How to Save for Retirement When You Are Unemployed


When you're unemployed, saving for retirement may be the last thing on your mind. It may seem impossible to save for the future when you have no steady income to even pay basic bills.

But depending on your situation, it may still be possible to build your nest egg even if you're not working full-time. Here are some tools and suggestions for keeping an eye on the future during a period of joblessness.

Familiarize yourself with IRAs

Individual retirement accounts (IRAs) are great for people who don't have access to employer-sponsored retirement plans like 401(k) accounts. A traditional IRA is similar to a 401(k), in that any contributions are deducted from whatever taxable income you have. With a Roth IRA, on the other hand, earnings are taxed up front, but any gains you have won't be taxed when you withdraw money at retirement age.

IRAs are useful for people who are self-employed, or who earn money inconsistently through part-time or freelance work. So if you're not employed full-time but still have some earned income, these accounts can help you save.

Think of retirement savings as a necessary expense

When you're unemployed, it's important to get a handle on all of your expenses so that you know where you need to cut. You may find that there are a lot of costs (luxury purchases, eating out, cable TV) that can be taken out of your household budget, while other expenses (food, electricity, debt payments) are more necessary. If you think of retirement savings as a necessity, you will be forced to cut spending elsewhere.

Roll over your old 401(k)

If you've been laid off from a job, you will no longer be able to contribute to the 401(k) you may have had from your employer. But the account will still exist and the money is still yours. You can let the old 401(k) account sit, but it's better to roll it into a traditional individual retirement account (IRA). The IRA will give you more flexibility and investment options, and may also have lower fees. And you can begin contributing to it once you have any earned income at all.

Focus on rebalancing

You may not be able to add much to your retirement accounts, but you can work to make sure they are optimized. This means making sure you have the right mix of investments based on your retirement date, and getting the optimal blend of stocks in various industries and asset classes. It's always smart to examine your portfolio to ensure you are not over- or underinvested in any one area.

Look for higher bank interest rates

If you're not taking in much income for the time being, you need to have your cash savings working for you. That means any cash savings you have should generate as much income as possible. Interest rates are still quite low, but many online banks offer interest rates on CDs and savings accounts that are higher than average.

Avoid the temptation to cash out

It may be tempting to take money out of your retirement funds, but you should avoid it if at all possible. One of the best ways to see your retirement savings grow is to let your investments do their thing. You can see a meaningful increase in your retirement savings just from market gains, even if you're not contributing for the time being.

Withdrawing from retirement accounts, however, has consequences. First, any money you take out has no chance to grow and help you expand your overall retirement savings. Second, there are penalties and taxes associated with taking money out of retirement accounts early. (See also: 5 Questions to Ask Before You Borrow From Your Retirement Account)

Continue to focus on growth, if you can

If you are unemployed and have some investments in a taxable brokerage account, you may be tempted to shift them to dividend stocks or other income-producing investments. This can give you extra income at a time when you may need it. But making this kind of adjustment could have a long-term negative impact on the overall growth of your portfolio. If dividends, bonds, or other income-focused investments will help you keep the lights on, fine. But it's best to focus on finding other sources of income, or reduce your spending first before going this route.

Reinvest dividends, if you can

If you do have dividend stocks already, you can still contribute to your retirement portfolio by reinvesting any dividend income you get from stocks. You may be tempted to use that investment income to pay bills and help get through your unemployed period, but if you can get by without it, direct the dividends to buy more stocks and other investments instead. Even small contributions added to your retirement accounts can add up to considerable savings over time.

Get your spouse involved

Perhaps you never thought to include your spouse in retirement planning because you felt it wasn't necessary while you were working. Now his or her income can be directed to help you save. This may be a challenge, since they are now also working to help pay more of the bills. But there are some ways to use your spouse's income for your own retirement accounts. If you have a traditional or Roth IRA, your spouse's earned income can go toward your account. (Note: This is only allowed if you file your taxes jointly.)

Plan to pay into accounts later

If you are unemployed but expect to be working in short order, you can postpone contributions to your IRA and add money later, even if it's after the end of the year. In fact, you can contribute to an IRA all the way up until April 15 of the following year. So for example, let's say you planned to max out your IRA by making monthly payments. (This would be about $458 monthly for a total of $5,500 for the year — the maximum amount allowed by the IRS for people under 50.) But let's say you are out of work from August through October of that year. You can hold off on contributing during that time and make up the difference in later months, even the first few months of the following year, if necessary.

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