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‘Save early and save often’ is great advice, and here’s what to do if you got a late start

Amy Blacklock, 52, managed an early retirement by cutting expenses and boosting her salary.
Source: Amy Blacklock

We all know the advice on retirement planning.

The younger you start, the easier it will be, and the less you'll have to save.

Not everyone, however, is able to get that early start.

Ironically, the most common retirement savings account, the 401(k) plan, is not delivering adequate savings, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Americans ages 56 to 61 had a median 401(k) balance of just $21,000 in 2016, the institute found, using Survey of Consumer Finance data.

The good news is, it's never too late. For one thing, you've still got compounding interest on your side.

Even over a short period of time, it is a powerful tool, says Morgan Hill, CEO and owner of Hill & Hill Financial in Woodstock, Georgia.            

Ten years makes a huge difference in the investing life cycle, says Brian Walsh, Jr., a financial planner at Walsh & Nicholson Financial Group in Wayne, Pennsylvania.

Someone who is 45 can take on a bit more risk and contribute more to a 401(k) plan.

"Those assets will accumulate more quickly," Walsh said. "You'll have a smaller window at age 55, but catch-up contributions can help greatly."

If you are over 50, though, don't despair.

Don't let any dauntingly huge number, whether it's $500,000 or $1 million, scare you off taking some steps to secure your future. How much you need is completely expense driven, Walsh says.

Your first stop: add up everything you will get in retirement, including Social Security and any possible pensions. Don't forget about past jobs that might still entitle you to one. You want to see if those fixed-income streams will cover your expenses, Walsh says.

Next, come up with a plan.

If there's one lesson from the pandemic, it's the numerous uncertainties that can crop up.

"If you can have a plan in place and work toward it, the better off you're going to be," said Amy Blacklock, 52, who caught up and even surpassed her retirement goals early.

Blacklock, who is now retired, lives in the Detroit area and blogs about personal finance.

Have a solid emergency fund, a key part of getting ready for retirement, Hill says.

And keep in mind these financial moves you can make even when time is no longer on your side.

 Guns blazing?

You might be wondering how aggressive your investment strategy should be.

Short answer: "It depends," said certified financial planner and CPA Dan Herron, principal of Elemental Wealth Advisors in San Luis Obispo, California.

In other words, you'll have to walk a tight rope between keeping an allocation that suits your risk tolerance and one that gives you the best chance to achieve your retirement goals, Herron says.

Another possibility is working longer in order to add to your portfolio, a good tactic if you are more risk averse.

"I'm cautious about people being too aggressive," said CFP Kelly Campbell, chairman and CEO of Campbell Wealth Management in Alexandria, Virginia.

Campbell recommends a solid 60/40 equities and bonds portfolio. Growth and income is the goal: "It's still good for any age," he said, "and is the right mix of risk versus return."

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Put everything in one place

It's harder to keep track of what you have and whether you're making progress with several accounts scattered across different platforms.

"It's easier to tell how much you have at the beginning and the end of the year if you consolidate," Campbell said.

24 months

Campbell recommends what he calls the 24-month checkbook exercise. Go through the last two years of checks to see how much you're spending and what you are spending it on.

The point is to determine what you take out every single month. Then, he says, divide by 24 so you know your monthly and semi-annual payments, which are a good indication of what you spend. Now that you know that number, look for anomalies or things that won't recur.

For instance, in retirement, you won't have a commute but you may have higher expenses for trips you'd like to take.

Plan, plan, plan

A plan helps make sure you don't run out of money in retirement. "It's never too late to make one," Campbell said.

"Even if you're in your 70s, what if you live to 100?" he said. "If you're going to run out in retirement, wouldn't you rather know now, than when you're running out?"

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How this couple retired in their early 30s

If you can see that you will run out of money later in life, you can make some changes to your spending before it's happening. "It can be much more challenging to do when you are in your 80s," Campbell said.

Mind the gap

Blacklock's light bulb moment came when she was in her mid-40s.

"We weren't late [in starting to save]," said Blacklock.

She and her husband had been saving and were likely on track to retire at the standard age 65 or so. They had some doubts, and in fact they wanted to retire earlier, if possible.

Blacklock, now retired from her job as an automotive industry program manager, began reading everything she could on personal finance and especially the FIRE movement (financial independence, retire early). Then she began to run the numbers.

What really helps the most is to make the gap between your expenses and your income as big as possible, Blacklock says. For some people that may mean maximizing your income. "You can only cut your expenses so much, because you have to live," she said. "The only other way to increase the gap is to earn more."

They switched jobs to increase their salaries. Blacklock started at $55,000 and ended at $83,000.

The couple cut a lot of expenses, including expensive cars, to grow the gap between income and outflow.

In 2013, Blacklock and her husband had a net worth of about $250,000. After six years, they hit $1 million, thanks in part to a good market, she says, and now have even more.

"It can get to be too late for the comfortable retirement you dream about," Blacklock says. "But it's never too late to start saving."

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