As a teacher, you are in a unique situation when it comes to retirement planning. You may be eligible for a pension plan, and how much that pension will be worth depends on your years of service, ending salary and a percentage established by your employer. Depending on whether you teach for a public school or nonprofit private school, you’ll also typically have access to defined contribution plans like 403(b) and 457(b) plans. In addition, some teachers pay into the Social Security system and will be eligible for Ssocial Security benefits when they retire, while others don’t participate. Because of all these variables, each teacher’s situation is different, but here are some general strategies teachers should consider when planning for retirement.

Consider Professional Help

You might be an expert in chemistry, history or teaching kids how to read, but you might not know a lot about retirement planning. Consulting an expert can get you up to speed. There are financial planning firms that specialize in helping teachers plan for retirement. There are also plenty of competent, fee-only financial advisors who don’t specialize in teachers’ retirement but who are still familiar enough with their situations to provide valuable advice. Make sure to choose an adviser who is a fiduciary, meaning that they’re required to act in your best interests..)

Also take advantage of any free help that might be available to you, such as state retirement counselors or state benefits counselors, your state teachers association website and your state teachers retirement system website. “I would counsel teachers to start speaking to a retirement counselor from the state five years before your retirement date,” says Jeaninne Escallier Kato, a retired California public school teacher. She paid into the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS) for 36 years and now collects 85% of her former pay, an extra $400 per month for three years’ worth of unused sick leave, and an extra stipend called “longevity pay.” She says talking to a retirement counselor helped her plan the formula that would work best for her. “Many teachers wait until the last months of their tenure, then find out they didn't work to the best of their pay options.”

It’s important to learn how your state teachers retirement system works and how to maximize your pension and other retirement benefits.

Don’t Fully Rely on Your Pension

Even if you are eligible for a pension and work to maximize it, your pension may not be enough for you to maintain the standard of living you’re used to. As early in your career as possible, start balancing out your expected pension with defined contribution plans and insurance. You’ll want to use many of the same tools and strategies that a private sector employee would, such as opening a Roth IRA or traditional IRA for tax-advantaged retirement savings, buying term life insurance to protect anyone who relies on your income and securing long-term disability income insurance to protect your income and your ability to save for retirement. If you receive life or disability insurance as an employment benefit, make sure you have enough coverage, and if not, supplement it with a private policy.

Save and Invest through Tax-Advantaged Retirement Accounts

If you work full-time for a public school or a tax-exempt private school, you should be eligible to contribute to a 403(b) plan. A regular 403(b) lets you contribute pretax dollars from your salary and lets you put that money into investments you choose among the options offered by the plan. Contributions grow tax-deferred, and you pay tax on plan withdrawals in retirement. If you’d prefer to pay taxes on the money now instead of when you retire, and if your employer offers the option, you can contribute to a Roth 403(b) instead. Your employer can also make matching contributions to your plan.

“These 403(b) accounts are crucial to the process for a lot of teachers because many districts do not pay into Social Security anymore,” says Wyatt Moerdyk, managing member, Evidence Advisors Investment Management in San Antonio, Texas. “Teachers forget to add the 403(b) savings that will supplement their teacher pension.”

If you work for a public school district, you may be able to save pretax dollars for retirement using a 457(b) plan. If you work for a private school that is classified as a tax-exempt organization, you may not have access to a 457(b) unless you are a highly compensated employee; those are the federal government’s rules. Your 457(b) contributions come directly out of your salary and your investments grow tax-deferred. 

The maximum you can contribute to each of these plans for 2018 is $18,500, plus a catch-up contribution of up to $6,000 if you’re 50 or older. And with a 457(b), when you’re three years away from the plan’s stated retirement age, instead of catch-up contributions, you can opt to start saving the lesser of either twice the annual limit or the sum of the current year’s limit and any unused portions of previous years’ contribution limits. 

A downside of 457(b) plans is that employers usually don’t provide matching contributions—your employer is already providing a pension, after all. But there’s an upside: when you leave your job, you can start taking distributions from your 457(b) without penalty, even if you haven’t reached retirement age. If you’re considering early retirement or early partial retirement, a 457(b) can help you fund that goal.

Here’s another perk: Participating in a 457(b) plan doesn’t exclude you from contributing up to the maximum to a 403(b). If you maxed out your contributions to both a 457(b) and a 403(b) in 2016, you’d be putting away a whopping $37,000. If you’re older, you can save even more. Whether you participate in a 403(b), 457(b) or both, make sure you understand the fees associated with both the plan itself and the investments offered within the plan before you contribute. 

Don’t Count on Social Security

Setting aside whether Social Security will still be solvent when you retire, many teachers are simply not eligible for Social Security benefits because, as noted above, they don’t pay Social Security taxes. It’s important to understand whether the retirement program you participate in makes you eligible or not and to be aware that asking your coworker for retirement advice might mean getting information that applies to his or her situation but not to yours.

In California, for example, teachers who participate in CalSTRS do not pay into Social Security; they pay into the CalSTRS fund instead. But teachers who participate in the California Public Employees Retirement System (CALPERS) do pay into Social Security. 

If your spouse pays Social Security taxes, you might be eligible for spousal Social Security benefits, but these benefits might be reduced because of your pension under government pension offset rules. “Many teachers rely on spousal Social Security benefits, only to find out later that they are dramatically reduced by the GPO rules,” says Moerdyk. You can also qualify if you’ve worked in the private sector, but it typically takes at least 10 years of private-sector work to earn enough credits to qualify for Social Security. 

Will You Work After You Retire from Teaching?

Not everyone wants to or can afford to quit working after retiring from a full-time career in teaching. If you expect to teach part-time, work in another profession part-time or start an encore career, think about how that income might influence how much you need to save and how much investment risk you need to take today.

That being said, we aren’t always able to work when we’re older; we might have to take care of our aging parents, or we might find that our own health is less than stellar. To be conservative, your financial plan should not rest on the assumption that you’ll continue to earn income from work after you retire from teaching full time. If you do want to work, make sure you understand how continuing to work will affect your retirement benefits. Certain job choices will reduce your benefits, depending on your retirement plan’s rules. 

Key Takeaways

  • There are financial planning firms that specialize in helping teachers plan for retirement.
  • As early in your career as possible, start balancing out your expected pension with defined contribution plans and insurance.
  • A regular 403(b) lets you contribute pretax dollars from your salary and lets you put that money into investments you choose among the options offered by the plan.

The Bottom Line

Planning for retirement when you’re a teacher isn’t easy, especially if you work for a public school. You face considerations that private-sector employees don’t, such as when to retire to maximize your benefits and how to select part-time or post-retirement work that doesn’t reduce your retirement benefits from teaching. On top of that, it probably seems like there’s less advice out there for you—retirement articles and books are usually geared toward private-sector employees, not public school or nonprofit private school teachers. Your retirement is just as important as anyone else’s, but your unique circumstances mean you’ll need to do extra work to make sure your retirement is secure.