A generation ago, most Americans could count on being able to retire right around age 65, but this traditional certainty is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Modern technology and medical care have given us choices that our parents never had; women can now safely bear children in their late thirties, many employees are healthy enough to keep working into their seventies and work-from-home jobs are becoming increasingly commonplace. But personal choices are still the most important factor in the retirement equation. There are several major life decisions that can have a substantial impact on when you can plan to quit working.

IN PICTURES: Retire A Millionaire In 10 Steps

  1. When You Have Kids
    This can be one of the largest factors affecting retirement, especially for those with lower incomes. Parents who find themselves with a new family member when they are at or near middle age may have to keep working for another 20-25 years and pare back their retirement savings for a while longer in order to cover higher education expenses for the little one.
    Conversely, those who finish having kids in their 20s can expect to finish paying for college expenses by middle age, leaving them the remainder of their careers to prepare for retirement. This can translate into a huge difference in the amount of money that is accumulated.

  2. How Many Kids You Have
    The cost of raising a child in today's world can easily exceed $100,000 - and that may not even cover college funding. Parents who decide to have large families can often expect to pay twice as much in living expenses as families with only one or two children. Furthermore, parents with many children may also have one or more of them later in life, thus placing them in the previous category as well. This reduces the amount of money available for retirement savings and can delay retirement by several years. (To learn more, see Kids Or Cash: The Modern Marriage Dilemma.)

  3. When You Start Saving
    This all-too-common mistake can cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars in retirement savings over the years. If you don't begin saving for retirement until age 45, then your investments have 20 fewer years to grow than for someone who started saving right out of college.
    Those who are able to max out their retirement savings from the time they graduate can accumulate a respectable nest egg by age 50. A 25-year-old earning $60,000 a year who faithfully socks away $5,000 a year in a Roth IRA and makes the maximum contribution to his or her company 401(k) plan can expect to have a total of $375,000 by age 50, assuming an annual growth rate of 7%. This is more than what many workers retiring at age 70 have to draw on. The elimination of corporate pensions makes this issue even more critical.

  4. Your Level of General Education
    A generation ago, students who earned a college degree had a reasonable assurance of earning a good living from that degree. However, a bachelor's degree now probably carries about the same weight that a high school diploma carried in bygone days. A master's or doctorate degree is now required for many higher-paying jobs, especially those in the corporate or academic world. Those who choose not to obtain any type of higher academic or vocational education may find themselves earning minimum wage for much of their lives.

  5. Your Level of Financial Education
    Those who work at companies that encourage their employees to save for their retirements and provide substantial educational materials to this end are statistically much more likely to save for their retirements than those who do not. Those who hire investment advisors or financial planners to help them manage their money are also much more likely to save for retirement due to professional recommendation. (To learn more, check out Traditional MBA Or Business Graduate Degree?)

  6. Your Spending Habits
    Those who spend substantial portions of their earnings on big-ticket items such as RVs, boats, vacation homes and the like can obviously expect to retire later than those who funnel the money into their retirement savings instead. Thrifty spenders who search for bargains can save thousands of dollars each year, dollars that can be put into IRA or company retirement plans. Homeowners who can find a way to pay off their mortgages early can also shorten their employment tenure.

  7. Your Age
    Statistics from the Bureau of Labor cite that those who were born between 1946 and 1954 are most likely to own some type of tax-deferred retirement account, while those born between 1928 and 1945 have the most retirement assets. Predictably, the study also shows that progressively younger age categories have proportionately fewer retirement assets, with Generation Y having the least.

  8. Your Occupation
    This can at times override virtually all other factors when it comes to retirement preparedness. Doctors, lawyers and other high-income professionals may be able to sock away $20-30K a year in their later years, especially if they become established in their own practices. Low-income workers must depend much more on starting an early savings plan in order to allow their assets to grow. (For more, see 10 Careers With Great Job Prospects.)

  9. Your Psychology and Background
    If your parents instilled thrifty habits in you as a child, then you will probably be much more likely to save for retirement as an adult. Those who understand the value of saving are much more likely to sock away money in an IRA than those who grew up in poverty and have no concept of savings or money management. (For tips on teaching your children about the importance of saving, check out 5 Ways To Teach Kids About Investing.)

The Bottom Line

These are just some of the choices that can affect how soon you retire. The amount of risk that you choose to take in your retirement plans will play a major role in your return on capital over time. Those who are willing to work a second job even for a while can also bolster their retirement savings significantly if they are willing to allocate their earnings from this source of income into their savings. For more information on how the choices that you make can affect your retirement, consult your financial advisor. (For more, check out our Retirement Planning Tutorial.)

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