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How To Catch Up on Retirement Savings: Step-by-Step Guide

June 3, 2024

Blueprint Income Team

Retirement is a time to travel, relax, and pursue long-held passions. But for many, the reality of retirement savings can feel like a missed connection. A delayed start or years of competing financial priorities can leave a significant gap between your current savings and your desired retirement income.

The good news? It's never too late to take control of your financial future. This four-step plan serves as a roadmap to help you bridge the gap and achieve your retirement goals. By following these actionable steps, you'll gain clarity on your current financial situation, identify areas for optimization, and explore strategies to accelerate your savings. This journey will pave the way to a secure and fulfilling retirement.

1. Assess the situation: Take stock of your current savings and retirement goals

The first step in any successful mission is a thorough reconnaissance. In the case of your retirement savings, this translates to a comprehensive assessment of your current financial situation and your retirement planning. This isn't about dwelling on past choices but rather about gaining a clear picture of your financial landscape to chart the most effective course forward.

Gather your financial intelligence

Retirement accounts: Start by pulling together statements from all your retirement accounts, including employer-sponsored plans such as 401(k)s or 403(b)s, IRAs (traditional or Roth), and any other retirement savings accounts you may have. Make note of your current account balances, contribution history, and vesting schedules if applicable.

Debt obligations: List your outstanding debts, including credit card balances, student loans, mortgages, etc. Note the interest rates and minimum monthly payments for each.

Income and expenses: Track your income and expenses for one month (ideally three months for a more accurate picture) to understand your cash flow. Categorize your expenses into essentials (housing, utilities, groceries), discretionary spending (entertainment, dining out), and debt payments. This will help identify areas for potential savings.

Define your retirement goals

Desired retirement age: While there's no one-size-fits-all answer, consider when you'd ideally like to retire. This will influence your savings timeline and determine how aggressively you need to save.

Estimated retirement lifestyle: Imagine your ideal retirement — where will you live? What activities do you envision? Estimate the annual amount you'll need to maintain that lifestyle. Resources such as online retirement calculators can be helpful in this step.

Analyze the gap

Once you have a handle on your current savings, expenses, and retirement goals, it's time to assess the gap between your current trajectory and your desired outcome. Subtract your current retirement savings from the estimated amount you'll need to reach your retirement goals.

This difference represents the amount you need to accumulate before retirement. This may initially seem like a large number, but don't be discouraged. The next steps will equip you with strategies to bridge this gap and achieve your retirement dreams.

2. Boost your savings power: Identify areas to increase your income or reduce expenses

Step 1 provided a clear picture of your financial landscape. Now, it's time to leverage that knowledge to increase the firepower of your savings plan. This step focuses on two key strategies: boosting your income and optimizing your spending habits.

Boosting your income

Negotiate a raise: If you haven't reviewed your salary in a while, consider having a conversation with your employer about a raise. Research average salaries for your position and location to strengthen your negotiating position.

Explore side hustles: The gig economy offers a plethora of opportunities to generate additional income. Freelance work, online tutoring, or renting out a spare room are just a few examples. Consider your skills and interests when choosing a side hustle that aligns with your available time.

Sell underutilized assets: Do you have unused items cluttering your home? Consider selling them through online marketplaces, garage sales, or consignment shops. This decluttering not only generates extra cash but also frees up space.

Optimizing your spending

Track your expenses: Awareness is the first step toward positive change. Analyze your spending habits from step 1 and identify areas where you can cut back. Are there subscriptions you don't use regularly? Can you find cheaper alternatives for groceries or entertainment? Every dollar saved translates to more money directed toward your retirement goals.

Embrace frugal living: There's a difference between frugality and deprivation. Explore cost-saving strategies including packing your lunch, taking advantage of free or low-cost entertainment options, and negotiating better deals on bills such as cable or internet.

Automate your savings: Set up automatic transfers from your checking account to your retirement savings account. This "set it and forget it" approach ensures consistent saving and removes the temptation to spend that money elsewhere.

Remember, even small adjustments to your income and spending habits can have a significant impact over time. By implementing these strategies, you'll free up additional resources to funnel into your retirement savings. The next step will delve into optimizing the vehicle that holds your retirement savings — your chosen retirement accounts.

3. Optimize your retirement savings strategy: Choose the right accounts and maximize contributions

With a clearer picture of your financial situation and a boosted savings capacity, you can optimize your retirement savings strategy. This step focuses on selecting the most suitable retirement accounts and maximizing your contributions within those accounts.

