Family walking dog in woods
Johner Images/Getty Images

In your 40s, you’re hitting your peak earning years and should be well on your way to achieving long-term savings goals.

But life can get in the way. Talk to financial planners and they’ll tell you that the typical 40-year-old is keenly aware of the need to save, but too few have taken the necessary steps to adequately prepare for retirement.

Many 40-somethings still don’t have a well-defined retirement strategy. Others save, but not enough. This stage of life often comes with big expenses, such as paying for your child’s college education, which makes it difficult to grow a considerable nest egg.

It may be time to shift your saving habits into overdrive, but many 40-somethings are puttering along in first gear.

“People save what they can, do their best and figure they’ll count their chips later,” says Bill Baldwin, managing director of Argent Wealth Management in Waltham, Massachusetts. “But they need to calculate what they need at retirement and how much they’ll be able to draw from savings to support their lifestyle.”

Here are four savings goals to meet during this important phase of your life.

1. Get rid of debt and reach your savings maximums

Credit card balances can hit new highs in your 40s. This is a big impediment to saving for retirement. If you’re serious about saving, explore options such as a low-rate balance transfer credit card.

Use Bankrate’s debt paydown calculator to figure the fastest way to get rid of debt.

On the other hand, if you’ve saved at least 10 percent of your paycheck over the past 15 to 20 years, congratulations. You may need to just tweak your habits to hit your savings goals. But if you’ve neglected retirement, you’re going to have to push hard to make it to the finish line.

For example, a 40-year-old who wants $1 million by the time she’s 67 must save $10,000 a year for the next 27 years and earn 9 percent a year to reach that goal. Impossible? Maybe not. But it means reducing your spending and making tough choices.

Top of the list: funding your 401(k) up to the maximum limit. For someone under age 50, that’s $18,500 in 2018.

2. Save independently

It’s best to have part of your savings outside of an employer-sponsored retirement plan. Not sure where to put that cash? Consider either a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA. If you don’t have one, you may be missing opportunities to maximize your savings through tax advantages that come with IRAs.

For example, with a Roth, you’ll never pay taxes on account earnings. But note that there are income limits for determining whether you’re eligible to save in a Roth IRA.

3. Maintain the right investment mix

Asset allocation and diversification remain as important as ever. At 40 you’re still a long way from retirement, so don’t rush to play it too safe, says Ellen Rinaldi, former head of the retirement agenda for Vanguard, and now the firm’s chief security officer. Rinaldi recommends scaling back stocks to 80 percent of your portfolio and putting the balance in conservative holdings like bonds.

Maintain a broad view of all of your holdings as you reallocate assets. It’s not enough to focus on just the 401(k). Take all of your investments into account.

Make sure you haven’t forgotten anything, either, like a 401(k) or other benefits you may have earned at previous jobs. If it’s an old 401(k), roll that into an IRA, which you can invest any way you want.

“It happens all the time — people leave money in a 401(k) and forget about it. They take more time on their vacation than they do on retirement planning,” says Michael Scarborough, president and CEO of Retirement Management Systems Inc.

4. Make tough decisions about education expenses

Ideally, 40-somethings with children have been saving for their kids’ higher education since they were in diapers. If so, they can avoid diverting huge sums of cash from their retirement savings.

Those who have neglected to save for college and whose retirement savings are not where they should be may not have enough money to fund both. As a parent, you want to take care of your kids, but financial advisers agree: Saving for your retirement should be your top priority.

“The last time I checked, there were no scholarships out there for retirement,” says Dee Lee, CFP professional and author of “Women & Money.”

Many parents sacrifice saving for retirement to help their kids, even those who have already graduated from college.

“When forced to make a choice, people support their own children first. They’ll put themselves last,” says Merl Baker, a partner at NMG Consulting, a financial consulting firm. “They’re reconciled to working longer than they planned or expected to. Or they accept a lower quality of life. It’s pretty powerful.”

If you’re determined to help your child and money will be tight, look for compromises that may have less impact on your nest egg, such as sending your child to a local, in-state school instead of an expensive private or out-of-state college.