Retirement Math: Save Early and Often

Plus sensible catchup strategies if you’re behind

By Robert Pyle

Key Takeaways

  • The money you sock away during the early years of your career will likely grow the most.

  • Do you know your income replacement rate?

  • Don’t get bogged down in the math—keep it simple.

  • Don’t panic if you’re behind in your retirement savings—there are plenty of ways to catch up.


A recent Transamerica study found that “running out of money” was the chief retirement concern for almost half of Americans. What’s more, only one-third of American workers (36%) said they were “very confident” about the ability to retire comfortably. Today’s workers change will jobs more often than their parents and grandparents did—and have more temporary disruptions to their retirement savings. But an even bigger hurdle for achieving a worry-free retirement is that people are simply living a lot longer than they used to. It’s not uncommon to have a retirement lasting three decades or longer. That’s a long time to support yourself after leaving the workforce--even before you factor in the ever-rising cost of healthcare and eldercare.

Keep it simple
You’ve had a successful career. You’re very good at making money. But, you’re probably not an expert in financial planning. Just don’t think you need to do it alone.

When clients ask me how much they should budget for retirement I always tell them to keep it simple. You don’t need to calculate how much your spending on cable TV, cars, groceries and dining out. It’s nice to know that information—and I’m sure you could economize--but all you really need to know is what your (net) paycheck is—i.e. how much are you putting in your bank account every month and then subtract any additional savings from that amount. Example: If your net paycheck is $5,000 per month after 401(k) contributions, that means you’re spending $60,000 per year. If you were saving $400 per month in a taxable account from your net deposit, your spending would be $55,200 per year.    

Example: I recently started working with a new 401(k) plan enrollee. He had a nice military pension and wanted to have $7,000 per month in retirement (i.e. $84,000 per year). I told him he’d need to accumulate 25-times that $84,000 a year in retirement -- $2.1 million—if he expected to have $7,000 per month in his golden years. How did we come up with 25x?  That the reciprocal of 4 percent (.04), the recommended annual drawdown rate for many people.

Just don’t let retirement math overwhelm you. Again, the simpler you keep it, the easier it is to follow. For instance, this back-of-the-napkin estimate can get you pretty far down the road:

      How much do you need in retirement? $7,000

      How much do you expect from Social Security? $3,000

ANSWER: You’ll need $4,000 per month (i.e. $48,000 per year) from sources other than a paycheck and Social Security. Multiply that $48K by 25 and you get $1.2 million. That’s how much you’ll need to accumulate in retirement savings before taxes. This took less than a minute to calculate.

How do I know if I’m saving enough?

A good rule of thumb is to try to save one-sixth of your gross pay (16%) for retirement. I realize that’s tough when you might be savings for your first house and/or still paying off student loans. But look at ways to save. Do you really need the newest iPhone or other tech gadget every year? Could you eat at home more instead of dining out three or four times per week?

Do what you can. Your goal is to replace at least 40 percent of your pre-retirement income. Here are some recommended savings benchmarks:

Source: Dimensional Fund Advisors, How Much Should I Save for Retirement? By Massi De Santis, PhD and Marlena Lee, PhD, June 2013

Source: Dimensional Fund Advisors, How Much Should I Save for Retirement? By Massi De Santis, PhD and Marlena Lee, PhD, June 2013

For example, if you’re 65 and making $100,000 per year, you should have accumulated $1 million in your retirement accounts by now (10x $100K). If so, then you’d realistically be able to withdraw 4 percent of that nest egg every year (i.e. $40,000). The targets above are designed to replace 40 percent of your pre-retirement salary. Hopefully, your Social Security benefits will make up the rest, along with your spouse’s retirement savings and Social Security benefits. If not, you’ll need to set a higher income replacement rate.

See short video for more on income replacement rate or click on the video below:


According to Dimensional Fund Advisors, if you want to have a 90-percent probability of reaching your retirement goal (say 40 percent replacement of income) you would need to save 19.2% of your income every year if you start saving for retirement at age 35. If can start saving earlier in life--say age 30--you only need to save 15.4% of your income. If you can start at age 25, you only need to save 13.2% of your income.

I realize even 13 percent is a big chunk of your paycheck, especially when you are young. But, the data above shows how powerful compounding can be when it’s working in your favor.


