For as long as I can remember, both my mom and dad worked hard – as parents and as employees. So, as an adult, I was really excited to sit down with my father to discuss his retirement plans. But once I saw his financials, my heart sank. I saw his savings and projected pension and 401(k) payouts, and suddenly realized that he had spent years without establishing and adequately contributing to a 401(k) plan at work. He didn’t know what he was eligible for, and certainly didn’t know much about investing.
Here’s what I wish my dad—and I—knew sooner about savings and investing. Let me warn you that I will give some pretty ambitious goals, but very few people get there all at once. I urge you to congratulate yourself on your progress toward the goals, and to keep moving forward.
A solid foundation sets the stage
Before you begin investing, there’s some foundational financial housekeeping to do.
Create a budget: Take a couple of months to track every dollar that comes in and goes out, and try to cut unnecessary spending. If you’re not sure whether you’re overspending, try the 50/20/30 rule:
50% of your income goes toward needs, like food or rent
20% for savings and investments
30% for wants
Plan for an emergency: As this year has shown, it’s very helpful to have an emergency fund. Experts recommend enough to cover three to six months’ worth of your expenses. However, those experts don’t know the average single black woman in the United States, who has a net worth barely above zero. So, I recommend you focus on building a habit of saving. Consider setting up automated transfers to your savings account to take the decision out of the process.
Not all debt is created equal
Debt with high-interest rates, including credit cards or some car loans, can make it harder to save or invest. So, try to keep that debt as low as possible. Then there’s the “good” debt, such as a low-interest business loan, home mortgage or a student loan. These can help you potentially increase your wealth over time.
Time is your friend, use it to your advantage
I really wish my dad had known this and that he had some of the opportunities available today. Getting invested is easier and cheaper than ever; you may even be able to get started with one paycheck (or less) to familiarize yourself with market movements.
You can slowly dip your toes into investing by gradually increasing your contributions. And starting early is key in order to give yourself—and the power of compounding—time to grow your wealth. In fact, compounding—when your initial investment grows, and then new growth builds on top of it—is why you may consider investing in stocks and mutual funds.
Inflation can reduce the buying power of the money you stash in your savings or checking accounts, but money in your investment accounts could earn enough to outpace inflation and add to your wealth over time.
Of course, you should keep in mind that investments are not insured and can lose value at any time.
Retirement isn’t as far away as it seems
In our 20s or even 30s, retirement is decades away. And we’ve got our job, friends and maybe a spouse or kids to keep us busy. But our money could be busy, too. In one example, if you start investing $100 a month at age 25, instead of 35, you could end up with $162,000 in your account at age 65 – or nearly double the $89,000 you’d have by waiting 10 years. And even if you’re not 25 anymore – very few of us are – it’s good to make the most of the time you do have.
It’s generally recommended you contribute 15% of your annual income for retirement; I told you we would talk about ambitious goals. When this isn’t possible, try to contribute enough to get the maximum amount of your employer’s retirement contribution match, if you’re lucky enough to have a 401(k) plan and your employer matches your contributions.
Of course, everyone’s situation is unique: your timeline, family situation, and income may require a more thoughtful approach. It can help to talk to an advisor as you map out your strategy.
Staying invested is hard, but it’s critical
The stock market this year plunged and soared—all within a few months. That surprised me and many others, sometimes making them fearful to keep their money in stocks or even to do anything at all. It’s completely normal to get emotional when markets move like that, but history shows that staying invested for the long term can be best.
So, when markets get rocky, check your timeline and see if you can ride out the storm. Also, remind yourself of your long-term goals, and that the stock markets’ positive years have outweighed the negative ones.
To limit your emotionally-driven moves, consider automating your contributions and investments.