Start Padding That Nest Egg

The sooner you start saving for retirement, the better — we've all heard that a thousand times. Now, take a few tips on how to pull that off, including how much to stash away and where to stash it.

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CHRIS ARNOLD: Lunchtime in downtown Boston, the streets are thick with people dashing around to stores and going out to eat. Leah Volpe is carrying a shopping bag in one hand. And she is about to go do something that - well, that's may be extremely disturbing for any financial planners who are listening.

Ms. LEAH VOLPE: I'm actually going to be withdrawing money from my 401k to go on a vacation because I'm only 31, so I really don't care about retirement quite yet.

ARNOLD: I guess that's one of those things you're really not supposed to do.

Ms. VOLPE: Right, yeah. You're absolutely not supposed to withdraw money, but I have every intention. I waited until the first of year so I wouldn't have to do it on my taxes. But I'm actually waiting until, like, tomorrow or the next day to see if the market goes up a little more. I'm going on vacation with like $1,200, and I don't really care. I'm doing it all wrong, but I'm going to enjoy myself.

ARNOLD: But elsewhere in the shopping district here, some people are at least thinking about saving more money this year.

Mr. STEVE PERRY(ph): Yeah, it's one of the resolutions to go ahead and save more and also to try to look at more investments.

ARNOLD: Steve Perry and Jag Rondus(ph) are heading back to their offices. Both are 35 and work for the state in labor relations. Perry says he hasn't been putting away enough.

Mr. PERRY: I need to put away more, more and more - pure and simple, more money, more money.

ARNOLD: But Rondus says he's actually been setting aside money for years.

Mr. JAG RONDUS: I work with a financial planner, so we already have a sort of a plan in place of where you want to be in and how long, you know, you need to save for. But you're looking at, I mean, family income, combined income, you know, probably about 10, 15 times that amount.

ARNOLD: Ten to fifteen times your income. So let's say you make $80,000 a year, that's around a million dollars. With that, you could live off the interest, plus Social Security.

But how do you get there? That question makes many Americans go cross-eyed. In part, that's because as important as all this is, most people don't learn it in high school or even college.

Mr. STEVE MARIOTTI (President, National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship): One of the most important things that you can teach a young person is the power of compound interest.

ARNOLD: Steve Mariotti is the president of the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship. He started in the Bronx in New York basically getting high school kids from lower-income families into math by teaching them how to make money. One thing he teaches, it's called the rule of 72.

Mr. MARIOTTI: It's absolutely crucial for people to learn.

ARNOLD: Okay. This is math, but it's actually pretty interesting. You divide 72 by the interest rate that you're earning, and that's how long it takes for your money to double. So if you're earning a seven percent interest rate, 72 divided by seven, your money doubles in about 10 years. At eight percent, it doubles in nine years. Mariotti says this is why it's so important to save and invest at a young age.

Mr. MARIOTTI: If a person can start saving in their 20s, $300 a month, and save for 40 years at eight and a half percent interest, then that money turns into over a million dollars in 40 years. That's just $300 a month.

ARNOLD: If you start when you're 25, by the time you're 65, you'll have $1,064,457.

Mr. MARIOTTI: But if you wait and don't start saving 'til your 30s and do the same strategy, it only comes up to $447,000, less than half of the million sixty-four thousand you would've made.

ARNOLD: If you start saving later, you have to put aside much more money to try to catch up. Some people in their 20s and 30s say they can't save for retirement because they haven't paid off student loans. But many financial advisers say even if it takes longer to pay those back, you'll be earning a lot more money and avoiding taxes by putting part of your paycheck into a 401(k), especially since many employers give you free matching money. And they say make it automatic, so you do it every month.

ALISON STEWART, host:

That was NPR's Chris Arnold reporting.

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