If you've lost your job through an involuntary layoff, the effect on your retirement planning is likely to be one of the many concerns on your mind. And even if funding the retirement nest egg is a less immediate concern than paying this month's rent or mortgage, neglecting this important resource can have far-reaching negative consequences. To keep your retirement savings on track during tough times, you need to have a plan. (For background reading, see You CAN Retire In A Recession.)
What to Do With What You've Got
The first step in your plan should be to assess your savings situation. If you have been participating in an employer-sponsored retirement savings program, you may have amassed a substantial portfolio, particularly if the layoff comes late in life. This money is important to your future, so don't touch it, tempting though it may be.
Taking money out of a retirement savings plan can result in serious damage to your savings in more ways than you might think. (That's one reason why many defined-benefit plans will not even give you the option of early withdrawal.) If you do remove your funds, not only will your savings no longer be working on your behalf, but you will owe income tax on them and, if you are younger than age 59½, a 10% penalty for early withdrawal. That is likely to amount to at least a 30% loss right off the top. Even borrowing from your 401(k) is a bad idea. (For insight into how dipping into your future savings can have serious consequences, read Eight Reasons To Never Borrow From Your 401(k).)
Retirement savings is meant for one purpose only, and that's to fund your retirement. If you keep the money invested while you are out of work, it will keep working for you. Depending on the balance in your account, you may even be able to leave it in your ex-employer's retirement savings plan even after you no longer work for the company. Most plans permit former employees to maintain their accounts as long as the account balance meets the required minimum, which varies by plan but is generally between $1,000 and $5,000. If you have at least that much in your account, you can leave it right where it is, maintaining your portfolio in the exact same investments that you chose while you were working. (For more, see Transfer Retirement Savings When You Change Jobs.)
If you don't meet the minimum, you can keep your nest egg intact by rolling it over into an individual retirement account (IRA). If you have multiple accounts from previous employers, now may be a good to consider consolidating your accounts. In general, the fewer the number of accounts that you have open, the lower the number and amount of administrative fees that you are paying. (If you think moving your money to an IRA is the right strategy for you, read Common IRA Rollover Mistakes for tips on how to avoid paying excess taxes.)
Once you've taken care of your existing savings, the next step is to figure out whether you can find a way to sustain your pre-layoff retirement savings rate. Take a look at the numbers. How much were you putting away? Was there a company match? Can you afford to continue putting away the same amount of money while you are unemployed? (If you must leave your job, go out fighting for the best benefits you can get – see The Layoff Payoff: A Severance Package.)
If you don't know the answers to these questions, it's time to take a look a look at the numbers. If you don't have a budget, now is the time to put one together. It will help you figure out where you stand and what you can do. When you are gathering all of your information together, be sure to file for unemployment and factor your unemployment checks into your income calculations. If you received a severance package with the layoff, factor that in too. If you are otherwise financially secure, you may be able to use your severance package to bolster your retirement savings.
If You Can't Keep Building, Keep Tabs
Because you are no longer employed, you will not be able to make additional contributions to the retirement savings plan sponsored by your former employer, even if your balance is high enough that you don't have to move the account. The solution to this challenge is to open an IRA and make regular contributions to it. (Read IRA Contributions: Eligibility And Deadlines to learn more.)
If you stop using credit cards and cut your spending, you may be able to free up some cash, but if you can't match your pre-layoff savings rate, determine whether you can afford to save anything at all. If so, figure out the difference and keep track of it. You may be able to make it up later. If you are unable to save at all, keep tabs on the amount you would have saved had you been working.
The Bottom Line
Your layoff is a temporary state of unemployment. You will find another job and, ideally, that job will let you get your retirement savings back on track. Over time, you may be able to add to your account balances to make up for the money you were unable to set aside while you were unemployed. It can be a long road to recovery, but retirement can last decades. When you get to your golden years, you'll be glad that you kept working at building your nest egg, even when money was tight.