From not taking advantage of company matches to leaving a job without being fully vested, these missteps can really set you back.

There's a reason they call retirement "the golden years." It should be a leisurely time where you can enjoy all of your favorite hobbies and more time with your family, without the stress or commitment of a job. But, unfortunately, retirement doesn't look like such a pretty picture for the average American. According to a recent survey by Go Banking Rates, when asked to estimate how much money they had in retirement savings, 46 percent of all respondents said they had no money—yes, zero—put aside for retirement, while 19 percent said they'll retire with less than $10,000 to their name. The problem? Experts say the general rule of thumb is that you'll need to budget for approximately 80 percent of your pre-retirement income per year to live through retirement comfortably.

To ensure you don't find yourself in this dire situation, it's important to plan ahead and make smart decisions. To help, we asked financial experts to share the biggest mistakes people make when saving for retirement. Here's what they had to say.

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Not starting early.

One of the most common—and unfortunate—mistakes people make when thinking about retirement is assuming they don't need to start saving until later in life, says Colleen McCreary, chief people officer at Credit Karma. "The best time to start saving for retirement, if you can, is now," she explains. "Compound interest is your friend, but it builds upon itself over time, so the sooner you start, the better."

Even if you can't contribute much, you're still setting yourself on the right path. "If all you can afford to save right now is $100 per month, rest assured that $100 can still go a long way, as it can earn interest over time," adds McCreary.

Not taking advantage of company matching.

If you're eligible to contribute to an employer-sponsored plan, such as a 401(k), where your employer matches your contributions, don't leave that money on the table, says McCreary. Since it's essentially free money, sign up and start contributing to get the maximum annual employer match—an average of about 4.7 percent, according to Fidelity.

Quitting your job before you're vested.

If you're thinking about leaving your job, you may want to consider whether you're "vested" yet. When you're fully vested, you have full ownership over the funds that your employer matches. If you leave before this happens, you may have to forfeit some—or even all—of that money. Also important: Watch out for any fees associated with transferring funds from company to company.

Not readjusting your plan.

Just because you set your contributions at, say six percent, when you first began saving for retirement, doesn't mean it has to (or should) stay at that rate. 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. This way, you're starting off with something you know you can afford, while slowly increasing that number over time. You can even increase your contribution rate automatically each year to make it easier to save steadily over time.

While there is no exact dollar amount you should save for retirement, aim to get to a point where you're saving 10 to 15 percent of your income, if you can swing it, says McCreary.

Investing in one thing at a time.

Try to avoid something called sequential saving, says Dayana Velasco, market director of wealth at J.P. Morgan Wealth Management. What does that mean? Paying off your student debt then saving to buy your first home before finally getting around to saving for retirement, for example, she explains. "When prioritizing your financial goals, it doesn't necessarily have to be 'either, or.' Everyone's situation is different, and you can work with a financial advisor to create separate plans for each goal to ensure you are staying on track with them all."

Letting a setback derail you.

If you're just getting your retirement back on track after a long year of unemployment and other setbacks, don't panic, says McCreary. Many others just like you are in the same boat, and you can always readjust your budget and what you're contributing to your retirement fund. Remember: Even something small, like $25 per month, is better than nothing.

Cashing out too early.

Though you can technically withdraw money from your retirement fund at any time, it's not recommend. If you cash out even a small amount of your retirement fund before you turn 59½, you'll be subject to hard-hitting penalties and taxes.

Miscalculating post-retirement needs.

Sometimes, people calculate their retirement goal from their current day-to-day expenses without considering how their spending may change after they retire, says Velasco. "You may want to finally buy that summer house or travel the world. There might be higher medical costs later in life as most of us continue to live longer," she explains. "Consider all of these factors as you outline your retirement plan to ensure you are saving enough to retire comfortably."


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