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You’re probably not saving enough for retirement — and that’s OK

  • Median household income is $59,039, but the savings rate is only 3.1 percent.
  • Even $1 million won't last through retirement, depending on where you live.
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Here's a question that will give you agita: Are you on track to have 10 times your last salary saved by the time you retire?

For many Americans, the answer is "absolutely not."

Consider that the median household income was $59,039 in 2016, according to data from the U.S. Census.

Meanwhile, the personal saving rate — that is, savings as a percentage of disposable personal income — was 3.1 percent as of the end of September, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Most recently, a Nov. 1 tweet from Jean Chatzky, financial editor of NBC's Today show, sparked commentary on Twitter.

Those expectations don't fit the reality of slow wage growth and high costs of living. Would-be savers are encumbered with student loan debt, which is now at an average of $34,144, according to data from Experian.

Millennials in particular may need to tweak the way they judge retirement readiness.

"I don't think the multiples [of salary guidelines] are terrible advice," said David Blanchett, head of retirement research at Morningstar Investment Management. "They are highly generalized and won't work for many people."

Here's how figure out how much you ought to stash away.

Rules of thumb

Don't throw in the towel if you don't have the equivalent of your salary saved by the time you hit 30.

There are underlying assumptions around salary, inflation and rates of return behind all of these suggested retirement savings goals.

The benchmarks below are from T. Rowe Price, but other firms have come up with similar rules of thumb.

Age
Savings
30 years old 1/2 x salary
35 years old 1 x salary
40 years old 2 x salary
45 years old 4 x salary
50 years old 6 x salary
55 years old 8 x salary
60 years old 10 x salary
65 years old 12 x salary

Stagnant salaries, heavy debt loads and high costs of living may not factor into these goals.

While $1 million sounds like a lot of money, it'll last less than 20 years for Americans on the east and west coasts.

"These rules of thumb have a lot of assumptions built into them," said Wade Pfau, professor of retirement income at The American College.

"For instance, they'll assume that you're starting with zero savings, but what if you have negative savings because of your student loan debt?" he asked.

To make things even more complicated, how much you ought to save is tied to when you start putting money away, your household income, expected longevity and rates of return for both stocks and bonds.

For instance, a 25-year-old single person who's earning $25,000 a year and has just started saving in a 401(k) may need to save between 6.8 percent and 11.3 percent of salary, depending on market returns, according to a paper Blanchett and Pfau co-authored.

If that person waits until age 35 to start saving, he'll have to contribute anywhere between 8.9 percent and 13.6 percent of salary, showing that the longer you wait, the more you'll need to save.

Do what you can

There's no magic bullet for retirement security, but experts say savers will need to do whatever they can to prepare. Here's where to start.

Consider savings suggestions as just that: Savings goals are only guidelines. You'll need to adjust them to suit your own circumstances.

Save early and often: T. Rowe Price suggests that workers put away 15 percent of their salary, which includes any employer match they receive. That number isn't attainable for everyone, however.

"Start at 6 percent if you don't have a match and increase your contribution by 1 to 2 percentage points a year," said Judith Ward, senior financial planner at T. Rowe Price. Click the image below to enlarge.

The key is to make sure you have enough time for your savings and market returns to grow.

Know your debt: Understand your interest rates, particularly for student loans. "If any of your debts have an interest rate above 6 percent, you're better off paying them down," said Blanchett of Morningstar.

That doesn't mean you should ignore your 401(k). Continue to contribute at least up to the match, and apply whatever is left over toward servicing debt.

Configure your cash flow: Avocado toasts and lattes won't ruin your finances. Lifestyle creep and splurging on big-ticket items will.

"You're going through all this effort to save five dollars a day, but when you spend $500 on something else it offsets your benefits from making small expense reductions," said Pfau of The American College.

Manage expectations: Pensions, Social Security and personal savings were once the primary sources of retirement income. Now, pensions are "out" and working is "in."

As of May 2016, nearly 20 percent of Americans aged 65 and over said they were working, according to Pew Research.

"The third leg of the retirement income stool is now 'continuing to work' to make ends meet," said Ward of T. Rowe Price.

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