Best places to invest for retirement

A reader named KC recently wrote in with a question about investing for retirement:

I'm 28 years old with a wife and a six month old baby. We've always been money-conscious, but would really like to focus our efforts. We both have Roth IRAs, but are not satisfied with them. They are heavily loaded, and we weren't that familiar with them when we were advised to set them up. My question is where you would recommend I go for a long-term investing vehicle? I always hear to go with no-load mutual funds but would like your opinion.

This is a great question. I've said it before, and I'll say it again... Friends don't let friends pay mutual fund sales loads.

My personal preference when it comes to long-term investing centers is low-cost, no-load mutual funds. When I say low cost, what I'm really talking about is "passively-managed" index funds that seek to match the market as a whole, or some segment thereof.

Now the question is where you go to find low-cost index funds. Here you have three general options:

  1. Mutual fund company
  2. Discount Broker
  3. Automated Investment Service (a.k.a. robo advisors)

Let's take a look at all three and the pros and cons of each.

Mutual Fund Companies

As for my favorite places to invest, Vanguard is at the top of my list. We also have some money with Fidelity and have been quite happy with their offerings. A third option would be Schwab, who has a bunch of low-cost mutual funds with a low minimum investment of $100.

It's important to understand that not all mutual fund companies are created equal. Vanguard, for example, specializes in index funds. It also has three tools to make investing easy:

  • Target Retirement Funds: Simply pick the fund that corresponds with the year you plan to retire (e.g., Target Retirement 2060), and Vanguard takes care of the rest. It allocations your investments between stock and bond index funds. And as you near retirement, it shifts more of your money toward safer bonds.
  • Lifestyle Funds: These are similar to Target Retirement Funds in that Vanguard handles the allocation of your money and rebalances your account. Rather than picking a fund based on when you plan to retire, however, you'll pick one based on the allocation you want between stocks and bonds (e.g., 80/20). This allocation does not change unless you change it.
  • Vanguard Personal Advisor Service: For a fee of 30 basis points (0.30%), Vanguard will manage your investments for you. For those looking for hands-on advice, it's one of the best deals out there. You do need a minimum of $50,000 to invest, so this service may be more suitable for those converting a 401k to an IRA.

Fidelity offers similar retirement fund options, although not all mutual fund companies do.

Discount Brokers

A second option is to open an IRA at a good discount broker. This approach is ideal for those that want to invest in individual stocks or ETFs. The major mutual fund companies do offer brokerage services, but they generally don't compare to the online brokers who specialize in this service. Here are a few of our favorite options:

Robo Advisor

Finally, robo advisors have become an excellent way to invest in both taxable and retirement accounts. These low-cost services make investing easy. They help you select a portfolio that meets your needs. They then automatically rebalance your investments.

These services offer IRA accounts. Two of my favorite options are Betterment and Wealthfront.

Of course, there are other options to consider, such as opening a Treasury Direct account so you can buy Treasury securities such as T-Bills, T-Notes, T-Bonds, Series EE Savings Bonds, Series I Savings Bonds, etc. This will allow you to purchase these securities direct from the Federal government with no middleman.

Just keep in mind that the optimal composition of your portfolio depends on many factors, so you really need to give a lot of thought to your time horizon, risk tolerance, etc. before you make any major moves.

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Related: Retiring won't be as easy as you think

8 reasons you'll have a hard time retiring
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8 reasons you'll have a hard time retiring

1. We’re living longer

The number of Americans 90 and older is expected to quadruple over the next four decades, says the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 1935, the average 65-year-old could expect to live 12 more years. Today, the Social Security Administration says, the average man at 65 can expect to live an additional 19.3 years and the average woman 21.6 more years.

Living for more than 21 years without working takes a lot more money than getting by for 12 years. If members of your family have lived long lives, plan for the chance that your retirement savings will need to stretch 30 years or more.

Tip: Find a trusted adviser. A fee-only Certified Financial Planner (preferably recommended by someone you know) can help you plan for retirement and make the most of your resources in ways you might not have anticipated. Take time to find someone really superb.

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2. Seniors can’t shake the recession

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The Great Recession robbed earning power from workers, hitting men and women in their 50s and early 60s especially hard.

Even in 2016, 61 percent of American workers have yet to fully recover from the Great Recession of 2007-2009 — including 13 percent who still haven’t begun to recover and 7 percent more who may never recover, says a new report from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. Home values and investment savings also plummeted.

Seniors have had less time to make up those losses.

