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3 Ways to Catch Up on Retirement Savings If You're Starting With Nothing

Maurie Backman, The Motley Fool

There's no single retirement savings number that guarantees you'll be financially secure during your golden years. But one thing's for sure: If you don't save anything, you're apt to struggle down the line. Such is the risk almost 50% of U.S. workers aged 55 and older are taking, since they're not saving any money at all in a 401(k) or IRA, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Now to be fair, this data is about three years old, but still, it's clear that a large number of older Americans are dangerously behind on retirement savings. If you're one of them, however, all is not lost. Here are a few things you can do to catch up.

Older woman resting her hands against her chin with worried expression

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

1. Cut some big expenses later in life

If you've been neglecting your savings thus far, it's probably not because you don't think it's important to fund a nest egg. Rather, it's most likely because your income has been monopolized by other expenses. If that's the case, then adjusting your lifestyle could serve the very important purpose of freeing up cash to stick in a retirement plan. And unfortunately, we're probably talking about some pretty big changes, like downsizing your home or perhaps giving up a vehicle and relying on public transportation instead.

But if you do make those changes and are able to free up, say, $1,000 a month in the process, you'll then have the option to save that amount for, say, 10 years. If you then invest that money at an average annual 7% return, which is doable with a stock-heavy portfolio, you'll grow your savings to about $166,000.

In reality, that's not a huge nest egg. But it's also better than nothing. And while cutting back on expenses may not appeal to you later in life, remember that if you don't build savings for retirement, you'll likely be forced to cut back even more drastically during your golden years.

2. Extend your career

If you've reached a certain age without any money allocated to retirement, then you may need to face the reality that retiring in your mid-to-late 60s won't be possible. The good news, however, is that if you're willing to extend your career by a few years, you might manage to salvage an otherwise dire situation.

Building on the above example, imagine you're able to set aside $1,000 a month for 13 years, not 10. Assuming that same 7% return, you'll be looking at roughly $242,000. And that's better than $166,000.

3. Boost your earnings with a side job

When we think about people working a side job, we tend to picture younger folks -- perhaps post-college millennials who need the extra income to scrape by. But remember, there's no shame in taking on a side hustle later in life, and if you play your cards right, you could earn some serious cash that can then go into your nest egg. Furthermore, if you find a gig that's lucrative and that you enjoy doing, you'll have the option to carry it with you into retirement, thereby boosting your senior income to help compensate for your limited savings.

You may not need a $1 million nest egg to retire comfortably, but you can bet on needing more than $0. If you're without savings so far, take the above steps to improve your financial picture. Remember, Social Security isn't designed to provide you with enough income to pay all of your retirement expenses, and if you don't make an effort to save something, you're likely to have a difficult time making ends meet once your paycheck disappears.

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