I see stories like this all the time -- from colleagues, in emails, and in the Fool's active discussion board community.
A husband and wife, happily married for decades, have strong careers, stable home lives, and a vibrant social network, but no retirement savings. That's right, none. They haven't socked away one red cent, despite their lengthy careers and promising futures. How can this be? How can two people who have so much have so little when it comes to planning for the rest of their lives?
The answer, of course, is that the money was spent on other things. Maybe he's a bit of a spendthrift -- buying the next boat, the next new suit, the next new television. Maybe she's racked up massive credit card debt. They never invested in 401(k)s or IRAs. Or maybe they put in a minimal contribution and never followed up on it. Despite their steady paychecks, the big-ticket purchases and credit card bills have slowly eaten away their savings.
Get your head above water
In his Rule Your Retirement newsletter service, Robert Brokamp features stories of people from all walks of life who have overcome many obstacles to propel themselves into a happy retirement. The common thread? They treated their future as an eventuality, not a possibility, and they saved and invested accordingly.
But there's hope for those who've started their retirement planning on the wrong foot -- we'll call them the late bloomers.
Retiree role models
I'd like to introduce you to Marika and Howard Stone. After getting a taste of retirement, they decided to go back to work for fun, tackling projects that caught their respective interests. The Stones now spend their time encouraging would-be retirees to reconsider the stereotypical retirement of shuffleboard and bingo and instead choose jobs that will both keep them active and bring in some extra cash. Sensible, indeed -- and lucrative, too!
Or there's Billy and Akaisha Kaderli, who at age 38 retired to travel the world on just $24,000 a year. Sure, they may have retired early, but they're also living on much less than the average family, and their advice on how to live frugally is invaluable for late bloomers trying to get back up to speed.
So what do they suggest you do? Eliminate debt immediately by paying off credit cards and other outstanding bills. Always live below your means. Figure out how low your "cost per day" can be, and watch it like a hawk. And, finally, remember that the best things in life can be free -- material goods don't equal happiness.
The Kaderlis and I are not here to preach. After all, you want to know what the folks who didn't start planning ahead like the Stones or the Kaderlis are supposed to do. I can hear your screams now: "What about the rest of America, for crying out loud?" Never fear, I've got the answers.
The rest of us
Fool contributor Paul Eckler suggests a "22-11" plan, wherein retirees-to-be live on 22% of their income in exchange for retiring in 11 years.
Granted, that's a big step, and one that might be simply unattainable for many of us. But, as Eckler stresses, it's a good guideline to start with and manipulate to fit your situation.
"For those who truly want to retire early, the calculation provides an incentive to cut those expenses to the bone or perhaps consider increasing income," Eckler wrote in an issue of Rule Your Retirement. "A career change for better pay is one possibility. Taking a second job can also do the trick. The bottom line is, those who make the effort can succeed."
There are more ways to launch a successful retirement, even if you're running behind schedule. Implement a debt-elimination plan pronto by cutting up or hiding your credit cards and paying them down religiously. Open up some higher-yielding savings vehicles, such as money markets and CDs, and plunk some of your long-term dollars in there (and remember, in retirement planning, pay yourself first). Don't dismiss the benefit of jumping into a 401(k) -- particularly if your company matches some of your contributions! -- or an IRA. Though you'll have missed some key years of compounding, you'll still be ahead of where you were -- and a few steps closer to where you want to be.
The closer you get to your anticipated retirement, the more conservative you'll want to be with these investments. A fund like the Vanguard Target Retirement 2015, which incorporates some other Vanguard holdings such as the Vanguard Total Bond Market Index (FUND: VBMFX ) and Vanguard Pacific Stock Index (FUND: VPACX ) , can be a great way to assure diversity as well as lower your risks each year as your retirement nears. So can an index fund such as the Vanguard Total Stock Market, which holds everything from retail magnate Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ) to pharmaceutical titan Wyeth (NYSE: WYE ) to Internet search trailblazer Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) .
The Foolish bottom line
Robert Brokamp offers key tips like these in each and every issue of Rule Your Retirement. (Click here for a free trial, which will grant you access to the first-person retirement success stories, too.) The truth is, even the financially challenged husband-and-wife team I mentioned earlier can live well in retirement -- if they re-prioritize. With hard work and a retooled mindset, even the latest bloomers can bask in the glory of a rosy retirement.
This article was originally published Feb. 7, 2006. It has been updated.
Hope Nelson-Popeis the online coordinating editor at The Motley Fool. She does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned here. Wal-Mart is an Inside Value recommendation. The Fool'sdisclosure policywill never retire.