You may be a responsible pre-retiree, dutifully socking away significant portions of each paycheck in retirement plans such as 401(k) accounts. Still, despite this, you have probably saved less than you think -- less than you see listed on your statements.

If you're scratching your head now, read on.

A reader named Tony wrote in to urge me to make this important point: Many people are not considering the impact of taxes when they save for retirement. Specifically, he said: "In reading your piece on retirement (and many other similar pieces), I'm struck how writers shy away from pointing out that most 'savings' are now in 401(k)'s or equivalents and the 'savings' are TAXABLE before they can be used. This means that folks have 15% to 30% less money to live on than they think!!"

Touche, Tony. This is a very good point. It may even be a little more gruesome than you realized.

Why you have less
For example, note that as your money grows in a 401(k) account, invested in stocks and funds that appreciate over time, you're accumulating capital gains. In a normal, non-tax-preferred brokerage account, such gains (when realized) would be subject to capital gains taxes, which are 15% now. But with 401(k) accounts, the money you ultimately withdraw in retirement is taxed as ordinary income -- which generally bears a higher tax rate of up to around 35%.

It's not quite as unfair as it appears, though -- because remember, the money you invested in the first place was never taxed. (In your regular brokerage account, you're investing with post-tax money.) And despite the tax hit (which may be at a rate closer to 25% or less -- since deductions and credits get applied to your overall income tax), 401(k) plans and other retirement tools are usually still well worth it. Without them, many of us would have very little to count on come retirement.

One last thing to remember is that tax laws and rates change over time. So today's disparities may be smaller -- or larger -- in the future, when you start withdrawing funds for retirement.

So ...
So what should you do now? Well, do keep it in mind when you're caressing your nest egg. Remember that it will be a bit slimmer before you can start living off it. Perhaps aim to save and accumulate even more.

We'd love to help. The retirement guidance source that I refer to most often is Robert Brokamp's Rule Your Retirement newsletter. You can, and should, try it for free for a whole month. Doing so will allow you to peek at all the past issues, which feature a host of "Success Stories," profiling people who retired early and who share their strategies.

Here's a sampling of some very useful articles from past issues:

  • In the December 2006 issue, Robert profiled successful money manager Whitney Tilson and offered some stocks that Tilson recommends.
  • In the January 2006 issue, Robert tackled asset allocation and explained how we can "avoid Uncle Sam's grabby hands." He listed a host of popular investments, such as bonds and dividend-paying stocks, in order of tax efficiency.
  • In the May 2005 issue, readers were taught how to withdraw money prudently in retirement, in order to make it last.

These articles may also be of interest:

So go ahead and grab that free 30-day trial of Rule Your Retirement -- I think you'll like what you see. And if not, you'll have lost nothing.

Here's to a happier portfolio! (And hey -- consider forwarding this article to anyone whose financial future you care about. Just click on the "Email this Page" link near the top or bottom of the page.)

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Longtime Fool contributorSelena Maranjianowns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, Microsoft, McDonald's and Wal-Mart. Berkshire Hathaway and Microsoft areMotley Fool Inside Valuerecommendations.