explain retirement to me like i'm 5.
March 18, 2014 12:14 PM   Subscribe

help a girl figure some stuff out and (hopefully) not be completely SOL when she's old.

so. most of you will probably cringe, because, well, reasons that will become obvious.

i am 38 years old. at this particular time, i probably make more than anyone in my immediate family (mother, father, brother) ever did or has. as such, my parents were not big investors, and neither had any kind of retirement (my father had something through the teamsters, but if the post-divorce payments of half his monthly take that my mother received were any indication, there's no way in hell he would have been able to live on that). my mother still works - mostly because she wants to, but i think also because she doesn't have anything put away. my father is now deceased.

i, as such, have not put a huge amount of thought into it. through my previous job at a school district, i have a (albeit small) 403b that i never rolled over to my current job. my current job, up until recently, did not match 401k funds (and i have never paid into the 401k), and now that they do, they do something that seems kind of weird and hinkey to me, but i (sort of?) get why they do it - they make you wait until the end of the year to tell you if they will be matching funds and how much they will be matching. i find this… annoying. but see above about my complete lack of knowledge. i always thought, however, that if your company offered a 401k, that that was your only option for retirement savings. but i don't think i want to go into my company 401k. what is a roth IRA? would this be better for me? i also think there's another type of retirement deal, but damned if i know what it is. i also have no idea of tax implications - i am rather flustered this year as i both received a settlement through work and also sold some stock this year.

so help me not be completely shit outta luck, and not so stupid about these things. would a financial planner be better for me? is there a book i can read that caters to the almost completely oblivious? help me, mefi, you're my (probably) only hope.
posted by koroshiya to Work & Money (19 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have anything saved? Or are you starting from scratch?

I would first write up a list of where all my money is (savings, stocks, 401k). Generally you should have a good amount saved before you go talk to a financial planner.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:22 PM on March 18, 2014

Tons of resources on this available everywhere, and I'm sure you're going to get some great links to those resources, but I will share a basic primer that covers ... the basics: Choosing a Retirement Account.

(I do some freelance work for the site that hosts the link.)
posted by notyou at 12:24 PM on March 18, 2014

Really, really basic: the difference between an IRA (either traditional IRAs, and a Roth IRA) and a 401(k) is:

* An IRA is a retirement savings account that you start yourself and put money into yourself. The difference between a "traditional" IRA and a "Roth" IRA deal mostly with when you can take money out of it without paying taxes on it.

* A 401(k) (and a 403b, for that matter) are retirement savings accounts that your job starts for you. Rather than you being responsible for remembering to deposit money into it, you've given your company permission to automatically skim a certain percentage of money off your paychecks and put into it FOR you. Sometimes the company throws a little extra money into it as well.

Whether or not you take part in a 401(k) if your company offers it is entirely up to you; although, if they're a company that throws extra money in, it'd be kind of crazy not to because totally free money woo. But if the idea of your company having control over that just feels wrong to you, that's totally fine. You can even have a 401(k) AND an IRA on your own (I've done that).

Another thing to remember about all of these accounts is, they're all money you haven't paid tax on. The money that your company deposits into a 401(k) is money they take out BEFORE they calculate your tax withholding, so they're calculating your tax withholding on what your paycheck would be if you didn't have that money. Likewise, with an IRA, if you make a deposit, you can claim that on your taxes, so the government knows that when it's figuring out how much tax you owe, it should ignore that amount you put into the IRA. So if you take money out of any of these kinds of accounts before you retire, you may have to pay tax on it as "extra income". There are ways to get around that - I think with an IRA, if you take out a certain amount but then deposit that same amount back into the IRA within a month, then you don't have to worry about paying tax on it. (The best way that I've thought of them is, it's money that does not exist yet, and then when I turn 69 I will get a very nice cash windfall.)

