U.S. Markets open in 6 hrs 38 mins

The 5 Expenses Derailing Americans' Retirement Savings

Christy Bieber, The Motley Fool

Everyone knows that saving for retirement is important. Unfortunately, sometimes life gets in the way, preventing us from saving as much as we'd hoped. In fact, a survey by Charles Schwab identifies five major expenses that thwart our best efforts to contribute to 401(k) accounts. 

There are trade-offs you need to make for any financial priority, but especially for retirement. Here's how to prevent these five huge costs from derailing your financial future.

Tipped over jar labeled 401(k) savings

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Unexpected expenses or emergencies

Four in 10 survey participants described unexpected expenses, such as home repairs, as a retirement savings obstacle.

Unfortunately, emergencies are inevitable. In fact, the Pew Charitable Trusts found in a survey that 60% of American households experienced a financial shock over the course of a year, and a third of households had two or more shocks. While these unexpected expenses are described as "shocks," or "emergencies," the very fact they happen so often means they really shouldn't be shocking. We should all plan for unexpected costs, and the best way to do that is to have a robust emergency fund that you don't touch unless absolutely necessary.

Most experts recommend having three to six months of living expenses set aside in an emergency fund. It may take you a long time to save that much, so start small with a fund of around $1,000 to $2,000, depending on household income. If you budget for both an emergency fund and retirement savings, you can make sure you have the cash for emergencies -- and those unexpected expenses that crop up won't divert funds that should be contributed to your 401(k) or IRA. And if you spend your emergency fund on an emergency, you'll need to fund it again for the next emergency.

2. Quality-of-life activities

Around 34% of survey respondents said quality-of-life activities such as vacations and dining out prevented them from contributing as much as they'd like to their 401(k). The best way to make sure this doesn't happen is to budget a reasonable amount for these expenses, but only after prioritizing retirement savings. 

Once you've invested enough for retirement, decide how much is left to enhance your quality of life. If you can't afford to dine out and save for retirement, you're better off making your meals at home than skipping your 401(k) contribution. Or, you may need to stay closer to home for your vacation to make sure you have enough for your retirement savings. By living on a budget, you can ensure these lifestyle expenses don't interfere with bigger and more important goals. You can also budget to save up for big vacations if they're important to you, cutting costs elsewhere. 

3. Paying off credit card debt

Repaying creditors was cited as an obstacle to 401(k) savings by 31% of survey respondents. If you have credit card debt, there's no question that high interest charges are derailing your saving. Your mission should be to pay down your credit card debt as soon as possible, and commit to not taking on any more debt. 

You should make a plan to aggressively repay what you owe using either the "debt snowball" or "debt avalanche" method. Make extra payments to become debt-free ASAP. You could also consider consolidating and refinancing your credit card debt to reduce your interest rate and make repayment quicker and more affordable. Consider using a non-profit credit counselor.

Once you're debt-free, do not charge more on your credit cards than you can pay back at the end of the month. That may mean stopping credit card use altogether if you can't control your spending. Once you aren't wasting money on interest, you should have plenty more available to invest for the future. 

4. Monthly bills

Monthly bills were a savings blocker for 28% of those surveyed. In many cases, budgeting can help ensure your bills are taken care of while your retirement accounts get funded, too. But there may be situations in which your monthly bills simply are too high to allow you to save. If that's the case, it may be time for some big lifestyle changes.

Continually making big car payments is one of the biggest ways people derail their retirement savings; living in a house or apartment that's too expensive is another.

If your monthly bills are taking up too big of a percentage of income -- more than 50% at the most -- it's time to look at what you can cut. Even if this means moving, getting a roommate, or trading your car in for a cheaper car, these changes are worth it if they help you save enough for your future. 

5. Children's expenses

Finally, 28% of survey respondents said children's expenses were preventing them from saving enough for retirement. Sure raising children is expensive, but it is possible to raise your kids without jeopardizing your family's financial security. 

Look at what expenses you actually need to incur for your children and be realistic about your budget. Parents are constantly bombarded with messages that say kids need tons of expensive extracurricular activities -- and children constantly ask for clothes, toys, candy, Happy Meals and other things. But your kids may not actually require as much as you think. Participating in just one or two activities they're truly passionate about is better than filling every minute of their day. Kids can also be asked to make trade-offs between one big toy and a few smaller ones, or one big vacation rather than regular trips, so they learn about budgeting. 

As your kids get older, you need to think about whether any allowances are hurting your finances. If your children are in their 20s and still rely on you for financial support, it may be time to close the Bank of Mom and Dad. After all, it will do them no good if you have no retirement savings and -- once you can't work anymore and your money runs out -- you end up being forced to move in with them in that apartment you've been paying for. 

Don't let these expenses derail your retirement savings

Making big changes such as cutting off older kids or downsizing can seem drastic, but you need to make sure you have enough money to live on in retirement, as Social Security alone won't cut it.

Don't put yourself in a precarious position where you struggle to afford what you need as a senior. Make the changes required today to save enough for a secure future. 

More From The Motley Fool

The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.