Future Healthy: Are you on track to hit your retirement goals?

Depending on your personality and where you are in your career, you may have put a great deal of thought and preparation into your retirement plans — or you might not have given retirement much thought at all.

According to a survey conducted by TD Ameritrade, the average millennial expects to retire at 56, but also expects to start saving for retirement at age 36 (millennials are currently roughly 23 to 38 years old). And when the survey was conducted, only 38% of millennials were currently saving for retirement.

There's plenty of variation in terms of retirement preparedness among Baby Boomers, many of whom are rapidly approaching retirement. Members of Generation X started saving for retirement earlier than Baby Boomers, but tend to underestimate how much they're likely to need in retirement savings.

Do the math

There are a plethora of retirement calculators that can show you how you're doing with your retirement planning goals, and there's plenty of conventional wisdom on the topic too. You've probably heard that you need to save a chunk of each paycheck, but the actual amount you need to be saving is as individual as you are.

You'll often see retirement saving advice that's based on the need to save a certain percentage of your income, but it actually makes a lot more sense to look at your expenses and work backwards from that to determine how much you need to save, since your income and your expenses aren't the same amount (or at least, they probably shouldn't be).

In other words, a person who earns $60,000/year but lives on just $20,000/year can save at a much higher rate than a person who lives on $50,000/year… and the person who lives on $20,000/year won't need as much money stashed away in order to retire, because their expenses are typically much lower.

How much do I really need?

Everything about this is personal. There's no magic number that you need to hit. Suze Orman says you need several million dollars stashed away, but that would result in a six-figure income during retirement, and many people feel quite comfortable with much less than that. On the other end of the spectrum, there are people who live on four-figure incomes in retirement, which might feel a bit too severe for most of us.

Your ideal financial picture in retirement is probably somewhere in the middle. It doesn't have to be the same as anyone else's, but it's important to work out the details and have a good understanding of your goals. Here are some steps you can take to see if you're on track and gain a better picture of where you are financially:

  • Use an investment calculator to see how different time frames, investment amounts, and rates of return will affect your nest egg over time.

  • Consider an employer-sponsored retirement account and an individual retirement account, and if might also include a health savings account (HSA) if you have an HSA-qualified high-deductible health plan.

  • Learn the rules about catch-up contributions. The IRS lets you make extra contributions to retirement accounts starting when you're 50 years old (that will come much faster than you think, if it hasn't already!), and extra contributions to your HSA starting when you're 55. Taking advantage of these catch-up contribution opportunities is a good way to pad your savings cushion as you get closer to retirement, especially as many people are in their peak earning years at this point.
  • Play around with the Social Security calculator to see how much you can expect in Social Security benefits depending on your income and when you'd like to retire.

  • Use HealthCare.gov's plan browsing tool to get an idea of how much you'd have to pay for health insurance — with income-based subsidies if you're eligible for them — if you plan to retire before you become eligible for Medicare at age 65.
  • Consider your housing costs. If you have a mortgage or plan to get one in the future, you can use an amortization calculator to see how extra mortgage payments would change your payoff date and the total amount of interest you'll pay on your loan.
  • If you have other debt, a debt calculator can help you visualize how long it will take to pay off, how much interest you'll pay over time, and how your debt might affect your retirement plans.
  • Meet with a professional financial planner. All of the above are good ideas for saving for the future, but a true professional can help you evaluate your situation and help you plan for long-term success.

While most people know that they need to be saving "for retirement," they're not always aware of the various accounts that can be used to reach that goal. Health savings accounts can play an important role here, as they can be used as retirement accounts (functioning much the same as a traditional IRA once you turn 65) or even emergency funds, depending on how you manage your finances.

Let your HSA help

HSAs only came on the scene in 2006, but there are people who have six-figure account balances already, thanks to diligent contributions, a long bull market, and fairly low health care spending.

HSAs offer a level of flexibility that you won't find with other tax-advantaged accounts: Contributions are pre-tax, earnings aren't taxed, and withdrawals are always tax-free if the money is used for qualified medical expenses (including expenses you paid years or decades in the past, as long as you incurred the expenses after you established your HSA).

After age 65, withdrawals can be made for any reason without a penalty, although income tax applies if the money isn't used for medical expenses. You can think of your HSA as a long-term care fund if you're willing and able to leave the money in the account until you're in need of long-term care. You can invest your HSA funds or take a more conservative approach with an interest-bearing account.

Although there's plenty of variation when it comes to retirement advice and savings targets, one piece of advice is pretty much universal: Start saving as early as possible. The best time to start saving for your retirement was your very first paycheck. The second-best time is right now. And if you haven't yet considered how an HSA might fit into your retirement planning, now's a good time to do so.

As always, we recommend that you contact a financial planner or tax professional if you have questions related to your specific circumstances.

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Whether it's for covering medical expenses, or planning bigger investments, our Future Healthy column will help support your path to retirement, no matter where you are on the journey. And for the latest info about your health and financial wellness, be sure to check out our HSA Learning Center, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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