May 13, 2020
Can Anyone Save for Retirement on a Median Income?
By Emily Winter
After rent and student loans, it can be hard to put money away, but it can be done.
Saving money can be hard on any budget, but we wondered what Americans who earn the median national household income are able to put away for retirement each month. The following three interviews are with people in different American cities trying to save on household income of around $60,000 per year. *
NAME: Bill Couch
LOCATION: Nashville, TN
OCCUPATION: Load Planner/Logistics Coordinator at a company that produces/ships/sells ethanol for gasoline consumption
ANNUAL INCOME: $55,000
Biggest expenses: car and student loan
Total debt: +/- $68,000
Total retirement savings: currently around $55,000
Do you save money each Month? If so, how much, and where do you put it? I save only a little bit, maybe 200 dollars per month. The rest goes to paying off bills, loans, etc.
Are you setting yourself up for retirement at this point? If so, what are you doing? I have a Roth IRA that I have had since I was 18. I also contribute to a 401K that my company offers and matches. I have put any inheritance money I received from family members into a money market account that fully funds my IRA yearly contribution.
What are your biggest financial challenges or struggles? My biggest challenges are maintaining the balance between working on paying off debt while still trying to actually do other things besides working and sleeping. I also do comedy and travel for that. I have to keep that in mind in my finances because not all comedy shows pay or pay enough for the expense it takes to get to the show, especially if it is out of state or requires an overnight stay. There needs to be a work/life balance for success, but there also needs to be a financial work/life balance in order to not get burned out. Life needs to be lived, not just survived.
NAME: Izzy da Rosa
LOCATION: Boston, MA
ANNUAL INCOME: $63,932 pre-taxes
BIGGEST EXPENSE: Right now, my biggest expense is rent which I pay $1,083 + utilities. Other than that, it’s paying off credit card debt which I pay a minimum of $402 per month if I only pay the minimum payments.
TOTAL DEBT: $57,280 between student loans and credit cards.
RETIREMENT SAVINGS: Retirement savings is probably less than $500 – I just opened a retirement through my teaching job but I did 2 years of AmeriCorps and a year of grad school so there was no retirement fund during those three years. I cashed out the retirement fund from my two years post grad.
Do you save money each Month? If So, how much, and where do you put it?I do not save money each month because I’m working on paying off credit card and student loan debts before savings. I am starting to put about $1,300 per month towards my debt.
Are you setting yourself up for retirement at this point? If so, what are you doing? Yes, I just set up a 403(b) so I will be putting about $223 per paycheck into my retirement account, in addition to a pension that I’ll hopefully collect if I teach for long enough.
What are your biggest financial challenges or struggles?My biggest financial challenge is dealing with debt. I lived on stipends for 3 years during my AmeriCorps service and grad school, so I supplemented that by using credit cards that I would like to pay off.
NAME: Caitlin Cieslik-Miskimen
LOCATION: Moscow, Idaho
OCCUPATION: Assistant Professor
ANNUAL INCOME: $66,000
Biggest expenses: Student loan repayment, rent, travel, savings (for a car and a house), being an adult (buying a more appropriate work wardrobe, setting up a new apartment, etc)
Total debt: $65,000
Total retirement savings: Less than $10,000
Do you save money each Month? If so, how much, and where do you put it? Yes, in a few places. I am trying to maximize the contributions I can make in a calendar year to a Roth IRA (which I opened last year), and then I have a separate savings account where I save for future purchases. My goal is to set aside $500 to $750 per month in a savings account, and then about $400 per month in the Roth IRA account.
Are you setting yourself up for retirement at this point? If so, what are you doing? I’m trying to. Stupidly, I did not open a retirement account at my first job because at 23 I wasn’t really thinking about retirement—I was thinking about what was fun and cool to do (dumb, dumb, dumb, I know). The last few years I’ve tried to make up for lost time and have really dedicated myself to getting in a better financial position, and that’s involved paying down debt and saving pretty aggressively for the long-term. I opened a ROTH account in June 2018, and then started a 403b through my new job this year. By aggressive, I mean maxing out my contributions and savings, which just means evaluating certain purchasing decisions to keep my spending in check (taking lunches to work, making my own coffee, trying to buy stuff used or refurbished when it makes sense, etc).
