Investing By Age Series: Investing In Your 40s

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By the time you’re in your 40s, you have probably established some financial goals, invested in your workplace retirement accounts, and set aside money for a rainy day. It’s also more likely you have gotten married, bought a home, and had a few kids. Next comes the question of whether you’ve done everything you can for retirement. Short answer: probably not.

The good news? You’re moving into your peak earning years, which means you can start making up for any lost investing time. There are plenty of late investors who still reach their retirement goals. It’s all about making smart financial decisions now.

Here are the top strategies to put in place in your 40s to plan for your future:

Get Strategic With Education Savings

Aside from planning for retirement, the most common goal for investors with children is saving for education. There are several vehicles for education savings, but the best is a 529 savings plan.

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Contributions to a 529 plan grow tax-deferred, and withdrawals are tax-free when used for qualified education costs. Many states even offer state income tax deductions on contributions to a state-sponsored plan.

Consider setting up automatic deductions from your paycheck or checking account directly into a 529 plan so that those contributions immediately invest in a well-diversified portfolio using an appropriate mix of stocks and bonds. The overall costs of these plans along with the tax benefits make 529 plans far more efficient in saving for education costs than opening up a taxable account on your own or with a financial advisor.

It’s important to remember that you shouldn’t prioritize your children’s education over your own financial well-being. Kids can always take out student loans, but the same cannot be said for funding retirement. Plus, if you need to tap 529 funds for a nonqualified purpose, there is a 10% penalty—plus earnings are taxed as ordinary income in the year you withdraw them.

Optimize Your Taxes

Beyond claiming all available deductions, you could be doing yourself (and your savings) a disservice by failing to optimize your investment contributions. Any time you can leverage the power of compounding interest in your favor, it deserves your full attention. When you have the opportunity to earn compound returns while also enjoying a tax benefit, you should definitely take advantage.

The type of IRA you choose will depend largely on your projected tax bracket in retirement. Those on the lower end often go with a Roth IRA, but traditional IRAs still provide tax-deferred growth and may be tax deductible depending on your—or your spouse’s—workplace retirement plan.

However, IRAs aren’t your only option for optimizing taxes in retirement. A health savings account, or HSA, is one of the best retirement accounts available—provided you can contribute to it annually and pay your medical expenses out of pocket. This allows your HSA contributions to grow tax-free until you need the funds later in life. 

Beyond leveraging tax-advantaged accounts, having a CPA run a tax projection can help you better understand the potential tax impact of different options. By examining potential moves through the lens of tax savings today and in the future, you can feel even better about the decisions you make.

Tackle Your Debt

Generation X (currently, people aged 40-55) carries the most consumer debt of any generation. For example, the average credit card debt balance is $8,125 for Gen Xers. That’s on top of almost $240,000 in mortgage debt, $21,570 in auto loan debt, and $39,981 in student loan debt.

Before taking steps to become debt-free, you need a plan—especially if you also want to build up savings. The debt snowball and debt avalanche methods are the most common. With the debt snowball method, you pay the minimums on all debts and direct any remaining funds to the smallest debt. Once that smallest debt is paid in full, you’d roll those payments into the next smallest debt, and so on. It’s a way of building momentum.

With the debt avalanche method, you pay the minimums. But instead of using any extra funds to pay the smallest debt, you pay the debt with the highest interest rate. This approach allows you to save money on interest payments over the long term.

While it’s important to pay down high-cost debt as quickly as possible, prepaying lower-cost debt like a mortgage isn’t essential. But with mortgage rates near historical lows, now might be a good time to refinance your mortgage—particularly if you can shorten the term and lower the interest rate.

Hire An Advisor

You don’t need to overcomplicate your journey to financial success, particularly when you already have a mountain of responsibilities. High-pressure jobs, family obligations, managing the day-to-day errands and chores required to be a functioning adult, trying to maintain a social life, and hobbies outside of work—they all add up.

It’s OK to feel overwhelmed by your finances, but it’s not OK to let that stop you from making progress toward your financial goal. Thankfully, you don’t have to do this alone. Working with a financial professional can help you make smart choices about money so that you achieve your goals and fulfill your values. Even better, a financial professional frees up valuable time for you to spend elsewhere.

Of course, not all advisors will put your interests first, so it’s important to find someone that always acts as a fiduciary. The most fail-safe way to ensure you work with a fiduciary is to ask your advisor to put that fiduciary commitment in writing. If your advisor isn’t willing to do that, then you should seek help elsewhere.

There’s no time like the present to set yourself up for the future. Even if you’re late to the party, don’t let that stop you from putting a plan in place and making smart investments and financial decisions. No matter your age, you can still achieve financial success.