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It's never too early—or late—to plan for your retirement years

Retirement is a looming goal throughout our lives, yet most of us don't want to think about it until it's later in the game. In hindsight, we wish we had.

To help Americans gradually reach that goal, Adventist HealthCare Retirement Plan put together a helpful retirement checklist, and CNBC has expanded upon it.

Family with several generations
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20s: Savings and education

"Start saving now" is always the mantra of financial advisors speaking to 20-somethings.

"Get used to the idea of paying yourself first," said Bethany Griffith, certified financial planner with Abacus Planning Group.

Make it automatic. "Every time you get a pay [increase], bump, bump up your saving percentage as well," Griffith said. "Aim ultimately for 15 percent."

An emergency fund of three to six months' salary is important, Griffith added. "It's a level of protection against getting off track financially from your long-term savings."

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Do whatever you can—scrimp, save, make financial sacrifices—to ensure you claim the maximum employer match for your 401(k) plan, she said, and if you have no retirement plan, consider opening a Roth IRA. It's attractive for those in lower tax brackets because it doesn't provide tax breaks for contributions, only distributions.

Finally, Griffith advised young adults to get educated and build financial literacy for themselves. She recommends watching educational videos from the Khan Academy, a nonprofit educational organization.

30s: Systems and strategies

The 30s is when the financial juggling starts—repaying college loans, home ownership, children's college funds—and you need to get with the program right away.

"As soon as you marry or have a kid, you must have a will," said Ed Kohlhepp Sr., CFP and president of Kohlhepp Investment Advisors.

Other "musts" include:

  • Starting 529 plans for your kids as soon as they're born—grandparents can contribute to these accounts, too.
  • Enrolling in 401(k)s and IRAs.
  • Getting life insurance for both spouses, regardless of who earns more or less.

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There can be a feeling of dread, with common misconceptions such as: "I'm going to work forever" or "I don't have to start saving—I have plenty of time," or "I can't afford to lose, so I'll wait until the market is less volatile."

Don't let pessimism and misconceptions get in the way of your saving, Kohlhepp said. "New investors need to understand the importance of staying with a strategy."

"If you know you're not going to touch the money, just ignore it—don't look at the statements," Kohlhepp said. "The portfolios for this age group should be highly focused on equity because they have the opportunity to recover from downturns."

40s: Family summits, protecting income

"A lot of people in this age group can be swayed by keeping up with the Joneses," said Cheryl Sherrard, CFP and director of planning for Clearview Wealth Management.

People are being pulled in two directions—by both children and aging parents.

"Now is the time to have discussions upfront to establish the expectations ahead of time," said Sherrard, who wrote a guide to having these types of conversations with aging parents. (Click here to download Sherrard's guide.)

"You need to ensure that you are taking care of your future and to secure your retirement before you commit to your children that you'll take care of everything (college, cars, down payments, etc.) or for your parents, who may not have properly prepared for their own retirement or later life issues," she said.

Liam Norris | Cultura | Getty Images

Because these are prime earning and savings years, your income stream is critical, Sherrard said. Therefore, it is essential to review your disability and life insurance coverage to ensure they are appropriate and adequate.

She suggested some important questions to ask regarding employer disability policies, including:

  • What is the coverage duration?
  • What are the tax consequences?
  • What percentage of salary or "other" is covered?
  • Who is paying the premium?
  • What vocational circumstances are allowed?

50s: Set goals; maximize nest eggs

"It's crunch time now," said Richard Colarossi, CFP and accredited investment fiduciary with Colarossi & Williams.

"At this point, you're building that knowledge base and skills and worth," he said. "You should be peaking."

Colarossi suggests getting into the "planning phase" if you haven't already. "These could be your max earning years," he said. "Set your retirement goals, maximize your savings, pay debt and help your kids pay off their college loans. You can't go into your 60s without working on these."

"From age 50 to 67, you can get a lot accomplished if you're diligent." -Richard Colarossi, accredited investment fiduciary with Colarossi & Williams

As the Adventist checklist points out, once you reach age 50, the Internal Revenue Service allows you to add a "catch-up contribution" to your retirement savings account—an extra $6,000 before taxes is permitted in 2015.

Start making assumptions, Colarossi said. Ask yourself:

  • Where will I be in retirement?
  • What kind of lifestyle will I have?
  • What if something happens to me?
  • What are our health issues?
  • Do I need to downsize?
  • Have I done enough tax planning?

It sounds daunting, but you can do it, Colarossi said. "From age 50 to 67, you can get a lot accomplished if you're diligent."

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60s: Keep saving; prepare to transition

"Sixty is the age when people finally start taking [retirement planning] seriously," said Howard Pressman, CFP with Egan, Berger & Weiner.

But isn't it too late to prepare? Absolutely not. Here's why:

  • "We're in a better position to save," said Pressman. "The kids are gone and expenses are lower."
  • "The compounding effect is greater because of the higher amounts accumulated," he said. "Substantial growth is still possible throughout this decade."
  • "You can reinvent your career and keep working," Pressman said. "Our economy lends itself to appreciating older workers' knowledge."
  • "You can look into Social Security claiming strategies to maximize your benefits."

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Your 60s are a time to take a look at your current lifestyle and assess your preparedness and your portfolio. Pressman suggests taking a class on retirement.

"Look at it as a time of transition, not a time of withdrawal," he said. "That word can make all the difference in how you experience your retirement."

—By Deborah Nason, special to CNBC.com