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The 10% Savings Myth

"Save 10% of your paycheck." This money chestnut handed down through the ages gives the impression to those who follow it that they'll be just fine -- thanks very much -- by the time they retire.

Too bad it's not true. What's missing from the 10% rule of thumb is this vital footnote: "*As long as you start by age 25 and never stop saving 10% of every dollar you earn until age 65."

But that's not what most of us do. Instead we buy our homes and cars and put the kids through school and then -- after a few vacations, home renovations, and transmission overhauls -- we finally get serious about saving for the future.

And what does that leave us with in retirement? Not nearly enough.

The 89% shortfall
The average retirement-age American today can cover just 11% of their basic living needs from their personal savings, according to the Employee Benefits Research Institute.

Filling in the gaps of the 89% shortfall are checks from Social Security (41%), defined-benefit pension plans (24%), and part-time work (24%). And that brings the average yearly "salary" of median income retirees to $34,000 -- a figure that takes the shine right out of the golden years. If Social Security lowers its payout or pension plans continue to cut back, your retirement take-home dollars may not even amount to that.

So how much should you really save?
If age 25 is but a distant memory, get ready to get buckle down and save more. Lots more.

A recent study in the Journal of Financial Planning revealed that a 45-year-old will have to sock away twice as much as a 25-year-old to enjoy the same lifestyle in retirement. Wait until age 55 and you're looking at some major belt-tightening -- saving three times as much per paycheck as the young whippersnapper in the next cubicle. Oof.

Three ways to reverse the hurt
You don't have to scale back to ramen noodles and take in renters to turn your future around. Here are three ways to play catch-up quickly:

1. Get your boss to kick in more. Contributing to an employer-sponsored 401(k) and 403(b) plans with matching offers an instant savings boost. A 25% match (the equivalent of two-year market-beating returns just for showing up) turns your $5,000 contribution into $6,250. If you're 50 or older take advantage of yet another break -- a tax break -- via the catch-up contingency, which lets you sock away as much as $20,500 in pre-tax dollars.

2. Get paid by Mr. Market. Don't quit the stock market once you hang up your suit and tie. Give the money you don't need in the next five to 10 years room to run without risking it all on high-fliers. Consider this oft-overlooked footnote about the stock market's historical 10% annual return: 6% comes from capital appreciation and 4% from gains from dividends. Late savers can improve their lot with less risk with investments carrying above-average dividend yields. That list includes JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  ) , Nicor (NYSE: GAS  ) , Wachovia (NYSE: WB  ) , Comerica (NYSE: CMA  ) , and Merck (NYSE: MRK  ) , with dividend yields of 3.0%, 4.2%, 4.1%, 4.1%, and 3.0%, respectively -- all of which are greater than the 1.6% S&P 500 yield. What's more, each one of these companies has a track record for not just sustaining, but raising its dividend -- meaning your payouts should keep up with the rate of inflation. (Here are more dividend stocks to fuel your portfolio.)

3. Make the most of all your assets. You can work in retirement or you can make your assets do more of the heavy lifting. Annuities and reverse mortgages -- two strategies regularly covered by my colleague Robert Brokamp at his Motley Fool Rule Your Retirement service-- can be lifesavers to cash-strapped retirees. But they are complex vehicles and best not entered into lightly. In this month's Rule Your Retirement issue, Robert takes real estate down to the studs to show you how to incorporate it into your retirement plan.

Start ruling your future right now
Avoid critical miscalculations and rules-of-thumb that fall short and get help making the most of what time and money you've got. If you'd like to learn more about how to maximize your retirement savings, check out Rule Your Retirementfree for 30 days.

But even if you don't take a look at the service, I encourage you to get started with these three steps. The sooner you get going, the sooner you'll be on the right track.

Dayana Yochim was no child savings prodigy, but she's made a valiant effort to overcome her youthful discretionary overspending. She holds none of the companies mentioned in this article in her portfolio -- a fess-up required by the Fool's disclosure policy. JPMorgan is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation.


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