How Much Should You Save for Retirement Each Month?

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Pink piggy bank with glasses standing on books next to a blackboard with retirement savings message. Sharp focus on the piggy bank with blackboard slightly blurred.
It seems like such a daunting task. The mountain climb to the summit of retirement is quite the hike with many obstacles that can send you tumbling down the trail. Knowing you might need to save $1 million, $5 million, or maybe even more than that when you factor in inflation can make retirement saving…

It seems like such a daunting task. The mountain climb to the summit of retirement is quite the hike with many obstacles that can send you tumbling down the trail.

Knowing you might need to save $1 million, $5 million, or maybe even more than that when you factor in inflation can make retirement saving seem impossible.

Since determining how much money you need to retire is an exercise in foretelling the future, it’s important to understand that coming up with a precise number is close to impossible.

Fortunately, a ballpark estimate will be good enough, and that’s very doable.

Yet, if we take the time to break down saving for retirement into manageable monthly chunks, we might just be surprised at what we find.

One of the most important facets of retirement savings is consistency.

I would rather you save $500 per month every single month than $6,000 once per year if you remember to do it.

You are much more likely to see success by sticking to a set automatic plan for investing in your retirement.

We just need to know what that number is.

How do you do that if you’re 30 or 40 years away from retirement? There are retirement calculators on the web that you can use, or you can work it out manually.

How to Calculate How Much to Save Each Month for Retirement

Breaking down retirement into manageable pieces makes the task seem a lot easier.

Here are the eight things you need to know before you can calculate how much money you need to save each month toward your retirement, the sooner you start, the better it will be.

1. List Your Current Living Expenses

It can be very difficult to project what your living expenses will be by the time you retire.

By contrast, it’s very easy to determine your current living expenses. And that’s fine for now, since you can make adjustments for your retirement the next step.

List out your current living expenses, starting with your fixed expenses.

This group will include:

Next, list your variable expenses:

  • Groceries
  • Utilities
  • Internet, cable, and phone expenses
  • Entertainment
  • Vacations and travel
  • Repairs and maintenance
  • Out-of-pocket medical costs

Once you have all of these numbers listed, total them up.

The total will be the starting point to determine how much money you will need to live on when you retire.

2. Adjust Your Living Expenses for Retirement Factors

Once you have your list of current living expenses, it’s time to make adjustments based on the different living conditions retirement will bring.

Some expenses will need to be lowered, while others will need to be increased. Much will depend on what you project your circumstances to be by the time you retire.

Expenses you will need to adjust higher due to retirement are primarily your variable living costs:

  • Entertainment: Retirement will bring more free time, and will likely cause this expense to rise.
  • Vacations and Travel: Travel is a common goal of retirees, and the free time that retirement provides will make it more possible.
  • Out-of-pocket Medical Costs: Because retirement also coincides with advancing age, this will be a major variable that will have to be anticipated.

Expenses that will probably be lower in retirement are mainly your fixed living costs:

  • Monthly House Payment: This should drop if you plan to have your mortgage paid off, or if you plan to downsize to a smaller space or to a less expensive location.
  • Payroll Taxes: These will drop when you are no longer working, though you will still likely have income taxes you will have to pay.
  • Retirement Contributions: When you retire, you shift from saving money to withdrawing it, so this expense should disappear.
  • Debt Payments: If you plan to be debt-free in retirement, you can deduct these payments.
  • Life Insurance Premiums: This will be lower if you will have a paid-up policy by retirement, or if you decide that you no longer need life insurance.
  • Groceries: This expense should drop if you currently have a family, and your kids will be grown and gone by retirement.
  • Repairs and Maintenance: You might make an adjustment downward if you plan to downsize your home, or to go from two or more vehicles to a single vehicle.

Health Insurance could be either higher or lower in retirement. It could be lower if your current plan includes your children. Since they will not likely be on the plan by the time you retire, your premium could be lower.