Importance of saving early
I can’t stress enough the importance of saving early. Let’s look at three different savings scenarios: 

  1. Start saving $4,500 per year from age 18 - 25 and then no savings afterward.

  2. Start saving $6,000 per year from age 25 - 35 and then no savings afterward.

  3. Start saving $6,000 per year from age 36 – 65 without interruption.

    Assume an 8 percent annual rate of return under each scenario


Clearly there is a big difference between in accumulated savings between Scenario 2 and Scenario 3. Under Scenario 3, you have $322,000 less in retirement savings with the same $6,000 annual contribution than you did under Scenario 2--even though you saved $120,000 more over your working life. This illustrates the power of compounding. Scenario #1 may not be realistic, but it further emphasizes the power of starting early.

Retirement savings catchup strategies

There are a wide variety of reasons that people don’t start saving for retirement until later in life. The reasons are too complex to go into in this article, but it’s never too late to play catchup. The simplest way to catch up is to max out your 401(k) by socking away $19,000 a year ($25,000 annually if you’re over age 50). Then set up an an IRA or Roth IRA for yourself (and your spouse) and make the maximum $6,000 annual contribution to each IRA ($7,000 each if you are over 50).

Your IRA contribution may not be deductible. But a non-deductible IRA will still grow tax deferred and you will pay tax on the gain only when you take it out of the IRA. Just note that with a nondeductible IRA, you aren’t allowed to deduct your contribution from your income taxes like you can with a traditional IRA.

Maxing out your 401(k) and contributing to an IRA could give you $31,000 to $39,000 per year. And, you can still contribute to a taxable account as well. The taxable account will grow partially tax deferred. You pay tax on the dividends and capital gains each year, but not on the price appreciation of the securities. Only when you sell the assets do you pay gains on the price appreciation of the securities.

The key to making any retirement strategy work is having an “automatic savings” plan in place. I can’t stress the importance of automating your retirement savings – i.e. automatic paycheck deduction—so you don’t have to think about it and so you can’t procrastinate.

Just make sure you don’t over-save. The risk with over-savings is that you don’t have enough ready cash available for your rainy-day emergency fund. We recommend having three to six months’ worth of living expenses on hand for your emergency fund—six to twelve months’ worth if you’re self-employed.

“Retirement age” likely to get pushed out

As record numbers of Boomers reach retirement age every day—and strain the Social Security system--policymakers continue to suggest raising the minimum age to receive full benefits. The minimum age is currently 66 years and 2 months for people born in 1955, and it will gradually rise to 67 for those born in 1960 or later. There’s a strong likelihood that the minimum age to draw full benefits will be pushed out to 70 by the time today’s young people reach retirement age. These changes are based on both increasing life expectancy and the government’s chronic mismanagement of the Social Security program. 

Bottom line: if you’re going to retire early, (say age 60), you’re going to be responsible for funding your own retirement longer--until your Social Security benefits kick in. By the way, the longer you can delay taking Social Security benefits the better. Did you know your benefit amount goes up by 8 percent a year for every year you wait between age 62 and age 70?

You don’t always get to decide when to stop working
Clients who are behind in their retirement savings tell me they’ll just keep working until they’re 70. Great, but you don’t always control that decision. Health complications can come out of left field at any time as you get older and sometimes your employer has the final say on when you stop working—not you. One of my clients who was intent on working till age 70 was forced into retirement at 67. Another who planned to work until 70-plus got an early buyout package at age 60. You need to be prepared for these scenarios. If you haven’t saved enough for retirement you have to keep your skills current and be prepared to switch careers late in life.


When it comes to saving for retirement, the variables are many and the math can be complex. If you take nothing else away from this article, start saving as early as you can and make your savings plan as simple and automatic as possible. If you or someone close to you has concerns about your retirement savings plan, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Robert J. Pyle, CFP®, CFA is president of Diversified Asset Management, Inc. (DAMI). DAMI is licensed as an investment adviser with the State of Colorado Division of Securities, and its investment advisory representatives are licensed by the State of Colorado. DAMI will only transact business in other states to the extent DAMI has made the requisite notice filings or obtained the necessary licensing in such state. No follow up or individualized responses to persons in other jurisdictions that involve either rendering or attempting to render personalized investment advice for compensation will be made absent compliance with applicable legal requirements, or an applicable exemption or exclusion. It does not constitute investment or tax advice. To contact Robert, call 303-440-2906 or e-mail


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