9 Times Life Can Throw Retirement Off Course
Saving for retirement requires discipline. Ideally, you are able to amass a nice nest egg by putting aside a big chunk of money each month and investing it wisely. But it doesn't take much for you to get off track. Life happens, and you are often faced with expenses and other burdens that make saving for retirement less of a priority.
But you needn't let life get in the way of your long-term financial goals. With some planning and good decision making, you can continue to save regardless of what comes your way.
Here are some things that can throw your retirement planning out of whack, and how to deal with them.
1. Job loss
If you suddenly find yourself out of work, it can be a huge blow to your retirement savings because you no longer have income you can set aside. You are no longer able to contribute to that company's 401(k) plan, and you lose any matching or direct contributions that were coming from your employer.
An extended job loss could result in the loss of tens of thousands of dollars in retirement savings over time. However, you can always contribute more to your 401(k) plan later to catch up once you get back to working, and if you have a large enough emergency fund (at least three to six months' worth of income), you may still be able to contribute to retirement through individual retirement accounts (IRAs) or taxable brokerage accounts.
A job loss can hurt, but if you are relatively young and have a lot saved already, the loss of a few months of retirement contributions won't make too much of a difference in the long run.
Dissolving a marriage is a tough choice to make, and it's one that can be fraught with financial implications. There could be large upfront legal costs associated with the divorce itself, and the long-term impact can be significant. Suddenly, your household income has been split in half while you each now have to pay for your own separate housing costs, utilities, and meals. You may be on the hook for child support or alimony payments. And now the combined retirement nest egg you were counting on has been slashed. When this happens, it's hard to think about retirement savings.
You can protect your retirement, however, by avoiding the temptation to cash out accounts upon your divorce. Some couples have unfortunately been known to do this during the asset-splitting process, resulting in huge capital gains taxes and penalties (plus the loss of any potential earnings from that money).
If you and your spouse are considering divorce, be sure to think hard about the financial implications. If you do decide to separate, don't lose sight of the importance of saving for retirement, despite the new challenge in doing so. (See also on WiseBread.com: How to Protect Yourself Financially During a Divorce or Separation)
3. A major emergency
You suffered a significant injury and only part of your medical bills were covered by insurance. You totaled your car. Your house was gutted by fire. When these things happen, retirement saving may be the last thing on your mind. In fact, if you are not prepared, you may end up raiding your retirement funds to pay your bills. This could mean penalties and taxes and years of potential lost income.
You can continue to save for retirement, however, if you've built up a significant emergency fund. Three to six months' worth of income is a good rule of thumb to cover whatever unexpected costs you may have. With a good emergency fund, you may not have to raid your retirement funds at all, and may even be able to continue contributing at the same level. (See also on WiseBread.com: 7 Easy Ways to Build an Emergency Fund From $0)
4. Having a child
You and your spouse are rolling in dough, pumping those retirement accounts to the max and watching the savings grow at a rapid pace. Then you decide to have a baby. In case you weren't aware, kids add cost. The United States Department of Agriculture calculates the average cost of raising a child from birth through age 17 to be $233,610. So you can imagine how having a kid could throw your finances off track.
If you are thinking of having a child, you need to plan for it financially, by either boosting your income, cutting back on other expenses, or (ideally) both. If you think you can put off saving for retirement until the kids are out of the house, that's a big mistake.
5. Going back to school
There may come a time in your life when you feel a desire to finish college or get an advanced degree. Certainly, education can be the key to developing a great career and stable finances. But you still need to be smart about it.
Our nation is filled with young people who are crushed by student debt and unable to even consider saving for retirement. If you're heading back to school, make sure you're pursuing something that can actually pay off in the form of a better career or higher-paying job. Try to avoid taking out burdensome student loans, if you can. Examine if it's possible to continue working while pursuing the degree so you're not losing income.
Your early years are the best time to save money for retirement, because your money has time to grow. Don't let higher education be a burden in your efforts to save.
6. Caring for an older parent
Your parents spent a couple of decades taking care of you, and now it's your turn to look after them. It's never easy to watch your loved ones deal with health problems as they age, and it can be a source of both mental and financial stress. You may choose to have a parent move in with you, or you may have to take time off work to search for other care options. You may need to pick up a share of their medical bills, or take care of other affairs, like selling their home. All of this can throw a curveball to your own retirement savings.
To avoid any serious financial strain, it helps to plan ahead and have some savings set aside to care for your loved ones. It also helps to have a conversation with your parents early on to make sure they have the financial resources to cover their own expenses as they age. (See also on WiseBread.com: 6 Financial Steps to Take When Your Aging Parents Move In)
7. The market crashes
It's a bummer to see a chunk of your retirement savings wiped away when the stock market goes down. You may feel like all of your efforts to save were for naught. But that's the wrong attitude.
When investing, you should always be aware that the market could go down at any time. If you are close to retirement age, work to make sure your portfolio is heavier on bonds and cash than more volatile stocks. If you are further away from retirement, don't panic. Remember that the market has always rebounded, and you can take advantage of the fact that investments are cheaper than they were.
8. Buying a house
It's very common to see your housing expenses rise once you move from renting to homeownership. Many people will stretch their budgets to get the home they want, and also fail to take into account property taxes, mortgage insurance, community fees, and the cost to maintain the home. If your housing expenses are now higher than in the past, you may now have less money available to set aside for retirement.
To avoid this, don't buy a home that will dramatically increase your monthly housing costs. Look to save as much of a down payment as possible before purchasing, and work to get the lowest interest rate you can. Homeownership is a key part of obtaining financial freedom — it should not be something that prevents you from achieving your financial goals.
9. Moving to a more expensive area
You decided to move into the city because it's closer to work and offers a more vibrant social scene. But before long, you realized that it's really putting a dent into your finances. Your cost of living has shot up, leaving you with less money available to save for retirement.
If this happens to you, it's time to reevaluate your overall financial picture. Track your expenses and see if it's possible to cut some costs. Look for a cheaper apartment. Consider walking or biking to work instead of driving. Be smarter about what you spend when going out with your friends. Don't let your desire to live the good life now crush your ability to save for the future.
More From Wise Bread
This article is from Wise Bread, not the Kiplinger editorial staff.