Retirement: What’s the magic number? And how on earth do you get to it?

OK, retirement. This isn’t a pleasant topic for most of us, because we know we’re way behind where we should be. This is and isn’t our fault: Company pensions used to be very common, and social security more secure, so our personal retirement was only one component. These days retirement is much more of an individual responsibility, and it’s a big complicated responsibility that many of us aren’t equipped to deal with.

Besides that, many of us are dealing with stagnating incomes that don’t keep up with inflation, and student loan debts that would be inconceivable a couple generations ago.

But at the same time, it is our responsibility to try and put SOMEthing away for retirement, and many of us Americans just have our heads in the sand. We’d rather spend our money on gadgets, data plans and avoiding our kitchens. Even if that means racking up credit card debt and neglecting retirement savings.

Pulling your head out of the sand for even a moment to try and gauge how your current investments look can be enough to make you want to run away forever. But that’s only going to make things worse. What I’ve done is resolve that, even if I never reach a magic number of retirement savings, or even figure out what that number might be, I’m going to try harder to build my retirement fund. Because at least I’ll be closer to where I need to be than if I just ignored it out of a sense of futility and fear.

So, OK. How do you calculate how well you’re doing? There are any number of calculators out there, using different algorithms and data and giving you different results (usually either monthly income projected/needed in retirement, or total amount projected/needed upon entering retirement).

I chose to start with three sources I trust: Vanguard, Kiplinger and Fidelity.

Vanguard has a neat retirement calculator that lets you slide numbers up and down and see how close you are to what you need monthly in retirement, adjusted for inflation; a bar graph on the right-hand side of the screen adjusts whenever you adjust a number. It even links to a Social Security Administration tool that can help you estimate what your monthly Social Security income will be. (Of course, that annual letter you get from the SSA is more accurate, but this will work for a rough calculation.)

Kiplinger also has a simple calculator that produces a “nest egg goal” as well as a number of how much you should be saving per month to get there (noting that this number will need to increase over the years to get you where they reckon you want to get).

Since they use different data and produce different results, it was a bit tricky to see if they matched up. But once I slid the Vanguard ticker to where I’d be saving enough annually to meet what Kiplinger said I should be saving monthly, I could see that they both said about the same thing. To retire at 65 and have 80% of my current household income in retirement, I need to be saving about 35% of our current gross income. We are currently saving less than half of that. Yikes!

The third site I trust, Fidelity, has an interesting way to think about retirement. They use a simple rule of thumb: Make your goal to save 8 times your ending salary by the time you retire. They tell you to get there by trying to save the amount of your current salary by age 35, 3 times your salary by 45, and 5 times your salary by 55. (Note they mean your current salary at each age, so if you earn more at 45, you should try to save 3 times that amount.) The article goes on to detail factors that could affect the “rule of thumb” number.

I like this third calculation because it gives concrete goals to reach by certain ages–just the kind of financial goal that keeps me motivated. But in the end, it’s telling me the same thing–my family needs to be saving much more than we currently are.

Still, it gives me something to work toward, and even if I don’t ever reach these ideal numbers, I’ll be better off chasing them than pretending I’ll never get old or sick or want to stop working.

It’s a bit more complicated since I have three working adults of different ages in my household. But I didn’t let that stop me. Anitra is 36, I’m 41 and Neil is 42. Since the rule of thumb says you need to be at 1x by age 35 and 3x by 45, I figure you should be at 2x by age 40. So if I pretend Anitra is 35 and Neil and I are both 40 (ah, to be that young again!), we need 1x Anitra’s salary and 2x my and Neil’s salary to be on track. (Are we on track? Oh heck no!)

Since we already missed that milestone by at least a mile, I decided to make an aggressive goal to get caught up by the next big 5-year mark. In 2019, Anitra will be 40, I’ll be 45 and Neil will be 46. That means we should have 2x Anitra’s salary and 3x my and Neil’s salary saved up.

