At some point during your career, you may start to map out a personal retirement plan. It will likely include details such as how much savings you'd like to amass, what sort of lifestyle you'd like to lead in retirement, and the age at which you'll retire.

But as they say, sometimes the best-laid plans can go awry, and that's precisely what's happened to a large number of seniors who left the workforce at a younger age than anticipated. In a recent Nationwide survey, 26% of seniors who retired sooner than planned did so because they lost their jobs.

That underscores the importance of saving for retirement from an early age rather than waiting until later in life to start ramping up your IRA or 401(k) contributions. You never know when your career might come to an end, and if you rely too heavily on being able to save in your late 50s or early-to-mid 60s, you'll risk coming up short financially.

Older man at laptop lowering his head


The dangers of delaying retirement savings

When you put off retirement savings, you lose out on years of valuable investment growth in your IRA or 401(k) that can really boost your balance. But that's not the only risk associated with waiting to save. If you neglect your savings until you're older but lose your job and are forced to exist the workforce five, 10, or 15 years sooner than anticipated, it could really wreak havoc on your long-term financial plan.

Imagine you neglect your nest egg during your 20s, 30s, and 40s so you can focus on other goals -- say, paying off your student debt, saving for a home, keeping up with your mortgage, and socking money away for your kids' college. Let's say you have every intention of setting aside $1,000 per month in a 401(k) beginning at age 50 all the way until age 67. Assuming you invest that money at an average annual 7% return (which is doable with a stock-heavy portfolio), you'll be looking at an ending savings balance of around $370,000. That's not too shabby.

But what happens if you get laid off from your job at age 62 and can't manage to find another one? If your savings window is slashed by five years, at that point, you'll be looking at about $215,000 in savings instead of $370,000. And that could make a huge difference for your retirement.

That's why saving from a young age is a much safer bet. If you contribute steadily to a retirement plan over time, your finances won't take as nasty a hit if you're let go from a job and find yourself forced into unemployment -- and retirement -- much sooner than planned.

Job loss can be brutal later in life

The older you are when you get laid off, the harder it becomes to find a replacement role. You'd think your years of experience would work in your favor, but unfortunately, many companies are hesitant to hire older workers as they'd rather not invest in someone who's likely to retire within a few years. And while it's illegal to discriminate against a job candidate based on age alone, the reality is that it happens all the time.

In fact, research out of Boston College confirms that unemployed workers ages 55 and older are less likely to find new jobs than their younger counterparts. Workers 55 and over spent 40.6 weeks, on average, unemployed following the 2008-2009 recession, while younger workers were out of a job for just 31.6 weeks, on average. That tells us that while finding a new job isn't out of the question for older workers who experience layoffs, it's statistically more difficult.

Remember that even if you do manage to find a new job in your late 50s or early 60s after getting laid off, that role may not offer the same salary you were previously collecting. As such, you may not be able to continue funding your retirement savings, even if you're able to get hired elsewhere.

Many workers don't picture themselves being forced into retirement, but since losing a job is the reason 26% of early retirees landed in that boat, it's silly to assume that it can't happen to you. Rather than risk falling short on retirement savings, make an effort to start contributing to an IRA or 401(k) from as young an age as possible. That way, an expected layoff and workforce exit won't constitute as harsh a blow.