Retirement Planning for a Low-Income Career

Several people in my close inner circle of friends and family have made the active choice to go into careers where they will be earning a low income for life. Their calling is in areas of social work and they’ve made the financially difficult choice to follow their heart. That earns a lot of respect from me.

Of course, when you step back from that decision and look at the course of one’s life, many normal financial choices become much more difficult. Many low-paying careers do not offer the same benefits as other careers – there simply isn’t the money available.

So how does a person in a low income career path save for retirement?

First of all, most low income people will have to plan for their own retirement beyond Social Security. Although some non-profits do offer 403(b) and other such retirement plans, many offer nothing of the kind and expect the employees to figure out their own path.

The best option for most people in such a situation is a Roth IRA, which is paid for with after-tax money. Since you’re already earning a pretty low wage, the tax advantages of 401(k)s and 403(b)s are less important.

Roth IRAs are pretty simple to understand. A Roth IRA is an investment account in which you can contribute as you wish throughout the year up to an annual limit (currently $5,000 if you’re below age 49). Once the money is in the account, you can choose to invest that money in whatever options the company managing the IRA has available to you – you can keep it in cash, buy bonds or stocks, or put it in index funds that allow you to own a little bit of everything. Any income you earn from these investments stays in the account and, when you reach age 59 1/2, you can withdraw that income without any taxes or any penalty at all. You can also withdraw the money you contributed at any time, but you can’t put it back into the account to replace it – once it’s gone, it’s gone.

A Roth IRA is pretty simple to open. Most investment firms offer Roth IRA plans of some sort. I use Vanguard for my own Roth IRA and I’ve been very happy with them and the investment choices they offer, but your mileage may vary.

I encourage anyone in a low-income career without a retirement plan to open a Roth IRA for themselves and contribute what they can on a regular basis. The easiest way to do that is to set up an automatic investment plan that withdraws a small amount from your checking account every week. Even $20 a week adds up to $1,040 over the course of a year, which is a good step in the right direction.

A second factor to note is that by choosing a low-income career, you’ll learn how to live on a low income. This means that your retirement needs will be much lower than people who earn a much higher income than you. You don’t need to stress about having millions in retirement when you retire.

Of course, there’s an important catch here – financial independence. If you’ve embarked on such a career but haven’t become fully financially dependent yet, you’re currently living above your means. Move towards financial independence. Start today. If you’re still being supported by someone, direct that support into something distinct, like your student loan bills, and learn how to live off of what you actually make yourself.

Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it often means passing on things you’d like to have. However, there are many valuable lessons to be learned from that process. You’ll learn what’s truly important to you – and what really doesn’t matter too much. You’ll learn how to live frugally and understand quite well how to maximize a dollar. Those are lessons that will help you throughout your life, in more ways than just saving a dollar.

My last suggestion is one that’s good for everyone to follow: don’t let pride stand in your way. When people offer to help you, it’s because they want to help you, and you bring value into their life by accepting a helping hand sometimes. Don’t turn down a free meal from someone who appreciates the work you’re doing. Don’t turn away a friendly gentleman who is impressed with the work you’re doing and gives you $50 to help you out. Just don’t rely on these things – accept them as they come.

Pride is our natural enemy. It constantly causes us to make choices that put us in a worse place than before. It often causes more social negativity than social positivity. Never be too proud to accept someone’s genuine offer of help.

Here’s an example. In my early years, I knew several people who did missionary work for the Latter Day Saints. Even though I’m not a member of that church, I know that such work is long, hard, lonely, and often without reward. Today, I’ll often give a bag of cookies or a few dollars to such missionaries. Quite often, they’ll say no out of pride. Yet, I wouldn’t be offering if I did not genuinely want them to have what I gave them.

Good luck!

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