FA Playbook

How to grow your 401(k) at any age

How to plan for college and retirement
How to plan for college and retirement

When it comes to retirement saving, it doesn't matter how old you are, because all generations are in trouble.

Whether a baby boomer, Gen Xer or millennial, many Americans find themselves in the same boat: not having a solid plan for retirement.

Although different generations are facing different threats, a study conducted by financial-education company Financial Finesse found that most, if not all, Americans might not be able to eventually pack up and head to a retirement community.

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The study found that the biggest threat overall to baby boomers is retirement preparedness. For example, more than half of employees age 55 to 64 say they have not even run a retirement-plan estimate. The study was based on an analysis of 20,575 responses.

Gen Xers are most likely to be in the worst financial shape when it comes to retirement planning. Aside from their being behind other generations in terms of managing dollars and developing solid retirement plans, there are other external factors that will contribute to their retirement difficulties. One big problem: It's currently estimated that by the time Gen Xers hit their expected retirement age, the Social Security lockbox will have run dry.

On the whole, millennials are also a long way from putting together actual retirement plans. To that point, 71 percent of millennial participants in the study said they haven't run an estimate on what it would take for them to exit their careers. This poses a problem, as it's conceivable they will be the generation to receive the least assistance from both employers and government.

Figuring out how much you'll need to retire is key; running a plan estimate gives you the best shot of calculating those dollar amounts. While you crunch the numbers, there are also some steps you can take—no matter your age—that could help beef up your portfolio and possibly get you across the retirement finish line in time. These include reducing housing costs, seeking out alternative investments and getting in on the exchange-traded funds gold rush.

(Read more: 6 retirement myths you need to ignore)

Pack up and move
One big difference between Americans saving for retirement today and their parents' generation is debt. Investors boosting their 401(k) balances are simultaneously racking up more debt than previous generations.

According to a study by financial-tool website HelloWallet, 60 percent of American households are building up debt faster than retirement savings.The majority of debt held by Main Street is comprised of mortgages. The study was based on a panel of more than 50,000 U.S. households.

Although real estate is a long-term investment, its return typically keeps pace with inflation, according to Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller.

New homeowners are finding that their total monthly payments are on the rise. Real estate foreclosure site RealtyTrac found that Americans who bought a three-bedroom house in the last three months of 2013 are now forking over 21 percent more per month in mortgage payments than homeowners did, on average, one year ago.

Reducing housing costs is one way to dump some debt and free up cash for your nest egg.

There are two practical ways to slash those expenses, said certified financial planner Tim Maurer: relocating and downsizing. Moving out of an expensive abode in a high-cost area—for example, a $1 million three-bedroom ranch in Alexandria, Va.—to a lower-cost region, such as Charlotte, N.C., allows you to maintain a similar standard of living, keeping that three-bedroom ranch or even upgrading, while significantly shedding costs.

"The most powerful thing that a person can do to drastically improve their retirement standing in the shortest period of time is to move," said Maurer, director of personal finance at the BAM Alliance.

In the above hypothetical move from Virginia to North Carolina, "the prospective retiree is able to add $500,000 dollars to his or her retirement nest egg, an amount capable of upgrading a seemingly hopeless retirement projection into a comfortable one," he added.

(Read more: Don't get blown off course by a windfall)

But moving to a new state is not always practical. For homeowners in that camp, another option could be to "sell down" or move into a smaller, less-expensive dwelling. Maurer said that by making this type of move, "you still derive the benefit of adding the balance to your retirement proceeds and lessening the costs of home ownership going forward."

Investing tips for 40- and 50-year-olds
Investing tips for 40- and 50-year-olds

Seek out alternative investments
It's undeniable that any investment comes with risk, and diversification is the most obvious way to protect yourself. Even big endowments—with tens of billions of dollars in assets—use alternative investments as a way to hedge. Investing in alternatives such as real estate investment trusts or master limited partnerships tends to provide steady and consistent dividends.

There are not too many of these type of investment options available to the average retirement saver, but they do exist. According to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, the typical 401(k) plan offers no more than 12 alternative investment options.

(Read more: 40-plus? Not too late to start saving)

Trevor Shakiba, president of the private wealth Shakiba Group, does warn that savers shouldn't be too eager to invest heavily in alternatives, because markets, more often than not, are a winning bet.

Markets have grown 26 out of the last 34 years, meaning "you have a 75 percent chance that it will go up [rather] than go down," he said. Since alternatives often trail healthy markets, Shakiba recommends allocating around 10 percent—and no more than 20 percent—of these types of investments to their portfolios.

If you interested in adding some really exotic alternatives, such as art, antiques or wine, to your 401(k) mix, you're out of luck—the IRS prohibits plan sponsors from offering such investments.

Get in on the ETF gold rush
Globally, ETFs and exchange-traded product (ETP) assets under management hit a record $2.3 trillion last year, and their popularity among investors continues to grow—mainly due to low fees and healthy returns. Unlike mutual funds, ETFs typically require minimal management, as they tend to follow indices like the S&P 500. This means that, once up and running, the product essentially runs on autopilot; hence, the smaller fees.

(Read more: Don't let your nest egg crack post-retirement)

Despite ETFs' stellar performance, the Investment Company Institute found that only 3.4 million American households are invested in the asset class. That's probably due in part to the fact that most retirement-plan sponsors are not offering the products, and only a handful of custodial partners—such as TD Ameritrade—are offering ETF options.

For those who are unable to jump into the ETF game, the best advice at this point is to petition employers to make such options available. "Plan participants should be asking their chief financial officers to provide them with more low-cost and more transparent options than mutual funds," said Hafeez Esmail, vice president of ETF advisory group Main Management.

Esmail, who heads up the investment group's 401(k) business, said that—although it might not be the best option for retirement savers—individuals can take matters into their own hands if they truly want to invest in ETFs. "If you want to go out on your own, you can roll over your plan to an IRA and then take it to another investment firm, managing it yourself," he said.

By Anthony Volastro, Segment Producer, CNBC. Follow him on Twitter @VolastroCNBC.

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