Of course, it really depend on who you are and what your situation is. But in general terms:
If you are still working, and especially if you're young, do save, but think twice about putting all your savings into a tax advantaged retirement plan. You probably are not making big money yet, so the immediate tax advantage is relatively small. Interest rates are low and the stock market has already regained most of what it lost in 2008-2009, so short-term returns on new investments cannot be expected to be large, and the advantage of deferring taxation on them is therefore very modest.
Yet you are tying up your money in a place where you will probably have to pay a penalty if you need to withdraw it so you can go back to college or graduate school, get married, put a down payment on a house, or pay for what it costs to have a child or two or more. That may not be the best strategy for any of your savings, especially if you are still in your 20s, and it is very unlikely to be your best strategy for all your savings. So plan to put at least some of your money away someplace where you can get at it.
An important exception, though: at any age, if your employer is matching your contributions up to some level, then that’s free money, and you will come out ahead by accepting the match, even if you pay income tax penalties later. But if there is no match, or if you contribute beyond the level where your employer contributes matching funds, then you should think more carefully about whether tax savings is worth more than ready access to your funds.
Even when you get into your thirties and forties and fifties, you should still be thinking this way, especially if you have children for whom you will be paying college or other educational expenses. Special tax-advantaged plans exist just for this purpose, but there are actually quite a few different options, some of which can save you money and still give you flexibility – about when and where your children go to school, and even if it turns out college is not for them at all.
The other big questions is: given today’s pretty lame investment environment, into what type of savings or investments vehicles should you be putting your savings?
Again, the answer needs to be responsive to individual circumstances. But since interest rates remain near all-time lows, it doesn’t make sense for most people to tie up money for long stretches of time at today's fixed rates. This means, you should probably avoid long-term bonds, certificates of deposit beyond 18 or 24 months, and fixed annuities right now (unless you are offered one that floats with current rates). The stock market is always risky, but is more risky when it’s at a relatively high level. Right now, stocks are still well below their all-time highs, but they are also nearly double their lows of three years ago. So they are probably a bit riskier than normal, at present – especially given the uncertainty in our own economy, and in Europe’s.
If you are still at least several years from retiring, and are feeling like a gamble, you might invest some significant portion of your money in the stock market. But don’t be surprised if you lose some of it fairly soon, and then have to wait a while for the market to recover - though of course it could just about as easily make a further strong move upward, especially if the economic signs continue to improve in the U.S., before its next big drop.
If you are already retired, or are retiring in the next few years, you probably should not be gambling any of your money in the stock market now. In fact, you probably should not gamble it in the equity markets ever again, unless you have enough so that you can afford to lose some of it permanently. Things change when you retire, and even if you are a gambler at heart, you can no longer afford to gamble with your savings, unless, as I say, you have so much that losing some of it wouldn’t hurt you very much.
For most investors right now, then, the prudent approach is probably to keep your savings in relatively conservative, relatively short-term investments, even if the rate of return is only one percent, or less. If the economy does pick up steam, as now seems most likely, interest rates will finally start to rise again – and perhaps in a year or two, or maybe even sooner, it will be time to move into something longer term.
There is no risk-free investment strategy, of course, or even any risk-free individual investment. Even the most conservative investment is “risky” in the sense that it puts you in a position where you can miss great opportunities in more exciting markets. But you can easily enough put your money into places where you rest easy that you won’t actually lose any of it. And right now, that looks like the best place for most people to be.
That could change during 2012, though, especially for younger people who still have time to save, time for long-term ups and downs to smooth themselves out, and most important of all, time and opportunity to recover from financial blunders or bad luck, if that’s what befalls them. Retirees do not have this luxury.
One last thing: if you have credit card balances or other debt on which you are paying double-digit interest rates, or even rates that are in the high single digits, your best way to "save" might be to start paying down those balances. Unless you can earn a higher return in savings and investments - and it's very unlikely that you can - what you'll save on interest by paying down debt will far exceed what you'll earn by investing that money. And since most debt payments are not deductible, what you "earn" by reducing your interest payments is the equivalent of tax-free income. So why settle for 1% of taxable money in a money market account, or maybe a few percent in longer-term investments that are taxable or even tax-deferred, if you can earn, say, 22% tax-free by paying down your credit card balance?
Chuck Yanikoski is a retirement adviser who lives and works in Harvard. For more about him, or to contact him directly, visit www.ChuckYRetirement.com.