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Retirement Savings: Making Up for Lost Time

Key Points
  • Starting to save for retirement means first getting a handle on spending and debt.

  • Contributing to an employer-sponsored retirement plan or an IRA is essential.

  • Putting money toward retirement now isn't depriving yourself, it's setting yourself up for a better future.

Dear Carrie,

I'm 42 years old and have saved no money. How can I retire at 65?

A Reader

Dear Reader,

You have a challenge ahead of you, no doubt about it. And according to the 2016 Retirement Confidence Survey 1 put out by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, you're not alone: 26 percent of respondents said they have less than $1,000 saved. Those numbers are certainly concerning. But on the positive side, your question means you're ready to take action—and that's what you need to do, starting right now.

To retire at any age, you have to save, save, and save some more. Starting from scratch at 42, you should ideally save 20-25 percent of your yearly salary. Chances are you can't sock this much away immediately, so you need to break things down into a workable strategy. Then, of course, you have to commit to actually following it. Here are some ideas.

Get a handle on your spending

If you don't know what you’re spending, you can't save effectively. Try this to get a clearer picture:

  • Track your spending for 30 days.
  • Divide your expenses into two categories: nondiscretionary (the must haves) and discretionary (the extras). Put savings at the top of your nondiscretionary expense list.
  • Compare your projected expenses to your actual cash outlay. If you spend less than projected in one area, put that extra money toward your savings.

If you need to cut back in order to save, focus on the extras such as dining out or entertainment. A good way to stay on top of those expenses is to go on a "cash diet" for 30 days for all your out-of-pocket expenses. It's easier to spend when you just hand over a credit or debit card. Using cash makes you really focus on your purchase.

Even small changes in your spending habits can make a big difference. Think about it. Spend just $5 a day less on lunches or coffee and you could save over $1,800 a year.

Pay down your debt

And speaking of credit cards, make paying down any nondeductible consumer debt, such as credit card balances, a priority. If you have multiple cards, pay off the one with the highest interest first. Once you're no longer paying off debt, you can put that money into savings.

Put money in a 401(k) or IRA

You say you haven't saved anything. Does this mean your employer doesn't offer a 401(k) or that you just haven't contributed to it? If you can take advantage of an employer-sponsored retirement plan like a 401(k), don't waste another minute. Contribute as much as you can—certainly up to any company match. This is one of the best, automatic ways to save. And if your contribution is pre-tax, it won't even affect your take-home pay that much.

If a 401(k) or similar plan isn't an option, open an IRA or a Roth IRA, if you're within the income limits (phased out between $117,000-$132,000 for singles; and $184,000-$194,000 for married filing jointly). Currently, you can contribute a maximum of $5,500 a year. That's only about $15 day. Can you carve this much out of your daily budget by, for instance, bringing your lunch to work or taking public transportation?

Retirement accounts like these are effective because earnings grow tax-deferred (tax-free in a Roth). This can make a significant difference in the potential for growth over time. At your age, you still have time ahead of you—but the sooner you get going, the better.

Think differently

So often, as soon as we get some extra cash, we think about how we want to spend it. Now's the time to change that thinking. Instead of spending:

  • Try saving all or at least a portion of any annual salary increase.
  • If you get an annual bonus, earmark part of it for retirement.
  • Invest any tax refunds into your IRA.

By putting this extra money aside, you're not really depriving yourself. You're setting yourself up for something better in the future. It's all in the way you think about it.

Be realistic about retirement

You say you want to retire at 65, but people today are retiring later both for economic and personal reasons. Some postpone retirement to build up a bigger retirement nest egg. Others decide to keep working part time to supplement their savings and because it keeps them active and engaged.

There's no magic number or formula for a perfect retirement. There's only one common denominator—the need to save. So start now and stick with it. It won't necessarily be easy, but the amount you can save today will ease the burden of having to save much more down the road. Ultimately, this will help you at whatever age you choose to retire.

2016 Retirement Confidence Survey, conducted by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, March 2016

Next Steps

Important Disclosures

The information on this website is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax, legal or investment planning advice. Where specific advice is necessary or appropriate, consult with a qualified tax advisor, CPA, financial planner or investment manager.




The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax, legal or investment planning advice. Where specific advice is necessary or appropriate, consult with a qualified tax advisor, CPA, financial planner or investment manager. 

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