It's never too late to start saving

  • Article by: CHRIS FARRELL
  • Updated: September 11, 2010 - 8:58 PM

I've been getting a number of questions from 40-somethings and 50-somethings with little savings and abundant worries about retirement.

Examples: "I have yet to start a 401(k) ... is it too late for me to invest enough money at my age to have a good retirement?'' "Love my work, but it keeps me poor.'' "I have no real retirement savings. I own ... nothing!'' "What can I do at this point to provide any semblance of financial security for myself?''

Here's the thing: You're still young in your 40s and 50s. Yes, you should still save for old age. And it's critical to recognize that the core of your retirement "savings" plan is work. You should plan on working well into the traditional retirement years. Instead of living off savings earned earlier in your work life you'll live off the income from your work later in life. And this means the investments that matter as you get older include keeping up the skills, education and networks you need to maintain a flow of work you love.

I've mentioned my admiration for Henry (Bud) Hebeler in previous columns. He's the former president of Boeing's aerospace unit and now a passionate proselytizer for sensible financial planning at analyzenow.com. He writes a column for his church newsletter, and I found this passage particularly striking:

"You don't have to be a youngster to learn new things. With much concern about whether I could be a student again, I went back to college at 39 to get a degree in business. That changed my line of work. In my late fifties I learned how to use a computer and excel at Excel. In my sixties I learned enough about financial planning to be able to support myself if I wanted. I've produced programs that have tens of thousands of equations and are used by large numbers of people. In my seventies I was asked to write two books by one of the largest publishers, both books now sold by Amazon. Now in my late seventies, I have a website that gets (hits from) more than a million people every year. And I answer a number of e-mailed financial questions every day.''

To be sure, few of us will be as successful as Henry Hebeler. But he sets an example that most of us can emulate, especially for anyone who hasn't saved since they were young. And there is another major financial advantage to this approach besides income (as well as the intellectual and emotional engagement in life). You can afford to wait to apply for Social Security until you've reached your full retirement age and possibly even age 70. You get a higher Social Security benefit by holding off. Obviously, this strategy depends on your health and puts a premium on trying to stay healthy with diet and exercise.

On the financial side, you can also prepare for your elder years by embracing a frugal lifestyle today and tomorrow. That means keeping a lid on expenses, avoiding debt and building up savings. And yes, open up that 401(k) or IRA. What you don't want to do is take a flier in an effort to make up for lost time. Odds are the risky investment won't pan out and you really can't afford the loss.

Chris Farrell is economics editor for American Public Media's "Marketplace Money." Send questions to cfarrell@mpr.org.

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