"Retirement" wasn't a word I heard growing up.
My mother worked long hours and had a spending problem. My father said the stock market only benefited the rich. I assumed you dealt with retirement when you were old.
That all changed when I landed a job as a personal finance writer at CNBC, reporting on the financial challenges people face at every age level. On the top of the list, I soon learned, is how unprepared people are when those paychecks stop coming and they need to live on a fixed income.
Americans save half of what they should for retirement, according to the Stanford Center on Longevity. More than 40 percent of single retirees end up with basically just their Social Security to live on. That's frightening when you consider that the average monthly Social Security check is just $1,413.
The problems felt insurmountable: spiraling economic inequality, the disappearance of traditional pensions. I often speak with people my age who can barely make their student loan payments. Just talking about retirement seems like a privilege.
Yet in my interviews with financial advisors and consumer advocates, I was struck at how simple they all said at least one of the solutions was. People didn't need to save crazy amounts of money, the experts told me, they just needed to start saving earlier. Much earlier.
Now for some math, provided to me by retirement savings expert Ed Slott.
Let's say you begin preparing for retirement at 45. You save $5,000 each year, or around $416 a month, in a Roth individual retirement account. (That investment account allows your money to grow tax-free, and you can start making withdrawals from it at 59½). By age 70, assuming a 7 percent annual return, you'd have $338,000.
But now let's imagine that you start doing this a decade earlier, at 35. When you reach 70, you'd have $740,000.
If you started the routine at 25? You'd have more than $1.5 million.
Many people can't afford to put away $400 a month. Still, that math should demonstrate how much you can save is less important than when you start doing so.
"Time is the greatest money-making asset an individual can possess," Slott explained to me.
I'm 24 years old and I'm saving $150 a month in a Roth IRA. I hope to put away more as I advance through my career, but even if I stayed at this rate, I'd still have more than $550,000 when I'm 70 (again, assuming a 7 percent annual return). I will also save money at work, through a 401(k) plan.
The other night, I was out to dinner with my mother. Proudly, I showed her my account balance — $750!
Now in her 60s, she's talking about retirement for the first time. She's proud of me, she says, but I can see her fighting back regret.
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