Retirement planning can be challenging, especially if you have multiple financial priorities pulling your wallet in different directions. When you're struggling to pay all your bills and put food on the table, saving for retirement may get shoved to the bottom of your priority list.

However, saving for your golden years isn't something that can be done overnight. Retirement is more expensive than ever, and it takes decades of saving consistently to amass hundreds of thousands of dollars in your retirement fund. So if you're putting it off until you have more money to save, you're only making it harder on yourself in the future when you'll need to save a lot more each month to catch up.

There are a variety of reasons you may be putting off retirement saving, but there's one thing in particular that the majority of workers say is getting in the way of saving: student loan debt.

Man sitting at a table with coins and dollar bills in front of him.

Image source: Getty Images.

When debt makes it harder to save for retirement

A whopping 84% of U.S. adults say they're not able to maximize their retirement savings because they're struggling to pay off student loans, a survey from TIAA and MIT AgeLab found. Furthermore, three-quarters of respondents say they plan to wait until their student loans are paid off to begin saving or increasing their retirement contributions.

Balancing student loans and retirement saving can be difficult, and if you're strapped for cash, you may think you have to choose one over the other. In 2018, the average college student who took out loans graduated with nearly $30,000 of student loan debt, according to a report from Student Loan Hero.

When you're paying hundreds of dollars per month toward your loan repayments, retirement saving may seem like an impossible goal. And when you still have decades until retirement, it may seem logical to put off saving until your loans are paid off. However, wait too long to start saving, and it may be too late to catch up.

When you start saving for retirement early in life, compound interest is on your side. Compound interest essentially allows you to earn interest on your interest, so the longer your savings sit untouched in your retirement fund, the faster they grow. That means the earlier you start saving, the less you'll need to save each month to establish a strong and healthy nest egg.

Say, for example, you want to retire at age 65 with $750,000 in savings. Assuming you're earning a 7% annual rate of return on your investments, here's what you'll have to save each month to reach that goal, depending on the age at which you start saving:

Age You Start Saving Amount You'll Need to Save Each Month
25 $300
30 $450
35 $650
40 $1,000
45 $1,550
50 $2,500

Source: Author's calculations.

Even a few years can make a major difference, and it will become exponentially more difficult to reach your goals the longer you wait to start saving. Once you get to a certain point, it may not be possible to save as much as you need, and you may have to make sacrifices in retirement to live on less.

It's possible to save for retirement and pay down debt

If you're saddled with loads of student loan debt, it may seem impossible to work toward any other financial goals until that debt is paid off. However, it is possible to balance your financial priorities so you're saving for the future while still paying down your loans.

One way to do that is to consider refinancing your loan, which can lower your interest rate and save you money. Refinancing isn't the right choice for everyone, and typically only those with high credit scores are eligible. You may also lose other benefits -- like income-driven repayment plans and other flexible loan repayment options -- particularly if you have federal loans. That said, if your ultimate goal is to lower your interest rate and your monthly payments, refinancing might be a good option.

It's also a good idea to establish a monthly budget if you don't do so already. Tracking your spending is easier than ever with several apps that can do it for you automatically. This will give you a clear picture of where all your money is going every month and can help you spot areas where you may be overspending, allowing you to reallocate that money toward your retirement fund.

Again, if you start saving for retirement sooner rather than later, you may only need to save a couple hundred dollars per month. If you're able to reduce your expenses by $10 or $20 in several spending categories, it's easier than you may think to scrounge up enough cash to reach your retirement goals.

When money is tight, saving for retirement when it's still decades away may seem less important than more immediate financial responsibilities, like paying down student loans. But although retirement may be far off on the horizon, it's important to start preparing as soon as possible. Because the earlier you start to save, the more financially secure you'll be down the road.