Retirement catch-up strategies for late starters

I recall an old New Yorker cartoon. It showed a financial planner sitting across the desk from an older couple. “We want to retire next week and have no money,” the man told the advisor. “This is your chance to become a legend.”

I’ve seen people severely behind in their retirement savings but none as bad as that.

Let’s say that you’re on the other side of 40 and have insufficient savings. Perhaps you’ve been a procrastinator, a big spender, been through a divorce, or put children through university. What can you do to salvage your retirement?

If it makes you feel any better, you’re not alone and it’s never too late to start, although you will have to do more to make up for lost ground.

Todd Tresidder discusses some of these strategies in his e-book How to Catch Up on Retirement Savings.

“The first thing you must do is focus forward rather than dwell on past mistakes,” Tresidder writes. “Kicking yourself and getting discouraged by your lack of results to date will only push you further from your goal.

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“Your job going forward is to focus on what you can begin doing today that will make the future different from the past.”

I’ll add to that: don’t delay even one month more. Further delays can have a huge impact.

Tresidder suggests doing a retirement plan in his book How Much Money Do I Need To Retire. He provides a step-by-step process for estimating your savings needs and what you must do to accumulate those savings. A capable financial planner can help with this. Your plan will show you where you are today and plot the required course to achieve that dream retirement. Well, maybe not a dream retirement; for that, you would have needed to start a couple of decades ago, but you may still be able to achieve a comfortable, worry-free retirement.

Related article: How much will I need for retirement?

The reason you must first estimate how much money you need for retirement is that all strategies need to be designed around your savings goal. You must have a specific, measurable savings goal if you’re to know what you’re working toward and to measure your progress.

Tresidder’s first catch-up tactic is glaringly obvious: increase your savings. This can be an unpopular recommendation as it usually requires spending less.

I once had a client refuse to curtail her spending because, as she said, “I want to live for today and not just save for a retirement that I may never see.” It was an excuse to justify her spending and I told her that retirement will almost certainly come for her, whether she’s ready or not.

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Fact is most Canadians spend hundreds of dollars every month needlessly on stuff that gives them momentary pleasure but makes no lasting, meaningful impact on their financial security. Meanwhile, they have insufficient savings for retirement and education of their children and they’re risking their family’s financial stability should there be a death or disability.

Two ideas are to cut unnecessary spending and throw that money at your savings. The easiest way to increase your savings is with an automatic withdrawal plan from your chequing account into savings; if you never see you’ll hardly miss it.

Related article: Pay yourself first is the best way to save

You can also reduce the amount you spend during retirement so you can reduce the savings required. Using the four-percent rule or the rule of 25, for every $10,000 less you spend annually in retirement, your savings requirements drop by roughly $250,000.

Or, think of it as the rule of 300. Every $1,000 per month reduction in retirement spending reduces your savings need by $300,000. It may be easier to lower your monthly spending by $1,000 instead of saving another $300,000. Both of these rules are helpful in estimating your required savings.

You can also postpone or phase in your retirement with part-time or contract work. Working a couple more years and then working part-time for two more years can have a huge impact. These strategies give you more years to add to your savings and reduce your savings requirements.

Related article: The importance of earning money

If you do a retirement-income plan – and you should – and it shows you falling short, don’t despair. You may be surprised how a few of these tweaks can turn a miserable retirement into one that has you living comfortably, if not luxuriously. For that, you would have had to start two or three decades ago. If you didn’t, start immediately or you’ll regret it. I’ve never heard anyone say they started too early. Many people have told me they wish they’d started years or decade sooner.


  1. Claude Mayrand

    Wayne suggests: “You can also postpone or phase in your retirement with part-time or contract work.”

    Saving money is a requirement to build a personal retirement fund. Obviously. But add a pre-retirement task (call it a fun project instead) to learn about managing your retirement income, about maximizing the income from your retirement capital.

    Rather than concentrating on reducing your retirement needs by a thousand dollars, how can you generate another $1,000 of income from the same retirement capital? Or $12,000.

    Not more capital to draw $12,000 from, but how to create $12,000 more from the same capital!

    CPP is not a pension plan. It’s a Pension Plan Safety net and so is OAS.

    How much income to you plan to have once retired (exclude CPP and OAS)?

    Income = Capital * Yield

    Safety Net = CPP + OAS

    By the way, you don’t need to be an expert in everything… Including managing your retirement. You don’t need to be a chef to prepare a meal or a race driver to get to work.

  2. Mustard Seed Money

    I was fortunate to start investing early on. However, I had a roommate that insisted that he could save for retirement when he is older just like his dad. Well unfortunately he’s still not saving for retirement and I don’t know when he ever will. It’s unfortunate when people are given the tools but choose not to act.

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