The average American is nowhere near ready for retirement.

Forty-six percent of baby boomers have nothing at all saved for retirement, according to a study from the Insured Retirement Institute, and 81% of Americans don't even know how much they need to save to retire comfortably, researchers from Merrill Lynch found.

If you're one of those people, you're far from alone. But even if you're behind on your retirement savings, that doesn't mean you can't catch up. In fact, it may be far easier than you had imagined to boost your savings dramatically.

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Supercharging your savings

You don't need to win the lottery or earn a massive raise to save enough to retire comfortably. Although it may seem like an impossible challenge, according to a recent study from Morningstar, it's not as difficult as you may think.

Researchers used the Fed's 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances data to analyze 3,916 households across the country, then they analyzed eight different lifestyle changes people could make that could increase their chances at living a comfortable retirement. In total, they ran roughly 400 million simulations to determine which of those changes were the most effective in helping people boost their savings significantly.

The researchers found that the two things that gave workers the best chance at retirement success were delaying Social Security benefits until at least age 67 and contributing 6% of their salary to their retirement fund. Just making those two changes boosted households' chances at having enough retirement income from 25.6% to 71.2%, researchers found. 

Of course, these two actions won't guarantee that you will have enough money in retirement, because every situation is different. But delaying Social Security benefits and increasing your retirement contributions even slightly can result in significant gains over time, which will give you a much better shot at being able to enjoy a comfortable retirement.

Why small changes can amount to significant gains

It's understandable to want to claim Social Security benefits as early as possible to start taking advantage of that extra cash, but by instead delaying benefits by just a few years, you can receive even bigger checks.

The earliest you can start receiving Social Security retirement benefits is age 62, but if you file before you reach your full retirement age (FRA), or the age at which you'll receive 100% of the benefits you're entitled to, your benefits will be reduced by up to 30%.

Also, thanks to the power of compound interest, if you boost your retirement contributions by even a couple thousand dollars per year, it can amount to tens of thousands of dollars over time.

To see just how much more you could save by making these two simple changes, let's look at a hypothetical example. Let's say you're 45 years old with $40,000 stashed in your retirement fund. You're earning a salary of $50,000 per year, and you're currently contributing 3% of that ($1,500) to your 401(k). Let's also say your employer matches that contribution, so in total you're saving $3,000 per year. If you increase your yearly contributions to 6% of your salary, you're now contributing $3,000 per year plus the additional $1,500 from your employer, bringing your total to $4,500 per year. Assuming you earn a 7% annual return on your investments, here's what your total savings would look like if you continued contributing 3% of your salary versus if you started contributing 6%:

Age Contributing 3% of Your Salary ($3,000/year) Contributing 6% of Your Salary ($4,500/year)
45 (Today) $40,000 $40,000
50 $74,562 $83,792
55 $123,037 $145,212
60 $191,025 $231,358
65 $286,383 $352,181 

So while an extra $1,500 per year (or $125 per month) may not seem like a dramatic change, it could amount to more than $65,000 over 20 years.

When you then consider the boost you'll receive in Social Security benefits by waiting a few years to file, you'll have an even bigger retirement cushion. Say you're 45 years old, your full retirement age is 67, and you're entitled to a base benefit of $1,300 per month (meaning that's how much you'll receive if you file at your FRA). If you claim early at 62, your benefits will be cut by 30%, leaving you with $910 per month (or $10,920 per year). Here's how much you could be missing out on by claiming early rather than waiting until 67 to claim:

Age Lifetime Benefits When Claiming at 62 Lifetime Benefits When Claiming at 67
62 $10,920 $0
67 $54,600 $15,600
70 $87,360 $46,800
75 $141,960 $124,800
80 $196,560 $202,800
85 $251,160 $280,800

Although you would miss out on benefits for a few years, the bigger checks could net you tens of thousands of dollars more in lifetime benefits, assuming you live to your mid-80s. (For context, the current life expectancy for a 65-year-old is about 85.)

One of the biggest advantages of waiting to claim Social Security benefits is that you'll receive bigger checks for life. So if your personal savings run dry and you're living on Social Security alone, that extra money can help cover the bills. Especially as life expectancies continue to climb (one in four people turning 65 today can expect to live past age 90, according to the Social Security Administration), it's important to consider what you'll do if you run out of savings as you age.

If you're behind on your savings, it's easy to think there's no way you can catch up. But it's never too late to start saving, and sometimes it's easier than you think to adjust your strategy and get back on track.

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