On American Ninja Warrior, competitors tackle a series of obstacles that challenge their physical strength and problem-solving skills. Rest assured, those obstacles are vastly more difficult to overcome than whatever's preventing you from saving for retirement.

A 2019 Schwab survey on retirement saving asked 1,000 American workers about the biggest challenges they face when saving for retirement. Thirty-seven percent of these savers pointed to unexpected expenses as a primary obstacle to retirement saving. Another 31% said paying off credit card debt was their biggest challenge, while 30% admitted they couldn't afford to save much after paying their monthly bills. All of these respondents, aged 25 to 70, had access to a workplace 401(k) and were contributing on some level.

If any of this sounds familiar, at least you know you're not alone. Let's talk about strategies for combatting these obstacles, so you can get your retirement savings back on track.

1. Unexpected expenses

There are two types of surprise expenses that can trip you up. One is the emergency expense that's totally unexpected. A car accident, roof leak, or sudden health issue falls into this category. Unless you are very unlucky, these things happen only occasionally. The second surprise expense is the off-cycle bill. These are things like car insurance, property taxes, life insurance, and even vacations -- they deserve a spot in your budget, but you don't pay for them monthly. Off-cycle bills may catch you off-guard, but they shouldn't be unexpected in the way a car wreck would be.

If you are perpetually dealing with unexpected expenses, is it because you're reaching into your emergency fund to cover off-cycle bills? Continually depleting and replenishing your cash savings can feel like you're never on solid ground financially. Worse, you may not be leaving enough to cover yourself if something really bad happens.

Here's the solution. Go through bank statements -- checking, savings, and credit card accounts -- for the last 12 months. Add up your recurring, off-cycle bills for the year, and divide the total by 12. Your monthly cash savings deposit should be this amount plus 5% of your income. And then, keep saving until the balance is enough to cover one year's worth of those off-cycle bills, plus three months of your living expenses. It'll take some time to get there, but stick with it and you'll no longer be at the mercy of the unexpected.

2. Paying off credit card debt

Mathematically, it's easy to argue that you should pay off credit card debt before you save. You're probably paying about 17% interest on your credit card, while your invested savings may earn 6% or 7%. But prioritizing debt paydown often works against you. Bringing those debt balances down to zero can drag out for months and years. And if you don't save at all during that time, it's very hard to catch up. That's because a shorter savings timeline doesn't benefit as much from compound earnings -- which is when your earnings as well as your contributions are producing returns.

Unfortunately, there's no formula to determine the best way to balance debt payoff with saving for retirement. Weigh these factors to settle on your strategy:

  • Employer-matching contributions: If your employer offers matching contributions in your 401(k), save enough to get the maximum company match. That's free money and it can help offset the interest charges you're incurring on your credit card debt.
  • Penalty interest rates: If you've already missed payments, your credit card company has probably raised your rate in response. Penalty rates on credit cards can be as high as 30%. That will strangle you financially if you don't pay it off fast. Put a minimum amount -- even if it's $50 a paycheck -- into your 401(k) and focus your efforts on getting rid of that debt.
  • Cash interest rates: Cash advances on your credit card carry a higher interest rate than purchases. Worse, most credit cards will apply your monthly payments to the lower-rate debt first. That generally means you're stuck with that higher cash rate for much longer than you want to be. Prioritize paying off this card, and don't take any more cash advances.

3. Having money left after the bills

If your living expenses consume all of your income, a perspective change is in order. Today, you are spending first and saving what's left -- which is little or nothing. Instead, try saving first and then spending. A budget can help you make this work.

Write down your take-home pay on a piece of paper. Reduce that number by 15% to account for your new retirement plan contributions. Now build a budget around what's left. You'll account for your required expenses first, but your budget also has to leave room for discretionary expenses -- otherwise you won't stick to it.

On the first pass, you may conclude there's no way to get by while saving 15% of your income. But dig deeper. Most of us have savings opportunities hiding somewhere. Could you negotiate lower rates on insurance, cable, phone, and internet? Or better yet, ditch the cable and landline entirely. That alone could turn up hundreds each month. You could get more efficient about your food expenses, by cooking at home and shopping from the market's sale flyer. Or maybe you can trim your monthly gas expense by using an app like Gas Buddy or Gas Guru to find the cheapest gas prices. Even switching to a fee-free credit card with a higher cashback rate can create some budget breathing room.

Get back on track

The good news is, you don't have to be a ninja or a warrior to trim your spending and start saving for retirement. You do have to be creative, motivated, and committed. But the rewards will be waiting for you when it's time to leave the workforce. You won't win a trophy, but you will win financial security -- and that's far more valuable.