In good times or bad, it makes a lot of sense to put money into your company 401(k) plan, particularly if it has a matching plan. Many companies put in $.50 or a dollar up to a certain amount for every dollar that you put in. This is free money. You get an immediate 50% or 100% return. You won't get that from any other type of investment.
Most companies let employees borrow against their 401(k), and you're actually paying the interest back to yourself. It's a pretty good deal. But ideally you don't want to touch that money, because it's money that you're planning to keep for a very long time so it can grow tax-free or tax-deferred.
You can open an IRA at banks or mutual fund companies. Some have requirements, such as a first deposit of $500 or $1,000. But some allow you to commit to a set amount each month, so you have to shop around and find a place that makes sense for you. Even putting a small amount of money into your IRA is one of the smartest things you can do in your 20's.
Roth IRAs let you know your money will grow tax-free for life. But some people may not be able to put a full $5,000 into a Roth IRA. If you're struggling and you only have a small amount of money, traditional IRAs give you a tax deduction up front. So if you don't feel like you can't really afford to put $5,000 into a Roth IRA, you could start with a traditional IRA. Then if you deposit $1,000 and you're in the 25% tax bracket, you get $250 back in your pocket right away.
If you don't have a retirement plan at work, or if you work for yourself and you can put away more than $5,000, consider a SEP IRA. IRAs cap out at $5,000, but you can put as much as $46,000 into a SEP IRA annually, so if you're doing really well, depending upon your income and looking at the rules carefully to make sure you know how much you're putting in, a SEP IRA is a great way to save long term.
Beth Kobliner, author of Get a Financial Life
The money is a 401(k) is your money. Always. It's not the company's money, no one else's money. If you leave your job, you can leave that money in the plan. If you have $5,000 or more, you can take it with you to your new employer if they allow it. Or you can roll it over into a different IRA. What you don't want to do is cash it out, which a lot of people do. They leave a job and they think that it's an opportunity to take this money.
If you're self-employed or you work for someone who doesn't have a retirement plan, you're less likely to save for retirement. You've got to realize that we have no idea what's going to happen with Social Security, so you have to make retirement a priority. If no one puts a plan put in front of you, you tend to procrastinate. But make saving for retirement as important as paying your rent or your mortgage or your car payment.
Michelle Singletary, Washington Post financial columnist
For people who don't have a retirement plan through work, the best option is an IRA, or individual retirement account. Most young people qualify for a Roth IRA. You don't get a tax break when you put money in a Roth IRA, but you don't pay any taxes when you take it out. You can put $2,000 away now, and it'll grow through compound interest, earning returns over 30, 40, or 50 years.
Ron Lieber, New York Times columnist