Retirement planning for millennials


Getting millennials to remain focused on a retirement that could be 40 or more years away means a delicate dance between planning for the future while paying for today.


What’s your memory of the dot-com bubble? How about the Great Recession of 2008? How will you remember the downturn caused by COVID-19? Every generation faces realities that shape its outlook on life and money. Yet today’s millennials have experienced more obstacles to financial success than previous generations.

Eyes on the prize

Despite the rocky financial entree into adulthood, millennials—roughly defined as those born between 1981 and 1996—have a lot going for them. They’re quick on the draw with technology, generally display more entrepreneurial drive than previous generations, and have an “intense curiosity” and mission to succeed, says Sophia Bera, a millennial and founder of Gen Y Planning. “I actually see more opportunities than challenges,” she adds.

But getting millennials to remain focused on a retirement that could be 40 or more years away means convincing them to invest early, think long-term, and take advantage of tax-advantaged accounts and company matches, where available. If they can ignore stock market volatility, day-to-day economic news, and stay focused on the end goal, they have a time horizon that will pay them back in spades.

Millennials with high-paying jobs would be well-advised to save the bulk of their salary early. Even if retirement saving is stalled or slowed later on due to major events in life, such as marriage, children or job loss, the money they invest early will fund a nice nest egg.

“If they put $50,000 in a 401(k) at age 25 and don’t touch it, assuming a [annual] seven percent return, they’ll have $800,000 or more by the time they’re 65, just through the compound value of money,” says Angie O’Leary, head of Wealth Planning at RBC Wealth ManagementU.S. “I really stress to millennials that they need to take the long-term approach. Every 10 years they delay starting, they have to save double.”

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A new view on the market

Today’s roller coaster stock market would give any investor pause, but millennials have extra reason to be leery, says Cyndy Ranzau, a wealth strategist at RBC Wealth ManagementU.S. “I don’t think they trust the market in general. Part of the reason is they’ve never seen a normalized cycle, compared with the baby boomer generation, who witnessed the markets climbing during the ’80s and ’90s,” she says. “We weren’t having these swings of a hundred points a day, or thousands of points a week.”

Stock market volatility and the sluggish economic environment have left scars on the oldest millennials, says O’Leary. “Many were trying to launch their career during the chaos of the tech bubble while watching their parents lose their jobs,” she says. “And then they had to navigate a similar landscape with the Great Recession and now the pandemic. They’ve been burned several times in their careers, and in some cases, forced to dip into money that they might have looked at for the long term.”

As a result, O’Leary says when millennials do invest in the market, they tend to be too conservative for their age. Often, they choose the same asset allocation as their parents, who are a couple of decades closer to retirement. To simplify age-appropriate asset allocation, she recommends target date funds, which are in most company-sponsored retirement plans.

These funds are targeted to a specific retirement year and allocate a mix of equities and bonds that start out more aggressive to promote growth and, as the investor nears retirement age, adjust in favor of bonds in order to reduce the possibility of extensive losses approaching retirement.

Ranzau also recommends target date funds for millennials as a solid place to start investing. “It gives them the ability to be fully allocated without having to monitor it every day,” she says. Rebalancing is not necessary because the fund does it for you.

Bera agrees that retirement investing doesn’t have to be complicated with worries about whether an 80-20 mix of stocks and bonds is better than 75-25. “I tell millennials that the main thing is to get into your 401(k),” she says. “Asset accumulation is more important than asset allocation in the early years.”

Multitasking retirement planning

Planning for the future while paying for today involves a bit of multitasking. Millennials should follow this list of fiscal priorities:

1. Fund a savings account for emergencies: “I call it a squirrel fund,” says Ranzau. Whatever you call it, millennials should build an emergency fund that covers at least six months of living expenses, so they have cash in reserve if they lose their job.

Ranzau recommends saving in such consistently small bites that you hardly notice. Because millennials in general don’t carry cash and run the risk of not realizing how much they spend, she also suggests creating a monthly budget that tracks spending and adding a saving component.

2. Maximize retirement account savings: O’Leary believes too many millennials don’t take advantage of what she calls “government gimmies.” Retirement accounts such as IRAs and 401(k)s are a terrific way to boost savings because of their favorable tax status. And, if the plan is sponsored by your employer, there is the potential for a company match, she adds. “I tell clients that most companies have some sort of retirement account with a match of three percent, so why would you leave three percent of free money on the table? You wouldn’t do that if you saw $100.”

Bera says part of the reason millennials are reluctant to contribute to a retirement account is they don’t understand their 401(k). “They say, ‘I’ve signed up, now what do I do?’” I explain that they never have to touch it if they have an emergency savings account.”

Millennials are known to change jobs often, Ranzau adds, so they should weigh the pros and cons of keeping their current company retirement account, moving it to a new employer plan or rolling over to a traditional IRA.

For an additional boost, millennials can contribute to a Roth IRA, says O’Leary. When they advance in their careers and earn more money, the income limits will preclude them from having both a Roth and traditional IRA, so the earlier they contribute to both, the better.

3. Simultaneously tackle debt: No doubt about it, millennials are often saddled with significant student loan debt. After securing their emergency fund, they can aggressively pay down their loan while simultaneously saving for retirement, says Bera.

Put enough toward the 401(k) initially to at least obtain the company match, she adds, and then, with each raise, bump up the investment by one percent or two percent while continuing to whittle down debt. “It’s what I call turning up the knob on retirement,” she says.

While the basic tenets of solid retirement planning haven’t changed over the past few generations, millennials will find their desire to work longer in a career that gives their life meaning will benefit them, says Ranzau. “I think the millennials have a very different outlook on life and, in some ways, I think they’re doing it the right way.”

This article was originally published on Forbes WealthVoice.

RBC Wealth Management, a division of RBC Capital Markets, LLC, registered investment adviser and Member NYSE/FINRA/SIPC.

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