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Cash Savings vs. Retirement Savings Accounts: Where to Stash Your Money When You’re Unsure What You’re Saving For

Cash Savings vs. Retirement Savings: Retirement Savings Accounts 101Everyone knows saving for retirement is a priority, because retirement is important and compound interest is powerful — but are the tax savings for retirement accounts so great that you should use them to save extra cash, too, such as for a hypothetical future home purchase? When I was in my late 20s — unmarried, not yet a homeowner, not sure how long I wanted to do the lawyer thing — this was my serious concern: cash savings vs. retirement savings. With my future so uncertain, and with so long to go before retirement, I wondered if I was losing more opportunities by saving money where I could get to it quickly, or by putting it away in retirement accounts… If I saved in cash, then my money was always available to me in case I wanted to buy an apartment, get married, or go back to school, but everyone told me to put it in retirement accounts instead to get the tax benefits (plus, retirement is important!).

In the early years, I was lucky because Schwab’s money market fund was paying ridiculous interest by today’s standards (5%!); I also finally did start maxing out my 401K in addition to saving money in cash when I was around 28. But when I finally got my bearings and started researching different retirement savings accounts, I was shocked to find that a lot of them would let me put the money (or some of it, at least) toward school, a first home, or more. A few years ago we did a post on tax-savvy investments that looked at these kinds of questions — but it’s been too long and we need an update. Thank you so much to editor Kate Antoniades for looking into the ultimate question: How do cash savings vs retirement savings stack up? If you’re already saving for retirement but have an extra $5,000 that you think you might need soon — but aren’t sure — should you leave it in a cash account earning very little interest, or put it in a retirement account to get tax benefits? – Kat

We haven’t gone into detail about tax-savvy investments like retirement savings accounts since 2012, so it’s definitely time for an update. What are the different retirement savings accounts available to most people? What are the tax benefits of them? Can you use the money for anything other than retirement, like grad school, a vacation or wedding, or a home purchase?  In the meantime, we’re shared posts on some pretty closely related topics such as setting financial goals for the year, making end-of-year money moves, choosing a financial planner, retirement savings in general, and paying down debt vs. saving. At election time last year, we talked about reacting to a stock market drop.

Before we get into the retirement savings vehicles — where, for the most part, you can’t touch your money until 59½ at the earliest — let’s discuss cash savings. (Oh, and a note on going back to school — if you’re 100% certain you’re going back to school, a 529 may be the way to go. Here’s a post from Fidelity that weighs the options.)

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