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When and how you plan for retirement can make a huge difference in when you can ditch your job and how enjoyable life will be when you do. Of course, the ideal route is to start saving as soon as you start working. If you land your first job in your early 20s, it can be very helpful to start stashing away cash while you're still potentially living in your parents' home and have little consumer debt.

But sometimes life gets in the way of saving as much as you'd like. Student loans, mortgage payments, and unforeseen financial expenses can completely throw off the best-laid retirement plans. However, it is possible to start in your 30s, 40s, and even 50s and still have enough to bid your day job adieu. In fact, proper retirement planning must be tailored to your current financial situation, as well as your future goals and dreams. Here's how you can get them both in alignment no matter what age you are today.

4 steps to start retirement planning in your 20s

As young adults, we're often told to start saving for retirement. But with the pressure of making ends meet and the allure of instant gratification, many of us find it difficult to think about our future selves. Although it may be difficult to understand at the time, there are many benefits of early retirement planning that can positively impact the employment and retirement choices you have later in life. The job market and retirement planning have changed rapidly over the last few decades, so make sure to educate yourself on the current realities.

Step 1: Envision your retirement lifestyle

Although this may be decades away, think of your plans for your future self. Do you want to stop working in your 40s or your 70s? Do you want to spend your days with your children, or volunteering at animal shelters, or sailing around the Mayan riviera? Or some combo of all three? Retirement is not only about the freedom to pursue hobbies, but also about being able to live life on your terms. It may be hard to imagine this in your 20s because you may have just left the nest or truly be enthralled with your new career. However, this is a perfect time to imagine what you want your happily ever after to look like. You'll have a lot of time to refine that vision and reach the financial milestones needed to make those dreams a reality.

Step 2: Pay off your debt and start saving

One of the most important things you can do for your future is to accumulate cash. That's what a savings account is for. You may also have student loan debts or a store card that has a balance that needs to be paid off. Work on your emergency savings (three to six months of living expenses) at the same time that you pay off these debts. If your student loans are insurmountable, use income-based repayment plans to create a sustainability plan. And focus on paying off consumer debts – credit cards and personal loans. Allow your savings to grow and your debts to shrink.

Step 3: Invest as much as you can

According to Fidelity Investments' annual resolutions study, among the next generation (ages 18-35), "62 [percent] plan to increase their retirement contribution in the year ahead, at a far higher level than older Americans (34 percent)". "Save at least 15% of your pre-tax income each year for retirement, which includes any contributions you may get from your employer if you have a 401(k) or other workplace retirement account," says Rita Assaf, Fidelity's VP of retirement and college products. "If contributing that amount right now is not feasible, check to see if your employer has a program that automatically increases contributions annually until a goal is met. You can also start by contributing at least enough to meet an employer match, and then gradually increase this amount if you get a raise or bonus until you have reached the annual contribution limit." Your retirement savings isn't a savings account—it is actually being invested in the stock market. Starting early, even with smaller amounts, is key to achieving financial freedom. Compound interest works in your favor. 

Step 4: If your job offers a retirement plan, work it!

These days, many job opportunities are on contracts, so you only get paid cash and no additional benefits. But if you land a salaried role, chances are that you'll have the opportunity to invest in a retirement account called a 401(k). This plan allows employees to contribute a portion of their income on a pre-tax basis. The income is not taxed at the time it is earned, but rather when it is withdrawn from the account during retirement. To be eligible to contribute to a 401(K), an individual must have an employment history with his or her company and be over 18 years old. As of 2022, you can contribute up to $20,500 per year. Most employers will match your contribution up to a certain level—typically 2 to 5 percent of your contribution or income. But if you don't contribute, they won't either. So even if you can't max out savings to $20,500, contribute enough to get the company's match. That's free money your older self will really appreciate.

3 steps to start retirement planning in your 30s

Thirty is not the new 20 when it comes to retirement savings. At this age, you may already feel the burden of taking care of aging parents or young dependents. Student loans may linger, but your income is probably reaching new heights. If you haven't yet had time to focus on retirement, don't feel bad. You're not alone. Luckily, catching up in your 30s is easily attainable.

Step 1: Max out 401(k) savings 

Remember that pesky 401(k) savings account that you may or may not have had the chance to max out? Now, dump as much money into that account as possible, get the employer match, and pay attention to the fund options. Usually, they are funds that are so risk-averse they are barely making more than your savings account. You can afford to be riskier—consider medium to high-risk options that can skyrocket your gains over the next 10 to 20 years. Because your income may be on the rise, remember that putting money into your 401(k) now also lowers your taxable income, which also has its benefits. By the end of your 30s, you want to contribute the maximum allowable amount to this retirement account every year.

