If you want to retire early, save this advice.
Only about one in 10 Americans with retirement accounts max those accounts out, according to data from Vanguard — in spite of the fact that doing so is one of the surest ways to get to retire earlyish, financial advisors say.
Of course, many can’t afford to max their retirement accounts: The median household income in America is less than $60,000 — and as $18,500 is the max for your 401(k) if you’re under 50, that would eat up a large portion of many people’s incomes.
But even those who can afford to don’t. “There are a lot of people who let their spending dictate their savings,” explains Rich Ramassini, a certified financial planner and the director of strategy and sales performance at PNC Investments. In other words: They prioritize spending over saving money — which often means they don’t save much.
Indeed, a study of nearly 30,000 Americans released Thursday by Principal Financial Group shows that people who max, or close to max, their 401(k) savings often forgo spending on things that most of us don’t. “The overwhelming majority (70 percent) are making maximum contributions without having a formal budget in place, instead favoring large-scale sacrifices to max out their retirement contributions,” the report revealed. This includes limiting travel (about four in 10 say they do this to save more) and owning a modest home (about one in three).
But it’s not all about punishing sacrifice. In fact, “you don’t have to be miserable to be a super saver,” says Jerry Patterson, senior vice president of retirement and income solutions with Principal Financial Group — who reveals that big savers often do “common sense and practical” things to save as much as they do. So Moneyish asked people who are maxing their 401(k)s and financial experts how to save way more. Here are five simple ways.
Make saving a priority
Even if you don’t contribute to your 401(k) now, experts say you should likely start — at least putting in up to what your employer matches. Open enrollment typically takes place in the fall, so call HR and get the details of your plan and when you can sign up if you haven’t already.
This may take a rethinking of how you think about retirement savings: Jennifer Beeston, the vice president of mortgage lending at Guaranteed Rate who maxes out her 401(k) each year, thinks of savings as a necessity, not a luxury. “My 401k deposits are non-negotiable to me. It’s like a mortgage or electricity. It is a need not a want,” she tells Moneyish. To help her focus on putting savings first, she tells herself that “retiring is inevitable and I want to have quality of life when I retire.”
Saramaya Penacho, 30, a San Diego-based publicist and her husband Zach, think of it similarly: “We look at our 401(k) and IRA contributions as a fixed expense. After the basic necessities (food, housing), we first contribute to the retirement accounts – before considering anything else,” Penacho tells Moneyish.
Choose older and modest
You don’t have to go without the things you want — but you can make better choices about them. Principal’s research shows that one of the top 3 sacrifices big-time savers make is to drive an older car, followed closely by living in a modest home. David Rae, who works as a financial planner at DRM Wealth Management, says that’s helped him save big: “I am driving a 2013 Lexus ES300 Hybrid. The car is paid off which allows me to put away about $600 more per month. I know plenty of people spending $1600 per month on their car payments, which I think is just crazy,” he explains.
This kind of thinking was widespread among other savers Moneyish talked to. Penacho says she and her husband prioritize saving for retirement over “new cars…or the latest iPhone.” And Rania Eldekki, who is the director of digital marketing at marketing agency Hudson and has been maxing out her 401(k) since last year, notes that “I drive an economical car, a Honda Civic” and “split rent with a roommate — and not on the fancy side of town.”
Slowly increase the amount you contribute
When you’re first starting out in your career, it can be hard to max your 401(k) and that’s OK: Ramassini says you can start slowly — try to at least contribute up to what your employer matches if you can — and amp up savings each year, even if it’s just by 1 percent. That’s the approach that Eldekki takes. For the past five years she’s upped her contributes by about 2.5 percent annually, until she hit the max last year. And she says she plans to continue to max it out: “I get less now with the goal of having more in the future,” she explains.
Don’t look at saving as a sacrifice
Instead, it will be easier to save if you think of it in terms of what you gain by doing it, be that a cushy life at the beach upon retirement or the ability to switch to a beloved, but low-paying career. Indeed, two thirds of big-time savers say their motivation for saving is to think about having a good lifestyle in retirement, according to Principal’s research. “I love what I do and may work into my 70s, but I get a ton of joy knowing that I am on track to have financial freedom at around the age of 50. That means work is an option and I can spend tons more money on things I enjoy like travel or wine with friends,” Rae says.
Make increases automatic — and add any bonuses to the pot
“Set your contribution to automatically increase each year,” says Alexander S. Lowry, a professor of finance at Gordon University. That way, you’re automatically saving more every year, even if it’s just a modest 1 percent increase. “And if you receive a bonus you can contribute from that – since it’s a bonus you weren’t banking on it so you can afford to contribute from it,” he adds.