The Scary Truth About How Much Americans Are Saving

New research suggests a third of Americans don’t have any money saved for retirement. Use these expert tips to ensure you have enough to live comfortably.

  • Brigitt Hauck

Many employees dream of the day when they can leave the daily grind behind to spend their golden years traveling and exploring other interests. But living a life of leisure takes money, and a new survey reveals more than a third of Americans have no retirement savings at all.

The Bankrate.com survey, which analyzed responses from 1,003 Americans adults, suggests the younger a person is, the less likely he or she is to have a nest egg. A staggering 69 percent of respondents ages 18-29 had not set any money aside. While those numbers drop as people age, many Americans still don’t seem to be saving enough: Approximately 33 percent of 30-49 year-olds, 26 percent of 50-64 year-olds and 14 percent of those 65 and over said they have no retirement savings.

"Regardless of age, there is no better time than the present to start saving for retirement," Greg McBride, CFA and chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com, said in a release. "The key to a successful retirement is to save early and aggressively.”

There are two important reasons to start saving as early as possible, explains Jean Setzfand, AARP Vice President for Financial Security. First, the earlier you save, the more you’ll benefit from the power of compound interest, which means that the amount of money you're earning interest on will keep increasing. Second, the sooner you start saving, the more likely you’ll be able to develop good saving habits that will benefit you in the long-run.

Because people in their 20s are often riddled with college debts and just starting their careers, 30 is a reasonable age to begin saving, says Setzfand. If you’re just starting to set money aside and don’t know where to begin, here’s some advice to get started: 

  1. “Try setting up auto deposits into a retirement account, so you don't even think about it. Then, try upping your contribution percentage by just 1 percent every six months,” says Alexa von Tobel, founder and CEO of LearnVest. A savings plan such as a 401k (a plan that allows an employee to set aside pre-taxed income) is a good place to hold savings. Start by putting aside a small amount at a time to minimize the impact on living expenses, emergency funds, or any loan payments. A little at a time may not seem like enough, but it can still help you build up a substantial contribution over time.
  2. If your employer will match your own 401k contributions, take advantage, Setzfand says. While a recent, unrelated study suggests people spend more time researching a new car purchase than they do examining their 401k options, reading the fine print can pay off: “Try to max out your 401k contribution limits (in 2014, that amount is $17,500 per year or $1,458.33 per month) to get the full benefit of the pre-tax income.” Because you and your employer will both be contributing funds, it’s a smart way to build your nest egg more quickly.

Even if you’re approaching retirement age and have yet to set funds aside, remember that it’s never too late to start saving. Since it may be more difficult to reach a financial goal that will help you live comfortably the longer you wait, Setzfand recommends taking the following steps:

  1. Postpone retirement or take on a part-time job to ensure you’ll still have some form of income.
  2. Take advantage of “catch-up contributions.” If you’re over the age of 50, you can contribute an additional $5,500 to your 401k each year.
  3. Wait to tap into any social security benefits. The longer you wait, the larger your payout will be. If you delay your retirement beyond the full retirement age, your social security benefits will increase by approximately 8 percent for each year you delay them—until the age of 70.
  4. Minimize your expenses to make it easier to live off more meager funds. Can you afford to cut back on food, transportation, or other discretionary spending? “Look for major changes that might make life less expensive in general,” explains Setzfand. “For example, ‘downsizing’ your house or apartment has major saving opportunities.” Moving to a smaller home can help lower utility expenses and help you save on furnishings. At the same time, you may be able to make money selling the things you don’t need any more.

“Just because you’re cutting back, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy life in the same way,” says Setzfand. Plus, the benefits of saving pay off: Padded retirement funds will enable you to finally leave the grind behind, while still taking care of yourself and your family.