Young people, don’t let this happen to you. Plan for retirement now!

Young people, a.k.a. “Millennials,” have the time horizon that should allow them to save well, and thus avoid the need to save much more in later years. Otherwise, they will end up like those now nearing retirement that Theresa Ghilarducci describes in her 2012 article on retirement:

Seventy-five percent of Americans nearing retirement age in 2010 had less than $30,000 in their retirement accounts. The specter of downward mobility in retirement is a looming reality for both middle- and higher-income workers. Almost half of middle-class workers, 49 percent, will be poor or near poor in retirement, living on a food budget of about $5 a day. See Our Ridiculous Approach to Retirement.

Acting now is crucial, but what do you do?

Step 1 – As a Millennial, accept that you need to start saving now and commit to acting. For encouragement, remember that:

The 35-year-old would need to boost her contribution rate to 9 percent to achieve the same result as the 25-year-old starter who was saving 6 percent. (from Retirment Saving for Young People) See You can Ignore Most Financial Planning Rules.

Step 2 – Identify how much you need to save by using a retirement calculator. There are many calculators you can use – see what we listed in The results from retirement calculations on different websites vary. Why?

Step 3 – Follow this hierarchy for how to set up accounts for your savings:

Start with your employer plan, 401(k), 403(b) or if you are self-employed, SEP-IRA. The contributions you make to a 401(k) or 403(b) are made from payroll deductions, so you never get a chance to spend this money. The deductions reduce your taxable income now, so the government is effectively helping you to save. Also, the amounts invested grow “tax sheltered,” meaning that you pay no tax on any interest, dividends and capital gains. However, when you retire and withdraw from the plan, you are taxed on that amount as regular income.

If you save more, use a Roth IRA next. Set up an auto debit from your checking to fund your Roth IRA, so contributing works like payroll deductions. The amount contributed to a Roth IRA is not deductible, but amounts withdrawn at retirement are not subject to income tax. The amounts invested grow tax sheltered.

Finally, if you still need to save more, set up a “taxable account,” meaning an account with no tax sheltering benefit. You can use auto-debit to add to this account.

Note: for the Roth IRA, you must qualify and have earned income from which to make contributions to the account. Also note that, for any of these tax sheltered plans, withdrawing funds before age 59½ may subject you to a 10% penalty in addition to income taxes, so do not fund any plan when you expect to need withdraw the money before retirement.

Step 4 – Invest. And when you invest, stick to the plan you set in place (this cannot be over-emphasized). The time to retirement is decades away so you can afford to take risks, some of which will take many years to pay off. If you panic and sell, you only lock in a loss; but if you weather the ups and downs, you will be far ahead. (see Don’t Let This Happen to You, Plan for Retirement Now)

Creating an asset allocation, where you diversify among stocks, bonds, real estate and cash. Include large cap, mid-cap and small-cap stocks, as well as international stocks. You man also include invest in real estate investment trusts (“REITs”) and hard assets. You can use exchange traded funds (“ETFs”). The low fees of ETFs leave more invested to grow, compared to high fee and load funds.

If you on-going advice, you may want to check out alternatives such as LearnVest and the new Future Advisor website.