It costs over $1 million to retire at age 65. Are you expecting to be a millionaire in your mid-60s?

If you're like the average American, the answer is absolutely not.

The Emptiness of the Average American Retirement Account

The first thing to know is that the average American has nothing saved for retirement, or so little it won't help. By far the most common retirement account has nothing in it.

Sources differ, but the story remains the same. According to a 2018 study by Northwestern Mutual, 21% of Americans have no retirement savings and an additional 10% have less than $5,000 in savings. A third of Baby Boomers currently in, or approaching, retirement age have between nothing and $25,000 set aside.

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) paints an even bleaker picture. Their data from 2013 reports that "nearly half of families have no retirement account savings at all." For most age groups, the group found, "median account balances in 2013 were less than half their pre-recession peak and lower than at the start of the new millennium."

The EPI further found these numbers even worse for millennials. Nearly six in 10 have no retirement savings whatsoever.

But financial experts advise that the average 65 year old have between $1 million and $1.5 million set aside for retirement.

What Is the Average Retirement Account?

For workers who have some savings, the amounts differ (appropriately) by generation. The older you are, the more you will have set aside. However there are two ways to present this data, and we'll use both.

Workers With Savings

Following are the mean and median retirement accounts for people who have one. That is to say, this data only shows what a representative account looks like without factoring in figures for accounts that don't exist. This data comes per the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances. (Numbers rounded to the nearest hundred.)

• Under age 35:

Average retirement account: $32,500

Median retirement account: $12,300

• Age 35 - 44:

Average retirement account: $100,000

Median retirement account: $37,000

• Age 45 - 55:

Average retirement account: $215,800

Median retirement account: $82,600

• Age 55 - 64:

Average retirement account: $374,000

Median retirement account: $120,000

• Age 65 - 74:

Average retirement account: $358,000

Median retirement account: $126,000

For households older than 65 years, retirement accounts begin to decline as these individuals leave the workforce and begin spending their savings.

Including Workers Without Savings

When accounting for people who have no retirement savings the picture looks considerably worse. Following are the median retirement accounts when including the figures for people with no retirement savings. The following do not include mean retirement accounts, as this would be statistically less informative than median data.

• Age 32 - 37: $480

• Age 38 - 43: $4,200

• Age 44 - 49: $6,200

• Age 50 - 55: $8,000

• Age 56 - 61: $17,000

How Much Should You Have Saved For Retirement?

So that's how much people have saved for retirement, or more often don't. Now for the more useful question: How much should you have saved for retirement?

The truth is that there's no hard and fast rule. It varies widely by your age, standard of living and (perhaps most importantly) location. Someone who rents an apartment in San Francisco needs a whole heck of a lot more set aside than a homeowner in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. 

The rule of thumb is to estimate by income. Decide the income you want to live on once you retire, then picture your life as a series of benchmarks set by age. At each age you want a multiple of this retirement income saved up. Your goal is to have 10 to 11 times your desired income in savings by retirement.

• By age 30: between half and the desired income in savings

• By age 35: between the desired amount and double the desired income in savings

• By age 40: between double and triple the desired income in savings

• By age 45: between triple and quadruple the desired income in savings

• By age 50: between five times and six times desired income in savings

• By age 55: between six times and seven times desired income in savings

• By age 60: between seven times and nine times desired income in savings

• By age 65: between eight times and 11 times desired income in savings

So, if you earn $50,000 per year, by age 40 you will want to have between $100,000 and $150,000 in retirement savings set aside. The formula grows later in life for two reasons. First, as your savings accumulate they will grow faster. Second, as you approach retirement it is often wise to accelerate your savings plan.

What You Should Do Next for Your Retirement Savings

Retirement is approaching a crisis. In the coming decades millions of Americans will get too old to continue working without the means to stop. Millennials, crippled by debt from graduation, will turn this crisis into a catastrophe in about 40 years. And Social Security, designed to prevent exactly this problem, covers less than half of an average retiree's costs of living.

It's beyond the scope of this article to discuss exactly how this happened, but if you're one of the many people who have fallen behind on retirement savings, don't panic. There's plenty you can do. But… it might not necessarily be easy.

The key is to think about retirement savings like a debt. This is money you owe to yourself and it charges reverse interest. Every day you go without adding money to your retirement account is a day you lose investment income. That's money that you'll need someday and won't have.

Next, take stock of where you are. How much will you want to live on in retirement and how much do you have saved today? Use our chart above. That will tell you how far behind you are compared to where you need to be. Are you a 40 year old with $25,000 in savings who will want to live on $50,000 per year in retirement? Then you've got $75,000 you need to make up for.

Now, begin catching up. Chip away at that debt every week and every month. Pay into your 401k and IRA the same way you would whittle down a credit card. By thinking about it this way, as a specific goal, you can take away some of the fear of saving for retirement and turn it into an achievable (if large) amount. It's not just some big, black hole you can never fill. It's a number, and numbers can go down.

It won't necessarily be fun. You might have to cut back on luxuries or take on some extra work, but even if you start late in life you can catch up on your retirement.

Now's the right time to start.

Need help preparing for retirement? Check out Retirement Daily.