Retirement Calculator Test Drive: Which Will Work Best for You? By Kevin Smith, CFP®, Wealthspire Advisors
Estimating Your Retirement Needs with an Online Calculator
Beginning the process of making retirement contributions is a big step for anyone. Today, proper retirement planning seems more important than ever, but where do you begin to crunch numbers?
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For many, an online retirement savings calculator offers an anonymous, low-commitment method to obtain the basic estimates you need to get started and know how much money you need to retire comfortably. More than just providing one metric, retirement calculators can provide a lot of useful information about how to achieve that desired nest egg amount. From adjusting your risk profile to altering your monthly 401(k) contribution amount, there are many variables to play with in a retirement calculator, each tweaking the scenario that will result in your personalized retirement number. To be clear, the following online retirement calculators are a great place to start but also cannot replace the personal customization and detail provided by engaging a professional financial planner to create a plan that fits your unique individual situation.
Find a Retirement Calculator That Reflects Your Situation
Not all retirement calculators are created equal. Here I’ll review six free, online retirement calculators and compile notes on my impressions, likes, and dislikes.
A few things to understand before you get started – first, there are a lot of retirement income calculators out there – some good, others not so good. To resolve any particularities of one calculator, I recommend using a couple. This can help to provide a more accurate understanding of your retirement saving in the long run.
Similarly, finding a retirement calculator that fits your exact situation can be a daunting task, so choose a few. It would be hard if not impossible to find one, best retirement calculator that would work for everyone’s situation. Can the calculator compute for inflation or pay raises, or even automatic increases? The assumptions that some retirement planning calculator’s algorithms make about us can produce inaccurate projections. For example, many calculators assume an ongoing 8% compounding return even though you may be a more conservative investor and can more realistically expect a lower return. You are the best judge of your investing style and tolerance for risk, therefore it is critically important to be honest with yourself when selecting an achievable return assumption. Other assumptions about spending needs in retirement can equally throw off the estimation.
Finally, as the old saying goes: “garbage in, is garbage out”. Make sure that the information you use is accurate and up to date. A well-developed plan based on the information you have now will be much more useful than results that were based on guesses or estimations. Wherever possible, use precise data from your financial records.
A Calculator’s Score is Not Destiny - Set Goals, Measure Progress, & Adjust as Necessary
A retirement calculator is a tool, not a fortune teller. It can help craft a savings plan, measure your progress, and forecast scenarios based on adjustments to an input. Don’t let an output make you feel bad about your retirement readiness or make you comfortable enough that you neglect to continue monitoring your progress. By setting goals and making course corrections, you can provide yourself the opportunity for a rich and rewarding retirement.
My Methodology for Testing Calculators
To test the calculators fairly, I felt the need to be consistent with our information. For our purposes we’re going to ignore both social security and pension plans, but I do make note of the ones that offer the ability to do so. Not all plans allowed us to input the below information, as some calculators make a few general assumptions, but here is what I used:
- Current Income: $100,0000 annually ($8,333 per month)
- Starting balance of retirement plan: $10,000
- Annual Contributions: $10,000 or 10%
- Marital Status: Married
- Current Age: 35
- Age of Retirement: 65
- Years of Retirement: 30 (Assumes you’ll live to be 95, which is a good target for retirement planning purposes!)
- Rate of Return before Retirement: 7%
- Rate of Return during Retirement: 5% (Lower rate reflects more conservative portfolio stance during retirement)
- Income Need at Retirement: 80% of Current Income
- Inflation Rate: 3% (Consistent with the past 30 years)
#1: Charles Schwab Retirement Calculator
One of my favorite aspects of the Charles Schwab Retirement Savings Calculator is the expanded social security benefits section. The calculator asks for you to include your expectations about social security benefits, which may not be the largest stream of retirement income for an individual, but nonetheless contributes to your nest egg. The calculator lets you choose what age you will start social security. You can enter in a number manually or ask the software to calculate and give you an estimation.
Another feature I like about this calculator is choosing your investment style (Low Risk to High Risk) rather than a straight rate of return. Changing your risk profile demonstrates how your portfolio may be structured and what rate of return you can expect. It is important to review the “How this tool works” link to understand the long-term return estimates being used for the five “investment styles” with defined risk profiles from Conservative to Moderate to Aggressive.