But, there’s a long list of reasons why it could be higher:

  • Early Retirement. If you retire before you qualify for Medicare at age 65, you will need a private health insurance plan, and that will almost certainly be more costly than the plan you have now.
  • Employer Subsidies Vanish. Many employers offer very generous health insurance premium subsidies; the cost of Medicare plus a Medicare supplement could be more expensive than the current contribution you make to your plan.
  • Need for Better Coverage Due to Age or Health. In general, the need for health insurance increases with age; you may need more comprehensive coverage than what you have right now.
  • Health Insurance Premiums Rising Faster than Cost of Living. It’s almost guaranteed that health insurance premiums will be substantially higher as time goes on.
  • Changes in Healthcare/Health Insurance System. We only recently finished absorbing the massive changes that came about from Obamacare, but there’s no guarantee there won’t be more costly changes later.

I’m not trying to scare you with regard to health insurance considerations in retirement. But, it is a major “X” factor, and one that will require special provision.

Once you have made adjustments for anticipated expense changes in retirement, you should have a monthly figure representing a reasonable estimate of your retirement living expenses.

Multiply that number by 12 to determine your annual living expenses.

3. Determine Your Nest Egg Goal

Of course, you need a goal in mind. Figuring out your retirement nest egg number is a completely different topic, but an important one to calculate.

To come up with this number you need to estimate how much you will spend in retirement as well as what you think inflation will average up until your death. Consider securities from the Treasury to protect against inflation, or you can get a little more speculative and trying something like goal or other stable materials and goods.

If you only calculate inflation until you retire you may run into some cash flow issues once you start withdrawing your funds. This is particularly important for those who are trying to retire super early, including those in their 30’s and 40’s.

It is better to aim too high and end up just fine in retirement than to aim too low and be running out of money while you are still alive. Additionally, you need to avoid borrowing money from your retirement accounts, too, so you don’t create an opportunity cost of your funds staying in the market.

4. Calculate Your Expected Rate of Return

Next, you need to know what you expect your investments to return over your lifetime.

Since it is impossible to see into the future to determine what stocks and bonds will return, many people rely on historical returns. Over the last 50 years, stocks have returned about 9.73% and bonds around 5.11%.

Once you know what you think your individual portfolio segments will return, you should know what mix of investments you plan to keep. In other words, 9.73% returns on stocks sound great but are meaningless if you only keep 10% of your portfolio in stocks.

Your expected rate of return is important because it will be used to determine how much money you need to be compounding over the years to reach your nest egg goal.

Just like you would rather aim too high with your nest egg number, it is much better to aim too low on your expected rate of return number. Aiming low just means you will end up setting aside more money each month for retirement and end up with a larger nest egg than you expected.

On the other hand, if your expected rate of return turns out to be too high – say 18% per year – then you won’t put back enough money each month and the end result will be a woefully inadequate retirement fund.

5. Estimate Expected Social Security and Pension Income

You can get an estimate of your Social Security benefits by using the Social Security Retirement Estimator.

It will give you a monthly amount, which you can multiply by 12 to get the annual amount. You can also register for an online Social Security account where you can track your expected benefits.

If you are covered by a traditional, defined benefit pension plan, check with your human resources department to get an estimated monthly benefit at retirement.

Again, multiply that number by 12 to get the annual amount.

6. Calculate the Income You Will Need From Investments

By deducting your anticipated annual income from Social Security and/or any pension income from your retirement living expenses, you’ll arrive at the annual amount of income that will need to be provided by your retirement investment portfolio.

For example, let’s say you will need $50,000 per year to live comfortably in retirement.

But, you anticipate a $20,000 annual Social Security benefit, and a $10,000 per year pension. That means that $20,000 of income ($50,000 – $20,000 – $10,000) must be provided by your retirement portfolio.

Now you can calculate how large your portfolio will need to be in order to produce the investment income you need.

Of course, be sure to include your taxes as an expense, and try to plan for them to be as little as possible using dividends, long term capital gains, and other methods.

7. Apply the Safe Withdrawal Rate

The safe withdrawal rate is mostly a convention which states that you can withdraw about 4% from a retirement portfolio while preserving its value throughout your retirement years.

