College Grads Could Retire With Millions By Saving $111 per Paycheck

Investing Tips for Grads Who Want to Enjoy Financial Independence

Shot of a group of cheerful university students on graduation day

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Congratulations, you've graduated from college! And here is some more good news: If you are in your early to mid-twenties, like many college graduates, you have the potential to amass millions of dollars by the time you retire.

Retiring as a millionaire requires hard work, discipline, and an ability to stick to a budget, but it can be done. Using a time value of money formula, $111 per paycheck invested at average rates of return over a typical career could turn into more than $4 million in wealth and hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in passive income.

Learn how a portfolio of stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and other assets can keep you and your family living comfortably during your lifetime and serve as an inheritance for your children and grandchildren or, perhaps, a large gift for your favorite charity.

Key Takeaways

  • Tax-advantaged retirement accounts allow young investors to reduce their tax burden while saving for retirement.
  • Many employers will match some amount of contribution to these types of retirement accounts, which can help build your wealth.
  • Compounding gains multiply all of these other benefits over longer time frames; the longer the money stays in the market, the more the gains compound and grow.

Set Aside Savings

To illustrate your possible path toward wealth, here's a math exercise.

Imagine after graduation you go to work for a company such as Starbucks and earn $40,000 a year in salary, which is considerably lower than the estimated national average salary for a food service manager of $61,000.

The coffee giant matches 401(k) contributions dollar-for-dollar up to either the first 4% or 6% of your salary, depending on a yearly decision by the company's board of directors. Further, imagine your combined tax rate for federal, state, and local taxes is 28%. 

You decide you want to put aside 20% of your earnings each year, which is ambitious but not extreme. That's $8,000 per year. But most 401(k) plans are pre-tax, traditional 401(k)s (as opposed to Roth 401(k)s, which use post-tax money). That means you're going to get $2,240 taken off your tax bill at tax time. In effect, you need to save only a net $5,760 out of your pay each year, or less than $111 per weekly paycheck, as the government subsidizes your good behavior.

That tax savings means you have increased your out-of-pocket savings by 38.89% because you get to keep the extra $2,240 to invest as a sort of interest-free loan from the government for the next 30, 40, or even 50 years or more.

Leverage Your Money

With the varying 401(k) matching schedule, in some years, Starbucks is going to deposit $1,600 in tax-free matching contributions, while in others, it will kick in $2,400 in tax-free cash. This results in a total of $9,600 to $10,400 in fresh money being added to your account every 12 months, even though you've only parted with $5,760 out of your own pocket.

How Your 401(k) Helps

As long as the money remains within the protective confines of your 401(k), the dividends, interest, and capital gains, you earn aren't subject to taxes. Rather, you pay taxes on withdrawals, as if they were a paycheck, when you enter retirement.

If you attempt to tap the money early, you are subject to a 10% penalty on top of the regular tax hit, although you can take a 401(k) loan or hardship withdrawal if absolutely necessary. The government requires you to take distributions eventually to keep you from perpetually compounding the money within the tax shelter. But before that, you can get decades of tax-deferred growth.

The Power of Compound Interest

In a typical year, your 401(k) would receive about $10,000 of new money. That $10,000 will be invested in the securities or funds you select, with the interest compounding until you reach April 1 of the year after which you turned 72, at which time the government requires you to start taking distributions.

If you are still working at the age of 72, you are not required to start taking distributions until you retire.

Let's say you opt for a low-cost equity index fund approach. Take the long-term historical equity returns earned by large, blue-chip stocks (which dominate funds whose indexes are weighted based on market value) and figure a 9.5% annualized rate of return, on average, with dividends reinvested.

Remember that past performance does not guarantee future results when investing. Also, carefully note the costs and expenses of your own particular portfolio, which can affect your returns.

Say you invest like this for 40 years, between the ages of 25 and 65, and never, in all that time, get a raise. You fail to get promoted. You don't adjust your contributions for inflation. In other words, they remain the same for 40 years.

How would you fare? Ignoring any other assets you accumulated in life—your home equity, savings accounts, cars, personal investments in a brokerage account, annuities—your 401(k) balance could contain about $4.2 million after 40 years. That's $10,000 a year (or $833 a month), compounded at 9.5% annually, for 40 years. If your funds did exceptionally well and gained 12.5% a year, you would have about $9 million. If they averaged only 6.5% a year, you could expect to have about $1.9 million. If they managed 3.5% average annual returns, you'd still have more than three-quarters of a million: $885,757.

Because of the nature of compound interest, it helps to start as young as you can. An investment of $10,000 a year earning 9.5% a year for 20 years would amount to just over $600,000, compared with the possible $4 million you could see with 40 years in the market.

Plus, by the time you reached 65, you'd statistically have another two decades or so in life expectancy to enjoy the money.

Alternatively, if you had built other wealth along the way, you could attempt to hang on to the 401(k) cache by using a rollover IRA for as long as possible. That way your children, grandchildren, or favorite charity could end up with a larger amount after the money continued to grow. Then they could extend the tax benefits upon your death using an inherited IRA.

That's all from only $5,760 net savings per year, or $111 out of each weekly paycheck.