4 Retirement Planning Steps for Gen X, Yers

CBS MoneyWatch

If you're like many people in their 20s and 30s, you've put off thinking about retirement because it seems so far away. And while some Gen X and Gen Yers have started worrying about being prepared for retirement, they aren't yet following through on solutions.

Maybe it's time to get serious.

When I give retirement planning workshops to baby boomers, audience members often express one of these two thoughts:

  • I wish I'd heard you 20 years ago
  • My kids need to hear your message

If you're a member of Gen X or Gen Y, why not get 2013 started on the right track by taking steps to improve the odds that you'll be able to enjoy your retirement years without the stress of worrying about your finances? It's never too early to start planning for a long and prosperous life. But don't try to do everything at once -- you're more likely to succeed by taking just one step at a time. So act on one of these ideas each month, and before half the year has passed you'll be well on your way to financial freedom in your later years.

Step 1: Find ways to spend less money. The No. 1 reason most people give to explain why they can't save any money is that they spend their whole paycheck -- and then some -- in order to afford all the things they need or want now. Instead of that line of thinking, why not think of it this way: You can buy yourself freedom from work in your later years if you're careful about how you spend your money today. Because if you spend all your wages now, you'll become a slave to work for the rest of your life.

Over the years, I've found many ways to save significant sums of money, including driving my cars into the ground instead of buying a new one before the old one's dead; not buying the latest electronic gizmo and making do with older versions that work perfectly well; and not taking expensive vacations. And in spite of cutting back, I've had a great life!

You can also be careful about how much money you set aside for your children's college education. Will it really ruin their lives if they go to a good public school instead of an expensive private one? Keep in mind that if you sacrifice your retirement savings to pay for your kids' college tuition, the "gift" you might end up giving them is the need to move in with them in your later years.

Step 2: Make changes to improve your health. There are simple things you can do now to significantly reduce the odds of developing expensive and debilitating illnesses at any age. And the sooner you get started, the better. Many readers may have innovative wellness programs at work that make it easy and rewarding to make progress. Improving your health doesn't need to cost anything -- all it takes is determination. And another great benefit is that you'll look and feel better right now and won't need to wait for your retirement years for the payoff.

One simple step to take is to reduce the amount of fatty foods you eat and to increase the amount of fruits, vegetables and grains you consume. The bonus? Cutting out meat and consuming more fresh fruits, vegetables and grains should save you money at the grocery store, since these foods usually cost less than meat. This will allow you to save more for retirement, so you'll be achieving two goals for the price of one.

Most people would also benefit by increasing the amount of exercise they get every day. If you're a couch potato but want to be more active, try starting with a brisk, 30- to 45-minute walk around your neighborhood, either first thing in the morning or right after dinner. Take your spouse or partner, too, if you have one, or call up a friend who's interested in exercising. And if you're already exercising, good for you! But I bet you can find ways to improve your workouts by making sure you get all the kinds of exercises (stretching, cardio, strength training and balance) that are necessary to keep you fit in your later years.

Step 3: Invest in your career. You won't be able to invest much for retirement if you don't have a job that pays well. If you're in a dead-end job, maybe it's time to investigate what type of training or education you need to start a career with more of a future. Or if you're in a good career already, think about the steps you can take that will make you more valuable, and thus more likely to be earn raises and promotions. It might not even cost you anything; maybe it just involves signing up for more training offered by your employer or taking on new responsibilities.

Think you've been doing well at work but haven't received a raise lately? Consider asking for one, but do your homework first. If you're successful and convince your boss you deserve a raise, invest the amount of your raise in your 401(k).

Step 4: Increase your retirement savings. Yeah, yeah, I know you've heard over and over that you should start saving for retirement when you're young. Well, you're going to hear it again!

If you participate in a 401(k) at work, bump up your savings by just 1 or 2 percent of your pay. Or if your plan has an "auto-escalation" feature that periodically increases your contribution, sign up for it. Saving a little more now won't ruin your life -- you likely won't even miss the money -- and you'll learn how to get by while spending less (see Step 1 above). Better yet, make sure you're saving enough money. (The posts below offer some guidelines for determining how much money to set aside for retirement and for motivating yourself to meet your savings goals.)

If you take charge now, you'll feel much better about your future! And there's no better way to get started than by taking these steps during the first half of 2013.

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