Choosing the right accounts

The optimal retirement account for you depends on your tax situation and retirement goals. Here's a quick breakdown of the two main options:

Traditional IRAs: Contributions may be tax deductible in the year you contribute, reducing your taxable income. However, withdrawals during retirement are taxed as ordinary income. This option is ideal if you're in a higher tax bracket now and expect to be in a lower tax bracket in retirement.

Roth IRAs: Contributions are made with after-tax dollars, but qualified withdrawals during retirement are typically tax-free. This can be advantageous if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement.

Maximizing contributions

Once you've chosen the right account type, it's crucial to maximize your contributions within the annual limits set by the IRS. These limits increase periodically, so be sure to check the latest figures. For individuals under 50 in 2024, the contribution limit is $7,000, with an additional $1,000 catch-up contribution allowed for those aged 50 and over.

Reviewing employer-sponsored plans

If you have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan such as a 401(k) or 403(b), take full advantage of it. Many employers offer matching contributions, essentially free money that boosts your retirement savings. Contribute at least enough to capture the full employer match, and consider increasing your contribution rate as your budget allows.

By carefully selecting your retirement accounts and maximizing your contributions, you'll ensure your savings grow efficiently and effectively, propelling you closer to your retirement dreams.

4. Explore catch-up strategies: Leverage age-based contribution limits (if applicable)

As you age, the urgency of retirement planning intensifies. The good news is, the IRS acknowledges this reality and offers a helping hand in the form of catch-up contribution limits for retirement accounts. These increased contribution limits are available to individuals aged 50 and over, allowing you to accelerate your retirement savings and bridge the gap more efficiently.

Understanding catch-up contributions

For individuals under 50 in 2024, the standard contribution limit to an IRA is $7,000. However, if you're 50 or older, you can leverage the catch-up provision, which allows an additional $1,000 contribution for a total of $8,000 per year. This seemingly small increase translates to a significant boost in your retirement savings over time, especially when compounded over several years.

Catch-up contributions for employer-sponsored plans

The IRS also extends catch-up contribution benefits to certain employer-sponsored retirement plans, including 401(k)s and 403(b)s. In 2024, the standard contribution limit for these plans is $23,000.

However, individuals aged 50 and over can contribute an additional $7,500 for a total of $30,500 per year. This substantial increase allows you to make significant strides toward closing the gap between your current savings and your retirement goals.

Eligibility for catch-up contributions

It's important to note that eligibility for catch-up contributions depends on your specific retirement plan. While most 401(k)s and 403(b)s allow catch-up contributions for those 50 and over, some employer plans may have different rules or restrictions. Be sure to consult with your plan administrator to confirm their specific catch-up contribution policy.

Maximizing the impact of catch-up contributions

If you're fortunate enough to be eligible for catch-up contributions, consider prioritizing them within your overall savings strategy.

The increased contribution limits offer a powerful opportunity to accelerate your retirement savings. Remember, even if you can't contribute the full catch-up amount initially, aim to increase your contributions gradually as your budget allows. Every additional dollar saved now compounds over time, bringing you closer to a secure and fulfilling retirement.

However, it's crucial to approach catch-up contributions with a sense of financial responsibility. Ensure you're meeting all your essential expenses and debt obligations before significantly increasing your retirement contributions.

Catch up on your retirement savings

While the gap between your current savings and your retirement dreams may seem daunting, remember, progress is progress, no matter how small.

You may be asking yourself: can I even retire? The truth is that small, consistent efforts can yield significant results over time. The key is to take action now. Don't let the fear of an insufficient nest egg paralyze you. By implementing the strategies outlined in this four-step plan, you'll gain valuable insight into your financial situation and identify actionable steps toward a secure future.

Remember, you're not alone on this journey. Financial advisors are experts in navigating the complexities of retirement planning. Consulting with a professional can provide invaluable guidance in tailoring these strategies to your unique circumstances. They can help you assess your risk tolerance, explore investment options, and develop a personalized roadmap to achieve your retirement goals.

Taking charge of your financial future starts now. With dedication and the right guidance, you can transform your retirement vision from a distant dream into a reality filled with security and peace of mind.


Blueprint Income Team

We are a team of finance, insurance, and actuarial professionals working to make it easier for everyone to achieve a steady and comfortable retirement. We write about annuities (the good and the bad) and provide strategies to help Americans prepare for retirement.


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