Americans who face 401(k) and IRA account balances that likely won’t generate nearly enough money to live on comfortably have decided they’ll just keep working.

More than one third of pre-retirees surveyed by the Employee Benefit Research Institute say their plan is to keep working until at least age 70; 45% are setting their sights on retiring after age 65.

And this isn’t some sort of self-empowering choice to keep connected to the work world and its supportive social structure. This is about financial stress. In the survey, the most cited reasons for wanting to delay retirement:

—Can’t afford to retire (49%)

—Lack of faith in Social Security (46%)

—Health care costs (45%)

Making a go of working longer

Delaying retirement a few years is a reasonable and responsible strategy — especially considering there’s a solid chance you’ll live past your mid-80s. But it’s not something to count on. More than 40% of folks who have already retired report they stopped working earlier than planned.

Typically, circumstances, not choice, speed up retirement. A not-so-gentle shove out the door, maybe entirely undeserved, or perhaps a self-induced exit due to burnout. Illness. Or needing to care for a parent or partner.

Anyone in their 50s — or making that turn soon — who wants to successfully pull off the work-longer strategy should focus on these four steps:


1. Stockpile savings today. A plan to work longer is not to be used as an excuse to not save today. C’mon. This bears repeating: More than 40% of folks with the same intention as you ended up retiring before they wanted to.

You’re also entering an employment danger zone. Using government data, the Urban Institute and ProPublica recently reported that more than half of workers in their early 50s are laid off; only 10% who are given the boot ever land another job that pays as well. All of that is an argument for saving more than you think you can right now, as insurance against not being able to keep saving — or saving as much as you anticipated — through your 60s.

If you have a workplace 401(k), the 2019 maximum contribution is $25,000 for anyone at least 50 years old ($19,000 if you’re younger). The IRA limit is $7,000 for the over-50 crowd.

Can’t imagine coming up with the cash to boost your savings? You sure? Lifestyle creep has a way of making a mess of retirement savings. Exhibit A: Take a look in your driveway. The average car payment these days is $545 a month. That’s a fully loaded IRA.

I explained in an earlier column a retirement-friendly approach to car ownership. At a minimum, your goal should be that once you pay off the car loan, you keep driving the car until it is at least 10 years old, and use the money you no longer are shelling out for that four-wheel depreciating asset to rev up retirement savings. Leasing is a forever-payment: Don’t do it.

2. Stay relevant … and wanted at your current job.

Coasting is not how you set yourself up to pull off delayed retirement. Yet that’s what plenty of folks do. A survey by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies reports that less than half of baby boomers say they are “performing well at my current job.” Six in 10 admit they aren’t keeping up their job skills. That is going to make you a layoff target.


Letting someone (younger) become the go-to pro on the latest enterprise system at work, or letting eager beavers run with new initiatives, ups your obsolescence odds. Management can definitely be an enabler here, by looking past older employees. Yes, that sucks.

But you can’t afford to just let it happen to you. Sit down with your manager and HR and let them know how motivated you are to be part of the action. When was the last time you eagerly signed on for a new training session or work group exploring a new strategy? Be at the front of the line for every training opp.

If your tech skills are dated, and you don’t want to let on at work, it has never been easier and cheaper to do some online skills polishing at home. Sites such as LinkedIn Learning and Udemy offer a deep lineup of tutorials and full-blown courses.

3. Aim to downshift your earnings in your 60s.

The best way to pull off the work-longer strategy is to set yourself up so your 60s are all about keeping your hands off your retirement savings. Not necessarily saving more, but just not starting withdrawals.

Giving your investments another 10 years or so to grow is going to be a big help. A $500,000 401(k) at age 60 that you leave growing for another decade will be worth nearly $750,000 assuming a conservative 4% annualized return.

There’s also a tremendous payoff to delaying when you start Social Security. Wait until age 70 to start, rather than age 62, and your monthly payment will be more than 75% higher. That far exceeds what you could earn risk-free if you took the money at 62 and invested it. Worried about benefit cuts? Yes, Social Security needs fixing, but based on past fixes, people in or near retirement would not see their benefits reduced.


All of that is doable if you aim to make enough to cover your living costs in your 60s. For instance, let’s say your Social Security benefit if you took it age 62 would be $2,000 a month. Find work that brings in that much and you’ve just given yourself the flexibility to delay claiming Social Security.

Lowering living costs will be a big help. Target No. 1: If intend to stay in your home, get the mortgage paid off. That will take pressure off your cash-flow needs in retirement. There are online mortgage prepayment calculators that will help you run the numbers, or you contact your mortgage servicer and ask for a new amortization schedule that gets your mortgage paid off by age 60.

4. Be kinder to your future older self. Self-care today is how you increase the possibility that injury and illness won’t derail your work-longer strategy. Sure, disease can strike anyone at any time. But not taking care of your body — and head — contributes to illness, injuries and burnout. Nearly 75% of baby boomers surveyed by Transamerica say they are concerned about their health in older age, yet barely half say they are taking steps today to live a healthier life.

Hitting the gym, watching your diet, giving yourself down time to breathe and recharge can help you pull off your work-longer strategy. Even more important, it can also up the odds that you will be able to more fully enjoy retirement, when it does arrive. covers the worlds of personal finance and residential real estate.