Step 2: Look into IRAs

Once you've contributed all you can to your employer-driven retirement accounts, consider other outside accounts, such as traditional and Roth IRAs (individual retirement accounts). Work with a financial planner to figure out which one is best for you. If you're already married and there's an income gap between spouses, there are ways for one spouse to help fund the retirement account of the other. Take a look at whether a spousal IRA is an option for your family.

Step 3: Get ready for college expenses

If you had children in your 20s or 30s, chances are you're preparing for their college expenses side-by-side with your retirement savings. For them, start a 529 plan for college and trade school expenses. Also consider unconventional ways to grow your wealth, while also saving for their future. 

3 steps to start retirement planning in your 40s

There are many reasons why retirement savings might not have been an option until your 40s. For example, many people come to the U.S. for study in their 20s or skilled work in their 30s, and realize in their 40s that they have some financial catching up to do. Similarly, freelancers, artists, entrepreneurs, and folks in the middle of a second or third career might find themselves more focused on retirement savings now than ever before. Because you can start receiving social security benefits at age 62, the good news is that you have over 20 years to get back on track.

Step 1: Invest in the right portfolio

Sure, Bitcoin sounds sexy, but with a 20-year time horizon, you have to be careful about risks. Big bets can result in big losses that could delay retirement by years. Consider medium-risk investment portfolios: 50 percent to 60 percent as large-cap stocks, and the rest in less risky assets like bonds, gold, and other stable commodities. If you're not sure where to begin, check out investment platforms like Public.com, which helps people become better investors, no matter their level of investing experience. This online community offers in-depth and educational conversations for investors of all ages around both traditional retirement savings as well as the FIRE movement. 

Step 2: Track your spending 

Your 40s is when keeping up with the Joneses really kicks in. Family vacations ramp up, kids' expenses double and triple, and you start to feel like you've worked hard for the good things in life. The truth is that inflation is making the cost of basic needs very expensive, so you'll need to be careful about excess spending today that could rob you of your carefree future. Clark Kendall of Kendall Capital says, "The key issue here is first to have the mindset to be a saver, then depending upon various other factors—such as age, income, marital status, family structure, employer benefits, etc.—then a well-trained financial planner can determine which financial tool to use, such as IRA, Roth IRA, Simple IRA, 401(k) 403(b), TSP, etc., for the best retirement outcomes." 

Step 3: Make sure you're properly insured 

As you age, health risks and the cost of health insurance increase. No matter how much you have saved, it can easily be wiped out by a medical expense that isn't properly covered. Now is a great time to consider your health insurance, long-term care insurance, and any other medical care benefits that you might have put off.

3 Steps to start retirement planning in your 50s

Starting in your 50s sounds intimidating, but it doesn't have to be. Chances are that you have money saved somewhere, just not in your retirement account. Your income may be steady, which is also a good thing. You may have untapped equity in your home, too. Your interest in full-time work may be in flux, as well as greater demands on your time—grandkids, civic organizations, taking care of elders and neighbors. Chances are you have a lot on your plate, but you'll want to focus on getting comfortable with digital platforms that automate your savings without draining your energy. 

Step 1: Automate with digital tools 

By now, you're likely already using bank apps that monitor your spending habits and send you notifications when there's fraud detected on your account. Rely on that same technology to do the grunt work for you when it comes to saving for retirement. George Castineiras, the chief revenue officer for Avibra, Inc., an e-commerce platform with a mission to democratize benefits for everyone, says that retirement success comes down to one thing we all control—our behavior. "Everyone can retire with dignity," he says. "All we have to do is consistently invest 10 percent of whatever we make and forget that it exists until we actually retire. Technology has advanced enough to enable investing consistently in micro amounts." He says not to rely on willpower, instead, get an account that allows you to auto-invest 10 percent of what you earn consistently until retirement.

Step 2: Get your finances organized

If you don't know where your bank passwords are, get a book or online password keeper to make sure you're never locked out. If you have only paper copies of important documents, digitize them in a tool like 2ndVault, which other family members can access if they need to. In short, get all your financial details out of your head and into an organizer—virtual or hard copy. 

Step 3: Reevaluate the value of your home

By now, you may be an empty nester or headed in that direction. Otherwise, you might find yourself caring for aging elders, who can't get up your spiral staircase. Regardless of your setup, most people are sitting in their biggest bill—their home. Over time, homes can have accumulated a lot of equity that could be better leveraged to move to an appropriately located or better-sized home that wouldn't cost as much to maintain. Think of how you can use your home to fund your future. Rent out an empty room on VRBO or Airbnb. Take out equity to buy a vacation home, which can generate retirement income. Learn more about reverse mortgages to decide if you truly need one. Creatively use your home as a tool to finance your future.

The bottom line: Start now.

There are lots of resources out there for free, including influencers who teach you how to retire early, and apps that help you find cities with a lower cost of living where you can retire in style. The earlier you start, the greater your chances of achieving your retirement goals. So if you haven't started already, the next best time to start is right now.