Skip to Content

Late to the retirement savings game? Me too. Here’s what I tell myself.

A few weeks back, Personal Capital, a free service that helps you keep track of your net worth*, sent out an email asking bloggers how families can build their net worth and save more through making small changes–financial or otherwise–to their lives.

(*this is not a sponsored post, just FYI.)

when you can't save for retirement

And they wondered if I had ideas about how I could have started saving earlier.

Retirement savings aren’t something that I talk about a lot here, mainly because this is NOT an area where I’m an expert.

And Mr. FG and I have definitely not done all the retirement things the experts say you should do.

For instance, you really ought to start saving for retirement when you’re in your early 20s.   Buut, when I was in my early 20s, we had barely two pennies to rub together, so retirement savings weren’t even on our radar.

If you’re trying desperately not to drown, the last thing you’re thinking about is how to build a boat, you know?   You’re just trying to stay alive for the moment.

Anyway, due to our late start, sometimes thinking about retirement savings makes me feel a little bit panicky (!), so here are a few of the things I remind myself of when I need to talk myself down from a proverbial ledge.

1. If staying out of debt is all you can do, it’s all you can do.

retirement saving on a small budget

I know everyone says that in order to save for retirement early, you need to cut your spending and save the extra.   But when Mr. FG and I were living on a very tight budget, we had to work hard just to stay in the black, let alone have any extra dollars!

We did manage to set aside some money for savings every month, but that just functioned as an emergency fund, which helped to keep us out of debt when unexpected expenses came up (like a dead heat pump.   Oy.)

But you know, I consider staying out of debt to be a huge accomplishment.   Sure, we weren’t making forward progress toward retirement, but we also weren’t digging a hole for ourselves.

Considering that the average American family has $7200 of credit card debt, this is not an accomplishment to be sneezed at.

2. Better to start late than never.

You know that old proverb that says the best time to plant a tree was 100 years ago; the second best time is now?

I feel like applies pretty handily to retirement savings.

pennies for coinstar

Would it have been awesome if we’d stashed away a bunch of money when we were in our 20s?   Sure.

But it’s better to start late than never, so that’s what we’re doing now that we have more income.   We’ve got a 401(k) with (some) matching at Mr. FG’s work, plus we have a personal IRA through Capital One 360.

We’re definitely not going to be able to retire in a few years, but at least we’ve got a good start on things now.

3. Frugal habits mean you don’t have to save as much.

Ok, so, there are some scary possible expenses to save for in the future (Medical care! Oof.), but generally speaking, if you don’t have high-on-the-hog spending habits, your retirement fund is going to go a lot farther than if you have a high-maintenance lifestyle.

I know how to live a good life on a small budget, so I know that I’m not going to need to save a billion dollars before we can retire.

4. Paying off a house totally counts.

I look at our payments on our mortgage as another way we’re inching toward retirement.   If we pay off our house, then we can happily live in it as long as we want while only paying taxes and insurance.

Benjamin Moore Tranquil Blue wall paint

Or if we end up selling it and moving somewhere else in our retirement, having it paid off means that we’ll walk away with a nice chunk of change to pay for a difference house.

Either way, having a paid-off mortgage means that retirement expenses will be much more manageable.

(And actually, my Personal Capital account takes that into consideration for my net worth, adding up both my home’s value AND how much the home is currently worth.)

5. Communicating about money is life-changing.

If you’re the only person responsible for your finances, then this is obviously not true!   But if you have joint finances with someone else, communicating regularly about those finances is super important.

(Otherwise, it’s so easy for the bill-payer to be the only one with knowledge, and that makes it hard to work toward goals together, like retirement.)

I’m the bill-payer in our house, and the monthly money emails I do for Mr. FG have been so helpful.   Their existence means we talk about the state of our finances at least once a month, and that makes it a lot easier to prioritize our spending and saving.

Added bonus: good money communication skills are going to come in very handy during our retirement years, I think.   They’re important now, but I imagine they’ll be essential when our income is more fixed.


I’m positive that a number of you out there are way more retirement-savvy than I am and I know there are some of you who have already retired.  

So, share your wisdom with us! Any tips for starting young, or for making up lost time if you’re starting late?


Disclosure: Personal Capital has not sponsored this post, and I’d had my account for a while before I got the email that prompted me to write this post.   Personal Capital links are affiliate links, which help to keep the lights on around here at no extra cost to you (and actually, Personal Capital accounts are free, so…)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Saturday 18th of March 2017

A money saving tip we've used is to stop giving presents for holidays. I know this won't work for everyone, but for us, we've stopped with the automatic, regular spending of money on things just because the calendar says it's time. Instead, we'll give gifts when we see something that will make a person's life better. Not being tied to the holiday schedule means we can sometimes get good deals on things. It also means we can look for things that will make a difference in the person's life for many years. But we've also refocused ourselves to give our time to people ... that tends to have a longer lasting effect than presents ever had.

Along the same lines, I tell people not to give me gifts. I don't need anything. Don't get me wrong, of course, I could use more books, a new computer, etc. But I make do with what I have. If people want to make me happy, the best thing they can do is spend some time with me, doing things that I enjoy.


