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Americans' Ideal Retirement Age -- and Why It's Not Realistic

Maurie Backman, The Motley Fool

Many of us dream about retirement, and that includes younger workers who have yet to really pay their dues. Now, there's nothing wrong with looking forward to retirement and even planning an early exit from the workforce. But Americans on a whole may be a bit misguided when it comes to this particular milestone. In a new Bankrate survey, U.S. adults across the board said that the ideal age to retire is 61. But whether that's realistic is a different story.

Can you live without Social Security in retirement?

Though the typical American can't live on Social Security alone in retirement, those benefits currently help millions of seniors keep up with their bills. Eligibility for benefits, however, does not begin until age 62, so the fact that those surveyed think 61 is the perfect age to retire means they either don't know that that's too soon to collect Social Security, or they assume they can get by without those benefits.

Man putting arm around woman at the beach

Image source: Getty Images.

At present, the typical beneficiary collects just over $1,400 a month, or roughly $17,000 a year. On its own, that's not a ton of money. But for those without much in the way of savings, it's also a lifeline.

And make no mistake about it: A large chunk of working adults are way behind on retirement savings. An estimated 42% have less than $10,000 set aside for the future, and unless they manage to ramp up, retiring at 61 will pretty much be out of the question.

Even if those who wish to retire at 61 hold off a year until Social Security eligibility kicks in, filing at age 62 comes with consequences. Because it's well before what's considered full retirement age for today's workers, claiming that soon means reducing one's benefits by up to 30%. Assuming a full retirement age of 67, someone with a full monthly benefit of $1,400 would collect just $980 a month instead. And that's not the sort of hit someone without much savings can afford.

Making early retirement possible

There's nothing wrong with aspiring to retire at 61. But if that's your goal, you'll need to start working toward it early on. That means saving aggressively during your working years and investing your nest egg in stocks to fuel its growth.

The following table shows how much wealth you might accumulate if you start saving early on in your career and manage a 7% average annual return on investment, which is actually a couple of percentage points below the stock market's average:

Monthly Savings Amount

Total Accumulated Over 35 Years (Assumes an Average Annual 7% Return)

$300

$497,000

$400

$663,000

$500

$829,000

$1,000

$1.66 million

$1,500

$2.49 million

Data source: Calculations by author.

For the purpose of this example, let's imagine you're 26 years old with the goal of retiring at 61, and you have access to an employer-sponsored 401(k). If you contribute $1,500 a month (which virtually means maxing out for workers under 50) for the next 35 years, you'll amass nearly $2.5 million if your investments generate that 7% return. And that's enough to not only retire early, but to do so without missing those Social Security payments.

Of course, not everyone can manage to part with $1,500 a month, but saving even $300 a month over a 35-year period will yield some pretty decent results. The key is to commit to saving that money early on so that it has enough time to grow.

If retiring at age 61 is ideal for you, it is doable -- but only if you make a strong effort to save. Let your nest egg fall by the wayside, and there's a good chance you'll end up working well into your 60s or even beyond just to have a shot at a secure retirement.

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