The secret to saving for retirement? There are no magic tricks. You just have to do it. (Joe Elbert/For The Washington Post)
Columnist

Much has been written about the nation’s lack of retirement preparedness. Most of us aren’t prepared.

According to one survey, from GoBankingRates, a third of Americans have nothing saved for retirement, and 23 percent have saved less than $10,000.

Still, it’s never too late to start. Just do it.

“There are no magical answers, no silver bullet, besides willpower,” says James Nichols of Voya Financial in Windsor, Conn. “If you are reading the article, kudos. It means you are at least paying attention. A lot of people are in a blissful ignorance. A huge first step is knowing that saving more is key to the future of your independence.”

Here’s how to step up your retirement savings:

Review how you spend. “In order to save more, you’ve got to learn to spend less,” Nichols says. “Understanding your monthly cash flow is important. Where does your money go week to week or month by month? What do you need to sustain your life, and then what are discretionary things you can do?”

“See where your money is going out every month,” says John Gajkowski of Money Managers Financial Group in Oak Brook, Ill. “A lot of times we have expenses automatically coming out of checking or credit card and we haven’t used that service in two years.”

Says Scott Moffitt, CEO of the Summit Financial Group in Loveland, Ohio: “If a family goes through a month without knowing how much or where they are spending money, they are spending more money in places where it may not be a priority. Setting a priority is a huge step. When I have clients go through that exercise, they will find money every single time.”

Look for underperforming accounts and assets. “Take a look at where money is falling through the cracks,” Gajkowski says. “We find people with large gobs of money in the market that isn’t earning anything. Moving it from a half percent (return) to 3 percent can make a difference. “

Take advantage of your employer-sponsored retirement plans. “Take a look at what you can do in the future,” Gajkowski says. “Make sure you are taking full advantage of your 401(k) or 403(b). Get free money (employer match) if you can, when you hit that limit, switch to an IRA [individual retirement account] or Roth [an IRA that provides a tax break when money is withdrawn from the plan instead of when money is invested in the plan]. They give you better range of investments. The 401(k) is designed for accumulating, not preservation. If [you] have access to a health savings account, use it, and take advantage of the catch-up” provision for retirement accounts. The catch-up provision allows people over 50 to save an additional $6,000 a year in a 401(k) or 403(b) and an additional $1,000 in an individual retirement account.

Also take advantage of your employer’s automatic payroll deductions. “Have money come out of paycheck and into retirement account,” Nichols says. “If you want to put it in savings, that’s good, too. You might be able to set up an auto-escalation plan. If you get a small raise, your contribution would increase. The 2 percent bumps up to 3 percent, to 4 percent.”

Find ways to generate more income. That may mean finding a part-time job. Find one that you might enjoy and that might provide additional benefits. For example, Nichols says, if you are a big shopper, a part-time job in a clothing or department store will not only get you additional income but you’d qualify for employee discounts.

“It really comes down to spending less, working more or retiring later,” Moffitt says. “A family has to choose, what’s the most important thing. If I have to retire with this much money, maybe I need a part-time job. Maybe I need to eat out less. Maybe I need to drive that car a little longer.”

Pay down debt. “Do you have high-interest debt?” Nichols asks. “Do you have an opportunity to reduce those costs? Look at ways to reduce that. Consider consolidating that debt into a lower-interest balance vehicle.”

Save your tax refund. Rather than paying bills or buying that new big-screen TV, deposit the tax money directly into your retirement savings.

“Make savings a game,” Gajkowski says. “I call it a flush fund — money you flush down the drain. Look at your cellphone plan. I had client who had a plan running $250 month for him, his wife and three kids. Knock off those kids, who had all graduated from college, take that $80 bucks and put that in flush fund. Clients say they end up with $3,000 or $4,000. Review your cable, newspaper subscriptions and cash back from credit cards.”

That does not, however, mean cutting out the little things that are important to you, Nichols says: “Everybody picks on Starbucks, but if you get tremendous value, don’t cut out that $4 coffee. Find something else. Maybe eating out a little less. Changing the places you go for fun or altering your definition of vacation.”

He adds: “The tip is not that you want to go and find some huge chunk of money to cut out of spending, but a few small pieces. Do the quick math. If I save $5 a week, $20 a month or a couple hundred a month, that’s pretty powerful.”

Rodney Brooks

On Retirement