Trying to plan for retirement during the pandemic?
We made a bot to help you.

Michelle Singletary’s digital equivalent will help you formulate a retirement plan to see you through the coronavirus pandemic and beyond

2020 has scrambled a lot of our expectations, so let’s check in on whether your retirement plans are still on track.

Don’t be frightened. This is an exercise intended to get you to focus on your numbers. I’m not going to scare you with another retirement calculator that says you need to be a multimillionaire to have a decent retirement — certainly not in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

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Use this tool to give yourself a sense of where you are financially, so you can make better decisions about what you need to do in the coming years to retire when you want, with enough money to live comfortably. We’ll be making some back-of-the-envelope calculations to figure out whether you’re on track. We might not be able to capture everything about your individual financial situation, but it’s a place to start.

You can retire happily within your means. Let me help you get ready.


Let’s get started. Grab your bank statements, mortgage and car loan documents, and retirement account information. As you go through the questions, you may find that you’re in better shape than you think. Or you may need to face some hard truths about your financial situation. Most importantly, there’s no judgment. The numbers just tell you where you are today. Young or old, if you don’t like what you see, you can change course.
Have you been laid off or furloughed because of the coronavirus pandemic, or has your income been disrupted in some other way?
Yes
No
When you lose a job or your income is significantly reduced, you may have to put retirement planning on pause. It’s okay to focus on catching up on missed mortgage or rent payments. You might have to ask your credit card company to allow you to miss some payments. And you should ask if you need the relief. Once your income stabilizes and you’ve caught up on your bills, build up a small emergency fund of at least $1,000. Then you can get back on track to saving for retirement.
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Do you want to hear some advice on saving for retirement anyway?
Yes
No
Are you 60 or older?
Yes
No
To free up more money to save for retirement, pay down debt as soon as possible. Aim to save about 15 percent of your gross income for retirement. That’s including any company retirement plan match. In the early years of working, you may not be able to meet this goal. That’s okay. Increase your contributions by 1 percent or 2 percent a year until you get there. Eventually, if you can afford it, contribute the annual maximum allowed for your workplace retirement account.
Check irs.gov for the current contribution limits for your retirement plan. For 2020, the maximum allowed contribution is $19,500 for a 401(k). There’s an additional “catch-up” contribution for people 50 and older. The 2020 limit for this is $6,500.
If you’re 59½ or younger, you may know that you have to pay income tax on the withdrawal and a 10 percent penalty if you tap into your retirement account. If you lose your job or your income is disrupted, and you don’t have emergency savings to fall back on, your retirement savings may be your last resort. It’s not an ideal situation, but do what you have to do to pay the bills.
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How many years were you away from retirement?
Fewer than 5 years
5 years or more
Don’t wait until retirement is just around the corner. Long before you want to retire, start fine-tuning your plans. If you will be taking a mortgage into retirement, can you handle the payments? Does it make sense to switch to a spouse’s health plan, if they have retirement coverage? If you don’t have a workplace retirement plan, you can look into an IRA, another kind of tax-advantaged retirement account. Here’s a helpful blog post by Fidelity Investments: Don't worry — there are tax-advantaged options for people without a 401(k).
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Even if you can’t afford to save what the experts recommend, still put together a retirement budget, which may heavily rely on Social Security. If you haven’t already, sign up for “my Social Security” account. Here’s the direct link. If you’re fortunate enough to have a pension, factor this money into your plans, too. And no, don’t include an inheritance unless you’ve already received the money or it’s in a trust in your name.
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Would you like to calculate how much you’ll need to save for retirement once your job situation is stable?
Yes
No
Do you think your job is secure for the next six months?
Yes
No
You might be wondering whether you should reduce or stop your retirement contributions if your job isn’t secure. And the answer is yes — if you don’t have an adequate emergency fund. Right now, cash is king. Focus on paying for essentials: the roof over your head or food on the table. Later, as your job becomes more secure, you can get back to saving for retirement. Let’s figure out how much you should be saving once your job situation stabilizes.
Sounds good
If your job is secure, now is the time to boost your savings. Make sure you have an adequate emergency fund — at least three to six months’ worth of living expenses. Aim for 12 months if you earn a lot of money, because it may be harder to replace this salary.
In the next section, we’re going to ask you a lot of detailed questions about your money. Don’t worry, this tool will not save any of your financial information. We’re going to figure out your net worth and then see how that relates to your retirement savings goals. Don’t bail on me!
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I won’t!
