A Bankrate.com survey found that a third of Americans have saved nothing for retirement. What’s worse, 26 percent of Americans ages 50 to 54 and 14 percent age 65 and older have no nest egg. (iStock)
Columnist

You’ve hit the ripe old age of 50. You’ve put both kids through college and neither will be saddled with crippling student loans.

But there’s one problem: that retirement thing. You’ve planned very little and saved even less.

Saving for retirement is a serious problem among Americans, especially those nearing retirement. A Bankrate.com survey found that a third of Americans have saved nothing for retirement. What’s worse, 26 percent of Americans ages 50 to 54 and 14 percent of those age 65 and older have no savings.

“You actually see it often,” says Diahann Lassus, chief investment officer of wealth-management firm Lassus Wherley. “Some people are living day-to-day and not focused on anything down the road. Time sneaks up on them.”

“Life gets in the way,” says Neil Krishnaswamy, financial planner at Exencial Wealth Advisors. “Most people are probably not naturally inclined to do in-depth financial planning. Some people may be afraid to see the answer. So they procrastinate.”

So are you doomed to life as a street person?

Not necessarily. Depending on the standard of living you are hoping for, you probably can salvage a comfortable retirement. But the less you’ve saved, it’s likely the more drastic and immediate your actions will need to be. And keep in mind, Social Security is not the answer. The average monthly benefit payment is $1,278.

You’ll probably need to do several of the following to catch up: save more, cut expenses, delay your retirement, work longer (even if it’s part time) or all of the above.

If you show up at a retirement planner’s office, he or she will have you do a budget. That’s necessary to see how much you spend and to determine if you will be able to maintain your current lifestyle in retirement. For many, the answer will be no.

“They have to refocus,” Lassus says. “People plan their vacations a lot better than they plan their lives. We know when we are going, when we are coming back. They have a budget. They have all this wonderful planning around vacations. We have to apply the same kind of thing to our financial life, and certainly planning for retirement.”

“I tend to focus on sitting down and creating that joint budget, if it’s a couple,” says Roger Stinnett, managing director of wealth planning at First Foundation Advisors. “A lot of couples don’t know what their total monthly spending is. They have an idea, but it seems they are always surprised at the amount of money they spend.”

Next, you will have to come up with a plan. Call it a retirement plan on steroids.

“When you have someone who has not saved, really, three things can improve the situation — saving more, spending less or finding a way to earn more,” Krishnaswamy says.

Save more: “There are two best times to start investing,” says James Gambaccini of Acorn Financial Services. “One is now and the other is when you were 20. Sometimes at 50 or 55, it’s too late.”

Reduce expenses: “That’s the one area that clients control the most,” Stinnett says. “You can’t control markets, and may not be able to control how long we work. But we can control spending.”

Work longer: “You are talking about adjusting expectations. If they can’t retire in five years, maybe they can do it in 10 or 15 years,” Krishnaswamy says.

“Working longer is what a lot of people will have to do, even if it’s in a different type of job,” Lassus says. “One of the things they can do is look for consulting positions where they can work part time. Or they have an interest in a nonprofit. So they take a position.”

“If you retire at 65 and live till 95, that’s a long time,” Lassus says. “Staying active and being able to enjoy life and not get bored is important. Working longer is the answer for a lot of those things. People are more energetic at 70 than they were years ago at 45. We are doing better at healthy lifestyles.

“If you say, ‘I will work till 70,’ that gives you the opportunity to grow your Social Security, which is significant. Instead of taking it at 66, push it out to 70, you get to grow it 8 percent a year for those last few years, which is a fabulous return.”

The key: Get started now. The sooner you act, the less pain you will feel in retirement.