Saving enough for retirement strains many Americans' budgets, especially those weighed down by credit card or student loan debt. To avoid the inevitable financial shortfall if they were to retire, many of these individuals plan to remain in the workforce indefinitely. A recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Research Affairs survey found that 23% of today's workers don't ever intend to retire, and another quarter expect to keep working after 65.

That's a viable strategy to shore up a lack of retirement savings -- if you're actually able to work that long. But there are no guarantees. So you're better off planning for an early retirement, even if you think you might like to continue working into your 60s or 70s. If you need a little more persuading, here are a few other reasons to plan as if you were going to retire early.

Older woman smiling

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1. You may be forced to retire early

As I mentioned above, even if you intend to work late into life, unexpected circumstances may prevent that. Your company might close or downsize, leaving you out of work. Or you may become seriously ill or need to care for a sick family member. This could take up a lot of your time and prevent you from working even if you want to.

If one of these situations happens to you, you could try to find a new, more flexible job that can accommodate your schedule and talents. But in this world of fast-changing technology, there's no way to be sure what the jobs of the future will look like or how qualified you will be for them. Even if you try to search for new work, it could be months before you find something suitable -- or you might never find anything at all, and you'll need adequate retirement savings to fall back on.

2. It encourages you to save more early on

Planning as if you were going to retire early forces you to start saving more at a younger age. This may not seem like a good thing because it means you'll have less spending money in your younger years, but it actually saves you money over the long term. Money you invest early on in your working life has more time to grow before you need to begin drawing upon it. So contributing more while you're young reduces the total amount of money you have to set aside for retirement.

Let's say you're trying to save $1 million by the time you're 65 and you expect a 7% annual rate of return on your investments. You'd have to save about $381 per month if you began saving at 25. Over the course of 40 years, that amounts to $182,880 in personal contributions. The rest of your $1 million will come from investment growth. If you waited until 35 to begin saving, you'd now have to save $820 per month to hit $1 million by 65, and you'd have to set aside $295,200 of your own money -- over $100,000 more.

You'll probably need more than $1 million to retire comfortably, especially if you plan as if you were going to retire early. But the above example illustrates the difference that starting early can make in how much you personally have to save. 

3. It gives you the option to retire early if you want to

Right now, you might be planning to never retire. But after 30 or 40 years in the workforce, you might feel a little burned out and want to take time for yourself. If you'd planned for an early retirement, you'll be able to do so. Of course, if you're happy working, keep on as long as you like and just pass along your extra savings to your heirs at the end of your life.

How to prepare for an early retirement

Preparing for retirement at any age requires you to estimate your expenses and the number of years your retirement will last. It's up to you to decide what constitutes an early retirement. Whatever you choose, subtract this age from your estimated life expectancy, which could be 90 or more if you're reasonably healthy.

Total up your annual living expenses in retirement, including food, housing, insurance, and entertainment. Multiply this by the number of years of your retirement, adding 3% annually for inflation. A retirement calculator will do this, as well as calculate your investment rate of return (use 5% to 6% to be conservative). Once you have your total estimated early retirement cost, subtract any money you expect from Social Security, a pension, or a 401(k) match to find the amount you need to save from your own pocket. You can create a my Social Security account to estimate your Social Security benefit. 

Try to increase your monthly savings to at least as much as your retirement calculator recommends. If you can't, see if you can make some adjustments to your budget, like reducing discretionary purchases and limiting how much you dine out. You could also boost your income, like starting a side hustle or pursuing promotions.

If debt is hampering your ability to save, prioritize paying this down before or in conjunction with retirement savings. Put your tax refunds and any year-end bonuses toward your debt, and budget a certain amount per month toward debt repayment. Once it's paid off, all the money can go to your retirement instead.

Even if you don't want to retire early, it's nice to have a backup plan in case you're unable to work or you change your mind. Create a retirement plan if you haven't already and start saving today.