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Financial Goals

Investing in Your 40s: 4 Goals to Help You Prepare for What’s Next

In your 40s, your priorities and investing goals become clearer than ever.

Alex Benke, CFP®

By Alex Benke, CFP®
VP of Advice and Investing, Betterment  |  Published: May 13, 2016

In your 40s, you should aim to reduce debt, invest for retirement, and optimize tax savings.

If you have children, start saving for your child’s college tuition and look for childcare tax credits.

Also take advantage of tax-deferred savings options, such as your 401(k) plan, or an IRA or HSA.


It’s easy to put off planning for the future when the present is so demanding.

But, unlike in your 20s and 30s, when your retirement seemed a far ways off, your 40s are when your financial responsibilities—now and post-retirement—become palpable. You may be earning more income than ever, thus you are subject to greater complexity concerning your taxes and investments.

Perhaps you have increased expenses as a result of homeownership. If you have kids, now may also be the time that you’re thinking about, or preparing to pay for college tuition.

When all of these elements of your financial life combine, they require some careful planning and smart investing.

Consider the following roadmap to investing wisely during these rewarding years of your life. Here are four goals to help you prepare.

Preparing for Your Next Phase: 4 Goals for Your 40s

You may have already made a plan for the future. If so, now is a good time to review it and adjust course if necessary. If you haven’t, it’s not too late to get started.

Set aside some time to think about your situation and long term goals. If you’re married or in a relationship, it’s best to include your spouse or partner.

Consider the facts: How much are you making? How much do you spend? How much are you setting aside for savings, investments, and retirement? What will you need in the next five, 10, or 20 years? Work these factors into your short- and long-term financial goals.

1. Pay Off High-Interest Debt

The average variable rate credit card charges more than 15% a year in interest, so paying off any high-fee credit card debt boosts your financial security more than almost any other strategy.

Student loans may also be a high-cost form of debt, especially if you borrowed money decades ago when rates were higher. For instance, even federally subsidized Stafford loans taken out in the 1990s may carry interest rates as high as 8.25%.

If you have a high-interest-rate student loan, or if you have multiple loans that you’d like to consolidate, you may want to consider refinancing your student debt. Nowadays, online or marketplace lenders offer many options to refinance higher-rate student loans.

There’s one form of debt that you don’t necessarily need to repay early, however: your mortgage. This is because mortgage rates are lower than most credit cards, and offer you a tax break. If you itemize deductions, you can typically subtract the mortgage interest from your taxable income.1

2. Check That Your Retirement Savings Are on Track

If you’ve had several jobs—and several retirement or 401(k) plans—now’s a good time to organize and check how all of your investments have performed. Betterment can help you accomplish this.

You can sync all of your outside accounts with Betterment to see all of your wealth in one place. Betterment also helps you see where you’re paying higher investment management fees, grab opportunities to invest idle cash, and determine how your portfolios are allocated.

Because it’s much easier to get on track in your 40s than in your 50s, you’ll want to check in on your retirement by turning on RetireGuide, Betterment’s retirement planning tool.

RetireGuide is included at no additional cost for all customers, and helps tell you how much you’ll need to save for retirement based on when and where you plan on retiring.

The tool also considers current and future income—including Social Security income—as well as your 401(k) accounts and other savings. RetireGuide updates constantly, and when you sync all of your outside accounts it provides the most personalized retirement guidance available.

3. Optimize Your Taxes

In your 40s, you’re likely to be earning more–which may put you in a higher tax bracket. Review your tax situation to make sure you are keeping as much of your hard-earned income as you can.

Determine if you should be investing in a Roth or traditional employer plan option, or IRA. This article can help.

These days, more than half of employer-sponsored plans offer a Roth option, and it’s not limited by income. The right choice depends on your current income versus your expected income in retirement. If your income is higher now, it’s generally better to use a traditional 401(k) and take the deduction. If your income is similar or less than what you expect in retirement, choose a Roth if available.

Those without employer plans can generally take traditional IRA deductions no matter what their income (as long as your spouse doesn’t have one, either). Use Betterment’s 401(k)/IRA calculator above to help decide which one you should be contributing to, or if you’re a Betterment customer, consult RetireGuide’s “How To Save” section.

