401k

How to make your 401(k) grow at any age

March 11, 2014 at 11:14 AM ET

When it comes to retirement saving, it doesn't matter how old you are, because all generations are in trouble.

Whether a baby boomer, Gen Xer or millennial, many Americans find themselves in the same boat: not having a solid plan for retirement.

Although different generations are facing different threats, a study conducted by financial-education company Financial Finesse found that most, if not all, Americans might not be able to eventually pack up and head to a retirement community.

The study found that the biggest threat overall to baby boomers is retirement preparedness. For example, more than half of employees age 55 to 64 say they have not even run a retirement-plan estimate. The study was based on an analysis of 20,575 responses.

Gen Xers, born between 1964 and 1981, are most likely to be in the worst financial shape when it comes to retirement planning. Aside from their being behind other generations in terms of managing dollars and developing solid retirement plans, there are other external factors that will contribute to their retirement difficulties. One big problem: It's currently estimated that by the time Gen Xers hit their expected retirement age, the Social Security lockbox will have run dry.

On the whole, millennials, born after 1981, are also a long way from putting together actual retirement plans. To that point, 71 percent of millennial participants in the study said they haven't run an estimate on what it would take for them to stop working. This poses a problem, as it's conceivable they will be the generation to receive the least assistance from both employers and government.

Figuring out how much you'll need to retire is key; running a plan estimate gives you the best shot of calculating those dollar amounts. While you crunch the numbers, there are also some steps you can take—no matter your age—that could help beef up your portfolio and possibly get you across the retirement finish line in time. These include reducing housing costs, seeking out alternative investments and getting in on the exchange-traded funds gold rush.

One big difference between Americans saving for retirement today and their parents' generation is debt. Investors boosting their 401(k) balances are simultaneously racking up more debt than previous generations.

According to a study by financial-tool website HelloWallet, 60 percent of American households are building up debt faster than retirement savings.The majority of debt held by Main Street is comprised of mortgages. The study was based on a panel of more than 50,000 U.S. households.

Although real estate is a long-term investment, its return typically keeps pace with inflation, according to Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller.

New homeowners are finding that their total monthly payments are on the rise. Real estate foreclosure site RealtyTrac found that Americans who bought a three-bedroom house in the last three months of 2013 are now forking over 21 percent more per month in mortgage payments than homeowners did, on average, one year ago.

Reducing housing costs is one way to dump some debt and free up cash for your nest egg.

There are two practical ways to slash those expenses, said certified financial planner Tim Maurer: relocating and downsizing. Moving out of an expensive home in a high-cost area—for example, a $1 million three-bedroom ranch in Alexandria, Va.—to a lower-cost region, such as Charlotte, N.C., allows you to maintain a similar standard of living, keeping that three-bedroom ranch or even upgrading, while significantly shedding costs.

"The most powerful thing that a person can do to drastically improve their retirement standing in the shortest period of time is to move," said Maurer, director of personal finance at the BAM Alliance.

In the above hypothetical move from the Washington suburbs to North Carolina, "the prospective retiree is able to add $500,000 to his or her retirement nest egg, an amount capable of upgrading a seemingly hopeless retirement projection into a comfortable one," he added.

But moving to a new state is not always practical. For homeowners in that camp, another option could be to "sell down" or move into a smaller, less-expensive dwelling. Maurer said that by making this type of move, "you still derive the benefit of adding the balance to your retirement proceeds and lessening the costs of home ownership."

It's undeniable that any investment comes with risk, and diversification is the most obvious way to protect yourself. Even big endowments—with tens of billions of dollars in assets—use alternative investments as a way to hedge. Investing in alternatives such as real estate investment trusts or master limited partnerships tends to provide steady and consistent dividends.

There are not too many of these type of investment options available to the average retirement saver, but they do exist. According to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, the typical 401(k) plan offers no more than 12 alternative investment options.

Trevor Shakiba, president of the private wealth Shakiba Group, does warn that savers shouldn't be too eager to invest heavily in alternatives, because markets, more often than not, are a winning bet.

Markets have grown 26 out of the last 34 years, meaning "you have a 75 percent chance that it will go up [rather] than go down," he said. Since alternatives often trail healthy markets, Shakiba recommends allocating around 10 percent—and no more than 20 percent—of these types of investments to their portfolios.


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