How Much Should I Have Saved In My IRA At Various Ages?

Pool overlooking the ocean. Retirement villa.The IRA is a pre-tax retirement vehicle available to most people who work for an employer and make less than $69,000 a year. If your modified adjusted gross income is $59,000 or less and you do have a retirement plan offered at work, you can take the full deduction of currently $5,500. If you are married, you get to contribute the full pre-tax IRA contribution if your AGI is under $95,000. Deductions are gradually phased out once you reach incomes of $69,000 for individuals and $115,000 for married couples.

If you do not have a retirement plan offered at work (rarer case), the rules are a little different. There is no income limit for individuals, and a full deduction of up to $178,000 in joint income, partial deduction from $178,000-$188,000, and no deduction if joint income is above $188,000. The best thing you can do is ask your benefits department to see if you qualify because the laws are changing all the time.

From 1974 until 1980, the IRA contribution limit for investors was $1500. From 1981 until 2001 the contribution limit improved to $2000. In 2002 the limit was raised to $3,000, again to $4000 in 2005, one more time to $5,000 in 2008 and now to $5,500 in 2013. I don’t know about you, but such low limits are hardly anything to get excited about.

When I graduated from college in 1999, my base income was $40,000 living in NYC. I was considering contributing to an IRA until I learned more about the contribution restrictions. Adding $2,000 to my IRA at the time felt stupid when I was busy trying to max out my 401(k) which had a more reasonable contribution limit of $10,000. Besides, I didn’t want to not be able to contribute pre-tax money to an IRA the very next year just in case I made more than their arbitrarily low income limit.

You’ll discover in this article that even small contributions add up over time. So don’t be stupid like me and not contribute while you still have the opportunity. Make deferring taxes a key tenet in your efforts to achieve financial independence. Taxes are our biggest expense and you want to save more than the government taketh away!

THE CURRENT AVERAGE EXISTING IRA BALANCE

According to Fidelity, one of the largest administrators of retirement plans in America with ~ 7 million accounts, the average IRA balance — including both traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs — stood at $81,100 at the end of 2012, up 53% from 2008 when balances hit their lowest point since the market meltdown. We can comfortably assume the balances are even higher in 2013 thanks to a 15%+ rise in the markets to date.

The $81,100 figure is somewhat meaningless if we don’t take age into consideration. If you only have $81,100 in your IRA as a 60 year old, you better have a hefty 401(k) portfolio to aide in your impending retirement. If you’ve got $81,100 in your IRA as a 30 year old, then you’re doing fine considering the contribution limits. We should understand that the average American age is in the mid-30s, which provides better context to the $81,100 figure.

This post will attempt to address what people SHOULD have in their IRA if they want to have a shot at a financially sound retirement by the traditional age of 60. Before we look at the chart, let’s make some assumptions.

The assumptions for the below chart are as follows:

* You realize the only person most capable of taking care of your financial future is yourself. You do not depend on the government, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a spouse, or parents to fund your retirement.

* You make less than $69,000 as an individual and $115,000 as a married person with an employer sponsored retirement plan or make less than $178,000 as a married couple with no employer retirement plan.

* You begin maxing out your IRA after your first full year of work. Most high school, associates degree, or college graduates find jobs during the summer. The six month window between summer and the new year is often a time of discovery and confusion. It takes a while to figure out one’s steady state budget before making retirement decisions unless you’ve been an avid reader of personal finance publications well before work.

* You realize the IRA is a woefully light pre-tax retirement vehicle that must be accompanied by 401(k) savings or after tax savings. As a result, there are no excuses to not max out your IRA contributions by the time you’ve had three years of experience under your belt, or by the time you turn 25.

* Your IRA portfolio returns anywhere between 3% up to 15% depending on the year with an average of around 6%. Better to be conservative and end up with too much, than too little.

* Upward and downward adjusts are made to account for bull markets and market meltdowns.

* Contribution limits are raised by $500 every five years.

* You focus on maxing out your IRA instead of a ROTH IRA because you are against giving more money to the government given how wasteful they are, and you realize your income in retirement will be less than your income while working.

* You are not a knucklehead who consistently spends more than s/he makes. Just by searching this topic, you are taking ownership of your retirement and are thinking ahead with an action plan.

