Many Americans have a certain vision about what their retirement will look like: Some picture a life spent pursuing their passions and hobbies. Others hope to travel, or spend more time with family. For some, the "what comes next" part is more vague -- the aspect they're looking forward to is that day when they're finally able to put the daily grind behind them.

The problem -- and it's a big one -- is that retirement costs money. In fact, the average American senior citizen spends between $36,000 and $48,000 a year, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. That's a major problem when you consider that the average American only receives an average of $1,408 per month -- $16,896 per year -- in Social Security.

Basically, if you want to retire and maintain some semblance of your current standard of living, you'll need to save and invest for years beforehand to pay for it. That's going to be a problem imminently for many Baby Boomers: On average, people born between 1944 and 1964 report that their savings levels are well below what's recommended, according to a new survey conducted by Clever, a website that helps people buy and sell homes.

A person puts money in a piggy bank.

If you don't have enough saved, now is the time to take steps to fix that. Image source: Getty Images.

How bad is it?

The good news is that the Boomers surveyed -- who were an average age of 62 -- reported having an average of $136,779 in savings. That's a tidy sum, but it's well short of what most of us will need in order to retire comfortably.

Survey respondents reported an average income of $57,000 a year, and Clever cited a Fidelity report which asserted that to be "on track" to retire at 67, people should have about 8 times their salary saved by the time they're 60.

Of course, there's no single definitive answer to the question of how much an individual will need to have socked away before retirement: As the J.P. Morgan data cited in this Motley Fool story makes clear, we should think of it less as one number and more as a range that depends heavily on what your pre-retirement lifestyle looked like.

That said, Fidelity's 8 times earnings multiple by the time you hit 60 as a general goal is in line with the more personalized range suggested by J.P. Morgan.

But whether you use an 8 times multiple or one that's somewhat smaller, that $136,779 average savings figure combines with the $57,000 average income to result in a multiple of just 2.4, which by any standard puts folks well behind the curve in terms of being able to retire on schedule and maintain their standard of living.

That's not the only problem reported by the survey respondents (who said they hope to retire at an average age of 68). 

  • 31% said they have no emergency fund.
  • 40% reported still having credit card debt.

The lack of an emergency fund can put retirement plans in jeopardy because a major unexpected expense or job loss could force someone to have to dip into their already scant retirement savings. And credit card debt is simply an anchor that drags on one's finances and makes it harder to save money for any purpose.

What can Baby Boomers do?

Ideally, Boomers who have fallen behind on their retirement savings would immediately evaluate their situations and make some lifestyle changes: Cut their expenses, find ways to earn more money, and start investing much more in tax-advantaged retirement accounts (and, once those are maxed out, in brokerage accounts). The reality, however, is that if you're 60 and only have saved about 25% of what you'll need to retire, in addition to doing those things, you probably need to adjust your expectations too.

Assess what you'd like your retirement to look like, and think about what parts of that picture are negotiable. Could you downsize your expenses in a meaningful way? Will you be able to move someplace with a lower cost of living?

Regardless of your age, and no matter how much ground you need to make up in the marathon race toward retirement, the time to start picking up the pace is now.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.