How to Approach Retirement Catch-Up

If you’ve put off saving for retirement, and don’t want to work forever, follow these tips.

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It's well established that if you start saving about 10 percent of your income for retirement starting at age 25, you're going to be in excellent shape for retirement when you hit age 65. This fact should be emblazoned on every single college and trade school diploma issued in the United States today: start saving for retirement now, not later.

Unfortunately, that fact doesn't represent reality. Quite a few of us didn't save at all during our 20s, and some of us didn't save during our 30s, either. All the time, I hear from readers in their late 30s or early 40s (or even later) who are just now realizing that they need to start saving for retirement or they're going to work forever.

If this describes you, the obvious answer is to start saving immediately. Right now. If you're reading this article and you're a professional adult without any retirement plan in place, you need to start a retirement plan.

If your employer offers a 401(k) program with matching contributions, run (don't walk) to the HR office and sign up for that plan. Contribute enough to get every dime of that matching money because it's essentially free retirement savings for you. If your employer doesn't offer matching in their 401(k) program, look into opening an individual retirement account. I recommend contributing 10 percent of your income to that IRA, for starters.

So, you're saving. Now what? The first thing to think about is time. If you're only contributing 10 percent of your income per year to a typical retirement fund, it's going to take about 40 years of saving before you can safely retire. Like it or not, that's the reality of it.

If you're 30 when you start, that means you're looking at retiring when you're 70. If you're 40 when you start, that means you're looking at retiring when you're 80.

Another problem is that simply doubling the contribution doesn't mean that you can halve the time. You can't expect to contribute 20 percent for 20 years and match what you would get out of 10 percent over 40 years. That would only work if you were getting no return on your money – in other words, if your retirement plan involves stuffing cash into a mattress.

Saving for retirement once you're behind the curve looks quite scary. Thankfully, there are a few things you can do to help improve your situation.

1. Get a Social Security estimate. The average American earns 40 percent of his or her retirement income from Social Security benefits, so knowing what you have coming to you can go a long way toward soothing retirement fears. The Social Security Administration offers a calculator to help you figure out how much you're going to receive in benefits. It's a good idea to wait until you're as old as possible to start collecting benefits so you can maximize the income.

2. Look for ways to boost your income. Many mid-career folks find opportunities for freelance work and side businesses that can supplement their current income. Instead of simply spending that money, however, channel all of it into retirement savings (or into a mix of retirement savings and debt repayment). If you're unsure where to start, visit your local library for information on side businesses and freelance opportunities related to your career path.

3. Hike up your savings. If you wish to retire earlier than 40 years from now, you're going to have to save more. That means stowing away a higher percentage of your income. A good quick rule to use is that for every 10 years you want to shave off your goal, you need to double how much you're saving. If you want to make it in 30 years, shoot for 20 percent per year. Twenty years? You should be saving 40 percent of your income per year. You need that boost to make up for the time you lost.

4. Cut out unnecessary expenses. Finally – and this is the tough part – you may have to consider some cutbacks. If you're living a lifestyle that makes saving for retirement inconceivable, then you're simply living beyond your means. You can't assume that your ship will come in someday and everything will be OK. Everyone has expenses that they can cut from their life.

The road to retirement is a challenging road – but it's not an impossible one.

Trent Hamm is the founder of the personal finance website TheSimpleDollar.com, which provides consumers with resources and tools to make informed financial decisions.