IRA BALANCES BY AGE GUIDE FOR THOSE STARTING NOW

IRA Balance By Age Chart

The above chart is forward looking based on existing IRA contribution amounts. For those entering the work force today, in 38 years you will conservatively have anywhere between $350,000 to $1,062,500 depend on market conditions.

 IRA BALANCE BY AGE BASED ON PAST LIMITS

Historical IRA Balance By Age Chart

The above chart takes into consideration historical lower level IRA contribution limits starting from 1981 until the year 2019. 1981 is chosen because that was the beginning of the IRA program. The chart rewinds back in time what if you started working the day the system began up until age 60.

Readers are free to select the chart that is most appropriate for them, or even select an amount based on age from each chart and average the two to get a hybrid figure. Finally, the chart is for individuals, so feel free to double them up if you qualify and are married.

CONCLUSION – SAVINGS ADDS UP!

We should be pleasantly surprised to see how much contributing even $2,000 a year in savings adds up over time. Compounding is a wonderful thing and the key is to get to that magical inflection point where the returns from your portfolio start making more than your contributions. With a current maximum IRA contribution limit of $5,500, a $100,000 IRA portfolio returning just 6% will start overtaking your contributions. Each year will be like a 2-for-1 special to get the snowball growing. Build your financial nut so your money really starts working for you!

The current average IRA balance of $81,100 is the anchor by which my calculations are based for both charts . The key is to keep on saving so long as your paycheck comes in instead of use every excuse under the sun to stop. You can read my recommendation for the proper asset allocation between stocks and bonds by age. It’s important to be diversified and more conservative the closer you get to retirement. I’ve taken into consideration lower returns post 50 in the first chart due to lower risk portfolio investments.

Due to income limitations for contribution, it will be difficult to continuously max out your IRA of $5,500 along with $17,500 for a 401k based on a $59,000 single salary, or $95,000 married combined salary if you have an employer sponsored retirement plan. That said, it can be done if you really want to be disciplined. Please take a look at the average 401(k) by age chart to see what type of financial power you can really amass if you stay the course. Whatever you do, at least max out one throughout the entire course of your career.

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Photo: Our villa in Mallorca, 8/25/2014. 

Regards,

Sam

Sam started Financial Samurai in 2009 during the depths of the financial crisis as a way to make sense of chaos. After 13 years working on Wall Street, Sam decided to retire in 2012 to utilize everything he learned in business school to focus on online entrepreneurship.

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Comments

  1. says

    IRA is up over 17% this year so far, thanks to some divvies that got paid out (and an accidental sell and subsequent purchase at a reduced price of a stock before it went ex-dividend).
    As for contributions well, I’m the equivalent of the 401k max if you factor in the HSA we started this year (and thankfully maxed out).

  2. says

    Sam,
    For individuals its MAGI of $112,000 to contribute $5500, phases out at $127,000. Married its $178,000 for both to be able to contribute $5500, which equals $11,000. If two individuals max out their retirement they can make $233,000 in combined gross income. ($17,500 X 2= $35,000 401K contribution. $233,000-$35,000 401k Contribution= $178,000 MAGI.)
    Even if you make over the contribution limit you can still get a Roth IRA. You and a spouse can open a non deductible IRA and contribute $5500 each. The contribution is post tax dollars, wait 30 days and call whoever you opened the IRA with and convert it to a Roth. You can do this every year, the only pain in the ass is you have to open a new non deductible IRA, but that’s a good problem to have.

    • JC says

      If I contribute to a non deductible IRA that money is already taxed, so I wouldn’t be taxed on the conversion like somebody using deductible IRA money? Isnt this essentially a loophole for those above income limitations to continue adding to a ROTH IRA?

    • says

      Hi Charles, we’re talking about traditional IRA not ROTH IRA for after tax contributions. Once a IRA and a 401(k) is maxed out, a ROTH IRA can be fine for tax diversification + savings purposes. I’m just not a fan of a ROTH b/c of the idea of paying more taxes to a wasteful government doesn’t sit right.

  3. says

    Couldn’t agree more that saving something is better than nothing. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to not save simply because you don’t think the limits are high enough. That’s the epitome of hypocrisy.

