Frightened

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We all know that Americans fear Social Security benefit cuts, and rightfully so: Social Security is currently on an unsustainable path that will lead to the Trust Fund's being depleted by 2034, according to current estimates. That would lead to a 25% or so benefit cut for retirees to keep the program operating.

Scary.

Yet it turns out there's something that more Americans fear could damage their retirement: healthcare costs. Respondents to a recent Prudential survey were more likely to fear healthcare costs in retirement than any other issue -- including even Social Security changes.

And who can blame them?

For many Americans, healthcare spending in retirement is a great big unknown. It's nearly impossible for Americans to forecast their health (and therefore their health expenditures) 20, 30, or 40 years in the future.

Earlier this year, Fidelity released its estimates for what the average 65-year-old married couple could expect to spend on medical expenses and long-term care in retirement. And while the numbers are a helpful start to planning for healthcare expenses in retirement -- $260,000, and $130,000, respectively, by the way -- they only apply to couples who are 65 years old this year. Next year they'll be different. They are also only averages, so your mileage may vary. And don't forget, they're predictions -- or, put another way, well-educated guesses. And that all assumes that Medicare doesn't wildly change in the future.

Control what you can

That uncertainty is awful, particularly because there's nothing you can do about it right now except work off of the averages provided by folks like Fidelity and try to adjust them to your life circumstances.

But here's what you can do: save aggressively. The margin of safety you provide yourself could make a big difference.

The easiest way to boost your savings rate is to increase your 401(k) deferral. The 401(k) is the primary workplace retirement plan, and it comes loaded with extra goodies. Many employers provide a match, which is free money given to you to incentivize your saving for retirement. Make sure that at the very least, you are maximizing the match. But don't stop there -- you can sock away up to $18,000 in your 401(k) in 2017, so even if you're maximizing the match, consider increasing your savings rate by a couple of percentage points. After all, it's a tax deduction now, and that money will grow tax-free until you withdraw it in retirement.

You also have the option of opening and funding an IRA, and you can put up to $5,500 (or for some people $6,500) in it each year. IRAs provide similar tax breaks to 401(k)s (although they come with income limits attached), but they also have a key advantage: In most cases, people have a great deal more investment choice in their IRAs than in a 401(k) plan. Most 401(k) plans are restricted to a handful of funds, whereas investors can buy funds, individual stocks and bonds, options, and all sorts of other investments in their IRAs.

One key assumption

Of course, I assumed in the section above that you aren't carrying any high-interest debt and have an emergency fund set aside. If you carry a balance on your credit card, get it paid off first. And it's good to have some money set aside for an emergency, too -- the most common advice you'll see out there is four to six months' worth of expenses. Given that most American households report that they would struggle to cover a sudden $1,000 bill, you aren't alone if you're struggling to put even a basic emergency fund together.

But assuming you're good to go from a short-term savings perspective, your best opportunity is to use the magic of compounding to build a massive retirement portfolio and give yourself lots of margin for error. Your retirement is going to require a lot of money -- so getting your financial house in order today will enable you to better enjoy it.

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