How much money do you make a year?
Use your gross figure, which is the amount you earn before taxes and deductions.
$
How much do you have in each of these accounts?
$
$
This includes a 401(k), 403(b), Thrift Savings Plan or TSP, or IRA.
$
This includes mutual funds, stocks and bonds held outside of a tax-advantaged retirement account.
Tell us a little more about what you own.
$
This is a type of permanent life insurance that includes a savings or investment component. Cash value is the part of the policy that earns interest and may be withdrawn or borrowed against in case of a financial emergency. Do not include the value of a term life insurance policy.
$
$
If you have a home, how much do you still owe on the mortgage?
$
Not including a primary mortgage, home equity loan or line of credit, what other debts do you have?
$
$
$
$
$
Based on the answers you gave, your current net worth is $0.
Knowing your net worth is important in retirement planning because it makes you focus on which assets you’ll be able to pull from to fund your retirement.
A positive net worth is an indication that you own more than you owe. And that’s good. But look at where your wealth is concentrated. Is most of your wealth tied up in the value of your home? Use your net worth statement as motivation to build up retirement savings in cash or other liquid assets if they are lacking. If you complete your net worth statement and you don’t like what you see, then take action. Your current net worth is just a snapshot of where you are today. Maybe you need to save more or reduce your debt or both. Use what you find as an incentive to save more if you know you’re behind in saving for retirement.
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Let’s figure out how much you should be putting into retirement.
Our back-of-the-envelope calculations aren't going to take into account Social Security or pension income. But it's important to know these numbers if you're putting together a full retirement budget, as they may reduce how much you need to save. Sign up for a "my Social Security" account here to get an estimate of your benefits.
Sounds good
How much is your company retirement match?
%
Based on your income and using the 15 percent retirement rule for the percentage of your income you need to save (including the company match), you should be putting 15% of your gross income into retirement. That’s $0 a year or $0 a month. If you can’t afford to stretch to the full 15%, at least try to contribute enough to get the company match.
There are limits to how much money you can put into tax-advantaged retirement accounts like a 401(k) or Roth IRA. But you can still save additional money for retirement outside of these types of accounts.
Let’s figure out whether you’re on track with your current retirement savings. How old are you?
years old
You've already told us how much you have in retirement accounts. Do you have other cash saved or investment accounts you’ve earmarked for retirement? Just so you know, the next set of calculations aren’t built on net worth. They are based on the money you are setting aside specifically for retirement.
You can count equity in your home as a personal asset. But financial planners generally don’t count it as a source of retirement income.
$
The amount you should save for retirement is based upon your age and your income. According to benchmarks set by Fidelity, to retire at age 67 you should have saved Bx your income by the time you’re A, or $C. You’ve saved $D, which means you’re at E% of your goal.
Fidelity milestones are based on saving at least 15 percent, replacing 45 percent of pre-retirement income on a pre-tax basis, an asset mix of greater than or equal to 50 percent equity and a 90 percent market confidence level with the goal of replacing at least 45 percent of before-tax pre-retirement income.
Get going! Push yourself to save more.
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Good start, but you’ve still got work to do. Cut expenses, ditch as much debt as possible or both.
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Pretty good, but you can’t stop there. Save more!
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You’re almost there. Keep going!
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You’re on track. Keep going!
Great job! Make sure you are investing to beat inflation.
Whatever your age, it’s important to save for retirement. And it’s never too late to make better decisions about your money even as you get closer to retirement.
There's a lot of uncertainty right now. If you want to try this tool again with different answers, you can start over
Here are some other frequently asked questions that we've gotten from Washington Post readers.
1. Does it make sense for me to save for retirement now?
If you still have stable income and you aren’t struggling to pay for necessities, yes, you should still save for retirement. It’s all about the long game. The sooner you start saving, the better. The longer you save, the better. If you wait too long, the amount you need to save becomes overwhelming.
2. How can I think about retirement right now when I'm not working?
If you have lost your job or been furloughed it is hard to think about putting away money you’ll need years from now. It’s okay to focus on your immediate financial needs. Once you get back to work and catch up on your rent, mortgage or any other debts that have accumulated, you can get back to saving for retirement.
3. What if I don't have enough money to save for retirement and pay my bills?
The essentials — shelter, food, utilities, etc. — come first. If your economic situation continues to be fragile, you may have to adjust your retirement goals. This might mean working longer if you can. It may mean taking Social Security sooner than you had planned. You may need to move in with adult children or get a roommate to cut housing costs.

