Is It Ever Too Late to Start Saving?

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What if you're in your 40s and you haven't set aside a dime for your retirement years?

Recently I participated in a tweetchat with Liz Weston, J.D. Roth, MP Dunleavey and other personal finance geeks. One of the questions was:

I’m in my 40s and just started saving. What advice would you give beginners to make the most and try to catch up?

An onslaught of 140-character advice poured out, but J.D. Roth summed it up best of all:

The best thing when starting to save late in life is to just DO it. Don’t worry about lost time. Just save.

Easier said than done, to be sure. But necessary nonetheless.

I can testify, having run through my own savings in my 40s while waiting for a divorce to go through. At my lowest point I had $130 in cash and a boatload of lawyer debt on my credit card.

These days I’m debt-free and have rebuilt my savings almost to the point they were when I left my marriage. It was easier for me than for some because I no longer had kids in the home, and because my needs were relatively few.

But this rebuilding was also due to determination. I refused – and still refuse – to let current wants/needs overshadow future wants/needs.

A few strategies

That means saving. I’m funding an individual retirement account but I’m putting money in the bank too.

One of the pieces of advice I gave in the tweetchat was:

Stay focused on goal. Celebrate every deposit. Look for ways to trim budget, earn more money.

Trimming the budget is rarely easy or fun, but every dollar you can coax away is a dollar you can keep. Whether that’s for an emergency fund, debt repayment or investing for retirement is up to you.

Not everyone can get a second actual job, but there are other ways to earn money:

  • Online surveys. Pick your spots, but these really can pay.
  • Swagbucks. You can cash in your points for PayPal or for gift cards to use instead of cash at stores.
  • Microjobs. Short-term or one-time gigs that can pay surprisingly well.
  • Selling stuff online. I sold a little plastic baseball statue for $1,200. No, I couldn’t believe it either. If you don’t have any heirloom or special-interest items, maybe you can take clothes to a consignment store or put unneeded electronics on Craigslist.
  • Baby sitting. No, really. I used to get paid $10 an hour or more, even when the kids were sleeping and I was doing my college homework.
  • Odd jobs. Instead of going through a microjobs site, find out what people around you need – or don’t want to do – and offer your services.

Getting started

Believe me, I know this is not easy. Being in your 40s with basically no savings is terrifying – and at times paralyzing. But nothing will happen unless you cause it to happen.

Put another way: I’ve talked with people about going back to school in midlife. Some have said something along the lines of, “I couldn’t do that. I’d be 55 before I finished!”

My inevitable reply: “Well, how old will you be if you don’t get a degree?”

It’s the same for saving. You might think there’s no point in trying if you can put aside only a few bucks here and there. I once interviewed a woman who, just out of graduate school in her early 30s, did a meticulous budget and found she could save, at the most, $10 per month.

Temporarily discouraged, she decided to go ahead – and to get creative. Among other things, she recycled cans and bottles, held garage sales, banked her coupon/rebate savings, saved spare change and dollar bills, and sometimes rented her condo or her parking space to weekend travelers.

Within a few years she had not just a six-month emergency fund but also separate funds for vacations, retirement and a down payment on a someday home.

Don’t know where to begin? Use some of her tips. Or check a piece I wrote for Get Rich Slowly, “Stealth Savings: Sneaky Ways to Fatten Your Account.” Maybe there’s something in there to get you started.

And you must start. Start now. Today. Even if all you do is throw your pocket change into a Miracle Whip jar every night, you’re taking charge. You’re making it happen. You’re taking care of the future you – and believe me, the future you will be glad you cared enough to try.

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Stacy Johnson

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