Millions of Americans have saved next to nothing for retirement. If you're in your 50s and haven't come up with a plan to save for your golden years, you might think it's too late to start now. But even though it won't be easy, for many, it's not impossible. If you have the resources and dedication, you can still build up a decent-sized nest egg that will go a long way toward making your retirement a lot more financially secure.

The gruesome statistics
When it comes to retirement planning, it's truly terrifying to consider just how many people have fallen asleep at the wheel. A survey that the Employee Benefit Research Institute released earlier this year showed that 43% of workers had less than $10,000 set aside in retirement savings. Over a quarter said they had less than $1,000.

One somewhat bright note in the survey is that its results didn't include the value of workers' homes, nor did it take employee pensions into account. But the housing market's fall over the past several years has greatly reduced the amount of home equity that homeowners have built up over the years, and it's also not as easy to draw out that equity as it was during the housing boom. And many workers don't have a pension waiting for them after they retire.

Therefore, it's more important than ever to build up your own savings to retire on. How can you do it? The tools are all there: It's up to you to use them.

Save, save, and save some more
The good news is that you can set aside a whole lot of money into tax-favored retirement accounts if your employer sponsors a retirement plan. Here's the lowdown for those 50 or older:

  • If you have access to a 401(k) or similar employer-sponsored plan at work, then you can set aside up to $22,000 from your salary toward your retirement. The money you put into your 401(k) doesn't count as taxable income, which means you'll pay a lot less tax than you otherwise would -- up to $7,700 less, based on current rates.
  • In addition, you can set aside another $6,000 in an IRA. Depending on your income, you may be eligible either to deduct your contribution or to open a Roth IRA, which doesn't give you a tax deduction but does make all the earnings within the account tax-free, even when you withdraw them after you retire.

If you're fortunate, then your employer may even help pitch in with your retirement savings. Employers often make contributions toward workers' retirement, either through profit sharing or by matching employee contributions with employer money. Last year, many companies suspended their 401(k) matching, but that trend has started to reverse itself during the recovery. Last week, Vail Resorts (NYSE: MTN) partially reinstated its employer match, joining a host of other companies that have started supporting workers again.

The hard part, of course, is coming up with the $28,000 per year to fully fund your retirement accounts. Even if you earn $100,000, you're talking about setting aside more than a quarter of your gross pay. But if you've already paid major expenses like college costs and home mortgages, it's the best time to save. And even at a conservative return of 7%, you can accumulate over $400,000, not including whatever your employer kicks in. That won't give you a plush retirement, but it'll give you something to supplement what Social Security gives you.

How to get there
Even though you're playing catch-up, you shouldn't take undue risk with your investments. Among individual stocks, a diversified set of low-volatility, dividend-paying stocks at reasonable valuations will serve you well. AT&T (NYSE: T) and Kimberly-Clark (NYSE: KMB) both have dividend yields over 4%, P/E ratios between 13 and 14, and less violent swings than the overall market over the past three years. Add utility company American Electric Power (NYSE: AEP) and drug giant Pfizer (NYSE: PFE), which are similarly valued and offer good payouts, to give you broader exposure to the full range of industries across the economy. That gives you a mini-portfolio of four strong companies that should hold up well even if the market corrects from here.

If you prefer the ease of using funds to invest, then it's easy to get similar exposure. iShares Dow Jones Select Dividend ETF (NYSE: DVY) invests in all four of the companies above and dozens more with good dividend histories. It has a fairly reasonable 0.40% expense ratio, making it not too expensive for those who don't want to research individual stocks.

If you're in your 50s and trying to start saving for retirement, time isn't on your side. But it may not be too late if you save as much as you can and are smart about your investments.

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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger went from 0 to 40 a lot faster than he thought he would. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. Pfizer is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. Kimberly-Clark is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. The Fool owns shares of Vail Resorts, which is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy purrs like a Porsche and gets you where you want to go in style.