Thoughts of retirement motivate Shaun Christopher during long weeks spent climbing up and down power poles and working on high-voltage lines out of a cherry picker.
It's not that Christopher, 26, dislikes his job as a power company lineman in San Jose, Calif., or fantasizes about a life of leisure. He's just trying to build up his 401(k) for use decades from now by volunteering for as much overtime as possible.
"I like seeing my money grow," said Christopher, who has about $50,000 socked away for retirement after five years with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. "And there's always a time when you're going to need it."
Saving for retirement is more challenging for young adults in this ailing economy. Like Christopher, they know that more of the burden of saving is on their shoulders as company pensions fade away and questions persist about Social Security's long-term role.
But trying to set aside extra money in one's 20s or early 30s can seem especially daunting in a recession. Big college debts, small salaries and a weak job market all make it easy to say retirement savings can wait.
That's what many young adults are doing.
A March survey of 3,000 adults conducted by Rasmussen Reports for Country Financial, a Bloomington, Ill., insurer, found that 34 percent of respondents in their 20s and 39 percent of those in their 30s said the worsened economy has caused them to decrease contributions to their retirement accounts.
"We need to get into 20-somethings' heads that you can save money and get a luxury item, rather than buying it first and then paying for it," said Mackey McNeil of Covington, Ky., a member of the National CPA Financial Literacy Commission.
Once the matter of deficit spending is under control, planning for the distant future is the next critical step. Saving for retirement is generally recommended as a top priority at any age, regardless of income level.
"You must make it a priority to save at least 10 percent for retirement in addition to all of these other things," said Burk Rosenthal, a certified financial planner in Fort Worth, Texas.
Saving when you're young can go far, thanks to compounding. Waiting a few years can make it difficult to catch up to that pace.
According to a 2008 study by Aon Corp., a 25-year-old earning $30,000 who has not started saving for retirement will need to save at least 4.2 percent of his annual salary until 65 to have a chance of retiring with an appropriate amount of savings. If that worker is age 35 and making $60,000, the number jumps to 7.5 percent.
Christopher's goal is to retire at 56, when he can get maximum benefits from the company — but only if he thinks he has enough savings. So far, despite seeing his account cut nearly in half by the stock market's dive, he feels he is on track.
Others his age can only aspire to such commitment to retirement savings in this economy.
Publicist Scott Willyerd, 25, feels hamstrung because of a mountain of college debt. He and his wife, Katelyn, are putting "every available cent" into retirement savings, he said. But with nearly $100,000 in student loans between them for undergraduate and graduate studies, their retirement savings stand at only about $3,500.
"It's hard thinking about retirement at the age of 25," Willyerd said. "We think that we have more time to save up money. So instead of investing that $100 a month for our future, we'll invest it into small indulgences like eating out and traveling to see friends and family."
Waste no time trying to save
Tips on saving for retirement for those who might not otherwise be inclined to plan three or four decades ahead:
1. Pay off credit cards first. Paying down debt with high interest rates is essential before setting aside money for the future.
2. Build up an emergency fund. Put aside six months' expenses in a liquid, accessible fund that can be tapped for unexpected expenses such as car repairs or medical bills. Otherwise, you will slip back into debt with each substantial, unplanned expenditure.
3. Set up automatic withdrawals. Contact your bank to have a predetermined amount removed from each paycheck, or taken from your checking account on the first or 15th of every month, into a separate savings account. That way you won't be tempted to skip a contribution.
4. Start small and move up. Even with an entry-level salary, most people won't miss 2 or 3 percent of their paycheck. Start with that sum just to get going. Try to bump up your savings rate to 10 percent of your pay as soon as possible. The longer your contribution remains in the single digits, the more you will have to step it up in later years to make up for lost time.
5. Don't turn down free money. If your employer has a 401(k) matching program, be sure to contribute enough to your account to qualify for the company match. There's no more surefire way to get extra cash for nothing.
6. Save your raises. Every time you get a raise, increase your savings rate. You don't have to save all of it, but the more the better.
7. Live within your means. Don't buy something if you don't need it. Monitor your daily spending and take pride in being frugal.
8. Stay disciplined. Set a long-term saving plan and do your best to stick with it. Every setback shouldn't mean you stop saving.