- Choosing your investment style instead of a rate of return on investments
- Ability to add social security benefits or you can have Schwab estimate your social security benefits and include them
- Ability to add supplemental income you plan to receive each year in retirement outside of your investment portfolio and social security
- Doesn’t allow you to include other investments
- Doesn’t allow separation of spousal accounts
#2: SmartAsset.com Retirement Calculator
Smartasset.com's Retirement Calculator offers a simple, approachable calculator that captures an abundance of information. From the ability to input projected retirement age and social security election age, retirement accounts, including contributions and company match, to outside investments, and even spousal information – this calculator has a ton of options for customization. It also asks for your location in order to determine taxes you will pay in retirement.
What’s also helpful is the intuitive interface. Once your report is produced, you can still view and adjust “My Details” on the left-hand panel, making adjustments super easy. Overall, the ability to capture a lot of metrics specific to an individual’s retirement preparations make this calculator quite effective, including the ability to turn on or off social security benefits.
- Easy to use
- Able to enter different investment accounts
- Ability to input company match percentage on investments
- Ability to input spousal information
- Differentiation of IRAs, Traditional and Roth
- Ability to input Pensions and Annuities
- No ability to adjust return on investment assumption in retirement
#3: The Fidelity Retirement Score
The Fidelity Retirement Score offers a progress report of your retirement readiness. Six questions measure your age, annual income, total retirement savings to date, monthly contributions, spending habits, and investment style. Based on your answers, you receive a score from 0 to 150. The score illustrates the percentage of average estimated retirement expenses that could be covered based on the information entered, but after the initial survey you can sign up for more details. This survey does automatically make social security assumptions.
Fidelity’s Retirement Score is not perfect but does serve as a good pre-retirement calculator to educate on how current retirement savings and future contributions may satisfy estimated income needs in retirement based on your current trajectory. Ultimately, this comparison could lead a person astray since it doesn’t have the ability for users to enter more specific information. The score is calculated assuming an underperforming market, so the estimate is rather conservative, which may be a good wake up call for those who receive a “bad” score.
- Nice interface and easy to complete the 6 informational questions
- Social security estimate/override
- Asset allocation selection
- Only works for a single individual
- Lacking ability to input more information such as a pension
- Not intended for those currently in retirement
- Since the calculator makes no assumptions about taxes and displays all results in gross, every score will be higher than it probably should be
#4: New Retirement’s Simple Retirement Calculator
New Retirement’s Simple Retirement Calculator is as advertised: simple. Although it lacks the fancy design or graphics, this calculator gives you a quick assessment of your current retirement savings, showing how long your money will last in retirement at a set level of spending in retirement.
Additionally, the New Retirement Planner contains a number of resources for retirement planning. Once you create a profile and enter information about your financial goals, you’ll be given suggestions. Results are provided in a format that is goals-focused, with a timeline showing how close (or far) you are from exiting the workforce within your specified time horizon. There are also suggestions for next steps in addition to a thorough analysis of your retirement situation. The overall flow and interface of the website, and inputting the information, makes the experience more user friendly for a person with basic retirement and investment knowledge.
The Planner allows you to input the value of your home and other assets while also incorporating debt, annuities, medical expenses, net worth, and estate planning. One thing I really liked was alternating from optimistic and pessimistic rates of returns on your investments and savings accounts, providing a truly holistic understanding of various investment scenarios.
- Ability to enter home value and mortgage
- Starting at age 70.5, the calculator estimates required minimum distributions
- Social security adjusts for inflation
- Simple Retirement Calculator only allows for basic data entry
- Need to sign up (for free) to access the Retirement Planner
- Rate of return is set to 4% optimistically and 2% pessimistically
#5: Vanguard – Retirement Income Calculator
Vanguard offers two free retirement tools, the Retirement Income Calculator and the Retirement Nest Egg Calculator, which together offer powerful retirement planning. The Retirement Income Calculator offers a very simple and easy to use calculator that most investors will have no problem operating. The calculator helps estimate monthly income needs and shortfalls in retirement. Be advised, you will need to increase your contribution amount if you have a company match to include. This calculator also allows you to include estimated monthly Social Security and pension benefits. While you have the ability to select the expected annual return on your investments, the downside is no ability to alter Vanguard’s 4% withdrawal rate assumption at retirement.