    I do think it might be important to note that the income limits you mention only apply if you participate in an employer plan. If your employer doesn’t have one, and your spouse’s doesn’t either (like me, unfortunately), then there is no income limitation. There are also different limits for you if you don’t have a plan but your spouse does. Those limits are higher (but just for you).

  4. Allan says

    Interesting article, but I think many people on here aren’t able to utilize a traditional IRA due to the low income limits. Sam, what are your thoughts on a Health Saving Account (HSA). I recently started researching them because my potential new employer offers a high deductible plan with an HSA. You can contribute $6450 for a family a year pre-tax, no capital gains, use account pre-tax on qualified medical expenses anytime, AND use the account for non-medical expenses at 65, so essentially an IRA with a medical emergency option. It is the least talked about retirement account. You can also fund COBRA with it once you finally say goodbye to your employer. I know it’s slightly off topic but those who make above the IRA limits can utilize this.

    • says

      Allan, I know you asked Sam for his opinion, but I can tell you that I started one this year.
      We had an option of a High Deductible Health Plan along with an HSA in which the company chipped in $1.5k which counts towards the $6,450/yr.
      As you mention, that’s my goal of maxing this account out every year to help pay for qualified medical expenses.
      So far, we had a bad year and it recently went down to $200 due to extra medical items (Kidney stone for me along with hospital visit, and additional retainer for one of our kiddos). The account gets funded per paycheck though, so it will hopefully be back up to $2k before the end of this tax year. :-)
      I actually lowered my 401k a little bit to max this account out, since I want to build it up a little faster so I won’t have to hit my 401k up as much later on when I need it for medical expenses.

    • David M says

      I started an hsa with a high deductible account about 6 years ago – my current balance is over $25,0000.

      I do not think you can LEGALLY use the account for non medical expenses after 65 years of age.

    • says

      I think HSA’s are GREAT b/c they save you on taxes. The tricky thing is matching up your expected medical expenses with how much to contribute to an HSA. If you have too much in the HSA and not enough in medical expenses (not a bad thing), then you are going to have dead money.

      • B says

        An HSA rolls over each year in perpetuity. That’s the beauty of it. I have never used mine to pay for medical expenses (pay cash for them). I have it invested in index funds – started maxing it out in ’08 and it now has ~$40k and growing (so not at all dead). There are so many things it could pay be used for in one’s golden years when health starts really deteriorating. It seems so unlikely that the money won’t be used someday for something big. Am I missing something? Isn’t it the best retirement vehicle ever with double tax benefits? So much so that it almost seems too good to be true.

        • says

          That does sound quite good indeed. What are the contribution limits and is there a salary cap and restriction on what to invest and use the proceeds on? I only did the HSS a couple years and spent it all on health expenses.

        • says

          HSA limits this year are $6,450, and no specific salary cap I believe. They have to be combined with a high deductible plan though, I believe.

        • Allan says

          Right, and remember, you don’t have to worry about stranded or dead money, because after 65 you can use it just like a 401k. Seems too good to be true right? The downside is that you have to be paired with a high deductible plan to have an HSA. This is easy for the young single people but can be a gamble as you grow older and the family gets bigger.

        • says

          Define bigger family Allan. Mine is at 6, and we just started it this year.

          Admittedly, it is a gamble but one that my wife and I are willing (and happy) to have used so far! :-)

        • says

          Nah Sam, we had twins first and then after 4 years had a set of “Irish Twins” as my mother used to call it (2 children born a year apart).

  5. says

    Recency bias (2001/2008) has scared many people away from investing any money at all, which then becomes a convenient excuse to just spend it instead.

    The charts you present are a great way to illustrate how powerful investing can be and will hopefully give people incentive to get off the fence. Math doesn’t lie.

    And regarding historical market returns?

    History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

    -Mark Twain

    • says

      And 2001 ain’t so recent and I’m still not the swashbuckling bet it all kid I was in 2000. Too many downs to blindly go all in anymore for me. I need to protect my financial nut, which is the golden goose that is spitting out a sustainable, perpetual passive income stream if I don’t kill it.

