Your retirement can be more comfortable if you have a good plan. Photo: Flickr user Marc Di Lusio.

As we approach and occasionally think about how we will get by in retirement, it's natural to wonder what the average retirement income is for American retirees. There are many studies offering answers to that question, and most of them paint a rather grim picture. Fortunately, your own financial future doesn't have to be so bleak, and there are steps you can take to make it much brighter -- especially if you are many years away from retirement.

Scary statistics

Let's review some of the information out there that sheds light on the average income situation for and near-retirees. As we do so, remember that few of us are average, and therefore these numbers may not apply to us individually.

  • According to 2010 U.S. Census data, retirement-age Americans had a median annual income of $25,757. That sounds pretty bad -- it's only $2,146 per month. But the situation was better for married couples, who had median annual incomes of $44,718, while singles earned a median of just $17,261. Another meaningful detail is age: Those aged 65 to 69 earned median income of $37,200, while those aged 70 to 74 brought in $28,820. (That owes in part to the many people in their 60s who are still working, at least part-time.) The lesson here is that typical retirees aren't raking in much annually.

  • Social Security, meanwhile, recently paid an average monthly benefit of $1,294 to retired workers, which amounts to $15,528 per year. As of the 2010 data, Social Security made up a large portion of retirement income, averaging 37% of income for those aged 65 and over and 84% for the poorest quintile of Americans. 
  • The Social Security Administration offers a host of eye-opening details: "Among elderly Social Security beneficiaries, 52% of married couples and 74% of unmarried persons receive 50% or more of their income from Social Security," while "22% of married couples and about 47% of unmarried persons rely on Social Security for 90% or more of their income," and "51% of the workforce has no private pension coverage." And even scarier: "34% of the workforce has no savings set aside specifically for retirement."
  • Not only is income insufficient for many, but so are retirement savings. According to the 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey, 60% of workers have saved less than $25,000, while fully 36% have saved less than $1,000. About a third of workers have not saved anything for retirement.

Clearly, many Americans are in bad shape financially. The situation gets even bleaker when you start considering the costs of living in retirement, such as healthcare, which Fidelity has estimated will cost a couple currently aged 65 a total of $220,000.

Photo: Flickr user Alan Myers.

A brighter future

Many Americans are facing tough financial circumstances in retirement, and many soon will be, but you don't have to be one of them. Whether you have zero or $250,000 in your retirement accounts, you can help your portfolios grow by saving more aggressively. Disregard the conventional wisdom to sock away 10% of your income and aim for 15% or more. Invest your money effectively, too. Interest-bearing accounts will grow at a glacial pace these days, so look to the stock market and invest money that can stay invested for at least five years and ideally 10 or more. Also remember not to think of your retirement date as your investing end-date, too. Those who retire around age 65 are likely to live about 20 more years, so much of your nest egg may be able to grow in stocks well beyond your retirement date.

Take advantage of tax-advantaged accounts such as traditional and Roth IRAs and 401(k)s. Some employers match 401(k) contributions to a certain point, so contribute at least enough to max out that match, as it's free money. Roth IRAs (and Roth 401(k)s, which are not yet widely offered) allow investments made with post-tax money to grow over time and ultimately be withdrawn tax-free. You can contribute up to $5,500 to an IRA in 2014, plus an extra $1,000 if you're 50 or older. For 401(k)s, the maximum is $17,500, plus $5,500 for those 50 and up.

Image: Social Security Administration.

Be strategic with Social Security, too. Read up on the topic and give careful thought to when you'll start receiving benefits. There are sound reasons both to collect early (more years of payments) and to delay benefits (fatter benefit checks). And if you're married, there are several strategies to consider that require coordinating who starts receiving benefits and when.

Like many others, you might work part-time for a few years in retirement to boost your income or your savings. You might also delay retiring for a few years, as that's a powerful way to give your savings a big boost. Leaving your investments to grow for a few more years before starting to draw them down can make a significant difference in your retirement finances -- after all, the more money you have invested, the faster it will compound.

The average retirement income in America isn't very impressive, but you can still live out a comfortable and secure retirement if you take steps now to improve your financial future.