As private-sector companies that offer traditional pensions grow scarce, individuals are left to navigate retirement savings largely on their own, often turning to employer-sponsored 401(k) programs to help create a nest egg.
Those who don't can turn to Individual Retirement Accounts offered by many financial institutions. Whether people tap into programs through an employer or use other vehicles, what is important is taking that first step toward security, financial planners say.
"Saving something, even later in life, is far preferable to throwing up your hands and doing nothing," said David C. John, senior strategic policy adviser AARP Public Policy Institute. "Safe and steady is the best course."
But many people make two key mistakes when saving for retirement, John warned. People often get anxious and shift their funds around trying to take advantage of fluctuations in the market; and secondly, they simply don't save enough, he said.
"Individuals almost always make the wrong decision," he said. "By the time they notice that the stock market is going up, the stock has already risen to the highest point. So they're more likely to be in there at the point when the market tips and starts to go down."
And people should save about 10 percent of their earnings, or at least 5 percent to 6 percent, he recommended. Yet, Americans' typical savings are far lower, he said.
And many Americans simply aren't saving, in part because they don't have access to a retirement vehicle through their jobs.
"Without access at work, people are 15 times less likely to save," said Sarah Mysiewicz, a senior legislative representative in AARP's state financial security and consumer affairs group.
About 1 million people in Maryland lack access to retirement savings at work, Mysiewicz said. Only about 5 percent of those will go out and buy an IRA, she said.
Both company size and salary level are key factors in the availability of such retirement programs, she said.
Across the country, only one in seven small businesses — defined as having fewer than 100 employees — offer employees a way to save for retirement, Mysiewicz said. Most Americans work for such small companies. Consequently, only about one in two people nationally have access to retirement savings through work, she said.
And the deck is stacked against people at the lower end of the salary scale. Only about 25 percent of those who earn less than $20,000 annually have such access, Mysiewicz says. Yet 75 percent of people who earn more than $80,000 have retirement savings programs available, she said.
Part of the challenge of owning a 401(k) or IRA is understanding the value of that money as an income stream, since statements can be complex to those untrained in finance.
"The 401(k) allowed employers to abdicate any responsibility for their employees upon retirement," said Eric D. Brotman, president and managing principal of Brotman Financial Group in Timonium.
He quips that employees are subject to something he dubs the "YOYO economy," standing for "you're on your own."
The AARP's experts and Brotman offer the following tips to people in managing a 401(k) or other retirement account:
•Save early and often. If you start saving in your 20s, you can contribute far less to have a financially secure retirement than if you're trying to catch up in your 40s or 50s. The earlier you start and the more you save, the more likely you are to be comfortable during retirement.
•Contribute at least up to the amount that your company will match. Taking advantage of the company match is like getting a free raise, so don't leave that money on the table.
•Investigate a potential employer before you accept a job so that you know whether it offers a 401(k) and what the company match is.
•Invest in a balanced portfolio. If investments are too conservative, you may save for a large number of years but the money is not going to grow significantly. If you invest in risky funds, you may lose your investment.
•Be careful when choosing funds to consider the fees and risks involved. A target date fund is a good bet because it adjusts funds automatically as the date they are needed approaches. Index Funds mirror the stock market, so their performance almost always equals or exceeds any actively traded fund, and typically they do so with fewer fees.
•Keep the big picture in mind. These investments should be evaluated across a couple of decades rather than in the short term.
•Remember that 401(k) funds will be taxed eventually.
•Consider using 401(k) or IRA funds to postpone tapping into your Social Security benefits for as long as possible. The value of Social Security payments increases the longer one puts off taking them.
Then kick back and enjoy retirement.