    • says

      I have to disagree with good ol’ Mark Twain on this. History does repeat itself sometimes within the market.
      After all, the market is either up, or it’s down, rarely is it just flat. The old adage of BLSH (buy low sell high) is ALWAYS valid. And sometimes we just get plain lucky. :-)

  6. says

    I have both an IRA and a 401k. I stopped contributing to my IRA once I got my 401k. IRAs are great to have if you don’t have access to a 401k which is exactly why I opened mine many years ago.

  7. says

    I’ve maxed mine out every year since grad school, with the exception of one year that I had to pull some out due to passing the income phase out and not knowing about the back-door Roth option. Altogether since 2005, I’ve accumulated about $65K in my Roth IRA by just maxing it out once per year. (Haven’t dropped $ in for the 2013 tax year yet.).

    Thanks to the volatility of the past few years and the increasing contribution limits, my IRR is actually over 10% for the life of the account so far.

      • says

        When we both started our Roths, we were in college and couldn’t imagine a time where we would have a lower effective tax rate, so happily contributed with after-tax money. And now that our careers are going, we’re looking at maxing out two traditional 401Ks and two Roth IRAs this year, and we see the Roth IRA portion as a small hedge against rising future tax rates (or what I think is a bit more likely to happen – tax brackets that don’t keep pace with inflation, so keep sucking in more and more people to higher brackets).

        But that’s not a guarantee, so of the $46K that we’ll put into retirement accounts this year, $11K of it will be Roth. It feels reasonable to us at the moment to hedge future taxes in that small manner.

        • says

          Man, I had no idea about ROTHs in college. Just partying it up and trying to find a job!

          You guys are light years ahead of the average person. What was the impetus for you to start saving so early?

  8. B says

    I love IRAs, even if you are phased out of the Roth eligibility because they are bankruptcy and judgment proof (I think for an IRA it is up to $1m protected but for a 401k it is umlimited – I could be wrong though). It seems like a no-brainer to max it out every year if for no other reason than asset protection.

    But to Allan’s point, I LOVE HSA’s even more – deductible going in and untaxed going out. I invest mine in index funds and don’t touch it. It now has more than my IRA! I’m not sure how it fairs as an asset protection tool, but you literally can’t beat the tax benefits (as far as I know). And there’s no doubt I’ll need a hip replacement (or something like that) in my old age and will be glad for the big HSA.

  9. says

    I love my IRA, since my employer doesn’t match 401k contributions I take advantage of the IRA because I can save so much on fees vs our 401k plan.

    Add me to the list of those that love HSA’s. If you’re younger and don’t have a family they’re great. You basically never pay tax on money in your HSA as long as you use it for medical expenses.

  10. says

    I contribute to my 401K (currently maxing out) and plan to max out ROTH IRA this year. My husband doesn’t have an employer sponsored plan, so he’s going to open a Traditional IRA, and contribute to it. I believe he can only contribute $5,500.

  11. says

    Your point of income limits is important because you will exceed the limits before you know it. I think everyone should use as many deferred opportunities as you can. In addition, you should take advantage of investment s in a brokerage account too. The more income streams the better.

    • says

      I’ve recently started a savings account (in the form of a brokerage account), because dividends pay much more than I make in interest on a savings account any month ($1.1k in stock is paying me about $200/yr)!
      And after all, if the stock is sold for a large enough increase in 366 days, it’s taxable at long term capital gains (I believe, although I need to double-check that).
      As you said, it’s an additional revenue stream and in this case a safety net.

      My next step is to get rid of all my consumer debt (TV @ 0% for another year), dental work I had done, and a couple of other odds/ends to get rid of. Then I’ll be maxing my 401k, HSA, and putting money into the brokerage account. (*knock on proverbial wood*)

        • says

          AGNC. Paying $1.05/shr every quarter ($4.20/yr), current price mide $22/shr.

          PS: I’ll just respond to JC, I’m sure you’ll see it Sam. LOL

          Risk is there to be sure. They dropped recently from about $33/shr down to the current price. If I didn’t accidentally sell it around $32/shr and intentionally pick it up around $25/shr, I would have been wanting a lot more at the current price to make up for the loss to be sure. :-)

  12. Maverick says

    Another good post FS. I guess I contributed the max to my IRA now…I just received notice of a Reduction in Force that takes me off the corporate payroll on the 15th with severance as planned.

