Got $0 in Retirement Savings? Here's Where to Start

Nobody wants to be faced with the choice of either retiring broke or working till they drop dead. Yet if you have no retirement savings, that's the future you're headed for. Here's the good news: No matter how badly you've dragged your feet on saving for retirement, you still have a chance to turn things around.

People aren't saving for retirement

GOBankingRates' 2017 retirement savings survey produced some grim statistics. A third of survey respondents said they had exactly nothing saved for retirement; another 21% said they had less than $10,000 saved. Retirees aged 65 and up spend an average of about $45,000 per year, so if you don't have at least enough retirement savings to provide that level of income for 25 years or so, you're in serious trouble. The truly disturbing finding was that the lack of retirement funds isn't limited to younger workers: 29% of respondents aged 55 and up reported having no retirement savings.

Retirement savings are a necessity, not a luxury

If you end up retiring with no money saved up, your options are pretty grim. If you think you can get by on Social Security benefits alone, then you're in for a rude awakening -- and a drastic change in lifestyle. Most workers agree that saving for retirement is important, but too often it takes a backseat to other financial priorities, like paying off student loans, buying a house, paying for the kids' college tuition, and so on. These are all important financial concerns, but saving for retirement is not optional, and you should always dedicate at least some of your income to it.

Pay yourself first

The first step in getting a respectable retirement savings balance is to move it up to the top of your priority list. Most people take each paycheck, divide it up to cover various expenses, and then stick whatever is left over into savings. Most months, there'll be nothing left over, and thus nothing gets saved. Change your approach up and make sure a portion of each paycheck is always going into your retirement savings. The easiest way to do this is to speak to your payroll handler and arrange for a percentage of your wages to be automatically deposited into your 401(k) or IRA -- before you even have the chance to touch that money.

But what if I don't have enough?

Many people are afraid of the "pay yourself first" system because they never have money left over at the end of each month, so they're afraid they'll be unable to pay all their bills if some of their earnings are being funneled into retirement savings. What they don't realize is that nearly everybody suffers from "expense creep." Think about the last time you got a raise. You were probably thrilled to have that extra income for a while, but within a few months, you realized you were once again spending everything you made. Like goldfish that grow to fit the size of their environment, our expenses will grow to consume all our available income. If you pay yourself first, you're keeping the goldfish bowl as small as possible.

Start small

If up until now you've been spending everything you make, start with a small "pay yourself first" plan. If you have a 401(k) plan available, set up a tiny contribution to begin with -- say, 1% or 2% of your income. Since this money comes out of pre-tax dollars, the impact on your budget will be even smaller than 1% or 2% of your disposable income. If you don't have a 401(k) plan, set up an IRA and start up an automatic transfer scheduled right after you get paid. Again, keep it to a fairly tiny percentage of your income for now. Once your plan has been running for about three months, increase the percentage a bit and wait for your budget to adjust. By making the saving process gradual, you won't be suddenly depriving yourself of income you need.

Have a plan

Unless you have a truly enormous income, saving 2% a month won't be enough to create a well-funded retirement savings account. Most workers need to save at least 10% of their income to eventually fund a comfortable retirement, and saving 15% is much better. As you gradually increase your contributions, you should aim to hit 10% within 18 months without putting much strain on your budget. If possible, keep increasing your percentage until you're saving at least 15%. You can play around with a retirement calculator to figure out how much you really need to save and then see how much you'll need to set aside each month to reach that sum in time for retirement.

But what if I've waited too long?

This method of gradually increasing your retirement savings will work perfectly if you still have a few decades to go before retirement, but if you're in your 50s or even 60s, you'll have to work a lot harder to save enough. Contributing 10% or even 15% of your income to your retirement account won't cut it. That means you'll need to do some major surgery on your expenses in order to free up the extra money. Another option is to find a part-time job or start a side gig to bring in some extra income, and then put every penny of that extra money into your retirement savings accounts. And you may need to delay your retirement by a few years to give yourself more time to save and earn delayed-retirement credits from Social Security. If you've waited this long to save, you'll probably need to scale back your more grandiose plans for retirement, but you should end up with enough to live comfortably without working yourself right into the grave.

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