10 Ways to Play Catch-Up Before Retirement

You may never get back the life you had before, but here are ways to improve your retirement prospects.

Jar of cash on the table for retirement savings
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Back in 2001, David Raether was a comedy writer for the TV sitcom "Roseanne," earning $300,000 a year. He and his wife and their eight children lived comfortably in a big house in an upscale suburb of Los Angeles.

That was before the recession, before Raether lost his career, his home and his marriage and found himself homeless for 18 months. Now 57, he shares a house with two 30-something graduate students in Berkeley, Calif., and ekes out a living as a freelance writer.

While his story is more dramatic than many, Raether's fall from a comfortable upper-middle-class life to unemployment and substantial loss of assets is common among Americans approaching retirement.

"I'm not the only one who's struggling," says Raether, who has heard from hundreds of people in response to his essay, "What It's Like to Fail," published last month by the website priceonomics.com.

Americans in their 50s and 60s, who expected to be at the peak of their careers before retirement, are finding themselves playing catch-up. While they may never get back the lives they had before, there are steps they can take to improve their retirement prospects.

[See: 6 Ways Retiring Can Be More Affordable.]

"Focus on things you can control," advises Maria Bruno, senior investment analyst at Vanguard. You can't go back to your old life, time the market or, in most cases, recover what you've lost. But that doesn't mean you can't make a new plan. "The sooner you can get back on track, the better, because of the power of compounding," she says.

The unemployment rate for people over 55 was 4.9 percent in November, up from 3.2 percent before the recession. Research by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that early baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1955) lost 28 percent of their net worth between 2007 and 2010, late boomers (born between 1956 and 1965) lost 25 percent and Gen Xers (born between 1966 and 1975) lost 45 percent.

The important thing, experts say, is to acknowledge the new reality and do the new math. Run a retirement calculator or consult a financial advisor. And then adjust to a downsized retirement plan.

"It's so hard to recover at that point," says Liz Weston, a personal finance author and columnist for Reuters. "Their retirement isn't going to look like they thought it would."

Here are 10 tips for getting your retirement plans back on track:

Save as much as you can. If your salary has fallen from $100,000 a year to $50,000, clearly you won't be able to save as much as you did before. But that doesn't mean you can't save anything. "You don't give up in desperation," Weston says. "Save what you can."

Make sure your lifestyle reflects your new income. That could mean relocating to a cheaper area, selling the house or getting by with one used car rather than two new ones. "If you're heading for retirement and you're very far behind the goal, you're going to have to change big things," says Jean Chatzky, financial editor for NBC's "The Today Show" and a personal finance author.

[See: 10 Ways to Upgrade Your Finances in 2014.]

Quit giving money to your adult children. "The welfare for the kids has to stop," Weston says. "Parents want to help, and I see so many of them who are subsidizing their able-bodied kids." A 2013 survey from Merrill Lynch found that 68 percent of parents age 50 and older had provided financial support to children age 21 and older during the past five years.

Plan to work longer. That could mean delaying early retirement, staying in your job past retirement age or working part-time in retirement. Vanguard calculations show that someone who could retire at age 65 with a portfolio of $169,400 could see that portfolio grow to $233,000 if he worked until age 68 or $266,300 if he worked until age 70.

Wait as long as you can to draw Social Security. For each year you delay claiming Social Security up until age 70, your payouts will grow. For example, someone whose Social Security payment at full retirement age would be $2,200 a month would get only $1,630 a month at age 62, but the amount would grow to $2,860 a month if she waited until age 70 to start receiving payments. You can get personalized estimates at ssa.gov/estimator.