If your retirement piggy bank is looking a little empty, you're not alone. Nineteen percent of Americans don't save any of their annual income, according to a survey from Bankrate, and a full 65% said they save 10% of their wages or less.

It's no surprise, then, that a third of Americans are quickly approaching retirement with less than $5,000 in their retirement fund, according to Northwestern Mutual's 2018 Planning & Progress Study.

Jar of coins labeled "retirement" sitting next to alarm clock

Image source: Getty Images.

While numbers like these can make the future look bleak for those saving for retirement, a recent survey from Gallup shows that retirement might actually be easier than many people think -- even for those who are struggling to save.

The future looks (a little) brighter

Considering workers' lack of savings, it's no wonder that many Americans are concerned about what retirement will look like (or whether they'll ever be able to retire at all). Nearly half (46%) of participants in a 2018 Gallup survey who were not yet retired said they don't think they'll be financially comfortable in retirement.

But when researchers polled people who were already retired and asked about their financial situation, 78% said they did, in fact, have enough money to live comfortably.

So what's the root of the disconnect? There are a few potential answers. First, those who are already retired might have access to a pension plan, which few of today's workers will have. Also, many younger workers might be worried about Social Security, realizing that they might need to save more on their own if they can't depend on benefits to cover most of their financial needs in the future. In addition, healthcare costs continue to skyrocket, which can be concerning to younger workers, who will need to boost their savings to cover these increasing expenses.

While that might sound like bad news for those who are not yet retired, there's good news, too. The researchers not only polled people who were years away from retirement but also interviewed retirees to see what their financial situations looked like. In 2002, only 56% of those 55 to 64 said they thought they would have enough savings to live comfortably during retirement. But in 2018, 77% of those 65 to 80 said they actually did have enough to be comfortable.

In other words, many workers are pessimistic about the future only to find that it's not quite as dark as they had imagined.

What this means for you

This doesn't mean that you can throw your retirement plan out the window and assume everything will be just fine. It's still important to save as much as you can, and it will take more than a couple of thousand dollars to ensure a comfortable retirement. But it's not as difficult as you might think to save more before you retire.

If you have access to a 401(k), that's a great place to start -- especially if your employer offers matching contributions. And if you start early enough, you won't need to make enormous contributions to see significant gains down the road.

For example, say you're 40, you have $5,000 in retirement savings, and you're currently contributing $150 per month (or $1,800 per year) to your 401(k). Your employer matches 100% of your contributions up to 3% of your salary, so if you're earning, say, $50,000 per year, that amounts to $1,500 and brings your total annual contributions to $3,300. Assuming your investments are earning an annual rate of return of around 7%, here's what your savings would look like over time:

Age Total Savings
40 $5,000
45 $27,319
50 $58,622
55 $102,526
60 $164,103
65 $250,469 

Chart by author.

To figure out just how much of that $250,000 you'll be able to access every year during retirement, you can use the 4% rule -- which says that you can withdraw 4% of your savings during the first year of retirement, then adjust that amount for inflation each following year.

In this scenario, 4% of $250,469 is around $10,018 -- meaning that if you retire at 65, that's how much you'd withdraw that first year. That might not sound like much, but keep in mind you'll also likely be entitled to Social Security benefits, which can help bridge the gap between what you have saved and what you'll need to cover all your expenses.

It's tough to predict exactly how much you'll receive in benefits, but you can get a rough estimate by visiting the Social Security Administration's website. In this example, by inputting a salary of $50,000 and a target retirement date of January 2043 (when you would turn 65), you'll likely be receiving around $1,564 per month in benefits in today's dollars -- or around $18,768 per year.

Add that to the $10,018 you can withdraw from your retirement fund during that first year, and that brings your total income to $28,786 per year.

Whether that will be enough will depend on your expected retirement lifestyle. The rule of thumb is that you'll need around 70% of your pre-retirement income each year during retirement, so if you were earning $50,000 before you retired, you'll need around $35,000 after you leave the workforce.

If you plan to live frugally and tinker around the house for the most part (rather than traveling the world or picking up expensive hobbies), you can probably get by on less than that. But be honest with yourself about how much you expect to spend, because it's easier to adjust your retirement plan now and save more while you're still 25 years away from retirement rather than waiting until you leave your job to find out you need more money.

Planning for retirement can be daunting, especially when you're behind on your savings and feel like it's impossible to catch up. But it's not as difficult to get back on track as you might think, and many retirees are in for a pleasant surprise when retirement is more financially enjoyable than they expected.