Monday 1st of February 2016

Thank u for the informative post Kristen. I didn't remember this post, but have been worrying about retirement for awhile. I am 37 and haven't started yet, but have only a few thousand in credit card debt, no house or car loan, and no medical. The retirement money articles assume that everyone has that debt. Oh and we also don't have kids and probably won't, Which will save us A LOT with expenses.I won't worry, but will start saving soon.

Hawaii Planner

Monday 14th of September 2015

At my first job, when I was making very little money, my first boss pulled me aside & recommended that I start investing in our corporate 401K. We had a very generous matching policy, and he gave me the entire talk about starting early, moving towards maxing out as I got raises, etc. I was 22. I've been maxing out my 401K for probably 10-12 years, and feel like we're in good shape. My husband is a bit behind me, but this frees us up to do other things. I'm planning to take some time off (first time in nearly 20 years!) & being ahead/on target for our retirement makes this a viable option.

Diane C

Saturday 12th of September 2015

Well, I said I'd post later and I'm sorry it took me this long. Since I don't expect a lot of people to read my comment this late in the game, I'll write it as if I was speaking just to you, Kristen.

I think you are doing an awesome job so far. The reason it's crucially important to think about retirement spending early is the sooner you start, the fewer actual dollars you will have to save. The following nuggets are things I wish I'd known at a much younger age.

First Important Example: Person A opens a low-cost retirement account when she turns 20 and puts $1000 a year into the account for ten years. She stops adding to it when she turns 30. She lets it stay invested, without adding to or taking from, until she is 65.

Person B waits to start until his 30th birthday to open the same type of account. He faithfully deposits $1000 per year until he turns 65. Who will have more money at age 65?

Person B, who has saved $35k vs. Person A's $10k, will never catch up. That's the magic of compound interest.

Second Important Concept: There is a difference between unsecured debt (like credit cards = very bad) and secured debt (like a mortgage = not necessarily bad, possibly even good for wealth building, imagine that!). Having a low-interest mortgage can allow you to save earlier for retirement, and the longer that money has to grow, the more you will end up with. Make peace (hee!) with your low-interest, tax-deductible mortgage, and put the extra money into tax-advantaged retirement accounts. Waiting until you pay off the mortgage at the expense of retirement saving is a losing proposition. So, stop prepaying the mortgage and direct that money into retirement accounts, especially if your employer has a match. Always get the match. No match? No worries, you are still deferring taxes, so that more of your dollars are working for you sooner.

Important Thing the Third: You can borrow for college, but you cannot borrow for retirement. Related: If you must borrow for college, put the loans in the children's names only. They have many more working years than you do to pay the money back. If you've followed the other advice, you will have enough money to help them later, if need be, AND enough to retire on yourself. It's putting your air mask on first, and yes, it's Very Important.

Fourth. Bonds are not always safe. Do not put money you will need within a few years into anything that has the potential to decrease in value. For every point interest rates rise, bonds fall 6%. Does anybody believe that interest rates will stay this low forever?

Fifth. Do not invest in anything you don't understand is good advice, but it doesn't mean it's okay to just stuff money under the mattress. It means take the time to learn the basics of investing, because the risks of mistakes are great, but so are the rewards of investing well. The return for time spent learning this stuff is huge.

In a nutshell, that's the stuff I wish I'd been taught in school. As I mentioned earlier, I made mistakes and still got to FIRE anyway, but it was harder than it needed to be. Time is the most important element in retirement savings, and it can't be regained. I believe we would be better off as a society if every high school graduate had a basic understanding of finances before they headed out into the world of college and beyond.


Saturday 12th of September 2015

Lots of good thoughts!

I agree about the mortgage. My point in mentioning it is that even in our years when we weren't able to sock away retirement savings, we still were faithfully paying our mortgage, and those payments were helping to put us closer to a stable retirement. So, it felt like we weren't making progress toward our retirement, but at least we had the principal of the mortgage working for us.

College savings: We do put some money aside every month for our kids' college savings, but it's not much. Luckily, they should be able to knock out at least their first two years at a good community college, which will seriously help their financial situation. Two year's worth of college loans are a lot better than four years!


Thursday 10th of September 2015

One thing I am not seeing addressed is the cost of nursing home/home aid assistance. Frankly this scares me to death as I am writing a check for my 93 year old mother for about $4000 per month (and we live in the mid-west where it is cheaper than the coasts). Yes, you can get nursing home/ assisted care insurance but it also is very expensive and typically ends after 3 years unless you are willing to pay for a premium policy. Unfortunately you can live as frugally as possible, and still see 100% of your assets eaten up after a few years in a nursing home. All of us hope not to ever have to be in one, but you must be realistic.


Thursday 10th of September 2015

Yup-that's what I meant by healthcare costs. I was lumping nursing home/health aid stuff in with that.

I really, really hope that I can live on my own until the very end. My grandpa is 98, and he still lives in a house, with my uncle nearby to check on him. I'd love to end my life that way rather than in a nursing home.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.