As for your specific situation - it's possible to "roll over" a 403b or a 401k from an old job you're not at any more into an IRA. You can get away without doing it, but it may be smarter to open an IRA and roll over the 403b into it, and then get in the habit of throwing some money at the IRA each year anyway. As long as you get the bank with the 403b and the bank where you have your IRA to do things directly between them, you won't have to pay any fees or tax penalty on the rolled-over money either.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:30 PM on March 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

You could sign up for Mint.com. I really like it. It gives you a nice breakdown of all of your accounts (provided that they are accessible through the internet). All of mine are, even my student loans, so I am able to get a good view of how my finances are doing and how they are going to work out in the future. It's free because it's ad supported. They won't sell your info, but they do look at what you are doing and offer you better accounts than what you currently have. For instance, my savings account is 0.01% and charges me for too much activity. They sent me an alert that was really and ad for Ally bank that gives you 0.85% interest and no fees. Stuff like that. I have a retirement goal and it tells me if I'm doing ok and what I need to have saved by X date to retire for Y years. It also tells me if the 401k I have is a good one by trying to sell me other retirement accounts. It's nice to be able to look at what other companies are offering and see where my own bank sits in comparison.
posted by domo at 12:41 PM on March 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

The biggest benefit in using a 401k is that there's a 17k/year limit before worrying about taxes. Both Roth and Traditional IRAs have a low 5-6k threshold.

Starting at 38, I'd consider maxing out your IRA and then funneling as much as you can afford into your 401k.
posted by politikitty at 12:45 PM on March 18, 2014

my parents were not big investors, and neither had any kind of retirement

If you have no background, the best way to start is probably to find a professional or a local group that helps people with these questions. Otherwise even the best advice in this thread may confuse or cause problems.

The basic idea is this (with the caveat some of it may be dated): assuming you don't want to work forever (and acknowledging you may not be able to work forever) you need to set aside money now to pay the bills later. Because it doesn't want to act as a social safety net for everyone, the government encourages you to put money into retirement accounts with tax incentives. Accounts vary in type (various IRAs versus things that start with "40") but the general idea is the same: put money in now and it's taken off your taxable income this year. It's a sort of bet: when the money comes back out of the account it will be treated as taxable income in that year so the idea is you put money away now when your tax bracket* is (let's say) 25% because you earn $80,000 and then take it out 40 years from now when your tax bracket is less than 25%. In the interim the money in the account (hopefully) earns interest that also remains untaxed until it comes out. You use the pot of money in the retirement account along with what remains of Social Security after you retire to cover your costs. For most account types you currently have to start taking at least some money out at 70 1/2.

The one big difference between retirement accounts is a Roth IRA versus almost everything else: contributions to a Roth don't reduce your taxable income, but withdrawal of the principal (i.e., what you put in) isn't taxable later on.

* Because tax brackets aren't a fixed number but a sliding scale the math is actually a bit more complex but only if you put a lot of money away.
posted by yerfatma at 1:07 PM on March 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Starting at 38, I'd consider maxing out your IRA and then funneling as much as you can afford into your 401k.

What's the advantage, especially if the employer matches contributions to the 401k? You can always convert a "protected" account like a 401k into an IRA if you don't care about the status, but you can't do the reverse.
posted by yerfatma at 1:09 PM on March 18, 2014

it's possible to "roll over" a 403b or a 401k from an old job you're not at any more into an IRA. You can get away without doing it

You can also move the money into a "rollover IRA" at most institutions which will let you move it back into a 401k if one becomes available to you later on.

Just to clarify for the OP: you can get away with not moving the money if your old employer/ plan lets you leave it there after you stop working for them, but if they don't, they will send you a check and you have 60 days to move it somewhere before

A. The entire sum becomes taxable income for the current year
B. You lose a huge chunk of it to the IRS in penalties.

Ideally the money would be transferred from institution to institution as EmpressCallipygos suggests. Failing that, you can ask the old institution to cut you a check made out to the new institution FBO Your Name Here. Failing that, you can receive the money and then pay it back out personally within 60 days. Please don't dawdle.
posted by yerfatma at 1:13 PM on March 18, 2014

