There’s no time like the present to think about the future.

Like most 25-year-olds, Ryan Adkins spends little time pondering retirement. When he does, however, he sees a future markedly different from the one his parents and grandparents enjoyed.

Adkins landed a job with a major company right out of college and began contributing to a 401(k) plan, yet he still sees himself working well past the traditional retirement age of 65.

Part of that is his choice. He loves to travel and was willing to sacrifice future money for recent trips to Africa, Europe, and South America. “My retirement is not sitting on some glamorous cash mound that I’m going to start tapping when I’m 66,” Adkins says. “Retirement to me is taking the vacation you want to take, when you want to take it.”

One factor behind Adkins’ attitude is his embrace of uncertainty. His grandfather could chart his retirement income using a basic formula and a calculator, and he knew it would be funded with company money. For Adkins, the amount of money he will be able to save depends on discipline, investment savvy, timing, and the vagrancies of the stock market. Nothing is guaranteed.

“It’s up to me to find a job with good pay. It’s up to me to get work experience,” he says. “The risk is now assumed by the worker. You’ve got to take care of yourself.”

This is what retirement planning ultimately boils down to: You’re on your own, and you need to act.

Now.

STEP 1: PLAN
Saying Americans fail to prepare for retirement is like noting that morning traffic is heavy on I-405. Forty-one percent of people ages 18 to 29 have never thought about retirement planning, according to a 2014 Federal Reserve report. Thirty-one percent of all Americans have no money saved for retirement and do not have a pension, the report notes, including 19 percent of those between ages 55 and 64.

Faced with an average retirement duration of 18 years, rising out-of-pocket health costs, and almost certain increased inflation, most people are worried less about how to spend their accumulated retirement cash than how to accumulate enough cash to spend.

“It’s not about net worth anymore; it’s about net income,” says Chris Cahoon, a certified financial planner with Redmond-based Strategic Planning Partners. “Am I creating enough money from my assets to live off of?”

Planning is important even for those with well-funded retirement accounts. Untapped individual retirement account (IRA), 401(k), and pension money can help pay for education or medical costs, be willed to heirs, and donated to charity. But the tax implications can be tricky.

“Estate planning is always important, but for families with a net worth of more than $10 million, estate planning is vital,” says Jason Weese, a financial advisor and senior vice president with Morgan Stanley in Bellevue.

Regardless of age or income level, it’s not too late to start mapping your financial future. “Every day you wait,” Weese says, “makes it that much more difficult to achieve your retirement goals.”

STEP 2: ACT
Compound interest makes time the most important ally in growing money. The sooner you start saving for retirement, the more money you will have. It’s that simple.
Most people can afford to set aside some portion of their monthly income for retirement. The amount is less important than getting in the habit of saving. Even if you don’t know an IRA from the NRA, start socking money away in some form of retirement account. The details can be sorted out.

“You never hear people say that, looking back, they wish they had waited longer to start,” says Weese. “If I could talk to every 22-year-old, I’d tell them, ‘Just get started. You’ll thank me later.’”

There is no shortage of advice available about where, when, and how to invest long-term funds. Some people are comfortable sorting through it and making their own decisions. Others consult financial planners. Either way, the key is to develop a saving habit.

Adkins, who recently accepted a new job with a company that does not offer a 401(k) plan, still tries to put 10 percent of his income into his new IRA. He says his peers are also saving, though they’re not sure what for. “It’s been ingrained in them. They know it’s good to be disciplined.”

STEP 3: ADAPT
Though time-tested principles of long-term investing still apply — be aggressive when young, conservative near retirement — savvy savers need to adjust to changing realities. People nearing retirement age with underfunded assets have two basic options: increase their income, or downsize their lifestyle.

“It’s a scary time for them,” Weese says. “Being too conservative actually lowers the probability they will ever have enough to retire. It may mean taking on more risk, not less.”

Retirement plans should be revisited at least once a year, as tax loopholes open and close and the stock market rises and falls. The more complex your finances, the more likely a professional planner can add value in leveraging assets.

Donna Bernard, a vice president and senior wealth strategist at the Bellevue office of Washington Trust Bank, advises clients to think of advisors as partners.
“A financial plan is just a business plan for personal wealth,” she says. “We try to empower people with the knowledge that this is a business opportunity.”

It’s also a chance to analyze how you want to spend your golden years. People 65 and older comprise 14 percent of the U.S. population — the highest level ever — and are healthier and more active than ever before. Some must keep working to generate income, but many others remain in the workforce because they want to.

Charley Murphey, 67, still works full time as a loan officer with Guild Mortgage in Kirkland. “Unless you have abundant wealth, retirement can be overrated,” he says. “People think all this is a race. You have to get done by a certain date so you can do what, circle around the world in a boat?”

Systemic disruptions, such as a recession or an earthquake, always threaten to blindside long-term plans. But don’t let worry preclude living it up in the present day.
“There’s not a perfect answer. The economy is not helping us,” Murphey says. “Get as many things going in your direction as you can. Retirement doesn’t have to be the finish line.”

RETIREMENT TIPS

Here are a few sound retirement pointers for any age or income level.

MAXIMIZE CONTRIBUTIONS – Fund retirement accounts to the limit each year, and take full advantage of employer-matched contributions. Just because your employer will only match your donation up to, say, 6 percent doesn’t mean you have to stop at that level. Consider doubling it.

DIVERSIFY – Buy a home or purchase shares of a real estate investment trust. Invest in non-retirement stocks and bonds. Stow cash in a savings or money market account. Consider gold, art, or other commodities.

PAY ATTENTION to taxes and fees. With most retirement funds, initial investments grow tax-deferred, meaning you will owe the IRS when you’re allowed to start tapping them at age 59⅟₂. A Roth IRA works the other way: You pay taxes upfront, take your money with no charge later. Management fees for retirement accounts might seem insignificant, but they can deeply erode earnings over time. Employers are now required to disclose fee information for the 401(k) or 403(b) plans they offer — make sure you understand the fine print.