An alarming number of Americans aren’t preparing for the day when they’ll need to live off their savings.

More than a third of adults say they have not started saving for retirement yet, according to a national poll accompanying Bankrate’s monthly Financial Security Index.

Even Americans who are getting close to retirement age seem to be struggling when it comes to planning their financial future. The survey shows that more than a quarter of the respondents age 50 to 64 have yet to start saving for retirement.

“What concerns me most is the high percentage of people that haven’t started saving for retirement,” says Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate’s chief financial analyst. “Many of those that are saving aren’t saving all that much.”

Woman looking sadly at paper © Twin Design/

Why so many live on the edge

It’s hard to prioritize retirement savings when you live paycheck to paycheck, and that’s unfortunately the biggest obstacle for a large part of the population, says Brian Plain, a CFP professional in Oak Park, Illinois.

“I think a lot of people want to save, but they keep waiting for the right time,” he says. “They’ll say things like, ‘When I get my next raise I’ll start saving.'”

Procrastination certainly contributes to the problem. But another issue is many people don’t have access to a workplace retirement savings plan, McBride says.

If your employer doesn’t offer a savings plan such as a 401(k), don’t let that keep you from saving. Consider an individual retirement account, or IRA, as an option, he adds.

“You can start with automatic monthly contributions from your checking account,” McBride says.

Another reason many people don’t save for retirement is sometimes they are in denial about what their financial needs will be as they age.

“I have had people tell me that they love their job and intend to work until they drop, thus there is no need for them to save,” says Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. “However, these people are not considering the potential of a job loss or medical issue that prevents them from working.”

The silver lining

While some people aren’t even close to being ready for retirement, others say they have been saving since a young age, Bankrate’s survey shows.

About 10 percent of the respondents in the survey say they started saving for retirement in their teens.

That’s a “pleasant surprise,” Cunningham says. About 23 percent say they started saving in their 20s and 14 percent in their 30s.

The study was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International and included answers from 1,003 adults in the U.S.

When to start saving

The earlier you start saving, the easier it will be to build your nest egg.

“The younger you are, the more of an ally time becomes,” McBride says. “The power of compounding is most evident over long periods of time, and having a longer period of time for your retirement savings to grow and compound makes today’s contributions much more impactful.”

Watch Greg McBride's analysis of the poll results

For example, if you start putting aside as little as $100 per month in an IRA savings account when you are 20 years old, you’ll have nearly $367,000 by the time you reach 65, according to Bankrate’s IRA savings calculator. (The calculation assumes a 7 percent annual return pre-retirement and 4 percent in retirement.)

That translates to a little more than $1,700 per month before inflation. If you consider 3 percent annual inflation, you would receive the equivalent of $459 per month in income. That’s clearly not enough to retire, but it’s better than nothing.

Now, say you don’t start saving until you are 40, and when you finally begin, all you can save is $100 per month. By the time you turn 65, you’ll have a little more than $81,000 in savings, which translates to a mere $184 per month in income.

“Time is money’s best friend,” Cunningham says. “Therefore, people should realize that the retirement decisions they make today have a large impact on their tomorrow.”

Make sacrifices now to enjoy later

Even if you think you can’t afford saving for retirement now, consider making small lifestyle changes and sacrifices to set some money aside for the future, Plain says.

“People need to look at their own situation instead of trying to compare their situation to other people,” he says. “Just do the best that you can. Consider finding some extra income source or cutting expenses. Start with the end goals in mind. Ask yourself, ‘What is my lifestyle now and what do I want it to be in the future?'”