As the name suggests, the Retirement Nest Egg Calculator is an easy way to determine if your retirement savings will last. While it’s an easy calculator to use, don’t be fooled by its simplicity. Using a Monte Carlo simulator, it examines 100,000 simulations of hypothetical market scenarios to produce its results. By keeping track of the number of simulations in which your savings last for the duration of your retirement, the calculator is able to estimate the probability that your plan will be successful.
- Simple one-person compounding interest calculator
- Social security and pension benefit estimator
- Monte Carlo simulation using the nest egg calculator
- Lacks ability to add spousal information
- Lacks ability to adjust 4% withdrawal rate assumption
Bankrate is well known for its many different financial calculators from retirement calculators to mortgage calculators. Bankrate Retirement Calculator projects your monthly income from your savings in retirement and allows for input of expected income increases, inflation adjustments, as well as before and after retirement return assumptions. It also reports an estimated time of when your savings will run out. This tool could be useful for someone looking for a quick and simple calculation of how long their retirement savings may last, but overall, it needs more input options for the user who wants a more detailed and accurate look into saving for retirement.
- Ability to input rate of return on investments before and during retirement
- Quick input of only 10 questions
- Ability to input expected income increases
- Spousal inputs
- Ability to input outside investments, all savings must be input together
- Boring layout
- Limited additional inputs
After looking at the top free retirement calculators, I’ve ranked them based on the best solutions for the following scenarios. Although these calculations are great to use to get a general idea of your savings and what you may need to plan for in the future, it is recommended to use a few different calculators to get the best picture of your retirement savings, and to consult with a financial advisor for planning purposes.
Retirement Calculator with Pension: The SmartAsset retirement calculator is the go-to retirement calculator with pension. It gives you plenty of options, including adding pension, so you can customize your retirement plan and savings to your exact situation.
Most Realistic Retirement Calculator: SmartAsset and New Retirement Planner (after signing up for free) are the most realistic retirement calculators because of the expanded social security benefits section, the ability to enter different asset type information, the option of including spousal information, and the ability to customize your retirement plan in multiple ways.
Best Retirement Calculator for Couples: If you’re looking for a retirement calculator for couples, you’ll want to use SmartAsset or New Retirement Planner. Both give you the option to add your spouse's information.
Retirement Calculator with Social Security: All of the calculators offer options to include social security into your retirement plan. Schwab, SmartAsset, New Retirement, and Vanguard allow different levels of customization regarding when benefits will be received and the estimated amount.
Simple Retirement Calculator: If you’re looking for a simple retirement calculator, I’d suggest Schwab or Fidelity. They both have minimal questions with limited customization which will give you a quick retirement calculator result.
Most Comprehensive Retirement Calculator: All-in-all the most comprehensive retirement calculator is SmartAsset. With the option to customize your plan exactly how you want, SmartAsset will give you a really good idea of where your retirement savings stand and how to best plan for your unique future. If you don’t mind signing up for free, the New Retirement Planner allows for the most detailed customization and incorporates the greatest amount of information if you’re willing to put in the time and effort.
Note: All the information presented is for educational and resource purposes only. It is not intended to provide specific or investment advice, nor does it serve as an endorsement of any of the retirement calculators. We don't guarantee the accuracy of the tools presented above and suggest that you consult with a trusted financial advisor regarding your individual situation.
Wealthspire Advisors is the common brand and trade name used by Sontag Advisory LLC and Wealthspire Advisors, LP, separate registered investment advisers and subsidiary companies of NFP Corp.
This information should not be construed as a recommendation, offer to sell, or solicitation of an offer to buy a particular security or investment strategy. The commentary provided is for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon for accounting, legal, or tax advice. While the information is deemed reliable, Wealthspire Advisors cannot guarantee its accuracy, completeness, or suitability for any purpose, and makes no warranties with regard to the results to be obtained from its use. © 2020 Wealthspire Advisors