Not many 20-somethings think seriously about their future retirement. But if you're wise enough to get a head start with saving, it will make a huge difference in your life a lot sooner than you think.

If you're just getting started in a new career, you have lot to be excited about. There's nothing like that feeling of independence as you go out on your own, and it's great to look forward to all the things you'll achieve both at work and in your personal life. Most importantly, if you've been counting on others to help you with your finances, earning what may be your first full-time paycheck opens up a whole new realm of possibilities.

Yet even if planning for 2050 seems ridiculously far-sighted, it can do a lot more for you than just prepare you for your eventual old age. It can also give you a much better life along the way.

Save now? Come on!
Obviously, setting money aside is difficult when you're first starting out. Even if you're lucky enough to get an entry-level job in today's terrible unemployment-riddled economy, you can't count on pulling down a huge salary. Scraping to make ends meet is a common theme for everyone nowadays, but it's especially tough for young people.

But at the ripe old age of 39, I can attest that starting to save and invest early has huge benefits. Even though the small amounts I put aside during those first few years seemed at the time like they wouldn't make any difference at all decades down the road, they're already paying big dividends that are worth a lot more than net worth figures or brokerage account balances.

The value of time
Of course, looking at numbers is the easiest way to gauge how much difference starting early can make. Let's compare two current 60-year-olds. The first person started investing at age 30 and made a one-time investment of $100 in each of seven stocks. The second person waited until age 40 but, having a higher salary, was able to invest $500 in each stock rather than $100.

You'd think that investing five times as much would be enough to make up for the late start. But with six of these seven stocks, it wasn't:


$100 Invested in 1979 Is Now Worth ...

$500 Invested in 1989 Is Now Worth ...

Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ)



Wal-Mart Stores (NYSE:WMT)



ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM)






Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO)



Boeing (NYSE:BA)



Ford Motor (NYSE:F)



Source: Yahoo! Finance. Assumes reinvestment of dividends.

Now it's true that in hindsight, 1979 was a reasonably good time to invest. But it certainly didn't appear so at the time. Inflation was raging, and over the following three years, stocks meandered up and down before the '80s bull market finally started in mid-1982. In fact, conditions back then probably resembled how the current situation appears right now to today's investors, considering all the uncertainty about what the future will bring.

Benefits along the way
But what you get from starting to save early will help you long before you call it quits for your career. After a much shorter time, you'll have a big enough investment portfolio to have flexibility to do things that others can't do. With a substantial emergency fund, you can afford to wait for the right job offer rather than jumping at the first one you get. Rather than having to spend a lifetime working at a high-paying job you don’t necessarily enjoy, you can consider jobs that aren't as lucrative but pay you back with a better quality of life.

Many younger people I've talked to recently feel trapped by their circumstances. Many face huge debts and don't have the luxury of seeking work that fits their personal goals. From the start, their relationship with money is an adversarial one, which can create a lifetime of difficulty in dealing with financial matters.

In contrast, starting to save at your earliest opportunity frees you to live your life the way you want. That's why no matter how young you are, the best time to start saving is now --because it's never too early to start truly living.

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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger started saving early and never looked back. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Johnson & Johnson and Coca-Cola are Income Investor selections. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy always catches the worm.