Retirement should be a wonderful time in your life. Unfortunately, if you have too little cash and too many financial worries, it will be a very hard time instead. And that's the reality for far too many seniors. In fact, research from Aspen Institute found a 21% poverty rate among seniors in the U.S., which is almost double the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average. 

Changes to Social Security and other benefits programs could help to alleviate senior poverty, but political solutions are unlikely at the moment and aren't a guarantee in the future -- so if you want to avoid being in poverty as a senior, there are steps you should take right now. Here are some things you'll want to do today if you aren't yet retired and you want to make sure you're comfortable instead of broke in your 60s, 70s, and 80s.

Old many protecting piggy bank from outstretched arms.

Image source: Getty Images.

Open a tax-advantaged retirement account

According to the Aspen Institute, more than 55 million Americans currently lack access to a workplace retirement plan, such as a 401(k). Having a plan at work makes saving for retirement easier, but it's not necessary to score tax breaks for savings. You can open an Individual Retirement Arrangement (IRA) with any broker and with many other types of financial institutions including banks or robo-advisors.

When you contribute to an IRA (or a 401(k)) you can generally take a tax deduction for contributions you make, up to annual limits. You can claim this deduction even if you itemize. Being able to deduct contributions means the money you set aside for your future won't reduce your take-home income as much. Say, for example, you contribute $5,000 to an IRA and are in the 22% tax bracket. You won't pay the 22% tax on the $5,000 you were able to deduct, so you'll save $1,100 in taxes. Your $5,000 contribution to your future will actually reduce your take-home income by only $3,900. 

Figure out how much income you'll actually need in retirement

Far too many people end up with too little saved for retirement because they don't have any clue what size nest egg they actually need. Whether you underestimate the amount of savings necessary to support yourself or overestimate how much income Social Security will provide, you could end up in dire straits.

Instead of flying blind when it comes to saving for retirement, actually sit down and figure out your goal number. There are a few ways to do that, including estimating you'll need 10 times your final salary saved to provide sufficient income. Check out this guide to see three ways to calculate how much to save for retirement so you can find the best way to figure out your magic number.

Start saving when you're as young as possible 

Hitting your target number for retirement savings becomes a lot more challenging if you wait too long to start saving money. If you make it a point to start as early as possible, you'll have more time for compound interest to work, so you won't have to set aside quite as much each month to hit your savings goals. It may seem difficult to find extra money to save today, but it will be a lot harder to live in poverty as a senior -- so do whatever it takes to save at least something. 

This likely will mean you need to make a budget, look for ways to cut expenses, and put savings first -- above discretionary spending. If you really can't make the numbers work, you could also look into picking up a side gig to earn a little bit of extra money each month. Put the money from your side job entirely into retirement savings so your work pays off in ensuring you don't end up in poverty in the future. 

Avoid falling for myths about retirement 

There's a common misconception that you can save 10% of your income and have enough for retirement. But with returns expected to be below historic averages, longer life spans, and rising health costs, the reality is you probably have to save closer to 15% to 20% of income

There are also lots of misconceptions about how much income Social Security will replace. The reality is, Social Security benefits are designed to replace only about 40% of your income, while most experts suggest you'll need at least 70% to 80% of pre-retirement earnings to maintain a comfortable lifestyle. If you think Social Security is going to be enough and that you don't need to save a lot, reevaluate today.

Finally, many people believe that if they don't have enough saved by the time they hit their 60s, they can just work longer. Sadly, health issues and a lack of jobs for seniors often force you to retire earlier than planned. Being forced to retire earlier than you'd planned to significantly increases your risk of financial struggles, as you'll have less time to save, will need to rely on savings sooner, and may get stuck with a smaller Social Security benefit if you have to claim early.

To make sure you don't end up in this situation, set your retirement plans as if you'll leave the workforce at 62. If you end up working longer, you'll just be richer than planned, and that's never a bad thing. 

Don't let yourself become an impoverished senior

If you're still young and working, you have the power to avoid becoming one of the millions of American seniors who live in poverty. Start saving right now, even if you have to start small. Work up to saving as much as you can so you have the cash you need to make your golden years comfortable. You owe it to your future self to make sure you don't end up in poverty, because as hard as saving may seem today, it's a lot easier than being broke in your 80s.