have a nice chunk of money waiting for you when you retire.

Figure out your social security plan.

Full retirement age for those born between 1943 and 1954 is considered 66, and will replace some of your salary, but you will most likely need more income. The rate for the average wage earner is 42 percent, but it adjusts based on your specific income and whether your spouse should be expected to contribute as well (estimate your social security benefits here). You can maximize your monthly benefit by waiting to retire until you reach 70, which gives you a 32 percent higher benefit than “normal”.

You might be over 50, and you might be behind on your retirement plan for whatever reason. Hey, it’s going to be okay - life happens. You can start now and really improve your position in the next 15 to 20 years. Retire the way you want to, not the way you have to.

Louis Mack is a seasoned financial planner in San Francisco who specializes in retirement planning. He is a writer for and lover of the great outdoors.

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