      • Maverick says

        I have mixed emotions (as expected, I suppose). I’m sure I will miss my colleagues at work after the two weeks expire. It’s nice that I now have the freedom to work on finishing my “retirement” house full-time. Up to now it’s been a weekend project. My wife will stay at our employer for another year to maintain the benefits a while longer. Then, if another layoff occurs, she can volunteer for the severance package as well. At that point, we would be entirely on our own financially, until the (modest) pensions kick in, followed by SS. I was thinking of celebrating by taking the motorcycle out for a ride today to soak it all in, but the weather is not so good. Plenty of days to that now. Thanks for all the thorough, sometimes, deeply introspective posts. You (and others) gave me plenty to ponder while I planned this out. I’m hoping todays market trend is a good omen.

  13. says

    I’m actually contributing to a Roth IRA, because my grad student stipend is painfully low, so I know I’ll make more than this in retirement. I’m starting a bit late in life, at near 30, but I’ll start maxing out my contribution in a few years once my SO graduates (or if not then, soon after when I finish and hopefully double my income by finding a postdoc position). I think I stand a good chance of catching up to the “low end” predictions, at least.

  14. says

    I’m right in the middle of your range for my age. I would contribute more, but we have those silly limits. I contribute $211 per paycheck so I will hit the limit this year. I adjust up each year when I am able.

      • says

        No, not right now. Doing a lot more than the employer match, but also saving elsewhere for a second home / real estate investment and my other investment accounts. I don’t want everything locked up till I’m 60.

        • says

          Sounds good. Hopefully you will get to the point where you can max out and still have money left over to persue other ventures.

          I’m telling ya man, contributing $17,500 a year for 10 years is going to do wonders to your retirement account and you won’t even feel the pain of saving because you’ll be so used to it!

        • says

          An extra $1,458.33 per month would almost make me homeless today. I can save more and stretch more, but need to figure out how to increase my income to make that work.

          • says

            You don’t dig the early retirement extreme or MMM route of trailers and bicycles? :)

            Surely you are exaggerating about the $1,500 a month in pre tax dollars sending you to the poor house no?

            The answer for you is clear: online!

  15. says

    ” need to protect my financial nut, which is the golden goose that is spitting out a sustainable, perpetual passive income stream if I don’t kill it.”

    And a great pet it is. Just eats $458.33 once a month, and will one day provide all the income you’ll ever need.

    I’m growing mine now, it’s only a level 3.

  16. silver price says

    Depending on your plan’s rules, you may be able to withdraw your post-tax contributions at any time without incurring a penalty. However, because the gain you earn on your post-tax 401(k) investment is tax-deferred, you must pay income tax on that amount when you withdraw your money. The gain is also subject to an early withdrawal penalty if withdrawn before age 59ý. The penalty will not apply in the cases of a qualified hardship as defined by the IRS, if you take early retirement starting in the year you turn 55, or if prior to turning 55, you take withdrawals based on a series of equal periodic payments as defined by the IRS.

  17. Eddie says

    I don’t know if I’m missing something or what but I don’t understand what’s a better alternative to a Roth IRA if your MAGI is above the deduction limit for traditional IRAs. Even after maxing out my 401k and making all the deductions I can my MAGI is still over $69k but I’m well under the contribution limit for a Roth account.

      • Gary says

        I have the same question… I am maxing my 401k and HSA and make over the deduction limit for a traditional IRA. Does this mean the next place I should plow $ into is a traditional IRA? Even though its after-tax? Even though I can’t deduct it from my taxes, is the max I can contribute 5.5k? I stopped contributing to my Roth IRA based on your post about it, genius! So ira is next best option? Cheers!

        • says

          Yes, or an after-tax brokerage account so there is more flexibility with your money. You’ve got to ask yourself how much money you will need to live and when will you need it. The idea is hopefully to make enough money where you are a maxing out machine and STILL have a good amount of money to invest in after-tax investments via a company like E*TRADE, private equity offerings, real estate, etc.

          And just to make sure, just ring your benefits department and ask the available options. Some companies are good at having benefits host a seminar explaining all the retirement strategies. Many do not, so it’s up to us to find out! Good luck!

