The procrastination penalty for retirement savers

Senior worker
Reza Estakhrian | Getty Images

Procrastination can pay for last-minute sports tickets or 11th-hour holiday bargains. But when it comes to retirement savings? Bad idea.

More than half of middle-class Americans say they plan to save more for retirement "later" to make up for not saving enough now, according to a new Wells Fargo survey. Worse, many aren't saving at all—34 percent of the 1,001 adults surveyed aren't currently setting money aside for retirement and 20 percent have no retirement savings. The median balance among savers is $20,000, down from $25,000 last year.

"That's a big problem," said Joe Ready, director of institutional retirement and trust for Wells Fargo. "You're already not saving enough, so you're kicking this empty can down the road."

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Cutting expenses in retirement
Cutting expenses in retirement   

Postponements can make a big difference in your final account balance. By Ready's calculations, a 25-year-old who saves $100 per month until he retires at 65, with a 6.5 percent annual return, would have accumulated more than $225,000. Wait until age 40 to start those contributions, and the balance would be a much slimmer $75,000.

"I don't know how much of this is survival and [how much is] the mindset that they'll be able to catch up over their career trajectory," said Lazetta Rainey Braxton, a certified financial planner in Baltimore, Md. Of course, the basic advice is to save more, but strategies can vary depending on which of those two categories you fall into.

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Consumers who don't feel like they have any wiggle room in their budget to save for retirement will benefit from analyzing their cash flow and looking for areas to cut back. "It's pretty basic. Either you increase your income or decrease your expenses," said Rainey Braxton. Even small amounts can add up over years of compounding—especially with advantages like a 401(k) employer match.

Although consumers expressed concerns over balancing savings and regular monthly bills, survey results indicate there's some fat to be cut: 56 percent said that "later" they would cut splurges such as spa treatments and jewelry to save more for retirement, and 55 percent would dine out less frequently. Half also said they would postpone big purchases like a home renovation or car.

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Consumers who have concrete expectations of having more disposable income in a few years—say, after a college-bound child's final tuition payment or once they've moved up the career ladder—still need to plan. Later contributions have less time to grow, meaning you'll need to contribute more to have the same ending balance as if you'd started today. Freezing current expenses can help capitalize on those raises and windfalls, said Rainey Braxton.

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In either case, it can help to have a written plan, something as simple as "I'm currently saving $X per month, and want to get to $Y," said Ready. The 28 percent of survey respondents who had such a plan were setting aside a median $250 a month, compared with $100 among those who didn't.