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For 32% of Baby Boomers, Retirement Looks Bleak

Maurie Backman, The Motley Fool

Retirement is a period of life to look forward to and celebrate, but many older Americans inevitably wind up dreading it -- and the reason often boils down to money. Though 48% of baby boomers think they'll be comfortable in retirement if they watch their spending, 22% say they're apt to struggle financially, according to investment banking company Natixis. Worse yet, 10% of boomers feel they won't ever manage to retire at all.

If you're an older worker who's less than optimistic about retirement, there are steps you can take to change your outlook for the better. Here are a few to start with.

Older man with concerned expression sitting on couch while holding face in hand.

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

1. Commit to a lifestyle overhaul today

It takes money to retire comfortably, and while Social Security will provide some of it, the rest will largely need to come from you. If you're sitting on a less-than-impressive nest egg at this stage of life, chances are it's because you prioritized other expenses over your IRA or 401(k) contributions. But rather than beat yourself up over that fact, make some immediate changes so you're able to pump some serious money into your retirement account.

What sort of changes are we talking about? Basically, everything from downsizing your living space to leasing a less expensive car to cutting back on leisure and restaurant meals until your nest egg is in healthier shape. Changing your spending habits will not only free up cash for your 401(k) or IRA, but it'll also help you acclimate to a more modest lifestyle, which you might need to maintain once you retire.

2. Plan on working longer

If you're not confident in your ability to retire comfortably (or at all), then it pays to put off that milestone until you're in a better place financially. Therefore, if you're able to keep working a few years longer than planned, do it. The more years you collect a paycheck from a job, the longer you'll be able to leave your nest egg alone, rather than tap your limited savings. Working longer will also allow you to boost that nest egg, especially if you make some of the lifestyle changes we just talked about.

Extending your career might also help you grow your Social Security benefits, thereby boosting another important retirement income source. For each year you delay benefits past your full retirement age (which is either 66, 67, or somewhere in between, depending on the year you were born), you'll increase them by 8% a year, up until you turn 70. And that bump will remain in effect for the rest of your life.

3. Build an emergency fund

Many people judiciously contribute to their retirement plans, only to have no choice but to tap those funds prematurely when emergencies arise. In fact, 25% of baby boomers have already taken a withdrawal from a retirement savings plan. The problem in doing so, of course, is that you lose out on money that was supposed to be earmarked for retirement.

And it's not just your principal contributions that you'll lose out on -- it's potential growth on that money, too. Imagine you withdraw $10,000 at age 55 but don't retire until 70. If your investments normally generate a 7% average annual return, removing that $10,000 means losing out on over $27,000 in retirement income.

Furthermore, taking an early IRA or 401(k) withdrawal can also result in a 10% penalty if you remove funds before reaching 59 1/2. While there are a few exceptions to this rule, early withdrawals are a bad idea nonetheless.

That's why you need an emergency fund. By socking away three to six months' worth of living expenses in the bank, you'll have money to access when unplanned bills come your way, thereby allowing you to leave your retirement savings alone. And just as you can cut back on spending to ramp up your retirement plan contributions, you can also make lifestyle changes to free up cash for emergencies.

It's easy to have negative feelings toward retirement when your finances are in bad shape. But before you write off the idea of retiring comfortably, take the above steps to put yourself in a better spot, and see what that does for your nest egg and outlook.

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