Some Americans may be better prepared for retirement than they realize.
About 56% of baby boomers and Generation X (people between about age 38 and 65 now) are saving enough to cover their basic retirement costs, including uninsured medical expenses, according to a recent projection by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit think tank.
The bad news is that 44% aren't saving enough, and some of those people are on the lowest rungs of the income ladder, so they may have little opportunity to ramp up savings as they age.
Still, while some people face a troubling retirement outlook, others in that 44% group can take steps to get their savings on track.
"Some Americans face a retirement crisis, but it isn't the majority," said Stephen Utkus, director of Vanguard Group's Center for Retirement Research.
"For the longest time, studies have always pointed out that about 50% of Americans seem clearly ready for retirement," he says. But it's a mistake to assume the other half is in deep trouble.
Instead, Utkus said, people fall along a spectrum of retirement readiness, with 20% to 30% of Americans "partially ready" for retirement.
"A significant number of people can take some steps between now and retirement to move the dial and get to 'prepared,'" he said.
Here are four ideas to improve your retirement readiness.
1. Increase your savings rate 1% or 2% each year
You're tired of being admonished to save more, but why not do it relatively painlessly with a small annual increase?
Ramping up your current 5% 401(k) contribution rate to 10% over a four-year period means an extra $550 in monthly income in retirement, according to an analysis by Fidelity Investments. The analysis assumes a 37-year-old worker with a $74,000 annual salary, $20,000 401(k) account balance, 3% employer match, an 8.35% annual return, and an age-67 retirement date.
Then consider going beyond 10%. "If somebody is going to be saving their entire career, 15% is typically what most financial professionals suggest you put in," said Jack VanDerhei, research director at EBRI.
2. Work two extra years
Maybe you're not keen on the new normal for retirement, which for some means not retiring at all. But there is a middle road: Work just two more years than planned.
Consider two hypothetical people, each with $1 million in savings. One retires at age 64, the other at 62. They both seek $75,000 a year in retirement.
For the early retiree, the combination of a lower Social Security payout (about $1,500 monthly versus $1,750 monthly), two fewer years of earnings on his savings, and the portfolio hit from pulling $150,000 out for living expenses in those two years, adds up to him running out of money by age 88.
Solely by virtue of waiting two years, the other retiree has $242,358 in savings at age 90, according to an analysis by Richard Jackson, chartered retirement planning counselor and a principal at Dallas-based Schlindwein Associates. The analysis assumes a 6% rate of return, and doesn't take into account taxes, variability of returns, or additional savings from delaying retirement for two years. The Social Security payout estimates are based on his clients' experiences.
3. Buy an annuity
A major conundrum of retirement planning is estimating how long you will live. Longevity insurance helps savers mitigate the risk of getting that answer wrong -- that is, living longer than expected and running out of money.
The idea is that when you retire at, say, 65, you take 10% or 15% of your savings to buy an annuity that doesn't start paying out until age 85.
The retiree gets to retain control over the bulk of her portfolio, yet she also gets insurance to back up her savings in the event of a long life.
"You only have to put down a relatively small percentage of your 401(k) or IRA balance to get relatively decent monthly income at that point," VanDerhei said.
That means you can focus on saving for the years up until age 85.
That said, annuities have drawbacks. You've locked up that money. You'll pay extra for inflation protection and the ability to leave any of that money to heirs. You have to trust that the annuity company will survive for decades to come.
4. Work part-time for five years
Getting a part-time job -- if you can find one and your health allows it -- is another way to prime the retirement-savings pump.
Take someone who retires at 65 with a final salary of $75,000. He'll need a total of about $780,600 in retirement savings if he doesn't work part time -- but that drops to $661,000 if he works part time for five years earning 30% of his former salary, according to an analysis by VanDerhei.
The analysis assume the retiree wants to replace 85% of pre-retirement income, a 3% inflation rate, a 5% rate of return, the retiree doesn't have a traditional pension and he dies at 88.
Someone who retires at 65 with a final salary of $50,000 will need a total of $490,000 in retirement savings if he doesn't work part time, but $411,000 if he works part time for five years earning 30% of his former salary, according to VanDerhei's analysis, using the same assumptions.
If the part-time job pays 50% of his former salary, that retiree needs total savings of about $358,000, or about $132,000 less.