Other people are defining some of these terms for you, but please let me clear up one misconception you might have: You can participant in the 401k and an IRA (Roth or traditional) and save outside of those two. At your age, this is exactly what you need to do if at all possible.
1. Open an account with somebody. For example, Fidelity.
2. If you haven't done your taxes for 2013 yet, go contribute to an IRA before you do the taxes. The maximum amount for 2013 is $5500. Put it in the account you opened. They can help you. To make it easy and because this is new and because you're running out of time to learn before tax day, put it in an index fund -- for example, S&P 500.
3. Separately from the above, take whatever is in the 403b account and roll it into an IRA account with Fidelity or whoever. You'll need to make the same choices as above, so go ahead and pick an index fund.
4. Whatever you earn on the money in a 401k is tax-deferred. Start putting money in there and don't worry about the match for now.
5. You also should/need to save additional money, if possible. This can go into yet another account at Fidelity or wherever. It would be a non-IRA account.
posted by Houstonian at 1:27 PM on March 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your company's 401k might be a really good deal or it may be just okay. The company match may seem hinky, but it is free money when they do contribute, even if it is not every year. Ask other employees how often and how much they contribute.
Find out what the vesting schedule is. Your contributions should always be yours, but the company match may not be all yours until you meet some service milestone with the company.
Find out what your investment options are in the 401k.
Find out what company manages your 401k and how their customer service is. Mine is managed by Fidelity and they have a lot of other tools available when you log into your account.
posted by soelo at 1:34 PM on March 18, 2014

Response by poster: the money in my previous 403b has been sitting there for 7 years (since i moved out of that state and that job.) i can still move it somewhere else - in fact, the state agency asking me to update my records is what pushed me to ask this.
posted by koroshiya at 1:56 PM on March 18, 2014

Response by poster: and my company uses fidelity for their 401k management. i have my previous 403b (~15K), about ~5k in savings, and my salary. my car is paid for, and i live in the bay area, which means i will probably never own a home, and my mother does not own her home, so i (and my brother) will more than likely not inherit anything significant when she passes. it also means that it's batshit crazy expensive to live here, and while i'm not suffering at the moment, i'm also not saving as much as i feel i should.
posted by koroshiya at 2:01 PM on March 18, 2014

Response by poster: i should also mention that i have, previously to this year, gotten RSUs from my company, but they are stopping the practice as of this review cycle. i have ~$20K in unvested RSUs. i had some options left, but i sold them as they were set to expire in september.
posted by koroshiya at 2:09 PM on March 18, 2014

Moonorb has it pretty well right. The only additions I would make would be:

1) I would try to put at least 8% of my income into my 401k. Even if they only do a match every other year, it would still be a huge kicker. (I would likely not put more than 8% as a company that does not automatically fund a 401k likely doesn't have a huge match, but if circumstances suggest otherwise I would put more into the 401k.)
2) Next I would try to fully fund the Roth
3) Any additional monies left over I would add to an IRA

Though I personally use Fidelity, I would suggest Vanguard. Slightly less expensive, and slightly less selling going on. They are both quite good though.
posted by jcworth at 2:10 PM on March 18, 2014

I suggest calling Clark Howard for advice. He handles this kind of question on his radio show every single day and he knows what's up.
posted by tacodave at 2:17 PM on March 18, 2014

Hi. My name is J.D. Roth. I am not a financial expert, but I play one on the internet. (I founded Get Rich Slowly, wrote Your Money: The Missing Manual, and currently write the "Your Money" column for Entrepreneur magazine.)

Almost seven years ago (!!!) I wrote this: What is a Roth IRA and why should you care? It's a blog post about the basics of Roth IRAs, and it links to other places where you can find more information. I republished that post (with lots more info) as The GRS Guide to Roth IRAs.

You really should take ownership of this situation and do some reading about retirement, etc. Your top move is to go to the public library and borrow some books on the subject. How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free is good. Work Less, Live More is good (though geared at early retirees, which sounds like you won't be). Personally, though, I'd look at a series of books by Mike Piper, who writes at Oblivious Investor. Mike is a sharp guy, and he's produced a series of excellent (and short) self-published books on investing topics, including Can I Retire? and Investing Made Simple. You can find these on Amazon for cheap.

