How to Save for Retirement

Ways to save if you don't have a 401(k)

One of the biggest financial challenges you'll face in life is saving for retirement. There are various schools of thought on how much money you'll need in order to live comfortably after you stop working. No matter what that figure is, it's essential to be proactive about saving if you want to reach your retirement goals.

While many people save for retirement in employer-sponsored plans like 401(k)s and 403(b)s, they're not always an option. But here's good news: There are lots of other ways to build up that nest egg. Here's how you can reach your retirement savings goals, even if you don't have a 401(k).

Key Takeaways

  • There are other ways to save for retirement if you don't have access to a 401(k) at work.
  • IRAs are easy to set up and manage, and they offer valuable tax advantages, whether you have a traditional or Roth IRA.
  • A brokerage account allows you to invest in a variety of securities, such as stocks, bonds, and mutual funds.
  • You can save and grow your money in an annuity, which can be purchased through an insurance company.
  • Investing in real estate and small business opportunities gives you the potential to grow your retirement nest egg.

Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs)

IRAs are tax-advantaged accounts that hold investments you choose. The two main types of IRAs are the traditional and Roth IRAs. The biggest difference between the two is when you pay your taxes:

  • Traditional IRAs: You get to deduct your contributions the year you make them. Withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income when you start taking out money during retirement.
  • Roth IRAs: You don't get a tax break when you add money to the account. Qualified distributions are tax-free, as long as you make them after age 59½ and if the account is at least five years old since your first contribution. Keep in mind, you can make tax- and penalty-free withdrawals at any time, for any reason.

The biggest drawback to saving in a traditional or Roth IRA is the low contribution limit. And if you make too much money, you can't contribute at all to a Roth.

For 2022, you can stash up to $6,000, or $7,000 if you're age 50 or older. For 2023, the maximum contributions increase to $6,500 and $7,500 respectively. If you are able to max out your IRA every year, you could end up with a tidy sum by the time you retire. Of course, the sooner you start, the better.

Order your copy of the print edition of Investopedia's Retirement Guide for more assistance in building the best plan for your retirement.

Brokerage Accounts

If you have a funded brokerage account (a non-retirement account), you can invest in a variety of instruments including:

Of course, higher-risk investments like individual stocks have the potential to earn more than low-risk investments like CDs—but you could lose money. Bonds, CDs, and money market funds are more conservative, but they provide a form of stability that's beneficial in the long run. The trick is to find a balance that you're comfortable with, and that will help you reach your savings goals.

There's no standard formula for deciding how much of your money to put in high-risk, high-reward investments. In general, however, most people taper off the risk as they get closer to retirement, when they have fewer years to recover from large losses. Still, people are living longer today, so just because you're in your 60s doesn't mean you need to sell your stocks.

Be sure to pay attention to account fees. Even tiny differences in fees can have a huge impact on your nest egg over time.

Tax-Deferred Annuities

Annuities offer another way to reach your retirement savings goal. Offered through insurance companies, annuities provide tax deferral coupled with varied investment opportunities. Annuities are available with any of the following:

  • A fixed interest rate
  • An indexed interest rate, based on the performance of a specific index
  • A variable rate, tied to the performance of the underlying investments

The money you stash in an annuity grows tax-deferred but becomes taxable once you withdraw money in retirement. In addition to tax deferral, annuities can provide a guaranteed income stream for a certain number of years or a lifetime.

Annuities aren't appropriate for every investor, so it pays to be cautious if you're considering one. They're only backed by the claims-paying ability of the issuing insurance company and there's no guaranteed investment performance. Annuities tend to be expensive, which means you may end up paying a lot in fees.

“Annuities are contracts with life insurance companies, and there is a long history of manipulative insurance agents selling annuities for the large commissions they earn, rather than for the benefit of the investor," says James B. Twining, CFP, founder and CEO of Financial Plan, in Bellingham, Washington.

"These commission-based annuities are typically more expensive than other collective equity securities such as mutual funds and ETFs. It is not unusual to find annuities with total annual costs over 4% per year—a tremendous headwind that results in poor performance net of expenses."

Annuities can allow you to protect your principal balance while providing you with the potential for income that is guaranteed for the remainder of your life. You may also choose to leave money to your beneficiaries with an annuity.

Real Estate Investments

Another way to save for retirement is a real estate investment. If you have an IRA or brokerage account, you may already have access to the real estate sector through a mutual fund or an ETF.

“The best option for investors is to buy into a fund that itself invests in real estate investment trusts (REITs) around the world,” says Mark Hebner of Index Fund Advisors in Irvine, California. “REITs are extremely cost-effective, transparent, and liquid. Gaining access to REITs through a mutual fund allows investors to gain global diversification in real estate in a cost-effective way.”

Outside of REITs, you can buy real estate outright to generate an income stream during your retirement years. If you invest in a multi-family home, for instance, you can live in one section and rent out the other. This effectively reduces your total living expenses while paying down the mortgage.

Later, you can decide to continue to rent out the property and receive a steady income from rents. Alternatively, you can sell the (ideally appreciated) home and use the proceeds for living expenses or other investments.

Invest in a Small Business

A small business investment doesn't necessarily mean becoming a business owner. If you don't want to drive the ship, you can invest in an established company as a silent partner.

Whether you choose entrepreneurship or investing, small business profits are not capped and the potential return on investment (ROI) is higher than other alternatives. Of course, these investments carry with them a great deal of risk. There's no guarantee that the time or money you invest in a small business will generate a substantial return over time. As with any investment, do your homework before committing your hard-earned money.

The Bottom Line

When a 401(k) is not an option, you still have several ways to invest for your post-work years. It's always a good idea to work with a trusted financial advisor, especially if you opt for any higher-risk investments. And, no matter where you put your money, be sure to rebalance your portfolio regularly as your goals, risk profile, and time horizon change.

Article Sources
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  1. Internal Revenue Service. "Traditional and Roth IRAs."

  2. Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 590-B: Distributions From Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs)," Pages 30-31.

  3. Internal Revenue Service. “401(k) limit increases to $22,500 for 2023, IRA limit rises to $6,500.”

  4. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics - IRA Contribution Limits."

  5. Investor.gov. "Annuities."

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