Saving for Retirement

Big Life Change? Two Retirement Rules of Thumb to Follow

Your 401(k) plan is just the beginning

Big Life Change? Two Retirement Rules of Thumb to Follow

You might be tempted to treat your retirement savings like a slow cooker: Just set it and forget it. But if your recipe for retirement amounts to signing up for your employer's 401(k) plan and letting it simmer for 40 years, well, you could end up unsatisfied.

That’s because all sorts of changes can impact how you maximize retirement savings while minimizing headaches. “From a retirement perspective, any life event is a good time to check in and reassess your strategy,” says Deborah Meyer, a Certified Financial PlannerTM and CEO of WorthyNest LLC. What sort of “life events” are we talking about here? Well, for starters, anything you set up a registry for (weddings and babies!), but also things like starting a business, moving abroad, switching careers or going back to school. 

Quitting one career to pursue a new field is a top reason why clients 35-and-under are quick to brush off their standard retirement plan, says Kristen Euretig a Certified Financial PlannerTM and founder of Brooklyn Plans. “Millennials may have a different career trajectory than previous generations that would work one job for 40 years,” she says. “Job hopping is more common, as is leaving the 9-to-5 office life to go freelance.” In fact, millennials are more likely to work freelance than any older generation, with 38 percent active in the side-gig economy.1

Switching jobs may require a switch with your retirement savings, too. Though you can usually keep your funds parked in an old 401(k), it may be more profitable—and carry fewer fees—to roll accounts from past employers into one IRA (individual retirement account).

If you’re making the move to freelance, you won’t have the option to sign up for another employer-sponsored plan, but that doesn’t mean you should hit the pause on savings, says Euretig. Setting up an IRA—or SEP-IRA (Simplified Employee Pension-IRA) if you’re a small business owner—lets you sock away money for your future—while possibly lowering your tax bill now.

Big life changes might mean a shake-up for how you’re saving for retirement, and they can also dramatically change how much money you’re able to save each month. Though your savings plan should be tailored to your individual needs, keep in mind these rules of thumb when a big life change shakes things up.

When You Have Less Money to Invest

Many financial planners will urge you to set aside 20 percent of your take-home pay for retirement savings (sometimes less if you’re starting to save earlier in life). But let's be real: There may be periods in your life when that just isn't possible. Unemployment or a shift to a lower-paying job could be to blame, but so could celebratory occasions, like welcoming a baby or buying a home. “Especially when people get married and start a family, they may find there are a lot of big expenses that they’re not prepared to handle right away,” says Meyer.

When a life change means you have to save less, do so wisely. Rather than dropping your retirement savings to zero, try to still invest enough each month to earn your employer’s 401(k) match (if offered), says Meyer. “Even if you’re really stretched thin, you want to continue to get that match because it’s like free money,” she says. For those without an employer, remember that future savings and current budgeting go hand-in-hand. If you’re feeling pinched, a financial app like Mint or Digit and a plug-and-play budgeting resource can help you stick to the monthly plan—while still saving what you can.

When You Have More Money to Invest

Maybe that career leap comes with a fatter paycheck, or maybe you had a windfall like a sizable inheritance or moved to a city where the cost of living is much lower. Whatever the good news, don’t forget to show your gray-haired self some love, too. That might mean maxing out your 401(k) contribution or opening an IRA to supplement your employer-sponsored plan—or even both. Total annual contributions to all of your accounts in plans maintained by one employer can be up to $55,000 as of 2017 ($61,000 including catch-up contributions)2, and if you have that level of funds to put away, it may also decrease how much you owe Uncle Sam come tax day.

“For some accounts, you’d pay taxes now, and for others you’d pay taxes in the future,” explains Euretig. “That diversification helps protect you against potential tax changes that might happen between now and retirement. You’re kind of hedging your bets.” But that approach, as Euretig puts it, is "varsity league," and you'll want to consult an accountant or financial planner to hash out the specifics and to make sure you're meeting all the contribution guidelines. Either way, you shouldn't feel hemmed in or limited by your 401(k)—it's only one of many ingredients that can add up to a successful retirement recipe. 

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1 “Freelancing in America: A National Survey of the New Workforce,” September 2014, Freelancers Union and     Elance-oDesk

2 “Retirement Topics - 401(k) and Profit-Sharing Plan Contribution Limits,” Jan. 26, 2017, Internal Revenue Service

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