Don’t Bet Your Retirement on an 8% Return

In investing, time in the market is crucial. If past growth rates continue, the time you leave your savings alone actually matters more than the amount you save.

The problem with that, though, is that past growth rates probably won’t continue. Over the last 30 years, the stock market has averaged 7.8% growth, a rate that is the foundation of many retirement plans. If you’ve invested your whole 401(k) in total market index funds hoping for that growth, you may be unpleasantly surprised.

The 7.8% growth is a historical anomaly driven by demographic factors. Because of slowing industrial growth, decreasing population growth, and competitive overseas markets, that rate is projected to slow to 2% in the next year, and possibly past that.

This drop has significant ramifications. For 25-year-olds saving for retirement, a two-point drop over the next decade could necessitate saving twice as much before they retire.

Dealing with macroeconomic trends can be overwhelming. These steps can prepare your portfolio for struggling gains.

1) Max out employer match

About 31% of American workers with access to a 401(k) don’t use it. Beyond the missed savings, employees are losing out on matching funds programs.

Matching funds programs are essentially interest payments. Your company will pay 100% interest on your 401(k) deposits. Increasing your 401(k) contributions to the maximum match level will minimize the impact of slow growth within your portfolio.

2) Watch the fees

Ask your HR representative for a breakdown of your company’s investment management fees.

Review your fees and gauge if they’re reasonable. Most large companies have fees of 0.5%, with the numbers increasing for smaller companies to about 1.4%. If you’re paying more, consider switching the funds you’re using.

3) Revisit the Roth question

With the assumption that taxes usually increase over time, a Roth 401(k) generally makes sense for young people. However, with returns expected to drop and savings amounts likely to be a larger determinant of total wealth accumulation, it’s time to rethink this conventional wisdom.

If a tax deduction now in the form of a traditional 401(k) contribution would enable you to save more, it might be worthwhile. Growing your nest egg is essential; you can find ways to manage taxes once you’ve got enough saved for retirement.

4) Look for predictable returns

As interest rates rise, growth slows as a result of decreased credit availability. That same force makes savings through other instruments more valuable.

An Individual Retirement Account (IRA) can hold savings certificate funds, like those available at Stanford FCU. These offer a predictable rate of return that isn’t dependent on macroeconomic forces, thus minimizing risk.

The principles of smart retirement planning don’t change. Spend less than you earn. Avoid debt. Invest as much as you can, as often, and as cheaply as possible. With a bit of planning, you’ll enjoy a prosperous retirement.

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