When it comes to money matters, we all have our share of regrets. Some people wish they hadn't taken on quite so much student debt. Others lament taking on too much house and struggling with their bills as a result. But if there's one mistake Americans are really bemoaning, it's not saving for retirement early enough. That's the latest from a Bankrate survey, which found that while workers on a whole are in bad shape retirement-wise, an estimated 40% of older employees don't have any retirement savings at all.

If you're looking to retire comfortably, you should know that Social Security alone won't pay your bills. Rather, you'll need savings of your own to maintain a reasonable standard of living. So no matter where you are in your career, it's time to start saving as much as you can, as soon as you can. Otherwise, there's a good chance you'll be kicking yourself down the line.

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The importance of saving early

If you're fairly young, you may be wondering what the rush is to save for retirement. After all, you have your whole career ahead of you. But it's this line of thinking that's already gotten so many older workers into trouble. Remember, while your income might go up as you progress in your career, thereby opening the door to more savings opportunities, your expenses are likely to follow suit. Therefore, if you think your 20s or 30s are a bad time to start building a nest egg, what with your nagging student loan and credit card payments, just wait until your 40s and 50s, when mortgage costs, home repairs, and college tuition for your own kids start eating up a large chunk of your income.

The point here is that there's really no period of life during which saving for retirement will be easy, so rather than keep putting it off, just decide that you're willing to make some sacrifices in exchange for a financially stable future. And if you start early enough, those sacrifices don't have to be huge.

Imagine you're 30 years old with the intention of retiring at age 67. If you commit to saving $300 a month during that time, and you invest your savings at an average annual 7% return, which is actually a bit below the stock market's average, by the time you leave the workforce, you'll be sitting on $577,000, which is far more than what the typical worker has saved today. But watch what happens when you wait 10 years to start saving. Suddenly, you'll need to sock away $650 per month to reach that same total, because you'll be giving your money less time to grow. And $650 is a lot harder to swing than $300.

To further illustrate the importance of saving for retirement as early in your career as possible, check out the following table, which shows how a series of relatively small contributions can make a major difference over time:

Monthly Savings Amount

Total Accumulated Over 45 Years (Assumes a 7% Average Annual Return)

$50

$171,000

$100

$343,000

$200

$686,000

$300

$1.03 million

$400

$1.37 million

$500

$1.7 million

TABLE AND CALCULATIONS BY AUTHOR.

Thanks to the power of compounding, giving yourself a lengthy savings window can produce some serious growth. But if you wait too long to start saving, you'll only have two choices: part with a lot more money each month, or retire with less. Neither is ideal.

Of course, this doesn't mean all is lost if you're older and don't have much money in your retirement plan. If you're willing to ramp up your contributions and perhaps extend your career to work a bit longer, you can catch up to a certain degree. Case in point: Socking away $1,000 a month for 10 years will leave you with $166,000 to work with in retirement, assuming that same 7% average annual return. Is that a tremendous sum? Not really, given that your retirement might easily last 20 years or longer. But it's better than retiring with little to no money.

While you can't go back in time and change your savings habits, you can take steps to put away as much money as possible for the remainder of your career, however long that happens to be. And if you're still fairly young with several decades ahead of you, seize the opportunity to amass a solid level of wealth in time for your golden years. You'll be thankful you did.

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