Do I think we can do that? I’m doubtful, but determined to try. It’s an astronomical goal in my mind right now: We’re basically only halfway there, which means in four years we’d need to save up as much as the three of us have saved up over our ENTIRE WORKING LIVES.

But then again, it’s not as crazy as it sounds. We no longer have consumer or education debt. We now have a substantial amount in retirement that means growth will be dramatic whenever the market takes an upswing. I don’t think we’ll make the goal, but I think we’ll get closer than seems possible right now.

So what’s my plan? Well, first off, we already contribute the amount needed to get the max 401(k) match at our jobs. Second, we have Roth IRAs that have been neglected over the past year, but I’m planning to max them out (or get as close as I can). (You can contribute up to $5,500 per person per year to Roths.)

If I succeed in maxing our Roths, I’ll up my and Neil’s work contributions so that, with our match included, we’re each putting aside 10% of gross. (I already put away 10% of Anitra’s gross freelance income.)

If I get all that set up, so we’re all maxing our Roths AND putting away 10% of our gross income, I’ll see how much we’re short of our goal. Maybe I’ll be able to stretch and put away even more. I’m not sure where we’ll put it then. Maybe up our 401(k)s and SEP (Anitra’s freelance version of a 401(k) a percentage at a time until we’re on track.

Of course this is all pie-in-the-sky thinking, since I haven’t even gotten halfway to maxing our Roths for the year and the year is more than halfway over. But it’s good to think pie-in-the-sky. Eight years ago, I set my sights on becoming debt-free except for mortgage. I didn’t really think we’d get there, but I figured any progress was better than none. And now here we are, on the other side of that seemingly unattainable goal. So you just never know.

financial future

5 thoughts on “Retirement: What’s the magic number? And how on earth do you get to it?

  1. Rosie the Budgeter Post author

    Thanks Dan! And glad you enjoyed the post. I’m glad to finally be on to the third stage of my present-past-future plan.

  2. Honour

    Keep in mind these calculators were created by the business that profits from your contributions whether the market is up or down. You don’t cash out your retirement plan, you draw it down annually or monthly as preferred. The capital continues to accrue depending on your choices. In my opinion it comes down to risk tolerance.

    If you hold retirement contributions in cash type investment like laddered CDs you are losing out to inflation, buying power is decreasing month by month. Sure equities rollercoaster up/dow but those of us who continued their plan have gained about 35% in the past 5 yrs.

    Those who had/have defined pensions generally contributed around 17% of annual income matched by employer but invested in the employer’s business [Enron]. Not much publicity about those whose pension vanished with loss of employment.

    There are a ton of personal factors that figure into a retirement plan. What will retirement age be when you reach 60? What health issues will you face? Do you plan to pay off your mortgage in advance of retirement?

    How do you picture yourself each decade as a retiree? [travel, home renovations, plastic surgery, boomerang family?] Talk to grandparents about their financial management.

    Just some disjointed, unedited personal thoughts. Feel free to flame me

    1. Rosie the Budgeter Post author

      Great thoughts; thanks for sharing! That’s the thing about retirement planning; there are so many variables and calculations that go into it. Compared with day-to-day budgeting and debt paydown, it’s a labyrinth.

      I imagine my view of it will become more nuanced as I focus on it more. I’m just glad to have a number to focus on (the 8X rule), even if it’s a bit arbitrary and not good for everyone’s situation.

  3. Honour

    Of topic: Experience taught us to plan lunch as the major [special] meal when out of town because the afternoon is often full of activity with opportunities to ‘walk off’ extra calories, We’ve usually heard/read about restaurants that are special to the area or have talked to staff about their favourites. Breakfast is available as part of room cost or easily coffee [free], fruit & cereal from home or grocery.

    Keeping evening meal light, facilitates getting to evening entertainment too often a ticketed, seating event; we don’t walk in unfamiliar areas after dusk. We benefit from lower cost, better service, less likely to get lost [in spite of GPS] and overall positive experience.


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