Gen X Can Have its Retirement Cake and Eat It, Too

Which generation faces the toughest challenge with saving for retirement?

Several recent studies suggest Generation X is in the most trouble. A Pew Charitable Trusts study found that Gen X hasn't saved enough, and in addition has accumulated too much debt to be on track for a comfortable retirement. To make matters worse, Gen X also took the hardest financial hit during the Great Recession, losing nearly half -- $33,000 on average -- of their already low savings.

A survey by PwC revealed that among all age groups, Generation X was most challenged by competing financial priorities, hindering their ability to save for retirement. More than one-third of Gen Xers admitted they might have to dip into their retirement savings to pay for expenses unrelated to retirement.And a third study by Limra also concluded that Gen X was most concerned about having enough retirement savings.

But that doesn't mean their prospects are bleak. "The studies themselves were fair and well-researched, but I didn't like the message being translated that 'Gen X is doomed,'" says Brian Frederick, a Certified Financial Planner professional and principal at Stillwater Financial Partners in Scottsdale, Ariz., who works with clients in their early 30s to late 40s.

Painless retirement savings tips for Gens X, Y

Gen X and Gen Y have more obstacles to wealth than older generations, says Kile Lewis, a Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor and co-CEO and co-founder of Alpharetta, Ga.-based oXYGen Financial. "It's highly improbable that they will have a pension; they will experience even more divorces than their parents, and they will change jobs more ... than baby boomers," he says.

The most common advice dispensed by experts is to save 10% to 20% of one's salary to be retirement-ready decades down the road. But not all planners subscribe to this tough investment regimen for the younger generations.

"Forcing Gen Xers to tighten their belts and put aside a predetermined percentage of income to sock into savings is negative reinforcement, smacking of deprivation," says Michael Kitces, a multicredentialed partner and director of research at Pinnacle Advisory Group in Columbia, Md.

Instead, Kitces proposes painless retirement savings tips for Gen X. Why not put half of any future raises into savings while enjoying the rest for spending, he suggests. Gen Xers and their younger brethren -- millennials, also called Gen Y -- are at the threshold of potential career advancement, he adds. Since potential future earnings represent their greatest asset at this stage, Gen X and Gen Y's salary increases can be used both for savings and to further their education, which in turn will increase their chances for promotions. "By putting a sizeable chunk of that money into savings, you'll end up with more money by investing in yourself and then save," says Kitces.

"Even small increases in base earnings today can have a tremendously magnified effect over a lifetime," he says. With earnings increases, "There's an opportunity to produce a wealth increase more than 10 times that of socking money into a Roth (individual retirement account), compounded for decades."

Avoiding 'lifestyle creep'

As young people move up the ladder and make steady salary gains, they can easily achieve retirement savings goals if they sock away half those gains and resist what Kitces calls "lifestyle creep" -- the strong desire for luxury sedans and larger-than-necessary homes. Kitces appreciates that as income rises, Gen X and Gen Y will want to spend. "But since they still have years or decades until retirement, letting income increases become their savings may be a far more effective approach," he says, "especially if they can temper their 'I've got to have it all' urges."

Kitces suggests that Gen X and Gen Y can keep on the right track by engaging in social media. After all, these are the generations who feel very comfortable sharing on Facebook, LinkedIn and other communities. Kitces says that making a public commitment to save works because we don't like to see ourselves failing to live up to our promises. "Since accountability works with weight loss, make a social commitment and post it on Facebook, asking your friends to call you out if you falter," he says.

Wired to spend

Committing to save half and spend half of new raises has wonderful benefits, agrees financial planner Alan Moore, founder of Serenity Financial Consulting with offices in Bozeman, Mont., and Milwaukee. "These generations are highly educated and know that a payday is coming."

But where Moore parts company with Kitces is imagining that anyone will make a commitment to save for retirement on Facebook. "It may work with weight loss, but (sharing) how much money we make is the last cultural taboo," he says. "I see Facebook friends writing back, 'Maybe you should be helping the poor instead.'"

However, the spending urges are real and we need to understand what's going on, Moore says. "We're fighting the way we're wired. We get a physical rush of endorphins when we treat ourselves, but we don't get that good feeling from saving."

Lewis counters that saving for retirement can produce good feelings for younger people. "Do something that works. Maybe you don't have $1,500 to sock away, but if you save something, you'll get addicted to it. If you make a habit of it, you will celebrate your first $10,000, your first $100,000 and then, you will achieve $1 million."

He also sees that most Gen X and Gen Y folks have no sense of the cost of retirement, but he believes it's not as bad as they fear.

"I don't talk about saving 10%, 15% or 20%, but ask, 'Are you in a balanced position?'"

The way to achieve balance, says Lewis, is to prioritize what's important to you.

Copyright 2013, Bankrate Inc.