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If you don’t have a retirement account, you have company. More than a third of Americans have never had one. For all the talk of 401(k)s and Roth and traditional IRAs, 36 percent of adults haven’t saved a dime for their golden years.

They’re doomed, right?

Not at all.

Starting to save for retirement is much like stopping cigarette smoking: It seems impossible at first, it becomes easier over time, and eventually, it becomes a part of your lifestyle. Like breaking any bad habit, it starts with creating some good ones…

First, get out of debt

You don’t need a certified public accountant like me to tell you this simple fact: You can’t save money if you owe money. After all, you can’t quit smoking until you stop buying cigarettes, right?

There are proven ways to pay down debt while simultaneously saving for retirement but putting a dent in your debt is imperative. You simply can’t keep racking up huge credit card balances now if you want to retire later. It might seem impossible, but you can do it by starting here: How to Save for Retirement Even If You’re in Debt.

Find solutions to pay off credit card debt so you have more money to save.

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Don’t get discouraged by the numbers

If you’re in your 50s and look up news stories about saving for retirement, you get ominous sentences like this from CNBC: “Although $1 million is the oft-cited amount needed to retire comfortably, it might not be enough.”

Financial experts like me tell clients that they’ll need 70 to 80 percent of their “final pre-retirement annual income.” That’s the last annual salary you earn before you retire – and you’ll need that every year till you die. Since retirees live another 20 years on average, you can see where that $1 million comes from.

So how are you supposed to save more than $1 million in less than two decades? Answer: With some help. A lot of help. You don’t have to do this alone. I haven’t seen any research on this, but I wonder how many 50-plus Americans don’t start saving for retirement simply because the numbers seem so daunting. I’m telling you: It’s not easy, but neither is it impossible.

Start with your employer

If you’re one of the 36 percent of Americans who have never had a retirement account, join the other 67 percent immediately. The best place to start is at work. Just over half of employers offer a 401(k). That rises to 90 percent for large companies. If you can sign up for one, do it now.

You’ve probably heard about 401(k)s without grasping their true power and genius. Named for the relevant part of the Internal Revenue Code – how’s that for good marketing? – 401(k)s are retirement plans you can only get from your employer. They have some awesome perks.

For starters, what you contribute is tax-deferred. That means the IRS doesn’t take its cut until you withdraw the money many years later. That cash stays in the 401(k), earning interest. In addition, most employers match a small percentage of your contribution – the average is 3 to 4 percent. So that’s savings on steroids.

How to deftly use a 401(k) isn’t hard, but it will take a few minutes. But in less time than it takes to make dinner, you can make money. Start by checking out our report, How to Get the Most Out of Your 401(k).

Once you open the account, devote as much month as you can afford to saving as aggressively as possible. The good news is that once you hit age 50, the IRS allows you to make “catch-up contributions” to your account. This means you can save more tax-free. The catch-up contribution for 2022 for 401(k)s and other employer-sponsored accounts is $6,500.

Use technology to save money

This is the time in any money article when I urge you to create a household budget – and you sigh and feel suddenly sleepy. That’s because budgeting is boring. Who wants to type up a long list of all their monthly expenses and constantly subtract that from their monthly earnings?

Yet you can’t save enough for retirement without a budget – especially if your time horizon is short. Then again, if you’re in your 50s, you might not know how easily technology has made this.

There are free and paid programs that can easily monitor your spending and saving. Among the most common are Mint (free) and YNAB (paid). If you’re not comfortable with cutting-edge technology, programs like Tiller let you download easily customizable spreadsheets. Even your bank or credit union probably offers some budgeting tools on their websites. All of them are slightly different, but each allows you to explore new ways to save. For example, what happens if you buy one less latte during the workweek? With a couple of keystrokes, you can find out – and extrapolate for years in the future.

Other apps save you money on particular expenses. For example, there are Prescription Discounts and Drug Discount Apps that can save you hundreds and even thousands on healthcare – an increasing concern among those (like me) who are 50-plus. Learn about others by checking out the Money Saving Apps that Debt.com employees have actually used.

Consult financial experts

Now let’s talk about old-school assistance: Talking to a real live human being. The best place to start is, once again, at work. If you have a Human Resources Department, there’s probably a benefits expert there. They know financial counselors you can trust. They can walk you through the steps for retirement investing, crafting a plan for your specific needs.

I also suggest calling Debt.com at for a free debt analysis. Whether it’s credit cards, student loans, medical bills, or something else, a trained counselor will explain all your options. There are proven programs that can help you, but they all have similar-sounding names like debt consolidation, debt management, and debt settlement. Each has its pros and cons, so it helps to ask a person instead of a computer.

Help yourself

Maybe it was the times, but during the height of the pandemic in 2020, one poll found, “More than half of employed Americans are now planning to work in retirement — with many noting an interest to have a ‘safety net’ to cover unexpected costs.”

I still think those numbers would hold up today. If you’re in your 50s and just starting to save for retirement, you might need to work. Not full-time, mind you. Just enough to cover the bills, and maybe enough to keep your sanity. (In that same survey I just mentioned, more than half said working after retirement would have a “positive influence on their mental well-being.”

If you think that might be your future, you might want to start sooner than that. Experiment with side hustles on your weekends. If you find one you like, maybe stick with it and use the extra money to pay down debt and eventually pay into a retirement account. Then, when you retire, you’ll have enough experience and expertise to earn more than others just getting started. How do you choose? Check out Finding the Best Side Hustles.

Teach yourself

Do you know the difference between a Roth IRA and a traditional IRA? Do you even know what an IRA can do for you? If you want to retire comfortably, you need more than a 401(k) and Social Security. You need an Individual Retirement Account.

You can learn all about the two kinds of IRAs by either listening to this Debt.com podcast or reading the transcript: Should I Get a Traditional or Roth IRA? And once you decide which IRA will suit your needs best, you can make catch-up contributions to that account as well. In 2022, the catch-up contributions for a Roth IRA is $1,000. A SIMPLE IRA allows for catch-up contributions up to $3,000.

You should also catch up on exactly what Social Security will give you: 8 Things to Know Before Drawing Social Security Retirement Benefits.

As someone closing in on retirement himself, I can tell you this: You need to change your lifestyle. Just as our bodies change as we age, and we need more sleep and better dietary habits, you need to change your mindset. You never thought about retirement before, and now you need to make it part of your new lifestyle. Having enough money in retirement is possible, but it’s not a set-it-and-forget-it proposition. You’ll need to keep thinking about retirement, and learning what it means to be debt-free and financially independent.

Like I said, you don’t need to do that alone, and Debt.com will help you at every step. But you need to take the first steps.

Now matter what kind of debt you have, Debt.com can help you solve it.

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Article last modified on May 11, 2022. Published by Debt.com, LLC