What to Do if You Haven’t Started Saving for Retirement in Your 30s

A lot happens in your 30s ― marrying that special someone, buying your first home, starting a family, accelerating your career, going on a month-long soul-searching trip, etc. 

It almost feels excessive to expect anyone in their 30s to start saving for something that wouldn’t happen for another couple of decades ― retirement.

Despite how you may feel about it now, retirement will happen, and it will be expensive, so you won’t regret being prepared.

Don’t sweat it if you haven’t started saving for retirement and feel like you’re behindYou’re only in your 30s.

It’s not too late to start, so start now. You could even retire a millionaire if you play your cards right.

I know everything can be pretty overwhelming, and that’s why I broke the process down into concrete steps that you can follow. Here’s what you gotta do:

1. Figure Out What Your Ideal Retirement Lifestyle Will Cost

The first step is to figure out how much you’ll spend during each retirement year.

This number will dictate how much you’ll have to save overall, and the required size of your retirement portfolio.

To figure that out, ask yourself a few questions about your dream retirement:

  • Where do you want to live? In your childhood home? A cabin in the woods? A lakeside retirement community? A luxury penthouse in downtown L.A.?
  • Do you think you’ll pay off your mortgage by retirement, or would you prefer to rent? 
  • What kind of car will you drive? How expensive will it be to maintain it?
  • How often would you want to travel during retirement (for leisure and for visiting family and friends)?
  • How much do you think you’ll spend on food and clothing?
  • How much will you want to spend on your hobbies and entertainment?

Feel free to overestimate just a tad to give yourself some room for error.

Here’s an example: Taliyah, a surf instructor, would like to retire to a mortgage-free 2-bedroom apartment in downtown Taipei. She won’t want to own a car at all. She wishes to travel for at least 3 months per year, mainly within Asia, until 75. She’ll keep her clothing budget to a minimum, but she’ll want to splurge a bit on food, hobbies, and entertainment.

To put it in numbers, Taliyah’s retirement budget would look like this: 

Budget ItemCost Per Year
Rent/Mortgage$0
Utilities$2,000
Phone & Internet$900
Car$0
Travel$15,000
Clothing$500
Food$6,000
Hobbies$2,000
Entertainment $5,000
Total Cost $31,400

Now you might be thinking, “I’ve no clue what I want my retirement life to look like. I’m only 32 and haven’t really given it much of a thought.

In that case, use this shortcut: take what you’re currently spending per year, and multiply it by 0.8.

The assumption is that you will likely spend less during retirement (to around 80% of what you previously spent) due to the lack of mortgage payments, reduced clothing and car needs, lower income taxes, and having precisely zero need to impress anyone at that point.

In any case, take your hypothetical “annual retirement spending” number, and multiply it by 50. 

Now you might be wondering, “Is it really necessary to save up for a 50-year retirement?

And you’d be right to be skeptical, but hear me out:

  1. You might very well retire at 60 and live until 110 (50 years in retirement), so we want to ensure that you won’t run out of money. 
  2. We want to account for inflation, without making things too complicated.
  3. It’s always wise to build in a margin of safety. 

In Taliyah’s case, $31,400 x 50 = $1,570,000. That’s how much she has to save for retirement.

How about you? What’s your magic retirement fund number?

Bear in mind, this number doesn’t have to be perfectly accurate, because plans could (and probably will) change. Your current retirement fantasy might be to hop from cruise to cruise, when you might be happier frolicking around a hobby farm in three decades. 

Nevertheless, please do your best to estimate a retirement savings goal and know that it’s good enough for now.

And if you end up saving too much for retirement? That’s a better problem to have than not saving enough.

2. Investigate Tax-Advantaged Retirement Accounts

Since you’re saving for a significant amount (6 or 7 figures), you want to know the best places to park your dollars. 

Let’s think about that hobby farm again for a second. To grow quality crops and breed healthy animals, you’d want to set up your hobby farm in a location that has rich soil, a water source, and the ideal tree-to-land ratio.

That’s what you want to do with your retirement savings.

