If there's a lesson to be learned from our nation's economic turmoil, it's that it's never too early to save for retirement. In the face of the worst recession since the Great Depression, countless seniors are postponing retirement, taking on post-retirement jobs or struggling to live off of diminished nest eggs. Between September, 2007-December, 2008, retirement account assets lost $2.8 trillion (32%) of their value. It's no wonder 51% of workers age 50 or older are delaying retirement. (Learn how government actions may have contributed to this major economic downturn, in What Caused The Great Depression?)

A Young Man's Game?
Still, many consumers in their 20s and 30s continue to put off retirement saving, assuming they're too young to worry about such "old people" problems. However, experts recommend that people start saving for retirement no later than the age of 25 - even if they have other debts and expenses. After all, the longer you wait to start saving, the more money you'll have to invest later to ensure a comfortable retirement.
Think about it this way: If you're 25 years old and you want to save up $1 million by the age of 65, you'd only have to invest $85 a month at a 12% annual return. If you wait until 35 to start saving for retirement, you'd have to put away $286 a month to reach the same goal. At 45, you'd have to save more than $1,000 a month, and if you wait until 55, you'd have to invest a whopping $4,350 a month.

Here's a look at how you can effectively plan for retirement through the ages:

  • The (Not So) Carefree 20s: Time to Get Down to Business
    Although many people see their 20s as a happy-go-lucky time, this decade shouldn't be all fun and games. When you reach your mid-20s, it's time get down to some retirement saving business. Financial experts say you should start saving for retirement as soon as you start bringing home the bacon. Ideally, men should invest at least 10% of their income in retirement savings, and women (who typically have a longer lifespan) should put at least 12% of their income towards retirement.

    Now is the time to take advantage of any retirement plans your employer may offer, such as a 401(k). If you contribute a certain amount into these funds, your employer will probably match you contributions. It's really a no-brainer to invest the maximum allowed amount (or as much as you can afford) into your 401(k).

    If your company doesn't offer a plan, open up an individual retirement account (IRA). In 2009, you can contribute as much as $5,000 to a traditional or Roth IRA and up to $6,000 if you're 50 or older. An added bonus is that these retirement plans offer valuable tax benefits.

    In your 20s, choose investments that offer plenty of growth. Most financial experts say that you should have 85% of your portfolio in stocks or mutual funds at this age. Because you still have many years to go before your reach retirement, annual stock market peaks and valleys won't affect you. In the long run, you'll end up with a decent overall return on your investment.

  • 30-Something: Keep At It
    Once you reach your 30s, you may be busy with love, marriage and the baby carriage. With so much going on in your life, it's easy to get distracted from retirement saving. However, it's important not to lose focus of retirement in these crucial saving years.

    Although you may be working to save up for a home down payment or your child's college fund, keep socking money away into your retirement fund as well. You're probably earning more income at this age, so there's more cash to go around.

    You may also be more concerned about paying off consumer debt than investing for your retirement. While it's important to whittle away at student loans, your mortgage and car payments, you should never stop saving for retirement. Work on paying off the debts that carry higher interest rates first (such as credit card debt), but continue putting money into your retirement fund as well. Keep saving at least the minimum amount of your income, which is 10% for men and 12% for women.

    Also, if you have a 401(k) or an IRA, now is the time to build up to your maximum allowable contribution. Now that you're earning more dough, you may also look into investing in stocks and mutual funds. But remember, when it comes to investing, diversification is key. If you put all your eggs into one basket and that basket comes crashing down, your retirement savings could be gone in a blink of an eye. Experts say you should have no more than 5% of your net worth in any one stock position.

  • 40 and Fabulous: The Financial Balancing Act
    At this age, many consumers experience a financial struggle between paying for their child's expensive college education and saving up for retirement. Unfortunately, retirement saving often loses out in this financial tug-of-war.

    Experts say that, if you are forced to choose between paying for your child's college and saving for retirement, choose retirement. Your kid can apply for financial aid and borrow college money through student loans, which often offer low interest rates. Not only will this remove some financial burden from your shoulders, but it will also teach your young grasshopper about the ways of money.

  • 50s, 60s and Beyond: Protect that Nest Egg
    As you reach your 50s, continue to contribute the max amount to your 401(k) or IRA. Because you're growing ever-closer to retirement, you should talk to your financial advisor about transferring your portfolio from higher risk investments to lower risk ones, to ensure that your income is preserved. Now that your retirement years are on the horizon, you'll want to protect that nest egg you've worked so hard to build. You should also start working towards the goal of having all debts paid off by the time you retire.

    Once you celebrate your 60th birthday, it's time to get really conservative with your investments. However, you may want to hang onto at least a few growth investments now, and even into retirement, to help fund the increasing costs of living.

    Throughout your 50s and 60s, continue meeting with your financial advisor two or three times a year to discuss any changes in your lifestyle or spending habits. Depending on your goals, you may need to continue to adjust your portfolio as you grow older.

It's clear that when it comes to building a nest egg, the early bird gets the worm. If you want to ensure a comfortable, carefree retirement, start saving as soon as possible - and keep saving throughout the ages. (Learn some sensible strategies for making your hard-earned savings last for as long as you need them, in Managing Income During Retirement.)

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