African-Americans Retire Earlier, With Less Savings

personal finance retirement
Gary Wade | Getty Images

The new retirement age is getting younger for many Americans who can least afford to retire.

A study released Tuesday by Prudential finds African-Americans retire earlier than the general population on average, despite significantly lower retirement savings.

About 25 percent of African-Americans surveyed expect to retire before age 60, compared to 20 percent of the general population. Among current retirees, the average retirement age for African-Americans is 56, three years younger than the general population, according to the study.

(Read More: Why There Is a Gender Gap in Retirement Savings)

Yet African-Americans are also retiring with a far more meager financial cushion than average. Even if they participate in 401(k)s and other retirement accounts, African-Americans have a median savings of $9,000 in their employer-sponsored plans, compared with $20,000 among the general population, the Prudential study found.

"If you couple the fact that African-Americans are retiring earlier with smaller balances (in retirement savings), that really is a challenge for many families," said Michael Davis, a senior vice president for Prudential Retirement.

Lower balances are the result of several factors, the study found, including taking loans or withdrawals from plans before retirement age for immediate needs. "The number one financial priority that African-Americans identified was paying down debt," Davis said. "For the general population it was saving for retirement."

(Read More: 7 Mistakes to Avoid in Retirement Planning)

Seeking safety rather than growth has also hampered African-Americans' ability to build their nest egg. Nearly three-quarters of African-Americans surveyed have savings accounts, but they are half as likely to invest in IRAs and less likely to invest in 401(k)s than the general population.

Financial advisor Ivory Johnson says many African-Americans may not be as knowledgeable about the benefits of long-term savings and investments as other communities.

"We didn't have grandpa to put his arm around our shoulder at the family gathering to say 'Son, this is how we pass wealth to the next generation, this is how you save money, these are the ways to protect what you have'," said Johnson, founder of Delancey Wealth Management. "Fortunately, we're beginning to have these conversations, and I believe the wealth gap will begin to narrow."

Worried about retiring with too little savings? Financial advisors say it's important to take these steps:

  • Have the "retirement talk" with a financial advisor long before you leave your job. "If your retirement savings don't provide an acceptable lifestyle, then you should have known that 10 years before you retired," said Johnson. That way you can take appropriate next steps, such as expanding your professional network to help find other job opportunities.
  • Launch a second act. Pursuing your passion may turn out to be a profitable new career or at least prevent you for eating up your savings too soon. Jeanne Fox-Alston, 60, lost her job at a foundation last spring after spending more than 30 years in the newspaper industry. She has now started her own business as an interior designer and professional organizer."This is something I love to do," she said. "I wanted to give it a try."
  • Parents thinking about retirement should also talk to their children about the importance of long-term savings now. Starting early and saving regularly in a variety of aggressive and conservative investments can help to grow your nest egg to ensure a more secure retirement. "Kids typically behave like their parents. Show them the simple idea of compounding" to build wealth, said Gregory Morse, a certified financial planner with Ameriprise in Los Angeles. "It's all about information."

_ By CNBC's Sharon Epperson. Follow her on Twitter @sharon_epperson