The First Thing to Know About Planning for Retirement in Your 20s

published Jul 24, 2022
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Financial experts say it’s never too early to start saving for retirement. Doing so as early as your 20s can allow for an extended time for compounding interest and a tax-free growth period. Even more importantly, putting aside funds on any level is critical from the moment anyone get their first paycheck. 

“The number one statement I hear from retirees is that they wish they started saving earlier,” says Wes Garner, a Principal Wealth Strategist for TDECU Wealth Advisors in Houston.  

For most people, retirement is the absence of income generated from employment. Therefore, you should consider your sustained desired standard of living, where you will travel, and how much support you want to provide to adult children and grandchildren, according to Onajh’ Porter, the assistant vice president and business development manager at Morgan Stanley Wealth Management

“The primary purpose of saving for retirement, in my opinion, is to be able to enjoy all the things you want to do, fund, support, or build without having to depend on social security or other defined income sources,” Porter says. “Relying solely on social security or pensions for income in retirement may not allow for some of those things to the extent we desire.”

Other than the need to start saving as soon as possible, which is the first thing you should know about retirement in your 20s, these five tips should help you find your footing.

Social security isn’t enough. 

The United States doesn’t offer the same social safety net as other Western countries. The average monthly social security benefit today is about $1,600. And once a person turns 65, Medicare will come for their healthcare needs but not long-term care, which can be an expensive and ongoing out-of-pocket expense, according to Chris Orestis, the president of Retirement Genius.

According to a recent Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances, the average amount in U.S. retirement accounts is $65,000. People ages 55 to 65 have $135,000 saved on average, while people 35 and under have saved $13,000.

“These numbers are nowhere close to good enough for someone to hit the target of being able to replace 70 percent of their peak income from savings over the remainder of their retirement years, which can last decades,” Orestis says. Simply put: Social security benefits are not enough to replace income for most people. 

Garner says this puts the responsibility on individuals to provide for themselves, which is not as big of a task if people start early, when small amounts of money have the potential to grow substantially over a long period of compounding interest. “For most people, it is much easier to save small amounts over a longer period of time than to try to save a lot just before retirement,” Garner says. 

For example, if someone begins investing for retirement at 30, allocating $3,000 annually to an investment account and assuming an eight percent annual return, that individual will have around $840,000 by the age of 70. Conversely, if someone waits until age 50 to prepare for retirement and they invest $6,000 annually while assuming an eight percent annual return — double what the 30-year-old did — they’d end up with around $300,000 at age 70. 

“Not only did the person who waited until later in life to save for retirement contribute more on an annual basis than the first example, but they also ended up with less,” Porter says. “You can imagine how those numbers might look different if you begin in your 20s.”  

Get your finances in order. 

Before saving for retirement, you should consider establishing a short-term emergency saving account and paying down non-mortgage debt. Garner says the purpose is to reduce the risk of using credit cards or dipping into retirement accounts if an unexpected significant expense pops up. 

“Paying down debt should be done with a thoughtful and objective plan of action, and then closely followed with switching to a saving plan once the debt is covered,” he says.   

According to Orestis, the most significant barriers to saving in your 20s are racking up debt, carrying school loans, paying expensive rent, excessive spending, and not living on a manageable budget. That’s why experts say to maintain a reasonable budget, wherever you are on your financial journey. Even if you are fortunate to enjoy significant wealth from having a lucrative career or inhering family money, it is wise to be conscious not to overspend.

Ask the important questions. 

When considering retirement savings, experts say to consider these few foundational questions. These include: How much you can afford to save on a monthly or annual basis, what is your current debt to income ratio, at what age you want to retire, and what is your “why” for saving?  

Porter also suggests finding “real-life” examples of people currently living in retirement. It would help if you considered how retirement looks to them compared to how you want to live those years. How much does that cost? And how much do you need to save per year to achieve it? 

Contribute to 410K or other saving plans. 

After knowing your options, Porter recommends identifying a percentage that, when multiplied over your working years, aligns with your desired lifestyle in retirement. 

Porter says a person employed at a company that offers a 401K Retirement Plan should consider contributing the maximum amount, which is $20,500 for 2022. Other retirement account types have higher and lower maximum contribution limits. 

Orestis says this investment gives your money decades to benefit from tax-free and compounded growth. 

Develop a long-term strategy early.

Porter says in your 20s, it may be easy to think you have all the time in the world to invest and save. But then you look up, and 10 years have gone by. 

“Cultivating a mindset in your 20s that’s guided by delayed gratification means you are doing what’s necessary to be in a better position financially,” he says.  With a long-term vision in mind, he suggests making practical adjustments, such as sticking to your budget, paying off debt, and opening a savings account with no debit card attached. 

Porter also recommends that you find a healthy balance between making sacrifices while enjoying the fruits of your labor. But do this without “making seemingly extreme sacrifices to save money, like never going on a vacation or taking time off while working 10-hour days for 10 years.” Remember to take time to rest, travel, and spend time with family and friends, he notes.

Being a high six- or seven-figure earner is not required to have a meaningful nest egg to enjoy retirement, Porter says. Anyone can retire well by saving money consistently over the years. 

“When it comes to planning for a secure and well-balanced retirement, it is okay to hope for the best in your future — but the smart strategy is to plan to stand on your own,” Orestis says.