Now I'll try to give you some succinct answers to your questions:
  • Not to be harsh, but your background (and your family background) is irrelevant. Your situation may not be your fault, but it's your responsibility. Grasping this is key to making changes. I say this because I too used to use my background -- which is similar to yours -- as an excuse. It wasn't until I stopped that I began to get control of my money.
  • It's awesome that you have a past 403b. You don't need to roll it over unless you want to. But be sure you have all the info about the account, where it's kept, and what the current balance is.
  • Is your current company's retirement plan an actual 401k? Or is it something else? I ask because my family business had a "profit sharing" retirement plan that works exactly like you describe. Based on how well the company did, we decided at the end of the year how much we could afford to contribute to our employees' retirements. We didn't require any matching, though. We just contributed.
  • No, a company 401k is never the only option for retirement saving. There are always others. MoonOrb offered good advice above. Heed it.
  • Think of a Roth IRA or a 401k or a 403b as a bucket. It's a place for you to put retirement money. You can have all sorts of buckets. Which you choose depends on your personal situation. You could hire an investment adviser, but I think that's overkill for your situation. On the other hand, you don't want to ignore things either. Instead, read some of the books I've recommended here.
When I give personal finance advice, I tend to focus on behavior instead of mechanics. That is, I don't think which retirement account or mutual fund you choose is nearly as important as actually beginning to set money aside for retirement. That's something that's entirely in your hands. You don't need to wait for anyone to tell you how to do it. You can start with your company 401k today. Or a Roth IRA. "I don't understand," isn't a good reason to delay. Better to make a suboptimal (but good) move today than to keep doing nothing.
posted by jdroth at 2:33 PM on March 18, 2014 [32 favorites]

On the book front, when I was figuring this stuff out, I found the Motley Fool Money Guide really helpful. I can't tell with a quick search whether they have a more recent version than the 2001 edition I had - but a lot of the basic information about the difference between types of accounts, etc., hasn't changed all that much. Might be worth picking up a copy of from the library, or something. It was a good beginner-level book that didn't assume any real pre-existing knowledge on my part.

I think in your position I'd open up a Roth IRA at Vanguard or Fidelity (I can vouch for Vanguard being good), and start chucking money into a target date retirement fund for when I expected to retire.

Get that set up with some monthly auto-deductions from your paycheck, and then you can take a big deep breath, congratulate yourself for having done the really hard work already, and when you're ready, tackle doing some reading to figure out whether you want to get more hands-on and in-depth with your retirement investing.
posted by Stacey at 3:07 PM on March 18, 2014

Speaking to your 401K the reason you probably find the match hinky is because usually when it occurs at the end of the year, you only get the match a that time. If you get laid off or quit in November, you've been putting your own money into it and exposing it to teh risk of a devalued investment without the cushion of the employers free money. I personally don't like that setup, but to each their own.
posted by WeekendJen at 11:08 AM on March 19, 2014

You've got some really good advice above (MoonOrb's is great and I'm always happy to see J. D. Roth sharing what he knows), so I'd like to offer some encouragement to go with it.

GOOD FOR YOU for recognizing that this has not been your favorite thing and deciding to learn how to figure it out!

My main advice: you're probably feeling a sense of pressure and urgency to do something right away - maybe even something big. I'm going to encourage you to not rush into anything. By all means, plow into the books and explore the options available to you, but don't feel like you have to take care of your entire retirement future today. Commit to making some significant progress this year, and next year, and think about how much better shape you'll be in than you were a few years ago.

A few specifics:

The Getting Started page at the Bogleheads wiki is terrific. That page also has a link to the Bogleheads retirement planning start-up kit. (Bogleheads, by the way, are just people who appreciate the philosophy of Jack Bogle, the founder of Vanguard; he was dismayed at how much investment companies take in fees, and he's made it something of a crusade to spread info about how you can hold on to more of your money by avoiding big nasty fees.)

They also have a wiki page full of recommended reading. I think their recommendation of Smart and Simple Strategies for Busy People by Jane Bryant Quinn is a good place to start.

The Boglehead forums are great, full of smart and patient people with a low tolerance for the baseless nonsense that some financial writers toss around. As you start learning about your options, they can offer really helpful feedback.

Good luck!
posted by kristi at 11:05 PM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

« Older Moving your parent to a Senior Living Home   |   Trying to help a complete beginner get their... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.