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Though everyone's path to retirement is different, we all share a common goal of being able to cross the retirement "finish line" on our own terms. According to a recently released study from financial services provider TIAA, conducted by KRC Research, it would appear that things are moving in the right direction for Americans as a whole.

Your retirement expectations need a reality check

The 2016 TIAA Lifetime Income Survey questioned 1,000 adults aged 18 and up in June about their ability to turn their retirement savings into income during their golden years, as well as to get a general feel for their retirement preparedness. The findings showed that 58% of respondents feel confident about turning their retirement savings into income once they stop working. Even more encouraging, just 35% of those surveyed feared running out of money during retirement. Remember, Americans are living longer than ever, which means retirement nest eggs need to account for lengthening life expectancies.

However, a number of additional responses given during the survey suggest that Americans' retirement expectations could be pretty far from reality.

For example, though just 35% of respondents were worried about running out of money during retirement, only 46% knew how much they had saved in their retirement accounts. Likewise, though 58% feel confident about turning their retirement savings into monthly income, just 35% knew how much monthly income they'd have in retirement.

Here are a handful of additional alarming statistics that were noted in TIAA's Lifetime Income Survey:

  • A whopping 41% of those surveyed were saving 10% or less of their annual income toward retirement. This is a bit worrisome, as financial advisors typically suggest that Americans target savings of between 10% and 15% of their annual income.
  • More than a quarter (28%) of those surveyed aren't saving anything toward their retirement, yet only 47% of these non-savers are worried that they won't have enough money during retirement.
  • Nearly half of all respondents (49%) opined that their retirement plans' No. 1 goal should be to supply monthly income during retirement, yet 41% of respondents were clueless as to whether or not their current plan provided an option for lifetime income (such as an annuity).
  • Close to two-thirds (63%) of respondents estimated that they'll need 75% or less of their current income in order to live comfortably during retirement. However, most financial advisors recommend that individuals aim to replace between 70% and 100% of their pre-retirement income.

There are clearly some discrepancies between Americans' retirement expectations and the reality they'll face.

What you should be doing

The good news is that many of the shortcomings highlighted by TIAA's survey are pretty easy to correct. However, it'll take real thought and effort by Americans to cast aside their false retirement hopes and replace them with a plan that puts individuals and couples on solid financial footing.

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Stick to a budget

All Americans should start this process by creating and sticking to a monthly budget, regardless of whether you're a young worker or heading into retirement very soon. A 2013 Gallup poll found that just 32% of Americans are working with a detailed monthly budget, which makes it really hard for people to understand their cash flow and subsequently adjust their savings habits. With a detailed budget in place you'll be able to make educated decisions about how much to save, and you'll also be able to formulate a game plan to increase or decrease how much you save on a monthly basis.

There are two keys to working with a successful budget. The first is to set S.M.A.R.T. goals during your working years. The "SMART" acronym stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-Based

Ensuring that your goals are "SMART" allows you to measure your progress and make adjustments as needed.

The second key to a successful budget is anticipating your retirement needs. Occasionally, seniors are caught off guard by a reduction in monthly income once they retire and stop receiving working wages, causing them to burn through their nest egg at a faster pace than they'd like. The solution is to prepare a retirement budget months, or preferably years, in advance of your actual retirement, and then ease yourself into your new budget. The beauty of this is you'll suffer no income shock if you do earn less on a monthly basis during retirement.

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Make use of tax-advantaged retirement plans

Another key to a financially secure retirement is to have multiple channels of retirement income.

Based on TIAA's findings, a majority of respondents, regardless of age, are counting on Social Security to be a source of income during retirement. And, as you probably guessed, baby boomers (84%) were substantially more likely to suggest that Social Security will play a role in their monthly retirement income than millennials (61%).

What was disappointing about TIAA's findings is that far fewer respondents expect to rely on withdrawals from retirement accounts (e.g., 401(k)s or IRAs) during their golden years. Just 49% of boomers, 60% of Generation X, and 62% of millennials expect to have a retirement account from which to draw monthly income during retirement. This is simply not good enough, given the tremendous money-saving value of tax-advantaged retirement accounts.

Three retirement vehicles in particular could help people bridge the current gap between retirement expectations and reality.

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For some people, the answer could entail tax-deferred retirement plans, such as an employer-sponsored 401(k) or a traditional IRA. These two plans can help reduce your current-year tax liability, as they're funded with pre-tax dollars. In return, you'll owe ordinary income tax once you begin making withdrawals during retirement.

Traditional IRAs allow for a maximum contribution of $5,500 in 2016 for those aged 49 and under, while those aged 50 and up can add an additional $1,000 "catch-up" contribution for a total of $6,500.

A 401(k) could be an even more attractive option, if your employer offers one. The contribution and catch-up limits are $18,000 and $24,000, respectively, and if your employer matches your contributions, then that's free money.

A third option is to consider a Roth IRA. Roth IRAs are funded with after-tax dollars and are thus free and clear of being taxed over the life of the account (as long as no unqualified withdrawals are made). The contribution limits are the same as a traditional IRA's.

The point is that contributions made to any, or all, of these tax-advantaged plans over the long term could set you up for a comfortable retirement.

Review early and often

The final step is to ensure that you're reviewing your financial progress early and often.

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From the day you begin saving for retirement onward, you should conduct a regular review of your financial progress -- perhaps once or twice a year. If you don't feel comfortable with your own level of financial knowledge, then consider consulting with a family member, a friend, or even a personal financial advisor. Remember: There's no shame in getting second opinions, because other people may be able to point out ideas you haven't even thought of. However, always keep in mind that you remain in control of your financial destiny, even if you're using a financial advisor. Remaining an active participant in your finances is a must.

A comfortable retirement is achievable, but it will take some effort and proactive steps to make it happen.