Retirement Planning

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify various strategies to fund retirement

You most likely don’t plan to work for your whole life, so one day, maybe when you are 65 or 55 or 72, you plan to retire. When you do, you’ll want to make sure you have some other source of cash flow that will keep you happy until you don’t need money anymore. One common rule of thumb is to plan for your post-retirement spending to be at least 70% of your pre-retirement income. So, if you start working as an accountant making $55,000 a year, and over time you get raises and Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs) you may be making $250,000 by the time you retire (or more). If you want to retire early, say 55, by using the 70% rule, you’ll want to have $175,000 in cash flow every year indefinitely. How do you manage that?

No matter where you are in your career, now is the time to start planning and saving for retirement.

Company-sponsored Plans

A meeting with business associates around a table.The most common way to set up your retirement funding is through an employer-sponsored plan. There are two basic types of plans: defined contribution and defined benefit plans.

Defined Contribution Plans

Most companies now offer defined contribution plans, such as a 401(k), that allows you to contribute a percentage of your wages (typically 3–10%) into an investment account that you can’t access until you retire (with a lot of rules and exceptions, of course). Often, the plan requires the employer to match all or a part of your contribution. Therefore, if your employer offers a 3% match and allows you to contribute up to 7% of your salary, you’d be smart to contribute at least 3% to take full advantage of the extra money from the employer. You’d be even smarter to contribute your full 7%. If you are making $55,000 a year, that’s $5,500 per year going into your retirement savings account. Also, your contributions are not taxed as income when you earn them—only when you take them out (again, there are some exceptions to this, like the ROTH rules). If you are young, you can invest a bit aggressively and take advantage of higher rates of return in equity stocks and mutual funds, but when you get closer to retirement, you’ll want to shift much of your investment portfolio from growth to fixed income.

If you put just $5,500 a year away for 20 years into an investment account that averages an 8% return on investment, you could have nearly a million dollars saved up at the end of 30 years. Even so, if you don’t manage your spending, that money could run out quickly. If you are used to spending $250,000 a year and you retire with a million dollars it will only last about four years, maybe five if you are lucky.

Defined Benefit Plans

Defined benefit plans that pay out for life based on a formula aren’t very common any more. A defined benefit plan, as the name implies, provides a certain benefit according to a formula. The formula usually takes into account number of years of service and salary history. For instance, the defined benefit (often called a pension) may be 60% of the employee’s highest salary paid out for life after retirement, but only it the employee works for the company for 20 years.

One of the most familiar defined benefit plans is the federal-government-sponsored Social Security. Because the employer bears all of the risk of funding a defined benefit plan, employer-sponsored defined benefit pension plans have fallen out of favor over the past few decades

Individual Retirement Accounts

In addition to company-sponsored plans, there are Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) for self-employed people and people who aren’t covered by a plan at work. Contributions to an IRA are limited, and IRAs fall into one of two categories:

  • IRAs are excluded from your taxable income for the year you make them, and the investments grow without being subject to tax until you withdraw the funds.
  • ROTH IRAs come out of taxed income, but grow tax-free and no tax is due when the funds are withdrawn.

Just as with employer-sponsored plans, there are a myriad of rules and regulations that have to be followed, and there are penalties for not following them. However, these plans are so common that any investment advisor can help you navigate the maze.

Most IRAs and company-sponsored plans offer an array of mutual funds with different investment objectives, from high-growth to fixed income. In addition, some companies offer defined benefit plans, annuities, and other vehicles that you’ll have to research carefully when the time comes.

Business Income

Another way to prepare for retirement is to start or buy businesses, especially businesses that other people operate or that are sources of “passive” income, like a car wash or laundromat or rental real estate. Owning a coffee shop or other small business can be more like a job that relies on your participation, but even then, if you build a successful business, you may be able to sell it when you are ready to retire, adding those funds to your retirement savings. Buying and selling real estate and investing in businesses is much more complicated than just contributing to your IRA or company-sponsored plan and can be riskier as well.

Home Ownership

Many people count on the equity in their homes to help them fund retirement. If you make extra payments, or amortize your home over 15 years instead of the traditional 30, you can save significantly on interest expense and pay off your home much more quickly.

Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid

A stack of social security cards.Most workers in the United States pay into both Social Security and Medicare. The contributions are deducted from wages and sent in to the Internal Revenue Service, which then deposits them into trust funds. In addition, employers match the employees’ contributions. When the employee retires, Social Security pays benefits based on a formula, and the retiree can also access Medicare.

As of 2020, the current contribution rates are 6.2% for Social Security (technically known as Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance or OASDI) and 1.45% for Medicare, also known as Health Insurance or HI. Together, they are sometimes called FICA taxes because they are collected according to a federal law called the Federal Insurance Contributions Act that was designed to make sure every worker had at least some amount of retirement income and health coverage.

However, the amount of retirement income available from FICA is minimal, and most likely won’t be enough to maintain anything like your current or desired standard of living when you retire. You can get more information on Social Security online, including a report on your own account. Self-employed people have to pay both the employer and the employee contributions, so the effective combined rate for self-employment income is 15.3% of net earnings.

Medicaid is a federal program run by the states that provides health coverage to eligible low-income adults, children, pregnant women, elderly adults, and people with disabilities. There are some other public health care programs available for certain people, such as veterans.

Life Insurance

Finally, although not really a retirement strategy, you should consider life insurance for both you and your loved ones, especially as your life becomes more complicated with kids, dependent parents, a larger house, cars, a business with employees, and a myriad of other things people face in their lives.

There are two basic types of life insurance—term and whole life.

  • Term Insurance is the simplest form of life insurance. It pays only if death occurs during the term of the policy, which is usually from one to 30 years. If you stop making the monthly payments, the policy expires.
  • Whole life pays a death benefit whenever you die—even if you live to 100. There are several variations of whole life (sometimes called “permanent”). However, we’ll focus on traditional whole life. In these policies, both the death benefit and the premium are level throughout the life of the policy. The company keeps the premium the same by charging a premium that is higher than what’s needed in the early years to pay claims. They then invest that money and use it to supplement the future premiums to help pay the cost of life insurance for older people. By law, when these “overpayments” reach a certain amount, they must be available to the policyholder as a cash value if they decide not to continue with the original plan. The cash value is an alternative—not an additional—benefit under the policy.

As you can see, life doesn’t necessarily get simpler as you get older, but with some forethought and planning, you can provide for yourself and your family long past your working years.

Practice Question