I see stories like this all the time -- from colleagues, in emails, and in our 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. None. They have not 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 they put in a minimal contribution and never followed up on it. And 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, 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 -- the late bloomers, if you will.

Retiree role models
Take Marika and Howard Stone. After getting a taste of retirement, they decided to go back to work for fun, tackling projects that caught their interest. The Stones 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 take Billy and Akaisha Kaderli, who at age 38 retired to travel the world on just $20,000 a year. Sure, they may have retired early, but they're also living on much less than the average family does, and their advice on how to live frugally is invaluable for late bloomers trying to get back up to speed.

Their recommendations? 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.

But how about those folks who didn't start planning ahead like the Stones or the Kaderlis? What about the rest of America, for crying out loud?

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 -- just a mere decade away!

Granted, that's a big step, and one that might be simply unattainable for many people. But, as Paul 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," he said 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. Launch 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). And 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 for compounding to take place, you'll still be ahead of where you were -- and a few steps closer to where you want to be.

However, the closer you get to your anticipated retirement, the more conservative you'll want to be with these investments. A fixed-income fund, such as Vanguard High-Yield Corporate (FUND:VWEHX) (which, along with Treasury notes, holds debt in companies such as Xerox (NYSE:XRX) and Qwest (NYSE:Q)), can be a good choice, as well as an index fund such as the Vanguard Total Stock Market (FUND:VTSMX), which holds everything from pharmaceutical giant Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) to consumer behemoth Altria (NYSE:MO) to financial goliath Citigroup (NYSE:C).

The Foolish bottom line
Robert Brokamp offers key tips like these in every issue of Rule Your Retirement. Click here for a free trial. The truth is, even the financially challenged husband and wife I mentioned at the beginning of the article can live well in retirement -- if they reprioritize. With hard work and a retooled mindset, even the latest bloomers can bask in the glory of a rosy retirement.

Hope Nelson-Pope is online coordinating editor at The Motley Fool. She does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned here. Pfizer is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation; Vanguard High-Yield Corporate is a Champion Funds selection. The Fool'sdisclosure policywill never retire.