Image source: Flickr user Sebastiaan ter Burg.

It's perhaps the greatest question of all: "How do I reach my retirement number?"

On paper it would seem like there's a one-size-fits-all plan for retiring the way you'd like. The outline goes more or less something like this: you study hard, go to college, land a great job, save your money, invest it wisely, then put your feet up on a beach while drinking daiquiris and enjoying your golden years. But for many Americans the grim reality is that things don't always go according to plan. Life's twists and turns can wreak havoc on consumers' ability to save and invest for their future, resulting in some people being woefully unprepared for retirement.

Baby boomers, or those born between 1946 and 1964, have been an especially hard-hit generation. The housing bubble and subsequent crash in equities between 2007 and 2009 sent some boomers fleeing for the sidelines, causing them to miss some, or all, of the subsequent rebound in the stock prices. In fact, a recent retirement survey from the Insured Retirement Institute showed that roughly four in 10 baby boomers had nothing saved toward their retirement.

Amazingly enough, it's millennials that may have an even harder time reaching their own retirement goals, at least based on the latest survey findings from brokerage firm Charles Schwab.


Image source: Flickr user ITU Pictures. 

Four reasons millennials may actually be in worse shape
Schwab's recent nationwide survey focused on 1,000 401(k) plan participants in the millennial, generation X, and baby boomer categories. The findings showed that millennials face four unique obstacles that could prevent them from saving enough money for retirement.

First, millennials are willing to make fewer sacrifices than other generations, especially when it comes to using disposable income for entertainment. A whopping 44% of millennials surveyed were unwilling to sacrifice things that add to the quality of their life, such as vacations, whereas just 29% of boomers responded this way. Millennials also noted by a substantial margin compared to boomers (30% to 20%) that they're unable to save for retirement due to basic monthly bills.

Secondly, millennials are struggling to put away money for retirement because of the growing amount of student loan debt that they're carrying. College graduates are currently toting around in excess of $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, and this figure is only expected to rise with college tuition inflation vastly outpacing wage growth, and with the jobs market looking upon a college degree as more of a necessity than an expectation these days.

Third, many millennials are unsure of where to invest their money. Remember, this survey was conducted with 401(k) participants, so these individuals are already saving for their future. However, nearly half (49%) of the millennials surveyed proclaimed that they "don't know" what their best investment options are. By comparison, only 35% of boomers responded that they didn't know what their best investment options are. If millennials don't have a good bead on their risk tolerance and retirement needs, then they could be doing themselves a disservice even if they're taking part in their company-sponsored 401(k).

Image source: Flickr user GoCredit.

Lastly, although millennials have been the most forthcoming with their desire for retirement assistance, they're the least likely to actually be receiving help from a financial advisor. More than three-quarters (76%) of millennials would prefer personalized 401(k) investment advice, compared to 62% of baby boomers, yet only 7% of millennials are currently receiving professional 401(k) investment advice.

Long story short, millennials want help, but they appear to be unwilling to follow through on actually getting retirement assistance.

Ways millennials can get back on track
Clearly there are methods millennials can implement to get more bang for their buck. Here are a few ideas for today's young working class to consider that could mean the difference between simply retiring and retiring earlier and on their own terms.

First, millennials can still enjoy their cake and eat it too (i.e., take vacations and enjoy their down time) as long as they are working with a monthly budget. A Bank of America/USA Today money habits report released this past spring shows that fewer than half (48%) of the millennials surveyed actually kept a monthly budget. The problem with not keeping an accurate record of your spending habits is that it becomes almost impossible to save optimally. If you're unsure of how much money can actually be portioned to leisure activities, it makes saving for retirement more of a coin flip than an actual strategy.

Image source: Flickr user Sebastiaan ter Burg.

The solution is pretty simple: sit down and formulate a workable budget. Once you have a good bead on your income and spending, you should be able to maximize the amount you're putting toward your monthly retirement, as well as your 401(k). Best of all, a monthly budget can be adjusted as your income changes, meaning no budget has to be set in stone, and you'll always be in charge of your own finances.

Secondly, consider making moves outside of your 401(k) to improve your chances of retiring comfortably. One of the smartest moves millennials (or really anyone for that matter) can make is to open and/or contribute to a Roth IRA. A Roth is a retirement account that comes with one major advantage over tax-deferred investment tools such as a 401(k): it allows your money to grow completely tax-free for life, as long as you don't make any unqualified withdrawals. There are some income limitations with a Roth IRA that you'll want to familiarize yourself with, but if you're eligible, a Roth can be a critical tool that can allow you to hang onto more of your hard-earned income in retirement.

Finally, make the effort to become more knowledgeable when it comes to your investment options. Whether this involves consulting with employer to help you better understand your 401(k) options, asking family and friends for assistance, paying for the help of a professional investment advisor, or even learning the ins and outs of investing on your own, you should consider making the move sooner than later in order to become financially savvy so you can make smart investing decisions on your own.

Ultimately, the only one responsible for your retirement is you, so it's up to you to take a vested interest in bettering your chances of achieving a comfortable retirement.

Sean Williams owns shares of Bank of America, but has no material interest in any other companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.

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