What are your biggest financial challenges or struggles? There are a few—I think the biggest challenge I’m facing is a hang-over from when I was working and living in San Francisco and not really thinking about retirement and developing a long-term savings plan. I really focused on the day-to-day, and didn’t cut corners where I should have. I don’t have any regrets, necessarily (although I regret anything I ever bought at Forever 21 or H&M or any other fast-fashion place and the money I spent there). But I do wish I had thought more strategically about things. Going back to school to get my PhD made it a little trickier. Due to the dismal funding situation, I had to take out some more student loans, which contributed to my overall debt load. By no means am I the worst off when it comes to college debt, or grad school debt for that matter, but it has made me more conscious since I’ll have a pretty hefty monthly loan payment to deal with for a while.
The other big financial struggle I had was being with someone who approaches finances from a much different standpoint than myself. [My long-distance partner] Rob is the type that will eat peanut butter sandwiches if that’s all he can afford. I’m the type who gets stressed out by money, and decides to treat myself to takeout in order to deal with that stress. He buys clothes second hand on eBay. I get sick of winter and buy boots at Nordstrom in order to cope with winter. He was in a position to buy a house before 35. I am not.
Early on in our relationship, we had a very painful conversation about money. In the long-term it was great—we’re on the same page now, and I learned a lot about what he values and how he approaches financial situations—but in the moment it was awful (I cried). It forced me to admit out loud the dumb things I did with money, which I was kind of embarrassed by. But I paid off my credit card debt pretty quickly, opened a retirement account, and have avoided credit card debt since then. By the way, if you ever want to fast-track a relationship, talk about money. Or look into applying for a mortgage while someone reads through every part of your credit report to your partner. There is no hiding.
Long story short, when I landed my job after graduation, I really dedicated myself to making smarter financial decisions. I sat down and made a budget. I thought more about what I needed, and shopped around for deals (instead of buying things on a whim and dealing with the fallout later). I’ve learned to push things off and wait, rather than go into debt to satisfy a near-term want.
Finally, we interviewed one man who earns $60,000 per year, but now has a live-in girlfriend, pushing their household annual income to $105K. The catch? They live in Brooklyn, the fourth most expensive city in America, and often spend money in neighboring Manhattan, the most expensive city in the U.S.
NAME: Joel Walkowski
LOCATION: Brooklyn, NY
OCCUPATION: Freelancer—My girlfriend and I do real estate together and I pick up production work on the side.
ANNUAL INCOME: $105,000, ($60,000 for Joel and $45,000 for his girlfriend)
Biggest expenses: Rent
Total Debt: $37,000
Total Retirement Savings: $39,000
Do you save money each Month? If so, how much, and where do you put it? Yes. I treat my investment accounts like they’re one of my bills. Every month I put $250 into a personal account and $250 into an IRA. I started roughly five years ago and had no money but now it has grown to be a nice lil cushion. If I am having a good month I might buy a few shares of a stock I really like but that rarely ends well.
Are you setting yourself up for retirement at this point? If so, what are you doing? I am building the aforementioned retirement account. I think it’s pretty unlikely that we enjoy the retirement benefits enjoyed by previous generations. To counteract this, I’m trying to learn as much as I can about first time home owner’s programs so I can get an asset that will hopefully appreciate in value. Looking at the population it’s hard to imagine the government paying out social security in 30, 40 years so I think we’ve all got to do a better job preparing.
What are your biggest financial challenges or struggles? Being a freelancer means overworking myself during busy season and being bored when it’s slow. It’s tough to work in a setting where you more or less have to be available on demand. I know that there are no vacation and sick days in my line of work, so I oftentimes have to tough it out when I’m less than 100% to make things work.
*This story was reported and written prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has shuttered much of the economy.