How To Plan For Retirement

It depends on the lifestyle you want, the investment accounts available, and the income you expect to receive.

illustration of retiree relaxing

Most people want to retire some day. But retirement planning looks a little different for everyone. There’s more than one way to get there. And some people want to live more extravagantly—or frugally—than others. 

Your retirement plan should be based on the life you want to live and the financial options you have available. And the sooner you sort out the details, the better. Even if retirement seems far away, working out the details now will set you up to retire when and how you want to.

In this guide, we’ll cover:

  • How much you should save for retirement
  • Choosing retirement accounts
  • Supplemental income to consider
  • Self-employed retirement options

How much should you save for retirement?

How much you need to save ultimately depends on what you want retirement to look like. Some people see themselves traveling the world when they retire. Or living closer to their families. Maybe there’s a hobby you’ve wished you could spend more time and money on. Perhaps for you, retirement looks like the life you have now—just without the job. 

For many people, that’s a good place to start. Take the amount you spend right now and ask yourself: do you want to spend more or less than that each year of retirement? How long do you want your money to last? Answering these questions will give you a target amount you’ll need to reach and help you think about managing your income in retirement

Don’t forget to think about where you’ll want to live, too. Cost of living varies widely, and it has a big effect on how long your money will last. Move somewhere with a lower cost of living, and you need less to retire. Want to live it up in New York City, Seattle, or San Francisco? Plan to save significantly more. 

And finally: when do you want to retire? This will give you a target date to save it by (in investing, that’s called a time horizon). It’ll also inform how much you need to retire. Retiring early reduces your time horizon, and increases the number of expected years you need to save for. 

Choosing retirement accounts

Once you know how much you need to save, it’s time to think about where that money will go. Earning interest and taking advantage of tax benefits can help you reach your goal faster, and that’s why choosing the right investment accounts is a key part of retirement planning. While there are many kinds of investment accounts in general, people usually use five main types to save for retirement:

  • Traditional 401(k)
  • Roth 401(k)
  • Traditional IRA (Individual Retirement Account)
  • Roth IRA (Individual Retirement Account)

Traditional 401(k)

A Traditional 401(k) is an employer-sponsored retirement plan. These have two valuable advantages:

  • Your employer may match a percentage of your contributions
  • Your contributions are tax deductible

You can only invest in a 401(k) if your employer offers one. If they do, and they match a percentage of your contributions, this is almost always an account you’ll want to take advantage of. The contribution match is free money. You don’t want to leave that on the table. And since your contributions are tax deductible, you’ll pay less income tax while you’re saving for retirement.

Roth 401(k)

A Roth 401(k) works just like a Traditional one, but with one key difference: the tax advantages come later. You make contributions, your employer (sometimes) matches a percentage of them, and you pay taxes like normal. But when you withdraw your funds during retirement, you don’t pay taxes. This means any interest you earned on your account is tax-free.

With both Roth and Traditional 401(k)s, you can contribute a maximum of $23,000 in 2024, or $30,500 if you’re age 50 or over. 

Traditional IRA (Individual Retirement Account)

As with a 401(k), an IRA gives you tax advantages. Depending on your income, contributions may lower your pre-tax income, so you pay less income tax leading up to retirement. The biggest difference? Your employer doesn’t match your contributions. The annual contribution limits are also significantly lower: just $7,000 for 2024, or $8,000 if you’re age 50 or over. 

Roth IRA (Individual Retirement Account)

A Roth IRA works similarly, but as with a Roth 401(k), the tax benefits come when you retire. Your contributions still count toward your taxable income right now, but when you withdraw in retirement, all your interest is tax-free.

So, should you use a Roth or Traditional account? One option is to use both Traditional and Roth accounts for tax diversification during retirement. Another strategy is to compare your current tax bracket to your expected tax bracket during retirement, and try to optimize around that. Also keep in mind that your income may fluctuate throughout your career. So you may choose to do Roth now, but after a significant promotion you might switch to Traditional.

Health Savings Account (HSA)

An HSA is another solid choice. Contributions to an HSA are tax deductible, and if you use the funds on medical expenses, your distributions are tax-free. After age 65, you can withdraw your funds just like a traditional 401(k) or IRA, even for non-medical expenses. 

You can only contribute to a Health Savings Accounts if you’re enrolled in a high-deductible health plan (HDHP). In 2024, you can contribute up to $4,150 to an HSA if your HDHP covers only you, and up to

$8,300 if your HDHP covers your family.

What other income can you expect?

Put enough into a retirement account, and your distributions will likely cover your expenses during retirement. But if you can count on other sources of income, you may not need to save as much. For many people, a common source of income during retirement is social security. As long as you or your spouse have made enough social security contributions throughout your career, you should receive social security benefits. Retire a little early, and you’ll still get some benefits (but it may be less).

This can amount to thousands of dollars per month. You can estimate the benefits you’ll receive using the Social Security Administration’s Retirement Estimator.

Retirement accounts for the self-employed

Self-employed people have a few additional options to consider.

One Participant 401(k) Plan or Solo 401(k)

A Solo 401(k) is similar to a regular 401(k). However, with a Solo 401(k), you’re both the employer and the employee. You can combine the employee contribution limit and the employer contribution limit. As long as you don’t have any employees and you’re your own company, this is a pretty solid option. However, a Solo 401(k) typically requires more advance planning and ongoing paperwork than other account types.

If your circumstances change, you may be able to roll over your Solo 401(k) plan or consolidate your IRAs into a more appropriate retirement savings account.

Simplified Employee Pension (SEP IRA)

With a SEP IRA, the business sets up an IRA for each employee. Only the employer can contribute, and the contribution rate must be the same for each qualifying employee.

Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE IRA)

A SIMPLE IRA is ideal for small business owners who have 100 employees or less. Both the employer and the employee can contribute.

You can also contribute to a Traditional IRA or Roth IRA—although how much you can contribute depends on how much you’ve put into other retirement accounts.

Start planning your retirement

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to retirement. This is about what you want and what you can do. Your plan has to fit your life. That’s why Betterment makes personalized recommendations based on what you tell us. Based on things like your existing savings, when you plan to retire, and how you want to retire, we’ll help you find the right accounts, choose the right assets, and start planning your retirement.

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