Don't let this retirement regret ruin your future

Imagine getting near retirement age only to find out you can't afford to retire -- perhaps for several more years. Unfortunately, that's turning out to be reality for more Americans.

Roughly half of all workers regret not saving more for retirement, and that's according to more than one survey. The latest comes from HSBC, a global bank and financial services provider that found 44 percent of U.S. pre-retirees wish they had started saving for retirement earlier. As a result, they expect to work five years longer than people who are currently retired.

The numbers from the HSBC survey are consistent with earlier ones. For example, a 2015 survey by American Century Investments reported that three-quarters of respondents said they could have saved at least a little more in the past, and the majority said not saving enough was one of the biggest mistakes of their lives. Almost two-thirds said they wish they could have talked to their younger selves and told them to save more.

A 2014 survey by insurer TIAA also reported that half of employees approaching retirement said they wished they had started saving earlier.

What's going on here? If workers were like Mr. Spock of Star Trek, they would logically analyze their situation and conclude that they need to save more, and they would have the discipline to do so. The problem is that most workers are human, subject to various quirks, biases and limitations that prevent our kind from taking actions that we know will be good for us in the long term.

The regrets workers express in these surveys is well known to behavioral economists. They've learned that people highly value spending money today vs. saving for some distant future. "I'll save more tomorrow" is a common refrain.

The problem arises when tomorrow inevitably comes, and you decide again to "save more tomorrow." Keep repeating this cycle over and you'll reach your retirement years with little or no savings -- and then you'll regret you didn't save more when you were younger.

One of the best ways to avoid future regret is to start saving for retirement -- no matter how old you are -- by enrolling in a savings plan at work, if a plan is available, and have your savings immediately deducted from your regular paycheck. Many plans will also automatically increase your contributions over time. You can also take other opportunities to increase your savings, for example, when you get a raise, bonus or other windfall.

If you don't have access to a savings plan at work, you can set up an IRA with many financial institutions and similarly set up automatic savings programs so you don't keep putting off saving until tomorrow.

Need some motivation? Try looking at pictures of what you could look like in a few decades. Research suggests you'll increase your willingness to take steps today to take care of the future you. Then the future you might not regret that the current you didn't save more.

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.