No matter your age, there are certain things you need to do to prepare financially for retirement, and of course, the earlier you start, the better. These steps — from AARP's The Single Woman's Guide to Retirement by Jan Cullinane — should help you along the way.
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1. Save, Save, Save
How much of your salary should you put aside? Experts recommend at least 10 to 15 percent of your annual income, and more if you're closer to retirement and haven't put much aside. If you've hit your 40s or 50s and haven't started saving, you may need to save two or three times as much from each paycheck.
One simple calculator that tells you what you need to put aside can be found at morningstar.com (click on "Real Life Finance" and the calculator is in the middle of the page — "Are you saving enough for retirement?").
Several assumptions are built into this calculator: You'll need 80 percent of your present income (net of savings) for retirement; you'll retire at 65; inflation will be 2.5 percent a year and your income will increase by the same 2.5 percent a year; you'll receive Social Security; and you'll invest your money in a "life-cycle" or "target date" mutual fund, which rebalances your investments (stock, bonds, and cash) based on your age and retirement date. For example, if you're 55, make $40,000 a year, and have saved $10,000, you'll need to save 26.2 percent of your income each year until retirement (remember the assumption built into the calculator is that you'll work until 65). No guarantee, of course, but this calculator is one easy way to come up with an actual percent of what you need to save to have a 90 percent chance of outliving your money. If this seems daunting, remember that saving something is better than saving nothing.
[Editor's Note: You may also want to try the AARP Retirement Calculator.]
2. Create an Emergency Fund
That means money enough to last you three to six months. And remember, it's for an emergency ... and the newest cool shoes don't qualify as an emergency.
3. Pay Down Debt
If you're struggling with debt, personal finance guru Dave Ramsey suggests a technique called the "Debt Snowball." List your debts from lowest to highest. Pay the minimum balances on all debts except the smallest, and pay down that smallest debt fast. Once you've rid yourself of the lowest debt, the next lowest one is now the lowest debt and the one you work on next. Continue until all debt is gone. Some experts suggest you tackle the debt with the highest interest rate first, but Ramsey's idea is that you'll feel better getting rid of the smallest debt first, and you'll be motivated to continue and pay down the rest of your debts. Starting with a small "bite" is easier to do, and you'll be more likely to continue. Paying off the smallest debt is the beginning of your "snowball," and once it gets rolling, there's no stopping you! Once your debt is paid down, pay all of your credit cards in full each month.
Next: Pay yourself first! »