8 Signs Your Retirement Is on Track

You feel like you're a diligent saver, and are doing all you can to ensure you have a comfortable retirement. But how do you know if you're doing things right? It's hard to predict how much money you'll need, and it seems impossible to know if you're on the right track when retirement is years or even decades away.

Thankfully, there are some easy ways to tell if your retirement planning is sound. If your portfolio has most or all of these characteristics, keep up the good work and don't fret!

1. Most of the Funds Are in Tax-Advantaged Accounts

When saving for retirement, it's important to place your money in accounts that shield you from paying unnecessary taxes. A 401K is a common plan offered by employers that allows you to contribute and invest in a variety of different mutual funds. Any money you contribute will be deducted from your taxable income. It's also possible to invest in a Roth IRA, which allows you to invest and avoid paying taxes on any gains. If all or most of your money is in these accounts, you'll be saving thousands of dollars and will have a much higher net return on your investments.

2. You've Been Contributing Heavily

It's hard to know exactly how much you should put into your retirement accounts, but "as much as you can" is usually good advice. If you're maxing out your allowable contributions to 401K or IRA plans (or both), you're probably doing quite well. For 401K plans, you can contribute up to $18,000 annually. IRA plans can accept $5,500 in contributions each year. Even if you're not maxing out these accounts, contributing enough to take advantage of your employer's match of 401K contributions is one good threshold to hit. As much as people like to talk about stock market gains helping them get rich, the truth is that your portfolio's value is helped a lot more by the amount you're contributing in the first place.

3. You've Seen Steady Growth Over Time

Take a look at your portfolio's performance on a line chart. Are you generally seeing an upward trend, without a lot of wild ups and downs? Does it seem like your savings is steadily growing over time, even during periods when the stock market is not doing well? A good retirement portfolio should generally be free of volatility, and see steady gains as time goes on.

4. Your Projections Look Good

No one knows how the stock market will perform in the future, but you can make some reasonable assumptions based on historical market returns. The S&P 500 has seen average annual growth of about 7% since 2006, and annual average gains are even higher the farther you go back. If your portfolio's performance has been in line with these annual averages, you're probably in good shape, as long as you're contributing a significant amount.

It may be possible to project how much money you'll have in retirement by taking the amount you have now, then adding your contributions and the annual average return through your retirement year.

5. Your Investments Are Focused on Growth

Unless you are close to retirement, your portfolio should be heavy on investments that promise growth over the long term. This means a big dose of stocks, rather than bonds or cash. Small cap and value stocks should be a driver of most retirement portfolios, as they often promise the most growth potential.

It's tempting to want to be conservative with your investments, because stocks can be risky, and no one likes to feel vulnerable to a bad day in the stock market. But building a large retirement next egg requires you to overcome your fears and recognize the positive historical returns of stocks.

6. Your Portfolio Is Well-Balanced

It's always a good exercise to examine your investments to see if you are too heavily invested in any one sector or asset class. Sometimes, your portfolio can get out of whack, and will require rebalancing of your assets. If you are working hard to keep your investments nicely balanced, you'll likely be shielded from any major swings in the market and should see solid growth over time. There is one caveat here, which is that buying and selling during rebalancing could have tax implications, so you'll want to weigh the costs and benefits each time you're considering it.

7. You're Not Paying Too Much in Fees

A robust retirement portfolio should probably contain some mutual funds and/or exchange traded funds (ETFs). But these investments often come with management fees, commissions, transaction fees and other costs. A typical investor pays about 1.5% in fees, according to Rebalance IRA. That could add up to thousands of dollars over time. To avoid losing money to fees, look for investments with very low expense ratios, and those that trade without a commission. Low-cost investments often outperform those with higher expense ratios anyway. So if the costs in your retirement portfolio are low, that's one more thing you're doing well.

8. You Haven't Spent Any of It

There may be times in your life when you'll be tempted to withdraw money from your retirement accounts to pay for other expenses. There's a cost to doing this; any money taken early from these accounts is subject to being taxed, and you'll have to pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty if you take money early from a 401K. And of course, on top of these penalties and taxes, you'll lose out on any future growth this money might have accrued. If you've been diligent about not touching your retirement savings early, you'll be in much better financial shape than if you had raided these funds.

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Guest's picture

The key is to start saving/investing early in life and be consistent (save with every paycheck). Taking advantage of a matching 401k plan should be a no brainer. The power of compounding is lost on many people. Also maxing out contributions when possible, eliminating debt, avoiding risks with your nest egg, planning for multiple streams of income once retired (social security, pensions, dividends, part time work, etc.) and making catch up contributions once you reach 50 should all be part of everyone's plan. And work at staying healthy to reduce illness, injuries and medical costs. I recently found the site Retirement And Good Living which provides information on all these issues as well as many other retirement topics and also has several retirement and health calculators.