I’m 40, In Debt, and Haven’t Saved for Retirement: What to do When It Feels too Late

If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you’ll know that I’ve been paying down some debt that I accrued in my early to late twenties in the form of credit cards and student loans. I’ve recently paid off my credit cards, and have been going pretty hard on my student loans. I’ve been following the Dave Ramsey “Baby Steps” to pay down my debt, and have been really excited with the results. Also, as a side note, these are only my experiences in researching what I need to do to retire. I am in no way a specialist in the financial field so this should only be taken as a rough guide to start asking questions. Speaking with a qualified financial advisor is the best way to get sound financial advise. So don’t take this article as the final word on investing.

Along with paying down my credit card debt, I’ve learned how to write and follow a budget, while also learning how to care for my financial needs. I have some money in savings for the first time in my life and am making some serious progress on my student loan debt. I’ve been so excited making so much progress on paying down my debt, that I completely overlooked that I’ll be paying into retirement a little bit later than most people usually start. This has me a little worried about what my future is going to look like for sure. So I started doing some research on the subject, but I first had to look at what got me here in the first place.

Planning for the Future by Looking at the Past

When I first got into debt, I had no idea what I was doing when it came to finances. Much in the same ways I knew not how to care and tend to my nutritional needs, finance was another area in which I was illiterate. I was living paycheck to paycheck for most of my adult life, and as soon as I was able to borrow money, I jumped at the chance. Looking back now, I’m not sure what the draw was. I was constantly in debt, all my credit cards were maxed out and I was missing payments and paying hefty fees for it.

But there was something about it that had me hooked. I was buying things I didn’t need, and using somebody else’s money to do it. And when it came time to pay for college, I treated student loans much in the same way I was treating my credit cards. They offered me the maximum payout amount, and I took it each time. I didn’t realize that I could accept only what I needed from the loans, and not the entire sum. But the way I was living, I don’t think I would have chose differently had I known.

I was accumulating so much debt, that I could almost have bought a small house in Western Massachusetts with the amount of loans and credit card debt I had. But I kept spending. And hadn’t even thought about what I was going to do when it came time to retire. So when I finally took financial responsibility for my life for the first time in my early thirties, the outlook for my future was sobering.

I’m Paying Down My Debt Now, But What Do I Do About My Future?

I’m about a little less than halfway through my debt currently, and the idea of being forty, and just beginning to think about retirement, almost had me in panic mode. But here is where it is important to stay in control of your emotional world, and know that just because you’re starting late, doesn’t mean that you are destined to be poor in your old age. You have options.

The first thing I did was to come up with a date that I would be debt free. I’ve done this a few times, and it’s important to stay fluid while you go over your numbers. Surprises will come up, and you will be met with setbacks. But finding your debt free date not only gives you a tangible goal to achieve, but also helps to keep you accountable for your progress. For me, I had a few setbacks. I had to buy a new car, and my pay fluctuated a few times when I changed jobs.

But each time a new challenge arose, I met it by reassessing where I was, what my new circumstances were, and adjusted from there. The one thing that kept me on track was staying persistent. And the closer I came to paying down my high interest debt, the closer I’ve come to saving for my retirement. This is one of the main takeaways of Dave Ramsey’s baby steps. The less high interest debt you have, the more prepared you will be for saving for your retirement.

So when you’re finished paying interest on top of the money you owe, you’ll be able to save more money, and invest more later on. That’s why it’s so important to pay down your high interest debt first, to free up your capital for your future. So in a way, paying down debt is kind of like investing in your future in that you will be the beneficiary of your hard work, not a credit card company or bank.

I’ve Paid Down My Debt, What Next?

After you’ve paid down your debt, take a deep breath, and appreciate what you’ve just achieved for yourself and your future. This is a huge step in reaching your financial independence. The next step, according to Dave Ramsey, is to set up an emergency fund. This is usually 3 to 6 months pay.

Being in debt for so long, I’m opting for the 6 month fund. Feeling financial secure is important to me, especially if you’ve been living paycheck to paycheck for most of your working life as I had. It’s also part of the Ramsey baby steps to have a thousand dollar emergency fund while you’re paying down your debt. Just in case something comes up that you haven’t planned for. It’s not much, but when you’re 95k in debt like I was, and you suddenly get hit with a five hundred dollar medical bill and you’re living paycheck to paycheck, that emergency fund is the difference between talking the hit in your budget somewhere else and feeling secure in knowing you can take care of the small problems that come up along the way. Life happens, best to be prepared when it does.

