Deciding how to best prioritize your savings can seem overwhelming, and the decisions you make can lead to very different long-term outcomes. It’s especially difficult to know where to start with all of the different account types and savings vehicles available to you. As with all goals, developing a plan you believe in and can consistently apply will greatly improve your success rate.
Use the following steps as a starting point for prioritizing your savings. If a step doesn’t apply to you, simply move on to the next step.
Step 1 – Contribute enough to your 401(k) to receive the full employer match
This is one of the few places in life where you can receive money by simply participating. Some employers require you to contribute 3% of your salary to receive a 100% employer match. This means your contribution is effectively doubled, at no extra cost to you. A few plans will match 50% up to 6% of your salary. In other words, you have to contribute 6% to receive their 3% matching contribution. Contributing this amount from each paycheck can put stress on a tight budget, but there’s no better alternative.
Step 2 – Pay down your highest interest rate credit cards
With the sky high interest rates charged by credit card companies, it makes sense to attack these debts before moving to the next step. Since credit card interest rates can be anywhere from 12% to 24%, it’s unlikely you will find an investment that can earn a return anywhere in this ballpark, let alone while taking on outrageous risk. Consolidating your credit card debt and even seeking help from a debt counselor may be appropriate if it’s a problem.
Step 3 – Build up at least three months’ worth of emergency cash
When you have unexpected expenses, like those associated with a job loss or a major house repair, an emergency fund can help fill the gap so you don’t have to turn to credit cards or withdraw from a retirement account. Holding three months’ worth of expenses in an emergency fund at the bank is a good start. For some, it may be necessary to have three months’ worth of your take-home pay or six months of expenses.
This fund should be increased over time as your income and living expenses grow.
Step 4 – Max out health savings account (HSA)
If your employer offers an HSA, this is an amazing savings vehicle used to pay medical expenses now and in retirement. These contributions are not subject to federal and state income taxes, or payroll taxes and withdrawals for medical expenses are tax-free. The excess cash in the account, usually balances in excess of $3,000, can be invested and grown over the long term. Considering this recent Fidelity study, which found that a couple in retirement spends $245,000 on healthcare, not including the cost of long-term care, saving in tax-advantaged accounts for these expenses is a must.
Think of an HSA account like any other retirement account. To accumulate the necessary funds to cover medical expenses in retirement, it makes sense to pay out of pocket for reasonable healthcare expenses while still employed to allow the HSA account to grow.
Step 5 – Contribute to a Roth IRA retirement account
Since contributions to this account grow and can be withdrawn tax-free in retirement, contributing to a Roth IRA makes a lot of sense. This is especially true when you consider the impact of compound interest over long investment periods for those earlier on in their career.
You can also withdraw Roth IRA contributions tax-free for an emergency or for a house down payment, and this can be done at any age. Be careful, however, to avoid touching earnings since they lead to tax consequences. Lastly, keep in mind that if your income is above IRS limits, your ability to contribute to a Roth IRA may be reduced or eliminated.
Step 6 – Save for house down payment
The number of first time home buyers is starting to pick up. Having at least a 5% down payment saved up in addition to your emergency fund is a good starting point. If you plan on buying a home in the next three years, keeping these funds in cash versus investing in stocks is a prudent move.
Once you own a home, increasing your emergency fund to six months expenses will be necessary as roof repairs and miscellaneous expenses that always seem to come up as a homeowner can quickly eat into your savings.
Step 7 – Pay extra toward your student loans
Since many are graduating with significant student loans these days, paying extra toward these loans can lead to significant savings. This is especially true with unsubsidized government student loans and private loans that have interest rates greater than 6%. Since there isn’t a guaranteed 6% plus return available, prioritizing paying off these student loans is a must.
Step 8 – Max out 401(k) plan
Being able to contribute the maximum consistently without jeopardizing your finances or being at risk of having to take an early withdrawal pays off long-term. Not only will you receive the tax-deduction up front on any contributions, the funds will grow tax-deferred throughout your career, providing a greater balance to draw from in retirement.
Step 9 – Contribute to a 529 College Savings Plan
If you have children or expect to have children, there’s never a better time to start saving in a 529 plan. The funds in the plan grow and can be distributed tax-free for college and graduate school expenses. This article discusses the benefits of 529 plans further.
Because your children might receive grants or scholarships to cover their higher-education expenses, we always prioritize retirement savings first.
Step 10 – Invest in a non-retirement account
Now that you’ve maxed out your tax-advantaged accounts, excess savings can be invested in a taxable account. These funds can be invested and used to accomplish a long list of long-term goals. Whether you’re saving toward a future vacation home, early retirement or a child’s wedding in five years, these extra savings can make a big difference.
This list isn’t a one size fits all, but it can provide a framework for developing a long-term savings plan that you can expand upon each year. The earlier you can progress through these steps in your career, the better chance you have of being financially fit and having a high probability of success when you retire.
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Geoff has always enjoyed talking with people about finance, learning about their investments, financial strategy, and business sense. His interest only deepened with time, and what began as a hobby has now become a life-long passion, with an unparalleled passion for continuing education that makes him an expert in many subjects from traditional taxes and investments to business succession planning and executive compensation negotiations.
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