Every January, I promise to save more money. But come December, I haven't saved a dime. I'm worried that I'll be destitute when it's time to retire. Can you help me start a sensible savings plan?
-- Ellen F., Jacksonville, FL
You're not alone -- 43 percent of all working-age households in the United States aren't saving enough to ensure comfort and security during retirement, according to a recent study by Boston College's Center for Retirement Research (CRR). Women, in particular, need to have a financial safety net in place, say analsyts for the PBS series To the Contrary. They're considered more likely than men to end up in poverty as they age, due in part to the gender gap (an average woman makes 77 cents for every dollar a man makes) and to their role in society (they're typically the ones who put careers on hold to raise children and care for elderly family members).
All women need to remember that taking care of others means taking care of yourself first. There's no better way to do this than by ensuring that you have enough money to last a lifetime. And no matter what your age, it's never too late to take charge of your finances. Here's how to start:
Set a savings goal. To do that, figure out where your money is going. Carry a notebook around for a month and write down every purchase you make. At the end of the month, look for where you can trim, and then set a goal that makes you stretch a little but doesn't leave you subsisting on Ramen noodles.
For a rough idea of what you should be saving, consult the chart "How to Retire a Millionaire in a Better World" at coopamerica.org/pubs.
Decide where to put your money. A tax-free retirement plan, such as a 401(k) or IRA, allows you to spread your money out among several different investments, making it more secure. Plus, because there's a penalty for taking money out too early, you have less incentive for prematurely dipping into the cookie jar.
Start saving automatically. Ask your benefits manager at work to deduct a set amount from each paycheck and add it to your retirement or savings account. If your employer doesn't offer a retirement plan (or automatic transfers), ask your bank to routinely transfer money from checking into savings on a certain date each month.
Tracy Fernadez Rysavy is publications editor for Co-op America (coopamerica.org), a national nonprofit that provides green living, purchasing, and investing tips, and resources.