The best savings vehicles are usually tax-advantaged retirement accounts, if they’re available in your country.

What are tax-advantaged accounts? They’re special investment accounts (usually offered by the government) in which your investment earnings are tax-free (i.e., you pay no taxes, ever) or tax-deferred (i.e., you don’t pay taxes until retirement).

In other words, with tax-advantaged retirement accounts, you keep more of your earnings, and your money grows faster.

What are some examples of tax-advantaged accounts?

For Canadians, that’d be RRSP (Registered Retirement Savings Plan) and TFSA (Tax-Free Savings Account).

For Americans, the most common ones are the Roth IRA and the Roth 401(k).

Allow Google to be your little helper if you have no idea what accounts are available in your country. It will take a few hours of research to find out what accounts are accessible and that you are eligible for, but you will reap the rewards for the rest of your life.

3. Create a Budget

A sound financial foundation is vital before you start saving and investing in your tax-advantaged accounts. For that, we can’t get around a word that I know makes people cringe ― budgeting.

No one loves budgeting. Budgeting feels very constrictive. There is always something that needs to be purchased, and the budget never quite stretches far enough.

However, budgets are a necessary evil.

Without it, you don’t have a plan for adequately allocating your hard earnings, which can lead to overspending. 

With a well-crafted budget, you can plan out all your expenses and savings and ensure that they fit comfortably within your available funds.

If you know you have trouble saving money, creating a budget could mean the difference between living paycheck to paycheck and having money in your retirement accounts.

4. Save Up for an Emergency Fund

Before you start putting money away for retirement, you need an emergency fund.

You never know when something will happen that could disrupt your budget, like a sudden medical expense, a flat tire, a broken laptop, or a job loss. 

An emergency fund is a savings account reserved for those emergencies.

With an emergency fund in place, you can save and invest in peace, knowing that your bases would be covered even if you couldn’t work for a while. For that reason, your emergency fund should be large enough to cover your total expenses for 3-6 months.

5. Start Saving

Once you have a budget and an emergency fund in place, you’re ready to start saving for your retirement officially.

The amount you need to save varies depending on your retirement goal. Still, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that saving as much as you can without jeopardizing your health and basic needs is a no-brainer.

Where would you put that money? Into your tax-advantaged retirement accounts, of course.

You’re limited in the amount you can contribute to these accounts each year (otherwise, these accounts would become legalized tax havens for the ultra-rich) but contribute as much as you can within those limits.

If maximizing contributions is not possible, make at least the minimum contribution required to get your employer’s full match, if such a benefit is available to you at work. 

6. Begin Investing

Don’t let your money sit idly by and collect dust. Invest it wisely so you can grow your wealth. 

Investing can be as complicated or as easy as you wish.

You can devote time to reading analyst reports, stock charts and learning the ins and outs of different stock valuation methods.

Or you can take the easy way out and invest in ETFs.

What are ETFs? Just think of them as Christmas gift baskets filled with different stocks instead of chocolates and cookies. 

A Christmas gift basket saves you the hustle of selecting individual pieces of gourmet confectionery, is usually a crowd-pleaser because it’s got a little bit of everything, and offers excellent value. Similarly, ETFs are low-maintenance, provide great diversification potential, and usually cost less to trade than individual stocks.

Best of all, for people who have a long investing horizon like you, the long-term returns of ETFs can even outperform actively managed mutual funds.

Make sure to check the rules and regulations around tax-advantaged retirement accounts in your country to make sure that investing in ETFs is permitted.

7. Ignore the Joneses

The Joneses used to be your neighbors who replaced their cars every other year.

Nowadays, the Joneses are social media humblebraggers who never do anything exciting without letting the world know.

One thing remains true: ignoring the Joneses remains a challenge for everyday people, because nobody wants to feel like they have fallen short. 

That innate drive to compare ourselves to others is an evolutionary gift that propels us to always aim higher. At the same time, in the process of proving that we’re no worse off than the Joneses, we spend, spend, spend, and actually put our financial future in jeopardy.