  18. Gary says

    Cool, yes brokerage account makes sense, or p2p lending. I hadn’t heard of that until I found your site, sounds pretty solid! FYI I didn’t get an email notification about your follow up comment, and I did check the checkbox. (Not in spam either)

    • says

      Weird. Maybe my e-mail notification box is broken. I’ll take a look. Thanks Gary.

      I’m trying to get into P2P lending, but with the stock market so crazy, it’s so much easier to just invest based on my experience investing.

      • Gary says

        nice! I just rolled my previous employer’s 401k into a rollover IRA, now I can sell options and trade individual stocks! let the good times roll! comment notification seems to be working now, got this one.

  19. says

    Ugh…I got myself into a tough spot. My employer pays out bonuses that can fluctuate, and so I don’t actually know how much I make (on top of my base salary) until the end of the year. Based on previous yearly averages, I’m in that gray zone where I have to phase out payments into a Roth. Thing is, I’m getting the feeling I no longer qualify, though I’ve already hit the max yearly contribution. I get the feeling I’m going to get whacked. I’ve read that you can move the difference into next year’s contribution or try and withdraw it. If I withdraw it though I’m subject to early withdrawal penalties. And if I do nothing, I have to pay interest on the over contribution. Ugh…any advice Sam?

  20. says

    Hi, thanks for this information! Do you know if the rules of job provided retirements affecting your ability to deduct from a traditional IRA affect people who work in non-profit? My job technically offers a 403(b) plan but it’s not well advertised and I have to do the work to get it myself. It’s not with a great company so I would prefer to invest more in my traditional IRA and take the deductions that way.

  21. ben says

    Hi,

    Quick question…. I am 24. I have been out of school for a year. I have an emergency fund. I have paid off all student loans, in the 2014 I will max out traditional 401k and roth IRA. (Maxed out ira for 2012 and 2013 & contributed until match. Now that income is going up, I will max out 401k starting in 2014.)

    What is next?

    Should I open up a 529 plan with myself as a beneficiary just in case I chose to go to business school? If I end up not going to business school, I can change the beneficiary to be for one of future kids. If I end up not having kids, I could always change the beneficiary to neices and nephews.

    Please let me know what you think I should do next. I am a pretty passive investor, and ride index funds.

    • says

      Hi Ben, nice job maxing everything out! A 529 plan isn’t a bad idea if you know you plan on having kids and have enough liquidity not to get in a crunch.

      I would start contributing to an after-tax brokerage account online and start investing in index funds. Sign up with E*TRADE here. It’s what I’ve used for the past 10 years.

      Real estate is also another good investment class if you plan to stay for more than 5 years.

      • Ben says

        Thanks. Yeah I am not sure what to do.

        Ideally I would put a downpayment down on an apartment or house, but I want to live in or near NYC. It is going to take me years to build up a downpayment.

        As of this point, I agree with you. I think it makes sense to maybe not put money into a 529. The growth is only going to minimal over the next 3-5 years, so the tax benefit wont even benefit me that much. And if I have all my excess savings in a 529, I can’t use it on a downpaymet.

        Do you think e-trade is the best? Currently, I like vangaurd funds because of the low expense ratios.

        The worst part of nyc is the ~18k/year on rent a year for anything decent in a decent location. I know people who commute for an hour to save ~6k/year but they spend an extra 1-2 hours on transportation a day.

        • says

          Yes, I think E*TRADE Securities LLC is definitely one of the bests. Don’t confuse vanguard funds with E*TRADE. One is a mutual fund company, another is a online investing platform. You can buy Vanguard Funds, which I like through E*TRADE.

          $18K/year in NYC is not bad! I think my cousin is paying $60,000 a year for a 2/2 on the UWS.

          • Ben says

            Can’t believe this post was from a year ago.

            I have a few follow ups.

            1. Is it worth funneling maxed out tax benefited accounts (401k, Ira and 539) of saving for a down payment? What do you think? Also, are there any tax benefitted accounts I left out (did I mention that I don’t like taxes, haha)

            2. Have any suggestions for secondary incomes? I do side tutoring for math/finance/economics and consulting on resume’s and for interviews. Seems like most people who have funds to pay for these services don’t need them. Real estate isn’t really feasible unless I want to commute from a suburb or live far away from my friends and family in the city.

            3. Next time you are in NYC, I’d love to buy you some scotch or a martini.

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