Now that you’re done reading articles about what happened in 2019, how about stepping back and taking in the longer view? Most successful savers invest money each year over a long period of time, these days often into a target-date fund (TDF). It may not get you doing silly things on a super-yacht, but this slow-and-steady behavior is a perfectly legitimate way to build wealth. Not everyone gets rich with IPOs or Bitcoin.
Investment benchmark. I chose the Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 Fund as this all-in-one fund is low-cost, highly diversified, and available both inside many employer retirement plans and anyone with an IRA. During the early accumulation phase, this fund holds 90% stocks (both US and international) and 10% bonds (investment-grade domestic and international). I think it’s a solid default choice in a world of mediocre, overpriced options.
Investment amount. For the last decade, the maximum allowable annual contribution to a Traditional or Roth IRA has been roughly $5,000 per person. The maximum allowable annual contribution for a 401k, 403b, or TSP plan has been over $10,000 per person. If you have a household income of $67,000, then $10,000 is right at the 15% savings rate mark. Therefore, I’m going to use $10,000 as a benchmark amount. This round number also makes it easy to multiply the results as needed to match your own situation.
A decade of real-world savings. What would have happened if you put $10,000 a year into the Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 Fund, every year, for the past 10 years? You’d have put in $100,000 over time, but in more manageable increments. With the interactive tools at Morningstar and a Google spreadsheet, we get this:
Investing $10,000 every year for the last decade would have resulted in a total balance of $174,000. That breaks down to $100k in contributions + $74k investment growth.
Are you a dual-income household that can put away more? If you were a couple that both maxed out their 401k and IRAs at roughly $20k each or $40k total per year, you would have a total balance of $700,000! That breaks down to $400k in contributions + $300k investment growth.
Bonus: 15 years of real-world savings. What would have happened if you put $10,000 a year into the Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 Fund, every year, for the past 15 years instead? (Now $150,000 total.) This is a self-centered inclusion as it has now been 20 years since I graduated college and 15 years since starting this blog. Here are the extended return numbers:
Investing $10,000 every year for the last decade and a half would have resulted in a total balance of $307,000. That breaks down to $150k in contributions + $157k investment growth. Your gains are now officially more than what you initially invested!
Are you a dual-income household that can put away more? If you were a couple that both maxed out their 401k and IRAs at roughly $20k each or $40k total per year, you would have a total balance of over $1,200,000! That breaks down to $600k in contributions + $620k investment growth.
Timing still matters, but not as much as you might think due to the dollar-cost averaging and longer time horizon. Yes, the last decade has been a great run for US stock markets. But Vanguard Target funds also own a lot of international stocks, which haven’t been nearly as hot and have maintained lower valuations. More importantly, you can’t control that part. You have much more control over how much you save. Here are my previous “saving for a decade” posts:
Work on improving your career skills (or start your own business), save a big chunk of your income, and then invest it in productive assets. Keep calm and repeat. Our path to financial freedom can be mostly explained by such behavior. The only “secret” here is consistency. We have maxed out both IRA and the 401k salary deferral limits nearly every year since 2004. No inheritances, no special access to a hedge fund. You can build serious wealth with something as accessible and boring as the Vanguard Target Retirement fund.