Sometimes your dream retirement doesn’t match up with economic realities. If that’s what is happening, you have to be willing to consider changing your plans.
4. My employer doesn’t offer a 401(k) retirement plan. How can I save for retirement?
If you don’t have a workplace retirement plan, you can still save in a tax-advantaged retirement account such as a traditional or Roth individual retirement account, or IRA. All you need is earned income. If you don’t work but your spouse has earned income, you can still contribute to an IRA. There are also income limits.

Here’s a link from the IRS that explains the difference between a traditional and Roth IRA.

The maximum annual contribution isn’t as high as a plan offered by an employer, but you can still save up to $6,000 for 2020. There’s also a catch-up provision that allows you to save an additional $1,000 if you are 50 or older.

If you qualify, contributions to a traditional IRA are tax deductible. However, be aware that the amount you can deduct may be reduced if you or your spouse is covered by an employer retirement plan.

A Roth account is funded with after-tax dollars, making future withdrawals tax-free.

One major plus in saving through a workplace retirement account is that an employer will set everything up and take contributions from a worker’s pay, making it easier for people to save. But on your own you can set up an IRA so that contributions are made automatically from your bank account.

Check with your financial institution or contact an investment company to learn more about how to invest in an IRA.
5. Should I be boosting my emergency fund?
Every financial crisis shows the importance of having an emergency fund. If you’ve lost your job, there are no extras for an emergency fund, and that’s fine. But when you are working and able to pay for necessities, set aside any extra funds for a rainy day. Start with just $25 if that’s all you can manage, but eventually aim to save at least three months’ worth of expenses. When you can, if you can, make it a goal to have six months to a year in savings.
6. My job is safe. I'm doing well. I'm actually saving money. How can I help local businesses and others?
Make sure you have run all your numbers. Often people feel they are doing well when in reality it’s still not enough. Have you calculated how much you need for retirement? What does your retirement budget look like? Have you factored in health-care costs or long-term care expenses?

If you’ve done your homework, then absolutely give out of your abundance. Maybe you open and contribute to a college savings plan for your grandchildren. You might give more to charitable organizations. Think about giving to scholarship funds that support students at your alma mater. Whatever you decide, come up with a giving plan so that you target your extra funds toward the things that matter to you.
Whatever your age, it’s important to save for retirement. And it’s never too late to make better decisions about your money even as you get closer to retirement. You can retire happily within your means.

Youjin Shin

Youjin Shin works as graphics reporter at The Washington Post. Before joining The Post, she worked as multimedia editor at the Wall Street Journal and a research fellow at the MIT SENSEable city lab.

Michelle Singletary

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column The Color of Money. Her award-winning column is syndicated by The Washington Post Writers Group and is carried in dozens of newspapers nationwide.

Reuben Fischer-Baum contributed to this report. Audio editing by Maggie Penman.

About this story

None of the information you enter into this tool is collected or saved by The Washington Post. Note that this is an informational tool only and does not constitute investment advice. You should seek the advice of a financial services professional regarding personal finance issues. The results presented by this online tool are hypothetical and for illustrative purposes only, and The Post is not responsible for any decisions or actions taken as a result.

Illustration by Shakira Savage

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