Amy Blacklock, 51, is on track for financial independence well before age 60, though she started far later than the standard recommendation.
Blacklock and her husband, who live in metro Detroit, assumed they would need to work until their mid-60s.
Then, they discovered the FIRE movement (financial independence/retire early), which transformed their view of their spending and values.
While the couple had some money stashed in 401(k) accounts, it was nowhere near enough to allow them to stop working. They purchased a new Jeep Wrangler shortly after they married. They had car payments on another vehicle. They were spending nearly everything they brought in, mostly on cars, eating out and shopping.
"I looked at where the money was going, and our values," she said, "and asked how we could start saving more. Then it became easy."
It's easy to make yourself feel terrible about your finances.
Click on any story about someone who started saving in a 401(k) plan on her first job. Or read about a guy who opened a Roth IRA with his first high school summer job earnings. Fast forward 15 years to your own age, and these people are now sitting on a tidy sum that's many times what you've managed to set aside.
Take heart. It's true that the earlier you start, the less you have to save each month.
Yet getting started late is better than never starting at all.
The thought of building a retirement nest egg can leave people feeling deflated, said Zaneilia Harris, a certified financial planner and president of Harris and Harris Wealth Management near Washington, D.C.
"Assess when you want to retire," Harris said.
Use an online tool such as the AARP Retirement Calculator to see how much you need for your ideal retirement.
Ultimately, you may need to save 20% of your salary. If this seems overwhelming, size up slowly. "Start with increasing your retirement savings by 2% with each cost-of-living increase, 5% with each raise and bonus you receive," Harris said.
Minimize your spending. Harris suggests online budgeting and tracking tools to help find ways to save. Redirect the funds you used to spend on your kids, now that they're self-sufficient, to boost your savings.
Blacklock and her husband were spending around $100,000 a year. If they wanted to achieve the retirement they still wanted, they'd need some drastic cuts. With their eyes fixed firmly on the goal, driving flashy cars and wearing brand-new clothes dropped in importance.
They sold the new Jeep and traded in their barely used sedan for two inexpensive replacements. Next on the chopping block: restaurants and cable TV.
"We cut everything else that wasn't important to us," Blacklock said. The money went straight into investment accounts.
They changed jobs to increase their salaries, began maxing out their retirement accounts and they invested for growth. Less than seven years after they changed their spending habits, Blacklock was able to stop working.
"There's no secret sauce," Blacklock said.
The simple fact is, earning as much as you can and cutting your expenses will get you there faster. "I was about 40 when I thought I would never reach a million dollars," Blacklock said. "I just didn't think it was possible."
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Tuition can put a crimp in retirement savings.
Kemberli Stephenson, 50, an accountant in Raleigh, North Carolina, wanted her two sons to graduate with a manageable amount of debt — less than 15% of the total cost. She footed the rest of the bills, but it really cut into her ability to properly prepare for retirement or pay down her own college and graduate school student loans.
To make up for lost savings, Stephenson started a business coaching women who want to leave the corporate world and start their own businesses.
Don't give up, Stephenson said. "Make a commitment to yourself," she said. "We are resilient. Past performance doesn't necessarily predict future results."
Make the decision to take control of your life financially and emotionally, and stick to your plan, whatever it is.
"We have to be smarter in our later years," she said. "We don't have the same luxury millennials have [of time]. But I believe it can be done."
Fixing your finances, even after getting a late start, is definitely doable, said Brenda Uekert, 55, who started a personal finance blog and a business after an abrupt job end. "It's all about growing the gap," she said. "If you can save half your income, you can be financially independent in 17 years."
Most people who are suddenly jobless aren't prepared, said Uekert, who lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. It's especially difficult for women who don't have another source of income. "I encourage people to create side hustles. Find other sources of income, even walking dogs," she said.
More than education, Uekert said, it's technical or specific skills that will get you in the door. The economy we live in is quite different from the world of even 15 years ago. "It's so open to innovation," Uekert said. "There are so many different ways to make money."
Age lights a fire under some people.
It did for Joe L., 52. "Life is finite," he said. "For me, 50 was like a horizon."
Joe and his co-worker Paul D., 48 (who asked that their last names not be used because of their employment situation) were starting to think about retirement. They realized they wished for more time. The energy industry co-workers, who live in Richmond, Virginia, had been dutifully saving for retirement but not at particularly high levels. Coming across the ChooseFi podcast was their light bulb moment for a way to springboard earlier out of the workplace.
Soon, they started their own FIRE blog to share progress and help others.
There's still hope, Paul said. If you're 45, 50, or older there's no reason to feel bad, Joe said. Take the opportunity to change your fundamentals on spending, saving, investing. Use every tax-advantaged account you can.
"Even further down the road [than your 50s], ask yourself if you plan to live to 65," Joe said. "If you'd like to be in a better spot, then it's worth some effort to change."
Paul likes the old saying about the best time to plant a tree: 20 years ago. The second-best time? Now.
Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.