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5 Things Millennials Need to Know About Saving for Retirement

Retirement seems a long time off — particularly when you’re young.

However, Millennials — generally defined as those born between 1978 and 2004 — are living longer, and many will have to finance retirements that are actually longer than their working careers.

So, while it can hardly be expected to be top-of-mind for most of this group, here are five things worth knowing about saving for retirement — now.

1. Social Security won’t be as much as you think it will be.

Okay, some of you don’t think it will be anything at all, certainly not by the time that you are old enough to collect. But set aside for a moment the questions you may have as to whether or not Social Security is financially viable without reform, or if you should even count on it at all. Your parents — who are either now, or soon hope to be, collecting Social Security — had the same concerns, after all.

However, even if you assume that the program remains largely unchanged from what it pays today, if you retire at full retirement age in 2015, your maximum benefit would be $2,663 a month, according to the Social Security Administration. However, if you retire at age 62 in 2015, your maximum benefit would be $2,025; and if you retire at age 70 in 2015, your maximum benefit would be $3,501.

Now those amounts are based on earnings at the maximum taxable amount for every year after age 21. In other words, that’s probably more than most of us would get. In fact, the average monthly Social Security retirement benefit for January 2015 was $1,328. Note that the maximum benefit depends on the age a worker chooses to retire, among other things — and that assumes that the current questions regarding Social Security’s longer-term financial viability are addressed, and/or that current benefit levels aren’t reduced.

In sum, the odds that you’ll get that current maximum aren’t large — and the odds that current benefits will be reduced still seem pretty good.

2. Not everyone has a pension, and you probably don’t.

Now, by “pension” I mean the traditional defined benefit (DB) pension plan; one that, in the private sector anyway, was largely employer funded. According to the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), in 2011, just 3% of all private-sector workers participated only in a DB plan, and 11% had both a defined contribution (DC) and a DB plan. So, only something like 14% of workers in the private sector still have a traditional pension plan (even then, it doesn’t mean there’s no reason for concern; see "3 Pervasive Retirement Industry Myths".)

Despite this, studies pop up every so often that indicate that a remarkably large number of workers think they do have a pension. Do you? Better double check.

3. You won’t be able to work as long as you think.

You hear people talk about 65 as the “normal” retirement age, even though it’s no longer that, even for Social Security benefits. Oddly, considering all the talk you hear about people retiring later, the average age at which U.S. retirees report retiring is 62 — an age that has increased in recent years — while the average age at which non-retired Americans expect to retire, 66, has largely stayed the same.

Meanwhile, EBRI’s Retirement Confidence Survey (RCS) has consistently found that a large percentage of retirees leave the workforce earlier than planned — 49% of them in 2014, for example. Many who retire earlier than they had planned often do so for negative reasons, such as a health problem or disability (61%), though some state that they retired early because they could afford to do so (26%).

So, if you’re thinking you don’t need to save for retirement now because you can you just keep working… well, you might need a “Plan B.”

4. You could be missing out on ‘free’ money.

Okay, you may not be saving at all (your parents got off to a slow start as well). You won’t be the first group of young workers to have college debt, or just have a lot of things you’d rather spend your money on in the here-and-now. Or both. It can be hard, particularly when you’re getting established, to prioritize all the demands on your paycheck.

But if you do have a 401(k) or other retirement savings plan at work, you may also have something called an employer match (see "6 Things 401(k) Participants Need to Know"). That’s where your employer will put into your account a certain amount, perhaps 50 cents for every dollar you save. For you, that’s “free money,” but you’ll only get that if you actually take advantage of your retirement savings plan at work.

p.s.: if have been automatically enrolled in your employer’s 401(k), you may want to check out the savings rate. These typically start contributions from your paycheck at a much lower rate (a 3% default savings rate is common) than those who have taken the time to fill out an enrollment form (who tend to go with the savings rate matched by their employer.

5. The sooner you start, the easier it will be.

The Labor Department says that for every 10 years you delay before starting to save for retirement, you will need to save three times as much each month to catch up.

I know it sounds simplistic. But trust me, you’ll be amazed at how quickly your retirement savings grow. See, the money you save earns interest. Then you earn interest on the money you originally save, plus on the interest you’ve accumulated. As your savings grow, you earn interest on a bigger and bigger pool of money. This is something financial pros call the “magic of compounding.” But it’s no trick.