It is, of course, based on the idea of a balanced portfolio including an appropriate mix of both equity investments and fixed income securities.

The overall rate of return on the portfolio must exceed 4%, and the difference is re-invested into the portfolio to protect it from inflation. As an example, if you earn 7% on your portfolio, you withdraw 4% for living expenses, and the remaining 3% stays in the portfolio to cover a 3% annual inflation rate.

In the example above we’re using the number $20,000 per year that must be supplied by your investment portfolio. You can calculate how much must be in the portfolio by the time you retire by dividing $20,000 by the 4% rate of return.

$20,000 divided by 4%, or .04, equals $500,000.

Another way to calculate portfolio size that may be simpler is to just multiply the amount of income needed by 25. That will also give you $500,000.

How precise will that number be? Once again, we’re trying to predict the future here, which is always an inexact science.

Some even suggest to not withdraw in particularly bad years, so you have more time to allow those funds to regain their previous highs before you take them out.

But, this does give you a ballpark estimate of how much money you need to retire, and you can use it as a starting point. You will have between now and the time you retire to make any necessary adjustments.

8. How Long Will Retirement Saving Last?

The last piece is how long you expect to be saving for retirement. Will you work until you are 60? 65? Longer?

The period of time between now and when you stop saving for retirement and begin enjoying retirement will impact the calculations considerably. The longer you have time on your side slowly compounding your portfolio, the larger your nest egg will be.

A 30-year old individual setting aside $5,500 per year into a Roth IRA (plus $1,000 catch up contributions once they reach age 50) and earning a consistent 7% return will have $840,412 if they retire at age 65. The same person will only have $570,685 at retirement if they hang it up five years earlier.

The Retirement Seesaw

Think of your retirement nest egg goal as the result of a seesaw.

On one side of the seesaw is your expected rate of return. The other side holds how long you will save for retirement, and how much your cost of living will be when (and where) you retire.

There are many combinations of the two variables that will get you to your goal:

  • You can have high annual returns and only need low contributions.
  • You can have high contributions to your retirement funds and need a low rate of return to achieve the same result.
  • You could have average contributions and average returns and still get the same result.

We’ll also assume you are saving for the same period of time in our comparisons. You need to figure that out first before balancing the seesaw.

How Much Money to Save Each Month for Retirement

Once you know your retirement goal amount, your expected rate of return, and how long you will retire, then calculating how much you need to start saving and at what age is relatively easy.

Adding this savings to your investments (and not the other way around) is in the best interest for your family, you do not want to live your retirement years burdening your children for money to help you survive.

You can use an online calculator or an Excel spreadsheet with a Goal Seek function. Just work out a formula that builds in the compounding of a certain amount each year.

In my spreadsheet using some basic assumptions like linear portfolio growth, it turns out that with a 7% rate of return, our 30-year old investor that wants to retire at age 65 won’t make it to $1 million with just $5,500 contributions plus $1,000 in catch up contributions at age 50.

Instead, he’ll need to find a way to set aside $6,578.93 each year and then $7,578.93 once he hits age 50. If he does these things he will retire with $1 million.

Once you do your own calculation to figure out how much you need to save per year, just divide by 12 and you’ll have how much you need to save per month.

Have you figured out how much money you’ll need to save per month to retire? Leave a comment!

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About Kevin Mercadante

Kevin Mercadante is professional personal finance blogger, and the owner of his own personal finance blog, OutOfYourRut.com. He has backgrounds in both accounting and the mortgage industry. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and two teenage kids and can be followed on Twitter at @OutOfYourRut.

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  1. Jake @ Common Cents Wealth says

    Nice breakdown. Being that I’m only 24, the expected return has the largest impact on how much I’ll have in retirement. Just a change from 8% to 9% ends up being a large difference. At this point I’m just setting aside 15% of our income because that’s about all we can afford and it should be enough. Once we get 5 to 10 years down the road we’ll be able to see how we’re doing and modify contributions then.

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