Get an early start on retirement

  @Money September 16, 2013: 2:03 PM ET
retirement investing

Think you can't afford to save in your 401(k) when you make $50,000 or less? You can't afford not to.

(Money Magazine)

Whether you've just thrown your graduation cap in the air or you've been building a career for a few years now, you've probably got more pressing financial concerns than saving for retirement. Like how you'll make the rent and also eat. Or whether you'll ever get out from under the crush of your student loans.

No wonder that a recent Wells Fargo survey found that fewer than half of millennials ages 22 to 32 were socking away cash for retirement -- and that nearly 90% of those who weren't said lack of money was the reason.

Waiting until you're more secure financially, though, will cost you plenty. Contribute steadily to your company savings plan starting in your twenties, and you have a good shot at being a millionaire by the time you retire. Hold off, and that seven-figure stash gets more elusive.

How can you swing it? These tips will help.

Get some perspective

Eight in 10 of the nonsavers in the Wells Fargo study said they needed to pay down debt first. A worthy goal, but one you should pursue simultaneously with, not ahead of, saving for retirement.

For one thing, most employers kick in 50ยข for every dollar you put in, up to the first 6% of your salary. That's an automatic minimum 50% return vs., say, a 6.8% return when you pay down student loans at that interest rate.

Tricks on how to save in your 20s

Plus, as Wharton professor Olivia Mitchell notes, "The money you put into a 401(k) or IRA benefits from a lifetime of tax-free compounding."

That is, you not only earn money on your investment, but your earnings earn money. The sooner you start, the greater the magnifying effect.

Related: Trick yourself into boosting your 401(k) contributions

The bite from your paycheck may also be more manageable than you think, since you contribute with pretax dollars. The after-tax cost of saving $3,000 a year, or 6% of a $50,000 salary: just $43 a week.

Free up cash

To come up with that scratch, eat a brown-bag lunch a couple of times a week, and drink the office swill instead of caramel macchiatos.

Opting for income-based repayment of your federal student loans instead of a standard plan can also help -- if you make $50,000 and owe $30,000, you'd reduce payments by $68 a month, says financial aid adviser Kal Chany of Campus Consultants. Sure, that will extend the life of your loan, but it's worth it if you put the cash in your 401(k) and get an employer match.

Related: See how quickly you can pay off student loans

Take baby steps

Start contributing a modest amount -- say, 3% of your salary -- then bump up by a percentage point a year, until you're up to the recommended savings rate of 10%. Time the hikes to your annual raise, and you won't even feel the pinch. Or, if your employer offers this feature, elect automatic annual increases. Research shows that workers who use this set-it-and-forget-it approach end up with substantially bigger balances. To top of page

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