You’ll also want to make sure you take advantage of all the tax credits and deductions that may be available to you.

For instance, if you work and pay for childcare, you may be eligible for a dependent care credit. Depending on your income, this credit may be worth anywhere from 20% to 35% of what you spend on childcare, and is capped at $3,000 for one qualifying individual, and $6,000 for two qualifying individuals.

Check also to see whether your company offers tax-free transportation benefits—including subway or bus passes or commuter parking. The value of these benefits isn’t included in your taxable income, so you save money.

You can also save money on a pre-tax basis by contributing to a Health Savings Account (HSA) or Flexible Spending Account (FSA).

Health Saving Accounts (HSA)

Health savings accounts (HSAs) are like personal savings accounts, but the money in them is used to pay for health care expenses. Only you—not your employer or insurance company—own and control the money in your HSA.

The money you deposit into the account is not taxed. To be eligible to open an HSA, you must have a special type of health insurance called a high-deductible plan.

Your 401(k) may be tied to your employer, however your HSA is not. As long as your health plan meets the deductible requirement and permits you to open an HSA, and you’re not receiving Medicare benefits or claimed as a dependent on someone else’s tax return, you can open one with various HSA “administrators” or “custodians” such as banks, credit unions, insurance companies, and other financial institutions. You can withdraw the funds tax-free at any time for qualified medical expenses.

Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA)

A Flexible Spending Account (FSA) is a special account that can be used to save for certain out-of-pocket health care costs. You don’t pay taxes on this money—this is a tax-favored program that some employers offer to their employees.

If you have an FSA, remember that in most cases your spending allowance does not carry over from year-to-year. It’s important to find out whether your employer offers a grace period into the next year (typically through mid-March) to spend down your account.

Before you waste your tax-free savings on eyeglasses, check what you can buy with FSA money—with and without a prescription. Any unused funds will be forfeited, so it’s a good idea to use up what you can. If you find yourself with more than you can spend, then you might want to adjust how much you’re allocating to your FSA.

4. If You Have Children, Start Saving for College (But Don’t Shortchange Retirement To Do It)

If you have children, you may be already be paying for their college tuition, or at least preparing to pay for it.

For 2016, average annual college tuition costs were $9,400 for public, in-state schooling, and $32,400 for private education, according to the College Board.

Kids grow up fast, so if you haven’t started thinking about college costs, here’s some info to get started.

According to the College Board’s College Cost Calculator, today’s fifth grader today will need more than $250,000 to graduate from an average four-year private college by the year 2024.

Scholarships, grants and federal loans can help, but it’s up to you to make sure that your kids can get the education they deserve, but it’s a mistake to save for your kids’ college costs while neglecting your own security.

Plenty of parents submit a final tuition payment only to realize that they’ve saved nothing for retirement—without any time left to save more.

So, first things first, make sure you’re saving enough for your own retirement. Then if you have money left over, think about tax-deferred college savings plans, such as 529 plans.

A 529, named for the section of the tax code that allows for them, can be a great way to save for college because earnings are tax-free if used for qualified education expenses.

Some states even allow you to deduct contributions from your state income tax, if you use your state’s plan. (While each state has its own plan, you can use any state’s plan, no matter where your child will go to college.)

An alternative is to put money away in your own taxable savings accounts. Some investors prefer this method since it gives them more control over the money if things change, and may be more beneficial for financial aid. You can also learn more about saving for your child’s tuition costs here.

Your 40s are all about taking stock of how far you’ve come, re-adjusting your priorities and getting ready for the next phase of life.

By working on your financial goals now, you can gain peace of mind that allows you to concentrate on important things like family, friends, work and the way you want to spend this rewarding decade of your life.

Getting Started with Betterment

Betterment handles your investments so you don’t have to. We make it easy to roll over your retirement accounts (or get new accounts set up), and everything we do is designed to help you save money on taxes. Our customer support team is available seven days a week to answer any questions. Get started today. You can even refer your friends and family so that you can each receive free time.

1Note that this tax benefit begins to phase out if your Adjusted Gross Income, or AGI, is over a certain threshold (for 2016, $259,400 if you’re single, $311,300 if you’re married).

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