Financial Security Index
Financial Security Index
retirement
Retirement savings low on priority list

Every expense is a choice, "but the worst choice is to be 50 or 55 and not have any money saved for retirement," he says.

If circumstances force you to decrease the amount you're saving, at least try to save something, implore the experts.

"If you have a job, you can put money away. It really comes down to budget constraints," says Yu.

"When times are hard and you can barely make ends meet, 2 percent of your income is not going to make that big a difference. Frankly, you'll be able to reduce income tax by a bit if you can do more (saving)," he says.

Make saving less taxing

Only contributions to a traditional IRA or conventional 401(k) or 403(b) are made before taxes. For contributions to a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k), taxable income will not be reduced in the year the contributions are made. Instead contributions and earnings can grow unfettered and be withdrawn tax-free in retirement.

By prioritizing spending and cutting monthly expenses, families may be able to save while meeting other objectives. But savers will have their work cut out for them as they get older.

"For those who are more mature and deeper in their careers, I would forewarn them that sometimes you have to give up current pleasures to be assured of having a comfortable retirement. For instance, if that means not going on an extravagant vacation, you may want to make those compromises," says Yu.

Savers who start early have a distinct advantage over late bloomers, but whether you've been saving since age 25 or just starting at 35 or even 40, retirement savings need to aggressively increase with age.

"Between the ages of 35 and 45 they should really be maximizing all of their retirement accounts: maxing out the IRA or 403(b) or 401(k). I think if someone is earning $100,000 they should be saving the maximum in their retirement plan," says Fuest.

That recommendation can be scaled down for people with lower incomes. For instance, someone with an income of $50,000 could aim for contributing half the maximum every year.

In 2011, the maximum you can contribute to a 401(k) or 403(b) is $16,500, whether in pretax or after-tax accounts. Those 50 and older can add $5,500 to that amount for a total contribution of $22,000. The contribution limit for IRAs is $5,000; $6,000 for those 50 and older.

Plan now rather than later

No matter how much money you earn, increasing your retirement savings could take some budgetary strategizing. In good times and bad times, tracking spending and making prudent choices can lead to a more fruitful retirement down the road.

Besides Social Security and the unpopular option of literally working yourself to death, Americans have frighteningly few options for their retirement years if they neglect to plan during their careers. As uncomfortable as the present economic environment is, being forced to work into your 80s could prove more disturbing.

Bankrate.com's Financial Security Index dropped to 92.3, the lowest level measured since the monthly poll commenced in December. The accompanying slideshow offers detailed results of the latest FSI survey. Check out the advice and analyses by selected experts to help you manage your money optimally during these times of uncertainty.

Bankrate's Financial Security Index survey was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International from Aug. 4-7, 2011. Statistical results are weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies. The margin of sampling error is ±3.7 percentage points overall (±5.1 percentage points for employed adults). Click here for a copy of the PDF file.

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