How to start preparing for retirement in your 20s
A young woman receives help from a financial advisor.
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It can be far too easy for adults in their 20s to overlook retirement altogether.
After all, it’s still decades away, with many other shorter-term goals — such as buying a home or paying off student debt — closer on the horizon.
Yet, for people in their 20s, it’s a powerful time to get started on saving and investing for retirement. With the right moves now, you can harness the power of compound interest and make the most of the decades ahead to set yourself up for success.
“Awareness is the key. Some people have the ‘head in the sand mentality’ for too long for a lot of their 20s,” said Sophia Bera Daigle, a certified financial planner and the founder of Gen Y Planning in Austin, Texas. She is also a member of the CNBC Financial Advisor Council.
Here are some moves to get started:
If you work for a company that sponsors a retirement plan such as a 401(k) or 403(b), the first thing is to check if you’re eligible and if a company match is available, Daigle said.
If you do have access to an account, start contributing as soon as you can and always at least pay yourself what the company matches, said CFP Shaun Williams, partner and private wealth advisor of Paragon Capital Management based in Denver. The firm is ranked No. 57 on the 2023 CNBC FA 100 list.
The company match is almost like “free money” that can help boost your savings faster, especially at a time where you may not be able to set aside much.
When you open and contribute to a Roth Individual Retirement Account, you don’t pay taxes on the dollars you put into the account, allowing your savings to grow tax-free for decades.
While they may have income limits and other drawbacks, it’s a powerful tool for people in their 20s.
As you begin your career, you will likely have a lower income, putting you in a lower tax bracket. Use this to your advantage and consider opening a Roth IRA, in which your tax payments will be low.
Funds in a Roth account can also be withdrawn at any time without penalties, making them useful for other goals or even for emergencies.
It’s smart to have an emergency savings fund, especially as most emergencies can cost hundreds of dollars.
Before you really start paying down debt, get a handle on that emergency fund, said Williams. Building an emergency savings first can help you keep your retirement savings untouched should unexpected expenses arise.
You may want to have about six months of your spending needs in an emergency fund in case you lose your job, said Williams.
Look into products where you can earn more for your savings, said Daigle.
You have four to five decades in your favor, Williams said. Use the markets for what they’re meant for and be fairly aggressive.
It can be strategic to allocate your assets in different investments, and your 20s is the time for you to take the most risk as an investor, such as focusing your portfolio on stocks.
If it seems daunting for you, you can stick to target date funds, which are the default investment vehicle for most employer-sponsored accounts.
As someone who’s in their 20s, you have the highest amount of “human capital,” said Williams. Continue educating yourself and refining your skills during your 20s to increase your earnings potential, whether through graduate programs or certifications, Williams said.
“They have all the time. Increasing their earnings potential is one of the best retirement readiness things as well,” he said.
Boosting your income will help you keep up with your short-term goals while bulking your retirement savings.
Make yourself more marketable now in your 20s; that’s really going to pay on in your 40s and 50s, he added.
If most of your income is funneled into debt repayment, you might fall behind on saving for retirement. Therefore, the best thing you can do for yourself in your 20s is to stay out of debt, especially from credit cards, said Daigle.
“It’s so much easier to get started on the other things if you’re not starting in a hole,” she said.
However, if you do have debt, pay extra toward the highest-interest loan when you can, and make the minimum payment on the rest, said Williams.
If you have student loans, make sure you are in a repayment plan that works the best for you and don’t make extra payments until you bulked your emergency savings, experts say.
To keep out of debt, credit cards should be paid off in full, as those are likely to have higher interest rates.
“If you let your credit cards get out of hand from living beyond your means, that’s the No. 1 problem,” said Williams.
It’s important to understand where your money is going and get a handle on your budget, experts say, that way you can allocate a sustainable amount of your income for retirement.
Would-be investors in their 20s often put off saving for retirement for later on in their lives or when they become higher earners. This idea tends to fall through as “lifestyle creep” takes over.
Social media comparisons also don’t help adults in their 20s. Nearly 2 in 3, or 73%, of Gen Zers say social media makes them feel they’re tracking behind their life goals while peers seem to be succeeding, the Prosperity Index Study by Intuit found.
Don’t be influenced by what you see on social media apps such as Instagram, said Williams.
If you need to say no to certain things because you cannot afford it, say no.
“Laying the groundwork in your 20s is wonderful so that in your 30s, you can really turbocharge your financial goals,” Daigle said.
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