So let’s put our thinking hats on and ask ourselves: What’s better? A $50,000 car that loses value every year, or an additional $50,000 in your retirement account that grows every year?

The Joneses make it appear as if the former is superior, but you know the honest answer.

8. Ignore the Critics

Besides the Joneses, there’s another group of people standing firmly between you and your retirement goals ― the people who completely lose their marbles when others make different life choices.

They will criticize, challenge, and belittle the way you budget, save and invest as if you’ve personally ordered them to live the same way.

You can probably think of a few people in your life who fit the bill.

By actively taking charge of your retirement as early as you do, you’re doing the right thing for you, your future, and those who’ll be on the hook for taking care of you if you don’t save enough for retirement.

So don’t let a few busybodies’ words derail you from your financial plans.

9. Set Your Career on the Right Path

We’ve already discussed who you should ignore. Let’s look at some more actions you can take.

The following two decades should be your prime earning years.

Financially speaking, to make the most of your 40s and 50s, you need to have built a solid career leading up to it.

Yup, now is the time to get super-duper serious about your career. 

If you’re in a job you like, congratulations!

If you are considering a career switch, that’s cool too.

Just be mindful that the decision to jump to a different career shouldn’t be made half-haphazardly at this juncture in your life.

As long as you’ve done your research, explored the possibilities, and developed a concrete plan before making the jump from one career path to another, you’ll be fine.

Regardless of where you are in your career, aggressively seek ways to solidify your career and ultimately increase your pay.

Here are some ideas:

  • Ask to take on extra responsibilities (that could translate to a promotion or a raise later on)
  • Develop skills and gain the work experience required to earn that promotion 
  • Further grow your professional network
  • Boost your profile through speaking engagements and media mentions
  • Gain relevant certifications

All else being equal, the higher your salary, the more you can save and invest for your eventual retirement.

10. Get Started

The sooner you start saving for retirement, the better. 

Even if you can only make minimal progress, it’s way better to start now than wait until later. The older you get, the more responsibilities you take on, and the more difficult it will be to play financial catch-up.

So don’t wait any longer.

Onward and Forward

Retirement should be a relaxing and blissful time where you get to banter with your partner, tease your kids about not visiting enough, and make fun of the latest silly social media challenge (if social media still exists in 30 years).

The last thing you want to do is worry about money during retirement. 

The good news is, as long as you start saving for retirement right away by following the steps in this article, you will be more than fine.

Good luck!

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Category: Money For BeginnersRetirement

4 comments

  1. Wow, I feel like you’re speaking to my soul Flora! I’m in my early 30s and had a recent freakout moment. I’ve recently opened up an investment account (ETFs) and making little contributions here and there. But this article is the much-needed kick up the bum I needed to knuckle down. I especially love the tips about ignoring the Joneses and the critics. Thank you!

    1. Glad I could help, and congrats on your progress! Seeing your own investment grow is a great feeling. 🙂

  2. It struck me as I read this post how my Ok, Boomer generation did everything ten years earlier than todays young adults. Most everyone got married within a year or two, at the most, after graduating from college. Almost everyone had a child before they hit 30. We were well into our careers by the time we hit 30 and had been putting money into our 401K’s for years by then. We all had bought a house before turning 25, with a mortgage interest rate of close to 10% or worse. Retirement for us is about running marathons, winning tennis tournaments and spending time hiking and fishing. And because we did save and invest aggressively we can afford to live the life we enjoy. Lots of good common sense advice in this post, and very timely. The decisions people make in their thirties will determine how they get to enjoy their fifties and sixties and beyond.

    1. Thank you for your comment. The world is as divisive as it can be, with no resolution in sight. Let’s all try to be more tolerant of others’ life choices.

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Article by: Flora Pang

Flora Pang aspires to become someone who plants trees in their spare time, writes thank-you notes to strangers, and serves in UN peacekeeping operations around the world. But to date, blogging about personal finance remains her only contribution to society. You can catch her rambling about money on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and (to a lesser extent) Pinterest.