After your emergency fund is set up, now it’s time to start looking towards investing for your retirement. The usual routes for this is through traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs. The difference between the two accounts are, traditional IRAs are taxed when you take your money out as opposed to Roths, where you are taxed when you put your money in.

Roths vs Traditional IRAs
Roths

From what research I’ve done, an important aspect of saving for retirement is the tax advantage you get when you decide to take your money out. If you know you are going to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement, for example say you will have a lot of passive income such as rental properties in retirement, something I’ll be going over later in this article, you may want to be taxed when you put your money into the account. Using a Roth IRA, you will have been taxed when you’re rate was lower, saving you money by paying less in taxes.

Traditional

But if you plan on being in a lower income bracket when you retire, a traditional IRA may be the way to go. This way you’re contribution is taxed when you receive your payments. This also has the advantage of letting your money grow tax free and with compounded interest. So you’ll earn more with your investments. Whichever path you choose, it’s best to have a plan for what your life may look like when you start pulling money out in retirement.

Savings Vehicles

How much should we contribute to our funds, once we set them up? Conventional wisdom suggests that we sock away between 15 and 20 percent of our income a year. So depending on what you are making and your savings vehicle, you may have to spread your savings out, because you are only able to contribute so much to a traditional or Roth IRA.

As of 2021, the limits are 6,000$ for each fund and 7,000$ for those over 50 years of age. And with 6,000$ a year, if you start at age 40, that could translate to a little less that 475,000$ by age 65. That is a huge improvement over receiving social security alone. For a more indepth look at how IRAs work, check out this article on investopedia that covers the essentials.

But if 6,000$ is less than 20% of your income, your going to need to find ways to diversify your retirement savings. This could be in funds, such as mutual funds, money market funds, real-estate or physicals. These are only a few options available but worth looking into.

Mutual and Money Market Funds

These types of funds are considered low risk investments. Mutual funds are a group of securities that are managed by investor professionals. They consist of things such as, stocks, bonds and securities. This vehicle is made possible for the individual by pooling together funds from many investors. As I said above, they are considered low risk so they are a great way to pad your retirement if you have more than the maximum IRA contribution to squirrel away.

Money market funds are investments in low risk security funds. So they don’t have the highest percent interest payout, but they are solid supplements to your retirement fund. They are however not backed by the FDIC so it’s best to research funds with a history of promising returns. Slow and steady is the end goal for mutual funds.

Real-Estate

There are a few ways to invest in real-estate. One way is by flipping homes as seen by Chip and Joanna Gains on “Fixer Upper”. But another way, and the one I’ll be talking about is, by buying rental properties. With rental properties, you’re able to purchase a home or apartment building and rent out the units. The idea is to have the rent paid by your tenants, used to pay off the mortgage. Then once you’ve paid for you property in full, the rent becomes income. If you’re able to pay off the mortgage before you collect your IRA, you’ll have a consistent stream of income coming in after you finish with your career.

There is a lot to consider though, when taking on a rental property. You’re responsible for the general maintenance and upkeep of the property. For finding tenants to occupying the building and taking care of any issues that may arise. It can be a large responsibility so it’s worth considering how much time you have to invest in this strategy. But if done right, could definitely be beneficial during your retirement years.

Physicals

What I mean by physicals is, gold, silver, copper or platinum. My father was in the jewelry and coin industry, so this is something I’ve heard a lot about growing up. It can be daunting, looking into investing in something like gold. The average price per ounce of gold, as of this article’s publishing is, around 1,900$ an ounce. With bullion being sold most commonly in ten ounce bars, according to Forbes Adviser, this can end up becoming a costly investment.

Luckily, there are some more accessible ways to invest in gold. Gold coins are one way to squirrel some money away for retirement. The American gold eagle is sold as a half ounce to an ounce, and is sold at market value. This is a great way to put up 1,000$ at a time, while also getting you closer to your retirement goals. It’s also worth noting that if you spend over a thousand in physicals, the purchase is tax exempt. So an ounce of gold is the cheapest way to buy into this market.

Here are only a few options if you’re looking into retirement a little late in the game. It may take some time and planning, but it will literally pay off in and for your future. So don’t panic and don’t give up hope. The way to retirement may seem difficult now. But with some persistence, your efforts will carry you comfortably into your golden years. Peace, and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Retirement Jar” by aag_photos is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0