Retirement is becoming more and more expensive, and yet the average worker's savings aren't keeping up pace with rising costs.
Baby boomers have a median amount of just $152,000 in retirement savings, according to a report from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. Considering the average person age 65 or older spends around $46,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that $152,000 in savings would only last around three years.
If you have little to nothing saved for retirement, simply delaying retirement and working longer may seem like the best option. In fact, nearly a quarter of workers (23%) say they don't ever plan to retire, according to a poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Although planning to work until you can't work any longer might seem like a good way to increase your savings, it does have its risks. And in some cases, it could be detrimental to your retirement plans.
Why working longer doesn't always work
Staying at your job as long as you can is a good idea in theory. But the reality is you may very well be forced into retirement sooner than you anticipated.
Around four in 10 retirees say they left their jobs earlier than they expected to, according to a survey from the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Most commonly, these retirees say health issues and job loss as a result of downsizing or corporate reorganization forced them to retire early. In addition, a whopping 75% of Americans over the age of 50 say their age puts them at a disadvantage when looking for work, an Associated Press survey found.
In other words, nearly half of retirees weren't able to work as long as they had initially planned, and many older workers struggle to find another job. Also, when it comes to saving for retirement, only 26% of baby boomers say they have a backup plan in case they are forced to retire earlier than anticipated, according to a report from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.
If you're banking on the idea that you can simply work as long as you want, an early retirement could cause your savings plan to come crashing down. And if you're putting off saving now because you think you can work into your 70s or beyond, you may end up stuck with next to nothing saved if you end up retiring earlier than you'd hoped.
How to prepare for the unexpected
If you don't have much saved and can't rely on being able to work long past the traditional retirement age, what can you do to ensure you have enough to last through retirement?
First, consider what kind of sacrifices you're willing to make now in order to live your ideal retirement lifestyle. Depending on how much you currently have in savings and how far away you are from retirement, these sacrifices may be minimal or major. If you're in your 50s with nothing saved, for instance, you'll need to work a lot harder to catch up than if you're in your 30s with a substantial amount already stashed away.
Calculate your retirement number to figure out how much you should ideally have saved by the time you retire, then determine how much you'll need to sacrifice now to reach that goal in the future. If you use a retirement calculator, you can also play around with different retirement ages to see how your goals change. It's a good idea to assume you'll retire earlier than you think; then, if you end up being able to work longer, you can either retire early or continue to build up your retirement fund for extra financial security.
If you discover that you'll need to make major financial sacrifices to reach your retirement goals, decide whether those sacrifices are worth the extra retirement income. You'll likely end up depending on Social Security benefits alone to make ends meet if you don't have any personal savings, and the average check amounts to just $1,461 per month. If that's not enough to live on in retirement, you'll need to cut back now to save as much as you can before you retire.
Before you start making cuts, map out your costs in a monthly budget to see where your money is going. Divide these expenses into various categories to see where you're spending the most, then try to cut back at least a little in each category. You may not need to dramatically chop your expenses, because even small cuts across multiple spending categories can make a big difference overall. However, if you're deeply behind on your retirement preparation, you may need to shift your savings into high gear and make some major lifestyle adjustments -- like downsizing your home or selling your car.
Ultimately, preparing for retirement is up to you. However, some aspects may be out of your control, and you may not have the luxury of being able to decide when you want to retire. By preparing for the possibility of earlier retirement, though, you can set yourself up for success regardless of any obstacles you face.