Retirement road map: Planning in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, & beyond

E*TRADE Capital Management, LLC in collaboration with Morgan Stanley Wealth Management1


Summary: Help your financial wellness with tips regarding retirement savings through different life stages.

The earlier you can start putting money away for post-work life, the easier it’ll likely be to pay for the retirement lifestyle that you want—when you want it. That said, it's never too late to put a plan in place.

No matter your age, it's helpful to spend some time thinking about what your ideal retirement will look like. How old will you be when you call it quits? Will you work part-time? Maintain multiple homes? Travel the world?

While the answers to these questions will likely change over time, especially if you're still in the early stages of your career, considering them can provide motivation to save. Once you have goals in mind, the E*TRADE from Morgan Stanley Retirement Planning Calculator (login required) can help create a personalized plan, track progress, and provide helpful tips to boost your outlook.2

Here are some tips on saving and investing for retirement, no matter what stage of life you're in right now.

Starting to save (20s, 30s, 40s)

You likely have a lot of competing priorities during these years, including buying a home, starting a family, or simply trying to balance your budget and pay off student loans. While it's important to focus on these short-term milestones, establishing a realistic retirement savings plan can help in the long term.

Recognize the power of compound interest

The beauty of saving for retirement when you're young is that you've got decades for your money to potentially grow. This is prime time to put the power of compounding—the process of earning interest on your interest—to work. When you first open a retirement account, your initial deposit can grow by the percentage you earned in returns and/or interest annually; the next year, however, you have the potential to earn on the original amount you put in as well as the returns/interest you earned last year. It may not seem like much at first, but over time it can add up.

Prioritize your savings

Spending less than you're earning, but not sure what to do with your excess cash? Consider this hierarchy:

1. Build an emergency fund.

This is your safety net for unexpected financial challenges like a leaky roof or a job loss. Keeping three to six months' worth of expenses in a liquid savings account means you’ll be less likely to use credit cards or borrow from your 401(k) plan to cover those costs.

2. Aim to get the match.

Contribute at least enough to get an employer match in your 401(k) or health savings account (HSA). These matching funds are part of your overall compensation package and you should take full advantage of them. Whether your employer matches 2% or 10% of your contribution, don’t leave money on the table.

3. Pay down revolving debt.

High-interest credit card debt can create a serious drag on your finances. Paying it off as quickly as possible will free up more cash for you to save or invest (or spend) going forward.

4. Maximize 401(k) and HSA contributions.

Contributing as much as possible not only helps you save for the future, but also lowers your taxable income for the year. Contribution limits are updated annually based on cost-of-living adjustments, so make sure to check with your plan administrator on current maximums.

5. Fund an Individual Retirement Account (IRA).

In addition to a 401(k), you may also be able to contribute to a Traditional and/or Roth IRA, depending on various factors, such as income, tax filing status, and age. Traditional IRA contributions may be tax deductible, and your earnings usually grow tax-deferred with taxes paid at withdrawal. For those who qualify for a Roth IRA, contributions are not tax deductible, but your earnings grow tax-deferred, and qualified withdrawals are income tax and penalty tax free. The E*TRADE IRA Selector tool can help you determine if a Traditional or Roth IRA may work for you and how much you can contribute.

6. Consider a brokerage account.

If you've maximized your tax-qualified accounts, consider a brokerage account. This can be a good place to put funds for shorter-term goals (since you can make withdrawals without penalty) like a down payment for a home or a bucket-list vacation.

Consider life insurance

For people with dependents, especially young families, life insurance can be a critical part of a well-rounded financial plan. Term life insurance can provide your loved ones with a cash benefit3 (typically income-tax-free) in a worst-case scenario. They can use it to pay a mortgage, cover college tuition, keep a business running, or simply continue to meet everyday expenses.

Building your wealth (40s, 50s, 60s)

You're likely earning more money by now, but you may also be facing more financial responsibilities like children’s college tuition or caring for aging parents. Not to mention: Retirement is approaching as well, so you'll need to consider balancing your investing strategy to address your current needs while keeping an eye on the future.

Revisit your asset allocation

Diversifying investments across stocks, bonds, and cash can help you manage risk while maintaining growth potential. Being too conservative (e.g., staying in all cash) can be just as risky as being too aggressive, especially when factoring in inflation. Use the Allocation & Risk tool to understand the risk in your portfolio. It may also be important to rebalance your portfolio periodically as the markets or your goals change.

Streamline accounts

By the time you've reached this stage in your career, you may have built up multiple 401(k) plan accounts through former employers. Keeping your money in one place can make monitoring and allocating your assets much simpler—but consolidation is not right for everyone, so carefully consider your options. The E*TRADE Rollover Tool can help you understand your options as you consider what to do.

Catch up

If you're age 50 or older, special “catch-up” contributions are a great way to give your retirement savings an extra boost. In 2022, you may be able to contribute up to an extra $6,500 to a 401(k), and up to an extra $1,000 to an IRA. Similar “catch-up” contributions are available for HSAs if you’re age 55 or older, allowing you to contribute up to an extra $1,000 to an HSA.

Living in retirement (60s, 70s, & beyond)

Once you've made it to retirement age, it's typically time to start shifting your focus from building up your nest egg to enjoying it. Of course, you'll want to make sure that the income stream you create not only meets your lifestyle needs now but can also cover future costs like healthcare.

Build a budget

Guaranteed income, such as from Social Security, pension benefits, or annuities can help pay for your essentials.

Mind your RMDs

If you have a 401(k) plan, IRA, or other qualified retirement plan, the IRS requires that you take a required minimum distribution (RMD) starting in the calendar year in which you turn age 72 (if you were born after June 30, 1949) or age 70 ½ (if you were born before July 1, 1949). Note, however, for a 401(k) plan or other qualified retirement plan (other than an IRA-based plan), if you are still employed by the plan sponsor and are not a 5% owner, you may not need to take a RMD.

If the amount will be much larger than you need, you may want to “smooth out” the distributions, starting earlier in retirement to prevent higher income levels (that could push you into a higher tax bracket) in any given year.

Look for growth potential

It's not uncommon for retirement to stretch three or four decades. That means you need to make sure your plan is flexible and can adapt with you over time to help you meet long-term needs and legacy goals.

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What to read next...

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