Ric Edelman is a co-founder of Edelman Financial Engines. The following is taken from his weekly radio call-in show.
A 4-step plan to help you reach your savings goals.
Question: I’m 24 and my wife is 20. We have a few thousand dollars in the bank, but I would like to seriously start saving for our future — for our retirement, for our kids’ college when we have kids, and for a house. I am contributing 4 percent of my paycheck to my 401(k) at work, and my employer matches that. My wife doesn’t have a 401(k) at her job. How should we go about setting up the most effective savings plan for our long-term needs and goals?
Ric: First, you get the applause of the day for asking that question. Many people your age don’t think beyond their immediate needs and wants, but because you’re focusing on your long-term goals I’m sure that you and your wife will be financially successful. Many folks in their 50s and older wish they’d started saving at your age.
Let’s begin with your 401(k). You should increase your contribution to at least 10 percent — and to the maximum as soon as you can. Your wife should open an IRA in her name, where she can contribute $5,500. I would also urge her to consider finding a job with a company that offers a 401(k) and matches contributions like yours does. People often fail to realize that 40 percent of compensation is noncash — benefits like health insurance, paid vacation and retirement plans. If your employer isn’t offering those benefits, move to one that does.
Step 2 is to eliminate credit card debts if you have any. After you do, move to Step 3: Create cash reserves. I’d want you and your wife to maintain enough cash on hand to cover at least a year’s worth of spending — to tide you over in the event of a job loss or major unforeseen expense. Finally, Step 4 is to start investing in a diversified, long-term portfolio for the house you want and for college for your future children.
That’s the four-step process, but I cannot overstate the importance of saving for retirement first and foremost. That’s often shocking to folks in their 20s, because it’s hard for them to envision their retirement. Their priorities — after they get past Friday night beer — tend to be buying a car, buying a house, having kids and paying for college, usually in that order.
But the most powerful weapon you have for saving for retirement is time. You now have 40 years to save. If you squander some of those years and delay saving until you’re in your 30s, 40s or 50s, you won’t accumulate nearly as much money as you will need. That’s why I consider this Step 1, with the others lined up behind it.