5 Signs You’re Behind on Retirement Savings

If you’re behind on building your nest egg, here’s how to catch up

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If your retirement savings have been getting as much attention as D-list celebrities on the red carpet, then prepare to give your accounts a little TLC. Your older self—the one who gets to retire on the beach—will thank you.

[In Pictures: Top 10 Cities with the Most Debt]

Here are five signs that it’s time to kick your savings rate into overdrive:

1) You lack confidence in your ability to retire comfortably.

According to a new survey by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, only half of respondents say there are confident that they will be able to retire with a “comfortable lifestyle.” The percentage was slightly higher, but not much, among men. That confidence gap is probably partially caused by the fact that people are waiting too long to start saving and not saving enough. Only 33 percent of men and 45 percent of women said they are building a large enough retirement nest egg.

2) You couldn’t describe the fees you’re being charged.

Only one in four respondents in the Transamerica survey said they are aware of the fees associated with their employer’s retirement plan. That means the vast majority of people have no idea whether they’re paying $10, $100, or more for their investing services. That finding confirms similar research from RAND that found people routinely fail to select the lowest-fee funds, holding all else equal. RAND calculates that even a one percentage point difference in annual fees can add up to over $3,000 on a $20,000 account after ten years.

3) You’re not aware of your ability to make catch-up contributions or to take advantage of the Saver’s Credit.

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Transamerica found that 84 percent of women are unaware of the ‘Saver’s Credit’ available to low and middle-income workers saving for retirement. Most people also didn’t realize that people over age 50 are eligible to make catch-up contributions in excess of normal limits.

4) You don’t know how much money you need for retirement.

Six in ten women simply guess at the amount of money they need to retire comfortably, Transamerica reports. You can find a good retirement calculator with a quick web search, but be sure to use one that incorporates tax rates, inflation, and an adjustable rate of return so the results are as accurate as possible. Some good ones include TD Ameritrade's WealthRuler, Bankrate.com's retirement calculator, Transamerica’s worksheet. (See How to Pick a Good Retirement Calculator.)

5) You’re 30 and you haven’t yet started saving.

The median age for men to begin saving for retirement is 28; for women, it’s 30, Transamerica reports. Starting late means losing out on years of compounding, which can have a severely negative impact on the final amount saved at retirement. For example, if you start saving $12,000 a year at age 25, you’ll have $3.2 million by age 65, assuming an 8 percent rate of return. If you save the same amount at age 40, you’ll only have $915,000.

If all these statements apply to you, then it’s time to ratchet up your retirement efforts, or you’ll be stuck working long after your peers have left the workforce. Here are some ways to get started:

[For more money-saving tips, visit the U.S. News Alpha Consumer blog.]

Save more, not less. Most financial advisers say taking money out of the market when shares are down or you really need the cash is the wrong move, because you miss out on any future gains and compounding in the meantime. Plus, you might have to pay a penalty for early withdrawals.

Change your budget. Diane Young of TD Ameritrade says the biggest mistake people make is underestimating how much they can put away for later. "They're thinking they can't save more than they're already saving. But you can. You don't have to go out to dinner four times a week or spend $5 on coffee," she says. Even saving such a small amount pays off in the long run, she says.

Follow tried-and-true strategies. Diversify your investments through index or mutual funds, and decrease your exposure to stocks by shifting into safer vehicles such as bonds and cash as you approach retirement. A new survey from Vanguard found that investors are increasingly looking to low-fee funds, which keeps more money in their accounts.

Then forget about it. There’s no good reason to follow every dip in the market. Instead, focus on a hobby, get some fresh air, and spend time with friends.

Transamerica also recommend creating a written strategy, considering retirement benefits when evaluating job offers, learning about the fundamental principles of investing, and getting familiar with tax-incentives.

Kimberly Palmer is the author of Generation Earn: The Young Professional’s Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back, which will be published in October by Ten Speed Press.