It's often said that experience is the best teacher. If that's true, nothing I can teach you today about the importance of saving for retirement—and the importance of starting to do so right now—will compare to the life lesson you'll have learned by the time you actually reach retirement.
When you get there, either you'll have saved enough money to live comfortably or you won't (and wish that you had).
This is amply demonstrated by a 2012 survey of retirees by Bankers Life and Casualty's Center for a Secure Retirement. When asked to give younger people just one piece of advice, 39 percent of survey participants said "Save for the future." That answer beat out every other, including finding work you enjoy, being responsible for your own life and continuing your education.
And when asked about the most important piece of financial advice they'd give, 93 percent of those retirees said start saving early, and 84 percent urged younger people to contribute to their workplace retirement plan.
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That's the voice of experience speaking eloquently.
Clearly, some of those retirees are now filled with regret for not having saved more. Many said they were shocked by the financial surprises they have encountered in retirement.
It's likely they believed the myth that they'd need less income in retirement because their children would be grown and the mortgage might be paid off. But they found out that, in reality, they want or need to spend about as much as they always did—except that now it's on different things, including rising health-care costs.
Experience has taught these folks a harsh lesson. Fortunately, though, you have a choice. Your future can be like theirs—filled with regret—or it can be like the one they wish they had.
If you have a retirement plan at work, you need to join it. Contribute the maximum now if you can; if not, increase your contributions incrementally until you do reach the maximum on a pretax basis. Once you're there and can afford to save even more, contribute to an IRA, too.
And you need to do this right now. Don't delay another day. Why? Because the sooner you start saving, the less you need to save each month, the more wealth you'll accumulate, and the sooner you can quit saving and start enjoying a life of leisure.
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Here's an illustration showing why that's true: Suppose you're 30 years old and for the next 35 years you contribute $5,000 a year (well below the maximum), earning 8 percent per year. At age 65 your account will be worth $861,584.
But if you delay your participation just one year, starting instead at age 31, your account will be $68,451 less! If you contribute $1,000 a month and wait a year to start, your loss will be more than a quarter of a million dollars!
How can this occur? It's because money doesn't grow linearly but exponentially—due to the power of compounding.
To illustrate this, imagine that you have a penny and it doubles in value every day for 31 days. How much will it grow in value during that month? Well, after seven days it will be worth just 64 cents. But at day 14 it's worth $82. At day 21 it has grown to $10,500. And after day 31 that penny has grown to $10.7 million! That's because interest is earned upon interest upon interest.
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Some folks in their 40s and 50s who have been doing a good job of saving become despondent because their account values aren't higher. But just as the penny seemed to grow modestly for three weeks and then exploded in value, so it is that saving may seem like drudgery for 75 percent of your career. But if you're in your 50s and have been diligently saving a large percentage of your income for decades, you will experience an astonishing burst of growth in the final years before you hit retirement age.
Don't let anything stop you from saving—not even scary economic times. According to Fidelity, the largest retirement-plan provider, workers who continued to invest in their plans throughout the financially volatile decade that ended Dec. 31, 2012, saw the size of their accounts quadruple! During the same period, the S&P 500 Stock Index rose only 62 percent.
The lesson: You can grow your wealth no matter what the economy is doing.
There are myriad reasons why some people don't contribute to their retirement plans at all or don't contribute the maximum. But those reasons really are nothing more than excuses. You can save, and you can find ways to save much more than you think you can.
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And allow me to repeat: Start now. No excuses. If you feel you need help developing a savings plan that will keep you on a positive path toward retirement, talk to a fee-based, objective financial advisor.
This article is adapted from Ric Edelman's new book, "The Truth About Retirement Plans and IRAs," published April 8 by Simon and Schuster.