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Saving for your retirement is a big deal. Barring the income you might get from pensions (not what they once were) and Social Security (not likely to stay what it once was) all you'll have is the money you save to last you the rest of your life. And it's no secret that if your accounts run dry, it's incredibly difficult for a retiree to rejoin the workforce a decade or more after leaving it.

Given all that, it's understandable if you're a bit worried about coming up with enough money that you'll be able to retire comfortably on your terms. While building and maintaining that nest egg is a long-term commitment, it's important to remember that you have the rest of your career to get there. With a solid plan and the flexibility to handle life's curve balls, you can greatly improve your chances of retiring with a portfolio that can last as long as you do.

3 Steps to Get From Here to Retired

The toughest part of investing for retirement is that you face so many unknowns. How long will you live? What will the market do? Will your Social Security benefits get cut? How tame (or wild) will inflation be? Will your mental and physical health hold out, or will you need the help of a caregiver?

Those are all wise questions to ask, but unfortunately, they can't be answered with any certainty until it's too late to do anything about it. The best any of us can really do is develop a reasonable plan based on decent assumptions, and then adjust as life happens. With that in mind, here is a three-step foundation for a solid plan:

1. Set a target. What sort of lifestyle do you want in your retirement? Are you the kind of person who'd be happy rocking away on the stoop, watching the world go by? Or do you picture a retirement filled with world travel, box seats at the symphony, and generous philanthropic gifts to your favorite charities?

Whatever your plans, start by estimating your anticipated monthly expenses. Subtract from that your anticipated net Social Security check and any monthly pension payments you may get, then multiply the remainder by 300. That's about how large your total portfolio will need to be to cover your costs. At that size, your portfolio should generate enough growth and income that you can take advantage of the 4 percent rule, a solid (if rough) estimate that will help reduce the odds that you'll outlive your money.

2. Take what help you can get, and ramp up when you can. While that 300-times-monthly-expenses estimate may seem daunting, there are a number programs available to help you build your nest egg faster. Qualified retirement accounts like IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and the government's Thrift Savings Plan let your money grow tax-deferred, or potentially tax-free. Also, depending on the type of account, you may even get a tax break immediately for putting money into the account.

On top of the tax benefits, many employer-sponsored plans offer a company match for some portion of your contributions. The combination of the company match plus the tax deductibility of contributions make many of those plans about the best deal in the market. Indeed, depending on your tax situation and the level of the match you get, it may give you the opportunity to instantly double your money, which will go a long way.

Of course, if you haven't been saving, it's hard to go from $0 to $1,000 a month in savings overnight. Still, the more you put away each month and the longer you have until you retire, the easier it is to reach your goal. While getting started, instead of an all-or-nothing approach, focus on what you can start with right now, and then ramp up as you can if you're able to reduce your spending or increase your income over time.

When it comes to planning for your retirement, the act of investing matters at least as much as the returns you get on your investments. Still, as the table below -- which looks at the monthly contribution needed to reach $1 million by retirement depending on different returns and time frames -- shows, it's important to get started as quickly as you can, even if you can't spare the total right away:
Years to Go 10% Annual Returns 8% Annual Returns 6% Annual Returns 4% Annual Returns
40 $158 $286 $502 $846
35 $263 $436 $702 $1,094
30 $442 $671 $996 $1,441
25 $754 $1,051 $1,443 $1,945
20 $1,317 $1,698 $2,164 $2,726
15 $2,413 $2,890 $3,439 $4,064
10 $4,882 $5,466 $6,102 $6,791
5 $12,914 $13,610 $14,333 $15,083
Data from author's calculations.

3. Know what you can adjust -- and be willing to change it. Finally, remember that life happens, and nobody can perfectly predict either their own future or what the market will do. If you've got a solid foundation in place from following the first two steps, it's a lot easier to make the course corrections as needed to reach your goals.

For instance, if you wind up at your expected retirement age about 10 percent below your goal, working for another year or two will give your money more time to grow and may increase your Social Security benefit, too. Conversely, you may decide that you're more willing to downsize your home and otherwise lower your costs in order to retire a few years earlier.

Get Started Now

Regardless of what the future brings, the stronger your savings foundation, the better your chances of enjoying a financially secure retirement. The more time you have to plan, the bigger an ally it is for you. The three steps outlined above can help you along the way, but it's up to you to make the first move. So stop worrying about retirement, and start working toward the golden years you're looking forward to enjoying.

Motley Fool contributor Chuck Saletta welcomes your comments. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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Debbie Chen

1) Don't be foolish and fall into the trap of trying to measure your wealth by the value of your assets. Markets change. Valuations fluctuate. Instead, measure your wealth by the amount of cash flow your assets consistently generate.
2) Pay off your debts as fast as you possibly can. If this means living in a crappy studio apartment and eating ramen everyday for a couple of years, do it. If you want to buy a car, get a reliable beater. Get insurance for $25/month from Insurance Panda. Forget about buying a house until your debts are paid off.
3) Once you are out of debt, stay out of debt. The only exception to this rule is a vehicle and a house. If you want to get a nicer car, buy used and be able to pay it off in a year or 2.
4) If you are going to stay in the same spot for at least 10 years, buy a house, preferably with at least a little bit of usable land. An acre is good, 5 acres is better. Take the amount you are pre-approved for and cut it in half - that's how much you should spend on a house. Come to the table with at least 20% down and make a couple of extra mortgage payments every year. If you're going to be transferred or relocate every 5 years, forget about buying a house and rent instead.
5) Develop multiple revenue streams. Do contract work. Start a business on the side. Invest in a business as a silent partner. Raise chickens, breed dogs or grow apples. Build websites. Buy and sell antiques. Acquire rental property. Sell something that generates residual income. Learn to play the currency markets or trade stocks. Do whatever you can to generate income from multiple sources. A good thing is to have a cheap life insurance policy that pays dividends. Check LifeAnt for this. You can basically get life insurance for free from them once dividends kick in.
6) Grow these multiple revenue streams to the point that they generate enough consistent and reliable cash flow to replace your current income.
7) Make as much as you can. Save as much as you can. Give away as much as you can.
8) Retire!- the sooner, the better. Be sure you understand that "retirement" doesn't necessarily mean you stop working, it just means having the freedom to do what you want to do, when you want to do it.

April 16 2014 at 9:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ethan Evans

What do you think of using a calculator? I used this one http://www.mutualfundstore.com/planning-and-retirement/tools-and-calculators/retirement-calculator, which seemed to give realistic results.

December 17 2013 at 7:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Linda Meyer

Warning! If the stock market or bond market crashes, you could lose everything or nearly everything you saved. Diversify. Much of what I had invested in disappeared never to be recovered.

September 15 2013 at 8:02 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mystocktobuy Mystock

I want to add a new advice: study financial cycles, so that you can always know what stocks to buy for the long run. Sincerely, Fredrick - http://www.mystocktobuy.com/

August 08 2013 at 11:33 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
j79xjames

The key to retirement to a successful retirement at least financially is to start saving/investing early and be consistent. Save with every paycheck and take advantage of any employer matching plan. You also have to plan your lifestyle requirements for retirement. Stay active both physically and mentally. Stay socially connected which may mean volunteering, continuing to work part time, etc. There are many sites with retirement information. I recently found the site Retirement And Good Living that provides great information on a variety of retirement topics. Very informative site.

August 02 2013 at 8:05 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply