Nearing 60? Don't skimp on retirement savings

Get the latest from TODAY

Sign up for our newsletter
By Kelli B. Grant

No matter which way you cut it, things aren’t looking good for retirement.

Despite a deluge of warnings from advisers, research groups and financial institutions, many Americans are still woefully underprepared to leave the workforce. A little more than a third don’t have a savings strategy, according to the Transamerica Center for Retirement, and a new survey found that 36 percent haven’t put away so much as a penny for retirement. That includes 26 percent of people age 50 to 64, for whom retirement is a near-term concern.

“Given a choice between retirement and 'today-ment,' people are naturally more focused on today’s money needs,” said certified financial planner Cindy Richey, president of Prosperity Planning in Kansas City. “Deep down, we know we should be putting something in our 401(k)s, but the benefits are just so far out there, that it’s not real to people.”

Those who are saving aren’t faring much better. Although Fidelity Investments reported that consumers made record-high IRA and 401(k) contributions last year, 53 percent of households are not putting away enough to maintain their current lifestyle after retirement, according to the latest National Retirement Risk Index from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

Don’t blame the recession. “A lot of things are going on,” said Alicia H. Munnell, the center’s director. “People are living longer, so they need more. Rates of returns have fallen, so they need a bigger pile.” The rise of self-directed plans such as 401(k)s, and worries about the future of Social Security, have also put more of the burden of saving on the consumer, she said.

According to the center’s calculations, consumers age 30 to 39 would need to boost contributions by another 7-8 percent, depending on their income, while those ages 40 to 49 must save another 13-16 percent. Workers age 50 to 59 might need to beef up contributions by 29 to 35 percent.

Baby Boomers are likely to be most hurt by the retirement savings gap. Boomers have an average of $127,000 in retirement savings — up from $75,000 in 2007, but not enough for many to have a comfortable retirement, the Transamerica Center for Retirement found. About half said they plan to continue working at least part time after retiring from their current job, and 36 percent said they’ll rely on Social Security.

Supermarket manager Don Reynolds, who celebrated his 65th birthday this week, is one of the rare boomers who isn’t worried. “Unless I’m put in an old age home or a nursing home, I’ll be fine,” he said. Seeing friends and family struggle to live on Social Security and meager savings, the New Jersey native made it a priority to pay into his 401(k) and pension.

“You have to,” said Reynolds. “If you don’t, you start panicking, and saying, ‘I’ll wait one more year, one more year.’ Then you never get to retire.”

Even with a shorter time frame, advisers say there are some strategies that can help turn things around, provided you stop dragging your feet. “You never have more time than you do today,” said certified financial planner Dan Moisand, principal at Moisand Fitzgerald Tamayo, LLC in Melbourne, Fla. The longer you wait to get on the right track, the less time you have for those assets to grow — and the more you’ll need to contribute.

Capture savings opportunities
Workers in their 50s often find they have more cash available once kids have left the nest. When you get a raise, use it as an opportunity to increase retirement contributions rather than have extra money in your paycheck, said Richey. Do the same with any extra cash flow in your budget after say, finally paying off a car loan.

Aim to max out your 401(k), IRA and other tax-advantaged accounts
Workers age 50 and older are eligible for catch-up contributions — that’s an extra $5,500 in a 401(k) and $1,000 in an IRA, said Moisand. (Depending on how much you make, you may not be eligible to contribute directly to a Roth IRA, or be able to deduct traditional IRA contributions. But funds in the latter can often be converted into a Roth, he said.)

Hang on to your job just a little longer
“In your 50s, it’s really hard to save your way out of [a shortfall],” said Munnell. Each year is one more in which to add to retirement savings, rather than deplete them.

Strategize Social Security
“The longer you wait, the more you get from Social Security, but the more of your own money you have to spend in the meantime,” Moisand said. Consider the right time to start collecting. Married couples have access to different strategies — like picking a benefit based on half of a higher-earning spouse’s salary — that may help boost their payments, he said.

Curtail expenses
Cutting back gives you more room to save now, and can mean you’ll need less income in retirement, Richey said. Strategies might be big, such as downsizing to a smaller house, or smaller, like switching vehicles less frequently or right-sizing a smartphone plan.