Retirement savings in your 30s: How much should you have?

Amy Fontinelle

By Amy Fontinelle
Amy Fontinelle is a personal finance writer focusing on budgeting, credit cards, mortgages, real estate, investing, and other topics.
Posted on Dec 1, 2020

How much money should you have saved for retirement by the time you’re 30? It’s a smart question to ask, whether you’re having a conversation with your financial professional or reviewing your retirement accounts on your own.

During your 20s, you might not have saved much. Saving for retirement might have felt like too distant a goal when you were focused on challenges such as finishing your degree, starting your career, paying down debt, or saving for a home.

Or maybe you got some sound advice and a solid job at a young age, allowing you to start off strong, contributing to your 401(k) through work and your Roth IRA on your own.

In either case, now that you’re a decade older, you might be wondering if you’re on the right track — or how far off track you are and what you can do to catch up. You might also be wondering how to stay the course or ramp up your savings. During your 30s, you might be paying a mortgage, raising children, or continuing to pay down student debt, obligations that can feel at odds with saving for retirement.

There are three areas that can help you strategize around successfully saving for retirement in your 30s:

First, let’s talk about popular savings guidelines and whether they’re realistic.

Common rules of thumb for retirement savings in your 30s

You might come across various guidelines when researching how much you should have saved for your retirement in your 30s. Two popular ones are:

  • About ½ to 1 ½ times your income by age 30.
  • 1 to 2 times your income by age 35.

Let’s look at two examples of where these guidelines might land you.

Annual income: $40,000

Retirement savings by age 30: $20,000 to $60,000

Retirement savings by age 35: $40,000 to $80,000

Annual income: $80,000

Retirement savings by age 30: $40,000 to $120,000

Retirement savings by age 35: $80,000 to $160,000

The amounts are based on your income because they assume that you will be able to live on a similar or slightly lower income in retirement. Income-based guidelines can be more helpful than absolute dollar figures, which don’t account for the standard of living you’re accustomed to or regional costs of living.

How realistic these goals are depends on your salary, your debt load, and the cost of living where your early career opportunity presents itself, said financial professional Russell Jacobs, a founding partner at Jacobs, Coolidge & Company in St. Simons Island, Georgia. In many places, it should be possible to reach these levels of savings by age 30 or 35.

“How much one can save is a function of all of those things and what one chooses to spend on lifestyle purchases, be it clothes, Starbucks, eating out, vacations, or fancy cars,” Jacobs said. “If you really assess your situation, you ought to try and save a minimum of 10 percent and stretch for 20 percent, if you are capable of doing so.”

If you enter the workforce in your mid-to-late 20s, or didn’t start saving as soon as you started working, a lower goal might be more realistic, unless you have a lot of disposable income.

In your 30s, you still very much have time on your side, even if you’re starting from zero. Assuming a traditional retirement age in your mid-60s (which is also what the common rules of thumb assume), you still have another three decades to save principal and earn investment returns. MassMutual’s retirement calculator can help you see if you’re on track for retirement.

Progress toward retirement and the importance of minimizing comparisons to others

Have you ever read an interview with a 35-year-old who’s already a work-optional multimillionaire and afterward felt completely inadequate? It’s hard not to, but most of us won’t achieve that kind of wealth at such a young age. Their extraordinariness is why such stories get published, after all.

“It is not a good idea to compare yourself against other people’s progress unless they are simply talking about what percentage of your income you’re saving,” said John Bergquist, managing member of Lift Financial in South Jordan, Utah. “It’s likely that incomes are at a different level and therefore each person should be hitting a different total in saved dollars to reach their goals.”

Instead, it’s important to set your own goal for yourself based on how you want to live now and in the future, how much of your income you can realistically save, and how aggressive you’re comfortable being with your asset allocation. (Learn more: Why identifying your risk profile is essential to investing)

Here’s the other reason you shouldn’t compare your own progress to how much other 30-somethings have saved: A lot of people aren’t saving nearly enough for retirement. So, if you compare yourself to them, you might feel like you’re doing just fine — when really, you’re not.

When Fidelity analyzed the data on its 16.4 million workplace retirement plan participants, it found that the average 30- to 39-year-old had an 8 percent contribution rate and a $38,400 balance.

A Vanguard study of 2019 account balances found that Vanguard defined contribution plan participants ages 25 to 34 had an average account balance of $26,839 and a median account balance of $10,402. Among participants of all ages, 12 percent contributed the $19,000 maximum. Including employer contributions, the average contribution rate was 10 percent, and the median contribution rate was 10.7 percent.1

These individuals may have other retirement accounts, such as retirement accounts with previous employers and IRAs. We’re not assuming these sums represent their entire nest egg. But if they do, they’re below the goal you should be striving for.

Ways to increase your retirement savings in your 30s

Retirement is a long-term goal and, like any other long-range endeavor, it often pays off to think through a plan. That plan should not only cover how to get to where you want to be, but also how to adjust should there be any twist or turns in the road. Often people turn to a financial professional to help them understand how various options can fit into their own circumstances. (Need a financial professional? Find one here.)

Beyond that, if you’d like to see more progress toward your retirement goals, you may be able to make small tactical changes to great effect.

  • Contribute automatically year-round. Do you wait until tax time to contribute to your IRA? Set up automatic contributions instead. Your money will have more time to grow and you won’t feel the hit of making a large contribution all at once. And select your investment options for those contributions, because your savings may not grow sufficiently to meet your retirement goals unless they are invested.
  • Get the full employer match. If it’s available to you, contribute enough to your workplace retirement account, typically a 401(k), to get the full employer match available.
  • Change jobs. Not getting help from work? Consider looking for a new job with better workplace benefits. Some employers not only match a percentage of employees’ contributions, but also make a contribution regardless.
  • Increase automatic contributions each year. Let’s say you contribute 5 percent of your salary to your 401(k) right now. If you increase your savings rate by 1 percent per year, you’ll be saving 15 percent of your salary after 10 years, and with such a slow and steady increase, you probably won’t even notice.
  • Earn self-employment, side income. Not only can self-employment income make saving easier by increasing your earnings, it also could open up other business opportunities.
  • Don’t touch your retirement money. Don’t tap retirement savings for a down payment, an emergency fund, or any other purpose. Fund those goals with cash you set aside in a high-interest savings account or certificate of deposit.

Remember, don’t feel bad if you haven’t met a popular benchmark for what multiple of your income you should have saved by age 30 or 35. Focus instead on consistently saving for retirement, and work toward increasing the percentage of your income you save. Through persistence, you’ll have a good shot at retiring comfortably and on time.

Discover more from MassMutual…

Why you can win with a steady investment strategy

8 FAQs on traditional vs. Roth IRAs

When student loan and 401(k) compete

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1 Vanguard, “How America Saves,” June 2020.

The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of MassMutual.