Retirement saving is a marathon, so watch your pace

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Saving for retirement is a marathon, not a sprint. You’ll be saving for decades.

Like any yearslong project, you don’t have to maintain a breakneck speed.

Keep in mind that steady saving at the highest level you can manage is your best strategy for succeeding. Using your company’s retirement plan — whether it’s a 401(k) or 403(b) — is the easiest way to save. If you don’t have access to a company plan, open an IRA. Treat the IRA like a company retirement plan by setting up automatic deposits so you save consistently.

Next, save at your highest level possible. Your salary and your expenses obviously will help determine that amount. A company retirement plan often gets you into the plan and has you contribute at a standard 3 percent, but that’s not nearly enough.

Here are two things to do to make sure you’re at a good savings pace.

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1. Turn up the volume

If you’re at that basic starting point of 3 percent in a company plan, see what your paycheck looks like if you turn up the savings to 5 percent or 6 percent. If the cut to your yearly take-home pay seems daunting, divide the amount you’d be giving up by 52. Now you have a weekly figure, which is less overwhelming and can more easily work into your spending plan.

There’s a chance you might not have to do anything at all. Some companies have their retirement plans designed to automatically increase the amount you save. The usual increase is 1 percent annually, and almost no one is going to feel that as a significant paycheck bite.

My recommendation is to increase your savings by much more. If it’s too painful, take it down. But success in retirement savings and in retirement itself is a matter of living on less than you make.

2. Take a breather if you’re tired

If saving is painful, give yourself a rest. Some people might prefer a way of saving for retirement that’s similar to interval training, where you alternate the intensity and activities in your workout. The retirement version would be saving aggressively most of the time and taking an occasional break.

When you run hard for a short time and then stop, you’ve still made physical gains that don’t disappear just because you slow your pace.

If you save aggressively and then ramp down for a short time when it feels too stringent, you’ve still made financial gains.

Just as it’s better to work out for a short time than not at all, it’s better to save aggressively for a while than not at all. Keep in mind that part of success depends on not stopping altogether.

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Improbability principle

Tip of the week

In the beginning, there was planning.

The decisions you make when you start out can have an impact many years down the line, says Seth Rosenbloom, associate general counsel at Betterment for Business in New York.

“Take some time — whether it’s your first 401(k), IRA or investment account — to ask questions and formulate a plan,” Rosenbloom says. Actually spell out to yourself why you are making these decisions.

The reason not to rush into your choices: It’s not just the investments that compound over the years. “Decisions compound over the long run,” Rosenbloom says. “Spend that additional time to really educate yourself. It definitely pays off.”

Another bonus: If you’ve spent time to go over your options and come up with a plan, it makes it easier to stick to that plan, Rosenbloom points out. “It’s not always easy, but making an investment of time upfront pays off.”

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Jill Cornfield

I'm a reporter at Bankrate, talking retirement – my own as well as yours. Sign up for my free newsletter.