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Paralyzed by retirement saving? Playing catch-up can be easier than you think

Tips on catching up: Put that big vacation on the back burner. Sell the house. And keep working longer.

Saving early and smart for retirement is a good idea. But if you’re getting a late start, all is not lost, the experts say.
Saving early and smart for retirement is a good idea. But if you’re getting a late start, all is not lost, the experts say.Read moreiStock

Are you paralyzed by saving for retirement — or, let's be real, your lack of progress in saving enough?

Join most of America. And it might not be as bad as you think.

Lynn Evans, a fee-only financial planner, should know: She counsels pre-retirees and retirees, who often feel embarrassed by waiting too long, stuck on how to get started, and guilty that saving wasn't a priority.

"All is not lost. That's what I want people to know. Don't be paralyzed. Paralysis is the enemy," said Evans, who is based in Clarks Summit, Pa., and managing director of Women of Substance LLC. She wrote Power of the Purse, a book for women facing retirement, and hosts a regular podcast on retirement saving.

"The big Wall Street firms and insurance companies prey on people's fears of outliving their money. They're traumatized into thinking they should have a certain amount by a certain age — and that's just not true."

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Yes, two in five households headed by people ages 55 to 64 have no retirement savings. Where do you start?

Sell the house, or downsize. Many "young" baby boomers have illusions that their grown kids, with the grandchildren, will return to their childhood home for the holidays, and take over the house someday. It's a fantasy. Your kids aren't paying the bills to maintain your home, which they'll visit a few times a year.

"If you have a house, or equity in a house, sell. It's a savior to a lot of people" who are catching up, Evans said. Because of ego or because they're attached to the idea of equity, many boomers never think to sell.

"Your children have no intention of moving home or taking over the family homestead. Downgrade, and then rent," she recommended.

What if you can't? Consider a reverse mortgage. Don Graves, president of HECM Advisors Group in Wyncote, hosts a regular show on YouTube about the ups and downs of reverse mortgages. He interviews other professors from the American College of Financial Services in Bryn Mawr and experts on how reverse mortgages work.

Keep working. Are you assuming that you'll cease working altogether, and that your assets have to carry you through your life? That's just not the world of the baby boomer, who no longer calls it a day at 65.

Financial planner Christopher Tully, with Eagle Wealth Strategies in West Deptford, noted that "the scary part for a lot of folks is they come in with a set retirement date. They've made up their minds about when, but never looked at the math."

Some prospective clients come in with $100,000, "but have no idea what it equates to in annual spending. They're not doing simple math. Some people can't live without spending on grandkids. Some assume death will bail them out, but not if they have longevity in their families," he said.

Tully starts the conversation by proposing a flexible retirement date.

"One prospect in their mid-40s came to us and said flat out, 'I haven't done a good job saving, I was raising kids and starting a business.' They want to get serious about saving. We asked: When did they think they would retire? Is it a flexible date? What's the amount you want to spend every year? Just putting them through the results, we get an idea of their pain points and where they can bend."

Most of the time, it involves working longer and taking more risks in equities.

"Those with the least financial literacy don't want to take risk; they want to avoid the stock market entirely. But if they invest 50 percent in equities and we coach them through the volatility, that portfolio growth can be the difference," Tully said. That prospective client decided to retire in his or her 70s instead of 60s, and save more every month, he added.

What can you sock away now? Once you turn 50, you can save more and catch up — contributions over and above the standard annual limits are permitted. Accountant Martin Abo, founder of Abo and Co. in Mount Laurel, spells out the possibilities: $6,000 additional  annual contributions for 401(k), 403(b), or 457 plans; $3,000 for SIMPLE (Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees) IRA plans; and $1,000 for traditional or Roth IRAs.

Among women, especially, Evans sees what she calls "bag lady syndrome. They're embarrassed. These women think they'll end up living in Rittenhouse Square. But instead of doing something, they do nothing, and it's self-fulfilling."

Learn to stay positive with websites such as, which view retirement as a journey, not a goal. And financially, start with catch-up contributions if you're turning 50.

You're not alone.  According to AARP, more than nine million households with members between ages 55 and 64 have no retirement savings. But 97 percent of people have accomplished a financial goal, such as buying a car, or paying off a mortgage. AARP and the Ad Council teamed up to launch a "Saving for Retirement" campaign, featuring a new online resource at, a "digital retirement coach" to give people the information they need to prepare for long-term financial security.

Sources: Internal Revenue Service; Abo & Co.