10 steps to make up for a late start on retirement savings


So, you’re eligible to join AARP but you’ve set aside precious little for retirement. Welcome to the club.

Landing in your 50s or beyond without much in the way of retirement savings is not all that unusual. In one recent survey, four in 10 boomers said they hadn’t saved a dime.

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And even many of those who have socked away money in retirement accounts are behind. According to the Employee Benefits Research Institute, households headed by someone age 55 to 64 that have saved for retirement have a median stash of $120,000.

Sounds impressive, until you consider that Fidelity Investments suggests that by age 55 you should aim to have saved seven times your salary.

There’s no time, and no need, to resign yourself to coming up short. Even putting $6,500 a year in an individual retirement account—the maximum annual IRA contribution if you’re 50 or older—could add up to nearly $91,000 in 10 years and $160,000 in 15, assuming a 6% annualized return.

That’s not nothing. And if you can postpone tapping that money for another five years in retirement, it could grow to $215,000 without you adding another dollar. Plus, you can aim higher than $6,500: Catch-up rules let you put $24,500 in your 401(k) in 2018.

Changing things up is never easy. But you might be surprised by how quickly you can get some momentum going. To quiet the panicked voice in your head warning that you’ll never be able to retire, follow these 10 steps.

Set a date for your retirement reboot

Need help getting going? Capitalize on what researchers call the “fresh start” effect. Studies have found that you’re more motivated to work toward a new goal, be it losing weight or hitting the gym, if you tie it to a memorable date. Using a vivid date helps you “disassociate” from your imperfect past self and lean into being kinder to your future self.

Think of a date within the next month that sticks out: a holiday, the first day of the month, an upcoming birthdate of a loved one. That’s when you wave goodbye to the retirement planning woulda/shoulda/coulda regrets of the past and set your sights on making serious progress toward your future retirement.

Put on your detective cap

If right about now you’re thinking, “I want to save more, but I simply don’t make enough,” it’s time to dig into your spending. Odds are you can trim your budget to free up money for retirement—if you know exactly where your money is going.

At an online service such as Mint, once you link up your financial accounts you can track your spending and generate eye-opening spending reports with just a few clicks. Then look for opportunities to make cuts.

Pick a few big targets…

Start by taking a hard look at big-ticket items, suggests Barry Bigelow, lead advisor in the Duluth, Minn. office of Great Waters Financial. You can likely save plenty by focusing on what’s in your garage: a less expensive car you don’t trade in every few years, or maybe one fewer car and more ride sharing. “Did you buy the Mercedes when what you could really afford was the Chevy?,” says Bigelow.

Another potential big savings is to rethink college (and grad school) if you still have a high schooler or two, or a child planning an advanced degree. Saving for retirement needs to take precedent over paying (or borrowing) for college.

“Unless you make an arrangement for your kids to take care of you when you retire, you need to put all your effort into retirement savings now,” says Bigelow.

…but don’t discount small savings

Don’t overlook the small low-hanging fruit, like brown bagging lunch or trimming the cable or wireless bill. By increasing your insurance deductibles, you can reduce your monthly premiums (do this only if you have the cash flow or emergency savings to easily cover the deductibles).

“It’s going to take some big moves and a series of small moves to reduce your overhead drastically,” says Nancy Anderson, a certified financial planner and vice president at Key Private Bank in Park City, Utah who runs the late-starter advice site Acres of Acorns. “That’s the only way to find money to save today.”

To give yourself a push, try this simple calculator, which shows how even small daily savings can add up over time.

Keep your house on the table…

The biggest cut of all may be the most painful: Sell your home, buy a less expensive place (or rent), and put your gains toward retirement.

Moving to a smaller home can also free up money to save—heating and cooling 1,500 square feet costs less than 2,800 square feet. You may spend less on property taxes too, which can be doubly smart now that the tax deduction for your combined state and local income and real estate taxes is limited to $10,000 a year.

Even if you figured on downsizing in retirement, not during the run-up, crunching the numbers may be eye-opening. With this calculator, you can estimate your total savings, taking your mortgage, moving costs, maintenance, utilities, and more into account.

…or milk it for money

If you can’t see your way toward moving, you might still be able to make money off your house. Starting with charging rent to any boomeranging kids under your roof (bonus: your kids build some adulting muscle).

Renting a room via Airbnb is another way to wring income out of your empty nest. Or if you are warm to the idea of a roommate, Silvernest matches boomer homeowners with boomers looking to rent.

Or maybe your child and his young family (or some sibs or other relatives sharing your retirement anxiety) might be interested in living under one roof. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2016 20% of the U.S. population lived in home with at least two generations of adults, up from 12% in 1980.

Join the gig economy

To free up extra money to put toward retirement, be open to ways to bring in even a few extra hundred dollars a month. According to a recent survey by Bankrate, people with a side hustle make $686 a month on average. Invest all of it in your retirement account, and that could be another $112,000 in 10 years.

Play up your experience and become a coach or tutor. Maybe there is seasonal work that fits your schedule. If you go near the airport on your commute, how would you feel about shuttling passengers with you via Uber or Lyft?

“Sure, it may be a little out of your way, but focus on how it can help you save more,” says Anderson.

Cap your empty-nest treats

Once the kids are (mostly) financially independent you will have a lot more monthly cash flow. Yet researchers find that empty nesters typically manage to boost their retirement savings rate by less than one percentage point.

If that’s because you’re focusing on other goals—such as paying down debts—great. But if you’re on a victory-lap spending spree (high-end vacations, lots more eating out), rein in the splurging. Your future self will thank you.

Craft a strategy to stay at work longer

You’re probably thinking about working through your 60s. Smart. Even if you don’t keep saving more for retirement, continuing to earn enough so that you don’t have to touch your savings is a powerful way to get by on less.

Indeed, new research from Morningstar says cutting expenses and delaying retirement are two of the most effective moves to close a retirement savings gap.

But don’t assume it’s easy to work longer. Many before you have had the intention of doing so and didn’t. Being able to work longer requires some clear-eyed planning today, including a program to stay healthy, skills refresh, and some strategic downshifting.

Don’t go for the Hail Mary pass

Resist the temptation to put all your money into stocks in hope that big market gains will bail you out.

If a bear market strikes between now and retirement—not unlikely, given how long stocks have been rising—you might not have enough time to make up your losses before you retire, and what you always want to avoid is making big withdrawals from retirement funds that have been knocked down. (For ways to protect your savings against a big price drop, go here.)

Ten to 15 years from retirement, a sensible stock stake is no more than 70% of your portfolio. If you want help figuring out how much to invest in stocks and bonds, you can move your savings to an online advisor such as  BettermentFidelity Go, or Schwab Intelligent Portfolios. All have low initial investment requirements and will guide you to the right mix based on your age and temperament.

At this life stage, throw all your energy into what’s in your control. Save more. Spend less. Hatch a plan to work longer. A decade or more of nailing those tasks can do wonders for your retirement security.

This article first appeared on Considerable


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