Countdown to Jump-Start Days

Saving for Retirement

Countdown to Jump-Start Days

Get your savings in gear with these tips.

Need some one-on-one financial advice? You can get it for free during our 2008 Jump-Start Your Retirement Plan Days on January 15 and January 25. In the meantime, we'll roll out a retirement-planning tip each day until the first Jump-Start Day on January 15. These tips will help you get your retirement savings in shape.

Make your money last. The best way to stretch your retirement savings is to work a few years longer. You will have a few more years to save, reduce the number of years you need to rely on your savings and give you continued access to employer-provided health insurance.

Maximize your Social Security benefits. Although you can start collecting Social Security benefits at 62, your retirement checks will be reduced by 25% or more for the rest of your life. You can collect full benefits if you wait until your normal retirement age, which may be as high as 67 depending on your birth year.

Early-retiree escape clause. If you are at least 55 when you leave your job, you can take penalty-free distributions from your 401(k), although you'll still pay income taxes on the distributions. This escape hatch closes if you roll your money into an IRA.

Penalty-free early access. You can tap your IRA early without triggering the usual 10% penalty if you become disabled, use the money to pay for college or buy a first home, or take substantially equal distributions based on your life expectancy for at least five years or at least until you are 59 1/2, whichever is longer.

Consider converting. If you like the idea of tax-free distributions in retirement, but earn too much to contribute to a Roth IRA, you can convert all or part of a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA starting in 2010 when income limits on conversions (but not contributions) disappear. You will owe income taxes on the converted amount, but all distributions will be tax-free in retirement -- including all the earnings after you convert.

Choose a Roth. If you are single and your income is $116,000 or less or if you are married and have a combined income of $169,000 or less, you can contribute to a Roth IRA. You get no up-front tax break, but all distributions are tax-free in retirement. You may even get to choose a Roth at work as more employers are adding Roth 401(k) plans to their retirement savings menus. The contribution limits are the same as a traditional 401(k) -- $15,500 this year -- but there are no income restrictions to participate.

Go it alone. Even if you participate in a retirement plan at work, you can still contribute up to $5,000 to an IRA or $6,000 if you are 50 or older.

Play catch up. If you are 50 or older, you can contribute an extra $5,000 to your 401(k) this year for a maximum contribution of $20,500.

Save as much as possible. If you can’t afford to stash the maximum $15,500 to your 401(k) this year, you should aim to contribute 15% of your salary -- including any employer matching contributions. As you get future raises, earmark a portion for retirement savings.

Don't walk away from free money. For example, if you earn $50,000 a year and your company matches 50 cents for every $1 you contribute to your 401(k) up to 6% of pay, you must contribute at least $3,000 to receive your employer's $1,500 match.