Age 50 ... and little saved
When you hit that milestone, you've got to act fast. Here's a catch-up plan to follow.
By Clint Willis, MONEY Magazine contributing writer

NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) -- Some questions just can't wait. Barbara Huarte was sitting at a chamber of commerce breakfast last April when she suddenly turned to her neighbor - a local financial adviser - and blurted out, "I'm turning 50 soon, and I've just started planning for retirement! Any ideas?"

Good question.

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As Barbara Huarte nears 50, her paltry savings are suddenly a worry.

The 49-year-old had once run her own company and had recently embarked on a new career, and yet she has little to show for her success. She has roughly $30,000 split between a 401(k) and an IRA that's sitting in a money-market fund, and not much else.

For 15 years Huarte ran her own business providing cosmetics services and supplies to television and film production companies. She phased out the company between 2002 and 2004 and found a better-paying job selling communications systems.

"I broke the cardinal rule of self-employment," she says. "I didn't pay myself first. I put everything back into my business."

What's more, Huarte doesn't own a home, so unlike many of her neighbors in Morristown, N.J., she isn't sitting on a pile of home equity.

"For most of my life, I haven't thought much about money," she says. "When I realized that I was completely unprepared for retirement, I knew I had to do something."

Huarte's predicament is a common one. The Employee Benefits Research Institute reports that more than half of workers 45 to 54 have saved less than $50,000 for retirement. A recent Fidelity study found that the average boomer is on track to replace just 60% of his or her current income in retirement, even with help from Social Security and pensions.

Why so unprepared? The easy explanation is that baby boomers are a generation of grasshoppers who fiddled away their youth when they should have been saving.

In fact, financial pressures have made it tough to save. The list starts with college costs and helping aging parents, and goes on to wrap in higher prices for housing and medical insurance. Then again, the boomers never have been much on self-denial.

Huarte and her fellow late starters can narrow and then span the gap between what they've saved and what they'll need. But there is no time - as in none, zero, absolutely zip - to lose. Here's what they should do now.

Do right by your retirement plans

You've heard the advice before: Save as much as you can in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, especially if your company matches a portion of what you save. But now you're ready to listen.

Huarte has gotten the message. She plans to boost her 401(k) contribution from 10% of her pay to as much as 20%. Raises are a great opportunity to kick up your savings.

At age 50, you likely have entered your peak earning years and are still doing better every year. Say you channel an annual 3% raise into a retirement plan. That's another $2,250 in savings if you're making $75,000.

Or think of it this way: Stashing the equivalent of an extra $10 a day in a 401(k) will boost your savings by more than $100,000 over 15 years if your investments earn 8% a year.

Even the government gets that this is crunch time: Workers 50 and older can put more money into individual retirement accounts and workplace retirement plans than younger savers can. For 401(k)s, this catch-up provision brings your maximum contribution to $20,000 a year (your employer may impose lower limits); if 50 or older, you can invest $5,000 in an IRA in 2006.

Assuming you're eligible, choose the immediate tax break that comes with a deductible IRA rather than a Roth IRA's taxfree withdrawals. "If you're behind on retirement saving, your tax bracket will probably be lower in retirement than it is now," reasons financial planner Greg Schultz of Retirement Planning in Walnut Creek, Calif. "The immediate tax break is worth more to you."

Finally, you'll save more if you have a well-defined target. By age 50, you can estimate your future costs with more precision than a 30-year-old can. Bear in mind that while some costs may fall once you quit, others will rise. "Most new retirees spend more than they expected," says financial adviser Helen Modly of Focus Wealth Management in Middleburg, Va. "What are you going to do when you're home all day? Whatever your answer, it will probably cost money." (See "How much will you need in retirement?")

Become (at Last) a More Mindful Spender

If you haven't managed to save much by 50, it's probably because you spend more than you can afford. The silver lining: The worse your habits, the more room for improvement.

If you don't have a budget, create one. If you do have a budget, revise it to reflect your newly urgent commitment to saving as well as any changes in your spending since your last outbreak of budget fever.

Organize your outlays by category, and identify the areas that get you into trouble (is a wine cellar really more important than retirement?).

Chip away at wasteful or outmoded habits; chances are, five decades have given you plenty of time to develop a few. That might mean ditching expensive dinners or unused gym memberships.

While you're at it, you may want to rethink what you spend on your kids. Instead of paying for college tuition outright, let them borrow for education. If things work out, you can help them cover future loan payments.

Use all of these savings to pay down high-interest debt and ratchet up retirement savings.

Invest Aggressively but Not Recklessly

The investing rules don't change just because you're in trouble.

The first thing to remember is that your investment time horizon isn't the 10, 15 or even 20 years until you retire - it's nearly four decades. A healthy couple, both age 65, stand a 50% chance that one of them will live to age 92.

That kind of life span gives you time to ride out the stock market's normal fluctuations in pursuit of growth. With that in mind, most 50-year-olds should keep between 60% and 80% of their retirement investments in diversified stock funds.

Investors with lots of money put aside might get away with a less aggressive approach, but not you.

On the other hand, don't overdose on investment risk to try to make up for your late start. True, you might reach your goal more readily if you invested 90% or 100% of your savings in stocks.

More likely, though, a severe bear market would send you scurrying back to bonds and cash - leaving behind capital losses you cannot afford and don't have to time to recover from.

Tap Home Equity - Now

A survey by home builder Del Webb reports that almost 60% of boomers plan to move when they retire, but why wait?

There's no need to stay in a four-bedroom house in the state's best (and most expensive) school district after your kids move out. Trading down to a smaller house in a less expensive neighborhood may free up significant sums to invest.

The strategy makes even more sense now that real estate markets are cooling off; the money you can take out of your house might be better invested in growth funds.

Narrow the Gap by Staying on the Job

There is much talk of "redefining retirement" and pursuing your dream job these days, much of it downright sunny. But for 50-plus folks with little in savings, a dream job will have to come with a pretty decent paycheck. In fact, many late starters will need to stick with their original job or career for a few more years - even if it's not so dreamy.

Only later might you be able to look around for a part-time gig that provides a bit less income but a bit more job satisfaction. Regardless, now is the time to plan the next phase of your career - whether it involves applying your aging nose to your current grindstone for another two decades or making a switch that will require broader experience or new skills.

Working past the traditional retirement age - whether for generous or modest pay - will let you postpone withdrawals from your retirement accounts. Your savings will have more time to grow, and you'll reduce the number of years you'll need to draw on them.

You may also be able to delay Social Security until you reach at least full retirement age (66 if you're 50 today), potentially increasing the size of your monthly benefit by more than 30%.

Planning to work longer can also take the pressure off finding more money to save. Merrill Lynch's 2005 New Retirement Survey reported that a typical 50-year-old with a household income of $62,500 and savings of $60,000 would have to put away $12,500 every year in today's dollars to retire comfortably at age 62. That number would drop to between $3,750 and $7,500 if he worked full time until 64 and then part time until 75.

Finally, another option is to change jobs now with an eye toward earning more money rather than less.

Barbara Huarte switched to her current job in her late forties. She hired a sales trainer to help build her skills, and she earned in excess of $100,000 her first year, more than she'd ever pulled out of her business.

She also plans to keep working until she turns 70 or so, giving her another two decades to prepare for retirement.

Whatever you do - save more, downsize, rethink your retirement age - by age 50 it's time for some kind of action. When you get going, you'll feel much better, and for good reason.

"I know I've started from scratch," says Huarte. "But just facing the issue head on gives me hope. I'm not fearful of the future anymore." Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.