Although unemployment rates have fallen from their highs earlier this year, many Americans are still looking for work or struggling with reduced hours. A recent survey of over 2,000 Americans found that about half, 49%, had a reduction in income.
The most immediate way to offset a smaller paycheck (or in some cases, no pay) is to reduce your spending. For some, that may mean cutting back or even completely stopping contributions to retirement accounts such as your 401(k).
But before you alter your 401(k) contributions, you should carefully evaluate your individual situation, certified financial planner Eric Roberge says.
"It's going to depend on what you're dealing with right now," says Roberge, founder of Boston-based wealth management firm Beyond Your Hammock. Here's how he recommends approaching the decision to reduce or halt 401(k) contributions.
If you can't afford the basics
If you're dealing with a situation where you cannot afford to pay for what you need, then it's a fairly straightforward decision: Prioritize spending on your mortgage, rent, utilities and food ahead of contributing to a retirement account, Roberge says.
"Those things need to be paid for," says Roberge. "If you don't have the income to pay for them, temporarily backing off on your 401(k) to afford those things right now might be a good choice."
There is going to be a long-term impact on your retirement balance if you aren't contributing this year. "That's going to leave a mark, but it's only a temporary mark," Roberge says. As long as you are planning to up those contributions again once your situation turns around, don't stress about it.
If you feel like you need more cash on hand
Maybe you haven't lost your job completely, but you're still experiencing a smaller paycheck. Or you're fully employed, but you're feeling a little more on edge right now and worried about having extra money on hand to deal with emergencies. That's normal, Roberge says, but deciding whether or not to stop contributing to your retirement accounts in these situations is less cut and dry.
"There is a certain amount of cash that you probably should have on hand," Roberge says. Most experts recommend having three to six months of living expenses in a savings account.
If you need to reduce or halt your 401(k) contributions to reach that amount, that's OK, Roberge says. "If your emotions are putting you in a place where you can't sleep at night because you don't think you have enough cash on hand, then maybe you back off your 401(k) to put more cash in your bank account for now," he says.
But this should be a temporary move, Roberge adds. And you should make sure you really need to. The impulse to have more savings may be an emotional reaction rather than a financial imperative, he says.
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If you realize it's more of an emotional reaction, it may help to talk to someone, such as a financial advisor, spouse or relative. "It's important to talk it out before making a decision that could really impact you in some way," Roberge says.
"Talking through it might actually get you to a place where you feel comfortable continuing on the path of contributing to your 401(k) because you ultimately realize that you do actually have enough cash in the bank," Roberge says.
Keep in mind that just because there is a massive change in the world doesn't necessarily mean you have to make a massive change in your life.
"Certainly certain circumstances will come up and you have to make adjustments. But if nothing's really changed from your financial perspective, I don't think you need to go in drastically, change your own contributions or your investments, try to pull in or out of the market," Roberge says. Just stay the course.
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