Retirement is billed as a much-deserved rest, a reward for many years of hard work. The sad truth, however, is that most seniors will never realize this dream. Average Americans aged 56 to 61 have only saved $163,577 in their 401(k)s, according to an Economic Policy Institute study. Many experts recommend at least $1 million in savings in the post-workforce years, and you can't afford to waste time.

See whether any of the factors below might be holding you back.

1. Credit card debt

Living with credit card debt usually means living with accruing interest, which isn't doing you any favors. Let's say you're holding on to a $15,654 balance -- the U.S. average among cardholders who carry debt, according to a 2017 NerdWallet study. Assuming you make minimum payments with 15% APR attached, it'll take you 14 long years to eliminate the debt. Worse yet, you'll swallow $10,493.74 in interest payments along the way.

There's no reason to spend years fighting overwhelming balances, and there are ways to overcome them. First, call your credit issuer and ask them to lower your interest rate. They aren't legally required to do it, but they might if you express a willingness to get your debt under control. Next, map out an aggressive payment plan that allows you to pay off a chunk of the principal and interest each month. Bankrate's credit calculator can help you plan based on the numbers and your desired time goals.

credit cards

Image source: Getty Images.

In the meantime, keep yourself in check by avoiding new charges until your balance is paid off. Afterward, use credit as a tool, rather than a bottomless bank account. Assign expenses to each of your credit cards, e.g., gas and groceries for card A, clothing and entertainment for card B, and so on. Pay off your balances at the end of the month to rack up rewards and avoid interest and late fees. 

2. Saving for your kid's college tuition

Junior's college education is important, but it shouldn't overshadow your retirement savings for one important reason: inevitability. There are many ways to fund a college education, including grants, scholarships, work-study programs, and federal student loans. Meanwhile, there's no such thing as a retirement scholarship or a retirement loan; you have to rely on your own savings to get by. Further, if need be, your child can take a break from schooling or spend some time at a lower-cost institution like a community college. You don't have that luxury when it comes to retirement: Eventually, you will have to leave the workforce, and you will need independent savings to make ends meet.

If you can comfortably set aside enough money to fund your kid's education and your retirement, then that's wonderful. However, a long and comfortable retirement can be shockingly expensive. Let's say a 65-year-old couple retiring this year wants to maintain their household income of $75,000 for 25 years. How much would they need to save? Not accounting for inflation, replacing 100% of their income would require $2.5 million in savings, and Social Security benefits won't do much to temper the cost. According to Bankrate's Social Security calculator, the same couple would only receive $20,265 a year in retirement benefits -- a mere 27% of their pre-retirement income. 

Do the math to estimate how much you'll need for retirement, and budget for your child's education only after your goals are met. A 529 plan is a good place to accrue tax-advantaged savings for college expenses.

3. Paying off fixed debts too quickly

Debt is an emotional topic. One school of thought maintains that paying off fixed balances early is the best way to avoid long-term interest and stress. But there are two sides to every coin.

Let's say you decide to pay off the remaining $6,000 of your student loan in a lump sum, rather than paying it off over five years. The federal loan has a fixed interest rate of 3.76%, which means that you'd save $591 in interest. That said, stashing $6,000 in an aggressively managed 401(k) will earn $480 in the first year, assuming an 8% return. And your investment would grow to $8,816 within five years at that same growth rate, which more than covers what you'll lose in student loan interest.

Don't allow emotion to drive your investment decisions. Take a breath and crunch the numbers before tackling debt instead of upping your savings rate.

4. Missed opportunities

"Unrealistic optimism" is a cognitive disposition that leads people to believe that good things are more likely to happen to them than to others, and bad things are less likely to occur. This brand of blind positivity can be disastrous when it comes to financial planning -- and it's all too common.

Americans haven't saved nearly enough for retirement, and yet, 82% admit to regularly wasting money, according to a survey by template provider Hloom. Imagine the possibilities if you were able to channel your wastefulness into 401(k) savings. As you can see from the table below, investing as little as $150 a month can add up to significant savings. 

Investment Style Average Annual Return Balance After 35 Years of $150 Monthly Investments
Conservative (bonds) 2% $90,290
Somewhat conservative (mostly bonds and some stocks) 4% $133,166
Somewhat aggressive (mostly stocks and some bonds) 6% $201,736
Aggressive (almost entirely stocks) 8% $312,388

Calculations by author. 

Mindfulness and careful planning are often all that stand between you and a wealthy retirement. Don't miss an opportunity to safeguard your lifestyle in the future.