Nerdy Financial Speak

I was looking at my 401K this morning and had a thought…. “How much money has an individual contributed to a 401K if they started in 2000 and they contributed the max allowable every year?”

Fortunately, a search yielded this website.  Plugging the numbers into Excel was pretty easy.  Total contribution for the past 20 years (starting in 2000) amounted to only $329,000And so I had another thought… “Websites lately have been saying if you are XX years old, you should have YY amount in 401K.”  I went back to search a few websites and although they didn’t tell me much.  One website stated that by 30 I should have 1x my salary; by 40 I should 3x; by 50 I should have 5x.  As the website stated above, I wondered if it was possible that someone working 10 years making 50K could actually have 1x salary saved.  Remembering back how I first started working, money was tight.  Looking at the numbers, it’s possible but the numbers are difficult to “hit” 40 and 50 strictly looking at the just contributions alone.

The first website I linked also had a target guide.  The guide lists # of years worked and then a range on Low/Mid/High.  According to the website, if you’re between 30-45 (Middle Age/Mid End) you should have somewhere in between $150,000 to $500,000!?  Fact: If you contributed the max amount for 20 years starting in 2000. You would have only contributed $329,000.  $329,000 is smack dab in the middle.  If you’ve been working for only 10 years, you just hit a max range between $140,000-$180,000.  And… My guess is total contributions would be lower since generally the first 5-10 years of working… money is tight resulting in less than max contributions.  I know I probably didn’t max my initial working years.  And for awhile, I didn’t have income while in graduate school too.

Now… to throw a wrinkle into these numbers, 401Ks grow over time.  It’s been known that “beating the stock market” is not a long term viable strategy.  Hedge funds and actively managed funds do not consistently perform as well as the index funds.  Buffet won a bet using this strategy of passive investing with low maintenance fees.  Now based on this website, some growth calculation is needed via Excel.  Some numbers to think about… Mutual funds over the past 20 years have a 4.6% return. In the past 10 years, have a 4.2% return.  In the past 5 years, have a 6.9% return.  Stock index’s like S&P 500 have performed with a 10% return in the past 5 years.  For someone who started working in 2000 and contributed the max for 20 years, that person would have just a little over $510,000.  

What’s even more interesting is if the calculations assumed a 10% return based on 90-yr historical stock performance, you’d only be a sliver over $905,000.  But there’s so much more volatility with stock performance that ultimately depends on “timing the market.”  If specifically looking at S&P 500 funds (60-yr history), that return has been about 8% or $727,000 and also depends on timing the market.

In summary, for the past 20 years, an individual who has been diligently contributing to the max allowable 401K amount would result in either:

  • $510K (5% mutual fund)
  • $727K (8% average stock index fund)
  • $905K (10% historical stock market performance).

If your current 401K portfolio falls anywhere in that range (or higher), I think you’re in good shape.  The numbers I presented are what I believe baseline minimum numbers of what an individual should currently have in their 401Ks based on 2 key assumptions: a 5% mutual fund growth and max contributions since 2000.  So even if you didn’t make max contributions every year, if your portfolio value is between these numbers than consider yourself “caught up” to the minimum.  Give yourself a reward because YOUR MONEY WILL ONLY GROW from here on out




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