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To be honest, until this month, I've given retirement basically zero thought. It's hard enough to think about the new car I'll need sooner rather than later.

And I consider crawling in a hole a pretty attractive option as I keep seeing stories about how we millennials more and more have to rely on our own savings — as pension benefits and social security could (at least partially) dwindle away by the time we're nearing retirement. Experts have mixed views on the topic, but millennials largely don't, studies show. 

The past few weeks, I figured out my cash flow and planned a budget, and now I'm actively managing my student loans

And because of my now-even-tighter budget and still overbearing student loan debt, retirement has been a scary topic for me to tackle. When I graduated and learned I'd be paying back loans for the next decade, I accepted it, pushing it to the back of my mind. And I also accepted that probably means I won't be putting much aside for retirement until I'm at least in my mid-30s. 

Apparently, I'm not alone. I called up Financial Planner Brian Ramsay, of Ameriprise in Davenport, who specializes in retirement planning. And apparently most people come to him for advice when they're already 20 or 15 years away from retirement. 

"Unfortunately, there's a lot of people who don't really take the topic seriously until they get well into their 40s or 50s and realize the home stretch is coming up fast," he said. "I don't think there is an age soon enough. As soon as you get that first full-time job and have the ability to save money or start a 401k, that is when you should be planning. That should be as young as 23, 24 or 25."

I’m turning 25 next month. But Ramsay, who teaches how to be smart with money to elementary students up to adults, understands the challenges.

“I understand people have to pay down student loans, and it’s not necessarily the cheapest to live anymore just even a basic lifestyle,” he said. “But ideally, you’d want to start as soon as possible. That’s always the recommendation because any money you save now will compound over time.”

Here’s the advice Ramsay gave for 20- and 30-somethings starting to plan for retirement now.

Take advantage of employer retirement plans

Ramsay said the first, easiest step is taking advantage of retirement plans offered by your employer. So far, I’ve been absently doing this step. But I didn’t realize I could be taking advantage of a 401k company match.

“At least take advantage of the match,” Ramsay said. “Employers aren’t offering things like pensions anymore, so matches are now typically a little higher. If a company is going to offer a 5 percent match, you better get 5 percent in the door. The match is free money. You can’t lose it.”

But, he advises saving 10 to 15 percent of your monthly income for retirement.

Pay yourself first

Next, Ramsay said, manage your budget in a way where you pay yourself first. That is, prioritizing saving before spending what you make.

“Put the money back and invest it and forget it,” he said. “You need to put back at least 10 to 15 percent of your paycheck into a retirement plan or savings account or something. And then you have to pay your taxes. And then what’s leftover is your standard of living. That’s what you use to live your life.”

Basically, I’ve been doing the opposite of his advice, which he says is common. Ramsay said you must save first and then live within your means. And if you don’t have enough money for a new pair of shoes at the end of the month, you have to wait until the next month. That’s easy to say. But with my habit of overspending on clothes I don’t need, and regular need for car repairs, I know it’ll be an active struggle.

But knowing the money needed in retirement is increasing, along with health care and living costs, I actually got some comfort hearing someone emphasize the importance of prioritizing retirement right now. Also, you know, I’m not looking to work my whole life. It’d be nice to pull a Bilbo Baggins, move to the mountains and find a quiet place to finish my book.

“If someone saves for retirement for 35 years, it’s very easy to get $1.5 million or even $2 million,” Ramsay said. “But if somebody waits and only does it for 20 years, they might be lucky to get $700,000. The more time you have is key. So for people in their 20s, don’t develop your lifestyle where you hope you have something at the end of the month to save. That’s a game that’s hard to get out of.”

Find a balance with loans and savings

For those of us dealing with student loans, Ramsay said it’ll take a few years of balancing paying off debt and saving for retirement. In some cases, he said he might advise aggressively paying off loans for a couple of years and then taking on retirement planning.

His advice depends on the interest rate of the loans.

“Saving yourself interest is the same as making money," he said. "Depending on how high the interest rate of loans is will determine how I guide people on whether or not they should do a combination of saving for retirement and paying on a loan, or going all out aggressively knocking out student loans. Typically, in today’s environment, student loan interest is above 6 percent. I’d encourage somebody to hammer away at those loans.”

Often, he said the choice is based on personal preference.

“Hopefully the student loans won’t last more than four or five years, and then you take that freed up money from the student loan payment and would apply that toward retirement,” he said. “You have to catch up somehow. You have to make up for the years you didn’t save as much.”

Be aggressive

Even 20- and 30-somethings should be aggressive when it comes to retirement planning, Ramsay said.

“When folks like your parents or grandparents were going through their employment, they had what we call a three-legged stool. Pension would be there, and then social security and their own personal savings,” he said. “By the time you and me are retired, at least one of those legs won’t be there. And that’s pension because corporations are doing away with those. Now the question is, well, is social security going to be there. Or is it going to be stricter. So your whole retirement could be balancing on one leg. You have to be aggressive.”

The amount someone will need for retirement depends on a number of factors, including income, lifestyle and standard of living. But there are several online tools to help get you started.

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Sarah Ritter is the business reporter for the Quad-City Times. Each week, she will write an experiential column as part of the series, "Cash Course," aimed at reaching financial security and tackling stereotypes about money.

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