When it comes to your finances, you might easily overlook some of the numbers that really count. Here are four to pay attention to now that might really matter in the future.
1. Retirement plan contribution rate
What percentage of your salary are you contributing to a retirement plan? Making automatic contributions through an employer-sponsored plan such as a 401(k) or 403(b) plan is an easy way to save for retirement, but this out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach may result in a disparity between what you need to save and what you actually are saving for retirement. Checking your contribution rate and increasing it periodically can help you stay on track toward your retirement savings goal.
Investing for your retirement isn’t about getting rich quick. More often, it’s about having a game plan that you can live with over a long time. You wouldn’t expect to be able to play the piano without learning the basics and practicing. Investing for your retirement over the long term also takes a little knowledge and discipline. Though there can be no guarantee that any investment strategy will be successful and all investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal, there are ways to help yourself build your retirement nest egg.
Compounding is your best friend
It’s the “rolling snowball” effect. Put simply, compounding pays you earnings on your reinvested earnings. Here’s how it works: Let’s say you invest $100, and that money earns a 7% annual return. At the end of a year, the $7 you earned is added to your $100; that would give you $107 in your account. If you earn 7% again the next year, you’re earning 7% of $107 rather than $100, as you did in the first year. That adds $7.49 to your account instead of $7. In the third year with a 7% return, you’d earn $8 and have a total of $122. Like a snowball rolling downhill, the value of compounding grows the longer you leave your money in the account. In effect, compounding can do some of the work of building a nest egg for you.
In the financial world, there are a lot of rules about what you should be doing. In theory, they sound reasonable. But in practice, it may not be easy, or even possible, to follow them. Let’s look at some common financial maxims and why it can be hard to implement them.
Build an emergency fund worth three to six months of living expenses
Wisdom: Set aside at least three to six months worth of living expenses in an emergency savings account so your overall financial health doesn’t take a hit when an unexpected need arises.
Problem: While you’re trying to save, other needs–both emergencies and non-emergencies–come up that may prevent you from adding to your emergency fund and even cause you to dip into it, resulting in an even greater shortfall. Getting back on track might require many months or years of dedicated contributions, leading you to decrease or possibly stop your contributions to other important goals such as college, retirement, or a down payment on a house.