Updated: May 24, 2024

5 Steps You Must Take to Start Saving for Retirement In Your 30s

Your 20s are a prime time to start saving for retirement but if you are already in your 30s, there is still time to build a financial cushion for the future.
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The earlier you begin saving for retirement, the better, but if the big 3-0 has already rolled around and you haven't begun building your nest egg yet, it's not too late. Today, I'm outlining the specific steps 30-somethings need to take to start saving for retirement now.

1. Identify your savings target

Saving for retirement without an end goal in sight is like shooting in the dark and you need to have a fixed number in mind before you get started. As a general rule of thumb, you should aim to have enough money to replace 60 to 80 percent of your income in retirement.

That means if you're making $100,000 a year by the time you retire, your nest egg would need to be large enough for you to draw $60,000 to $80,000 to live on annually. That doesn't take into account anything you might get from Social Security, which is expected to be paying out benefits at a reduced rate by 2033.

How much you need to be saving each month depends on what your target goal is, what you're making and how long you have until retirement. For example, Karen is a 32-year-old making $50,000 a year. She plans to work until age 67 and wants to retire with a cool $1 million in the bank.

To hit her target, she'd need to be saving 12 percent of her income annually, which breaks down to $500 a month. If she waited until age 35 to start saving, she'd need to increase her savings rate to 15 percent to hit the same mark. That would bump her monthly contributions up to $625. That just goes to show how important it is to get started saving when you're already in your third decade.

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2. Focus on your employer's plan first

Signing up for your 401(k) plan isn't enough to guarantee a comfortable retirement. Even though 43 percent of millennials are saving through their employer's plan, not all of them are getting the full benefit of these accounts. The median contribution for millennials who participate in an employer's plan is 10 percent of their pay, which as I pointed out in the previous example, is below what you need to be saving if you're just getting started in your 30s.

If you know you need to be saving a higher percentage of your income but your budget is already tight, there are a couple of ways to make it doable. The first is to check your tax withholding.

If you're getting a refund every year, that means you're paying too much in taxes. Making an adjustment to your withholding can add money back into your check that you can then use to pad your 401(k). The IRS withholding calculator can tell you how much you need to be paying based on your income, filing status and deductions.

The other option is to step up your savings incrementally at a rate of 1 to 2 percent a year. This is a good way to go if you're still paying on student loans or other debts. As you pay them down, you can redirect the extra money to your retirement account. The same goes if your company offers an annual raise. Instead of just spending the difference, you can increase your contribution by the raise amount.
Tip: If you can't hit the maximum contribution percentage, you should at least be saving enough to qualify for the employer match. This typically comes out to 50 percent of the first 6 percent of your salary, although some companies may offer more.

3. Supplement your savings with a Roth

If you don't have access to a 401(k) at your job or you've succeeded in hitting the annual contribution limit, a Roth IRA is the next piece of your retirement savings puzzle. Why a Roth and not a traditional IRA? It all comes down to the tax benefits.

Even though a traditional IRA gives you a deduction for your contributions, that's not likely to benefit you much unless you've already managed to work your way up to a six-figure salary. When you pull the money out at retirement, you have to pay taxes on it at your regular rate.

With a Roth, you don't get that deduction up front but you won't pay taxes on the money once you retire. If you're still working on building your career in your 30s, the odds are good that by the time you reach your golden years, you're going to be earning significantly more. Any qualified withdrawals from a Roth won't add to your tax burden.
Tip: If you're self-employed, consider opening a SEP IRA or solo 401(k) instead. You can make both employer and employee contributions to these plans, up to a limit of $61,000 for 2023. That's substantially higher than the $6,500 ($7,500 if you are 50 or older) allowed for a Roth IRA in 2023, but the trade-off is that your distributions from either plan are fully taxable.

4. Max out your Health Savings Account

Major health problems aren't usually an issue in your 30s but it may be a different story in your 60s. Adding money to a Health Savings Account when you're young gives you a buffer if a major medical expense comes up down the line and you can also tap into the money as a secondary source of retirement funds if you need to.

An HSA is only available if you're enrolled in a high deductible insurance plan but if you're able to contribute to one, that's an easy way to accelerate your savings in your 30s. The contributions you make are tax-deductible and distributions are tax-free if they're used for medical expenses.

If you stay healthy in retirement, you can pull money out of your HSA to use it for other expenses. You'd have to pay income tax on the distribution and a 20 percent penalty but the penalty doesn't apply if you're 65 or older.

5. Snag the Saver's Credit

If you're saving in a 401(k), Roth or a self-employed retirement plan, you shouldn't pass up the chance to claim the Retirement Saver's Credit. This credit is good for up to $1,000 if you're single and $2,000 if you're married and file a joint return. If you're expecting to owe money at tax time, taking the credit can knock a few dollars off your bill.

For 2023, the credit referred to is likely the Saver's Credit, which is a tax credit for individuals who contribute to a retirement account such as an IRA or 401(k) plan. The income limits and credit amounts for the Saver's Credit are adjusted annually for inflation.

For 2023, the income limits for the credit are as follows:

  • Single filers with an adjusted gross income (AGI) up to $33,500 may claim the credit.
  • Head of household filers with an AGI up to $50,250 may claim the credit.
  • Married filing jointly filers with an AGI up to $67,000 may claim the credit.

The credit is worth between 10% and 50% of your contribution, up to a maximum contribution of $2,000 (or $4,000 for married couples filing jointly), depending on your income level and filing status.

So, if you are in your early 30s and make less than the income limits, you should be able to claim the Saver's Credit. Every penny of the credit can be helpful in boosting your retirement savings, and you can use the savings from the credit to increase your contributions to your retirement account.

Note that the income limits and credit amounts may change in future years, so it's important to check the most up-to-date information from the IRS.

Did you wait until your 30s to start saving retirement? We'd like to hear what strategies you're using to get caught up, so leave a comment and tell us how you're planning for the future.