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The Surprising Thing You Shouldn't Do If You're Behind on Saving for Retirement

By Katie Brockman - Updated Apr 17, 2019 at 2:40PM

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If you take this approach to saving for retirement, you may be in for a rude awakening.

Seemingly everywhere you look, financial experts are lamenting the fact that most people aren't saving enough for retirement. But the truth is most Americans -- even those closest to retirement age -- aren't doing enough to prepare for this next stage in their life. In fact, half of American adults over the age of 55 don't have anything at all saved for retirement, according to a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

If you're struggling to save for the future, you may simply choose to work longer to make up for it. If you decide to go this route, you're not alone; 53% of Americans plan to work past age 65, according to a 2018 report from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, and 13% say they plan on never retiring.

Jar full of coins with a plant growing out of it

Image source: Getty Images

That's not necessarily a bad idea on the surface -- after all, if you don't have much (or anything) saved, early retirement probably isn't the wisest choice. However, according to a separate Transamerica survey, 56% of those who are already retired at age 63 said they were forced into an early retirement. In other words, while you may want to work longer to make up for a lack of savings, you may not actually be able to.

The reasons behind unplanned early retirement vary. Maybe you have to leave your job because of health issues, for example, or perhaps you were caught in a round of layoffs and simply couldn't find another job. But if you were depending on being able to work into your late 60s or even your 70s, an early retirement can dash your chances at saving enough to retire comfortably.

What to do if you're off track

If you're behind on your savings now, don't wait another day to start catching up. It's never too late to start saving, and although you likely won't be able to retire a millionaire, even a little bit of money stashed away is better than nothing.

Because of compound interest, time is definitely your friend when it comes to investing. With compound interest, you'll see a snowball effect on your savings the longer they have to grow. You're essentially earning interest on your interest. So the earlier you start throwing money in your retirement fund, the less effort it will take to see significant returns.

For example, say you're 40 years old with nothing saved for retirement. You're just now starting to save $200 per month, earning a 7% annual rate of return on your investments. After 25 years, you'd have around $152,000 stashed away. If you put off saving until, say, age 50 and saved $200 per month, you'd only have around $60,000 saved by age 65. So if you end up being forced into an early retirement, your savings may not be anywhere near where you'd like them to be.

If you feel like you have no spare change to save right now, it's time to take a close look at your budget. Chances are even if you're strapped for cash, there are still a few areas where you can make cuts. For example, try carpooling or biking to work a few times a week to save on gas, or cut cable and use less expensive streaming services instead.

Say you've pinched every penny you can find, and it's still not amounting to much. If that's the case, you may need to take more drastic measures. Try picking up a side hustle and putting all that income toward retirement, or even consider downsizing to a less expensive home to save on your mortgage or rent payment each month.

Small changes add up over time

It may feel like saving a few dollars here and there isn't making any difference. But the best part about saving earlier rather than later is that even small savings can add up given enough time to grow.

For instance, say you were able to cut down on your grocery bill by $20 per month by using coupons, you're saving another $20 per month on gas by carpooling, you slashed your cable bill by $50 per month, and you saved another $50 per month by bringing your lunch to work every day rather than eating out. That's $140 per month right there. If you take more drastic approaches by finding a side hustle or downsizing your home, you could be saving hundreds more per month.

Also, if you have access to a 401(k) that offers employer matching contributions, take full advantage of it -- it can potentially double your savings. Say, for instance, you're 40 years old and are currently saving $140 per month, and your employer matches that full amount, bringing your total savings to $280 per month. If you're earning a 7% annual return on your investments, you'd have around $213,000 saved by age 65.

When it comes to saving for retirement, the bottom line is that it's important to save as much as you can as early as you can, and don't assume things will get easier as you get older. While making a few lifestyle adjustments now may not be your favorite thing to do, it's far easier to save a little now than to have to make major sacrifices down the road.

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