Five Steps to Take Now to Catch Up on Retirement Savings

Experts say this small steps can make a big difference.

Depending on your age, retirement may seem like a long way off, but experts say it's important to start saving early—and that means now. "The sooner you start saving for retirement, the sooner you are setting your future self up for success," says Colleen McCreary, chief people officer at Credit Karma. "Compound interest is your friend, but it builds upon itself over time, so the sooner you start, the better."

It's good advice, but considering the vast majority of Americans haven't saved enough for retirement, it's a reality that tends to cause a lot of stress. According to a recent Credit Karma survey, 42 percent of millennials surveyed say their money stress say stems from not thinking they'll have enough savings for retirement—and that the anxiety is so great that it actually causes them to avoid thinking about, or dealing with, their personal finances.

But avoidance is not the answer, no matter how paralyzed you may feel. Remember: Even baby steps are steps in the right direction. Here's what the experts say you should focus on if you're playing "catch up."

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Take a hard look at your budget.

A smart first step is to take a hard look at your budget to see where you can reduce your expenses, says McCreary. You don't have to make huge slashes that you'll feel on a day-to-day basis—chances are, that'll leave you feeling burned out and deprived. If it feels more manageable, even cutting a couple things out each week or each month and rerouting that money toward your retirement could be huge, says McCreary. Start by eliminating things like unnecessary subscriptions, daily coffee runs, and other small indulgences. You may also be able to negotiate new rates for things like car or home insurance, which can also save you a few bucks each month—costs that add up over time and can be re-routed to retirement.

Don't be afraid to start small.

Now it's time to redirect those funds—don't just leave them sitting in your checking account. If you don't yet have one, work with your employer (or an independent professional) to open a 401(k) or an IRA. And remember: "Contributing something, even if it seems small, is better than contributing nothing," says McCreary. "If all you can afford to save right now is $25 per month, rest assured that $25 can still go a long way as it earns interest over time."

Take advantage of any employer matching.

If it's available to you, take advantage of employer-sponsored plans, and contribute at least enough to receive the maximum matching contribution your employer offers, says Nikki Hartung, divisional director at J.P. Morgan Wealth Management. What exactly does this mean? If your employer offers matching contributions up to six percent, your company will match your contribution up to that threshold, essentially doubling your investment. "You don't want to leave any free money on the table," says Hartung.

But if you can only comfortably contribute two percent, don't let that stop you in your tracks. You can also consider increasing your contribution rate automatically each year, says Hartung. "It can be easier to save more when increases are automated and occur steadily over time."

Try to develop a long-term plan.

Once you have a short-term plan for how to start contributing, look toward the future and set a goal for yourself to increase your retirement contributions by one to two percent per year, says McCreary. You can also commit to investing a portion of any bonuses or monetary gifts to your retirment account in lump sums. Just note: There are yearly limits in place: For 2021, the IRS contribution limits are $19,500 for 401(k)s and $6,000 for IRAs. The exception? If you're age 50 or older, you're eligible for catch-up contributions to both your 401(k) and IRAs, says Hartung. "If you're 50 or older, you can contribute an additional $6,500 into a 401(k) and an additional $1,000 into your IRAs each year."

If you've maxed out your tax-advantaged retirement contributions and are able to invest even more (way to go!), consider opening a general, taxable investment account to put more of your cash to work, says Hartung.

Seek help.

For long term planning, it's always wise to work with a financial advisor who can help you understand your overall financial picture and work with you to build the right portfolio for your specific needs and goals.

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