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10 Ways to Boost Your Retirement Savings

Kimberly Palmer

Maybe you know you should be saving more for retirement, but you aren't quite sure how. Or perhaps you've been steadily saving for years but as retirement gets closer, you want to bulk up that nest egg. Olivia Mitchell, executive director of the Pension Research Council at the University of Pennsylvania, shares 10 ideas that can help boost your savings:

Build a bigger nest egg.

Retirement isn't what it used to be, Mitchell says, largely because our standards for what life should be like at age 70 and 80 have changed drastically over the last century. That means the old standard advice, that people should plan to replace about three-quarters of their preretirement income, is no longer sufficient. "A 100 percent replacement rate is a safer place to start," she says.

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Baby boomers often have big plans for retirement, from travel to new hobbies, and those plans usually require money, Mitchell says. "They're not going to be sitting on the front porch on a rocking chair. They're going to do volunteer work, travel and do part-time work. Health care costs are likely to be a lot higher in the future as well. So it's not obvious our expenses will be easily cut, and taxes will likely go up to help bail out the deficit we're confronting."

Retire at age 65 or later.

The concept of retiring at age 62 is not realistic for many Americans. "A significant portion of the baby boom generation -- more than half -- is not adequately prepared for retirement, especially if they retire young. … If you delay retirement, benefits will be higher, and you've deferred eating into that nest egg for more years," Mitchell says. "My husband just quit work at 63, and I said he couldn't claim Social Security until he's 70."

Don't try to follow your parents' example.

That's because mid-career workers today are unlikely to see a repeat of what their parents experienced: housing prices that grew quickly and substantially. A stock market that blossomed for much of their working lives. And in some cases, generous pensions.

"If we were to extrapolate from our parents' generation, we might think, 'We really don't have to save that much because it's happening automatically.' [But] we now realize that putting all our money in one house is a really silly thing to do. It's not diversified, and values can plummet. We saw what happened to the stock market -- on top of Social Security and Medicare facing extraordinary financial challenges," Mitchell says.

That's why you can't look to past generations for guidance, and one reason why boomers feel so much angst about their retirement prospects. "They really wish that the past would be replicated in the future, and it probably won't be," she adds.

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Save at least a quarter of your income.

Mitchell encourages her two 20-something daughters to put aside between 15 and 25 percent of their income now. "If we're all going to live to 100, we're just going to have to put aside a whole lot more money than in the past," she says.

In response, her daughters ask why they should bother, given the low-to-nonexistent interest rates paid on savings accounts and paltry stock market returns. Mitchell acknowledges there are no easy answers. "That's a huge obstacle we're going to face when it comes to convincing the younger generation to save," she says.

Plan on a second (or third) career for retirement.

"You'll need to retrain, retool and potentially return to school for a new career. You can't afford to be 50 and have no marketable skills. You have to always push yourself and encourage yourself to take the next step, whatever it is -- software on the computer, skills in a profession. If you don't, you won't be employable," Mitchell says.

Proceed as if you're living to 100.

No one knows how long they'll live, which means we should all assume we're living for a long time -- and prepare accordingly. "It's very, very expensive to live to be 100, and you don't know if you will be one of those or not," Mitchell says. She adds that women born today have a 1 in 4 chance of living to age 95, especially if they are educated and have access to health care. That means setting aside as large a chunk of your income each year as you can manage -- perhaps as much as 40 percent, given the low returns savers and investors currently face.

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Invest, even if you feel slightly uncomfortable.

Target-date funds that shift assets into more conservative investments as a target retirement date approaches can help investors who feel overwhelmed to the point of paralysis when it comes to picking funds. "Not doing anything is the wrong response. It's better to save something and put it in a diversified fund with a professional manager who's managing the glide path for you than to do nothing," Mitchell says. "At least you have a prayer of building up savings."

Meditate on your future self.

"Saving is just no fun at all. In this world, we feel rewarded by shopping, by spending -- you get to try it on and wear it to the next party. Whereas saving is the reverse," Mitchell says. "You're telling yourself you cannot consume something today, you have to set it aside for a rainy day, or for when you're 90 years old. So it's hard for young people to visualize."

That's why she's intrigued by new research that suggests showing people an aged picture of themselves, depicting how they'll look at an older age, helps them decide to save more now. "The idea is to put you in touch with your future self, so you might begin to care about that future self and take good care of that person," she says.

Learn the basics.

"Most of us will never be mathematicians, but we have found that a little bit of knowledge goes a long way," Mitchell says. Her research has found that even a simple financial literacy class in high school, for example, can increase savings rates later in life.

Know it's not just about the money.

"It's worthwhile to invest not just in saving and pension accounts, but in your human capital -- you need training to be successful in that last third of life," Mitchell says. "And I also encourage people to invest in friendships, communities, families, because it is those networks that will help us age more successfully."

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