Tip: Don’t wait, take action. If you are still recovering from the last economic downturn, don’t wait until you’re in deep trouble to take action. Pride can prevent you from taking needed action when you’re in trouble. Don’t spend retirement savings or home equity trying to repay unmanageable debt.

You can seek help by talking with a credit counselor through the nonprofit National Foundation for Credit Counseling, or a bankruptcy attorney through the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys. 

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3. Private pensions are nearly extinct

Only a few decades ago, many large employers offered “defined-benefit” pensions, guaranteeing retirees and their spouses a fixed monthly payment for life.

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Times have changed. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that in 2011, just 1 in 10 large employers offered fixed benefit plans, covering 18 percent of private industry employees. (By contrast, many government positions at all levels still offer pensions.)

A report by global advisory company Towers Watson says that, by late 2013, only 24 percent of Fortune 500 companies offered new employees any type of defined-benefit plan (most were “hybrid” plans, not traditional fixed-payment retirement plans) compared with 60 percent in 1998.

Most of us, if we’re lucky, instead have tax-deferred 401(k) retirement savings plans that we need to keep track of ourselves, instead of being managed by experts.

Tip: Save more. Without a pension, you simply need to save more for retirement. Follow the basic rules for retirement savings, including minimizing taxes, working longer, investing regularly and keeping on top of your investments. Invest the savings in indexed funds, which typically outperform actively managed mutual funds or investing the money yourself.

Boost savings by every possible penny. Keep increasing 401(k) contributions to meet your retirement goal. Don’t have a goal? Use several retirement calculators to decide how much you’ll need and what to save to get there. Here are two calculators:

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4. Social Security is still under pressure

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Unless Congress acts, Social Security Trust Fund reserves are expected to run out in 2034, according to the Social Security Administration. Assuming lawmakers address that issue, however, the amount you receive depends in part on when you start claiming it.

Tip: Be strategic about claiming Social Security. Most people claim their Social Security benefits at age 62, which is as soon as they can. But with that approach, you’re likely to lose money you’ll need when you’re older.

Want to get a larger monthly check? Read: “14 Ways to Get Bigger Checks From Social Security.” 

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5. Interest rates are low

Retirees in previous generations earned higher interest on savings and low-risk investments. But, because interest rates are at historic lows, many of today’s retirees must take on riskier investments to generate income.  

Tip: Don’t dip into retirement savings. Lower interest rates mean your savings may disappear more quickly as you spend. But no matter how tight things get, shun the temptation to borrow from your retirement savings. Don’t do it for any reason, not even to pay off debt.

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6. Seniors have more debt

Earlier generations tried to enter retirement with a paid-off home and no debts. That’s harder to do today.

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Tip: Get help. Debt won’t go away on its own. For help in getting out of debt, read “7 Steps to Get Ruthless About Paying Off Your Debt.”

Check our Solutions Center for help getting out of credit card debt

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7. People have to work longer

Workers on average tell Gallup that they expect to retire at 66 and nearly a third plan to work beyond age 67. But poor health, a job loss or the need to care for loved ones can force people to retire before then. The average age at which Americans actually do retire is 60, Gallup says.

Tip: Let the kids fend for themselves. Unemployment and low wages have made it hard for many young adults to launch their independent lives. A 2011 survey by the National Endowment for Financial Education and Forbes found that almost 60 percent of American parents were giving adult children financial support.

Half of the parents surveyed by American Consumer Credit Counseling were helping with financial support for one or more children age 24 or older. ACCC is a national nonprofit agency that helps consumers with budgeting, debt and financial management.

But funding a child’s lifestyle is another reason you may have to work longer — or worse, it may doom your own retirement.

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So, put retirement savings ahead of paying for your children’s college. The kids have more time than you do to make up financial losses.

8. More seniors are single

Divorce is rising among older Americans, and women tend to outlive their husbands. As a result, reports The Fiscal Times, one-third of the record 32.7 million Americans who live alone are older than 65. 

Many find freedom in being single, but it costs more for a single person to support a household than to share overhead.

Seventy-four percent of single Social Security beneficiaries get most of their income from their Social Security checks compared with 53 percent of married couples, according to the Social Security Administration. “Among people ages 80 and older, 23 percent of women lived below the SPM (Supplemental Poverty Measure) poverty thresholds in 2013, compared to 14 percent of men,” according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Tip: Don’t touch home equity. If your retirement is looking shaky, don’t even consider using home equity for non-essentials like remodeling. Treat it like an emergency fund.

What are you doing to rescue your retirement? Tell us in the comments below or at MoneyTalksNews on Facebook. 

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