NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Many Americans are faced with an unexpected early retirement and are forced into it by layoffs or health issues, disrupting their previous financial plans.

Save Cash on Payments! Compare Low-Interest Credit Cards Now

More than half (58%) of those 70 years old and under who have already left the workforce did so earlier than they had planned with 40% retiring early because of health-related issues and 26% because of lost jobs, according to a PNC Financial Services survey.

While some Americans expect to work longer to make up the shortfalls in their savings, many of them find themselves retiring before they are prepared.

Factoring in the unexpected should be part of all investor’s strategic retirement plan, said Joe Jennings, an investment director of PNC Wealth Management in Baltimore.

“Even the best laid plans don’t come to fruition,” he said. “There can be changes to the economy or your health. It is important to have a backup plan in case your original plan doesn’t quite work out.”

Almost half of Americans (49%) in their prime retirement planning years believe they will need to work longer than previously planned in order to save enough to retire, with only 38% of women and 48% of men who believe they are prepared for retirement, the survey showed.

To cope with that gap, consumers should start planning early for retirement. The timing of returns has more impact on portfolio values during wealth distribution than during wealth accumulation, Jennings said.

Investors should reduce their equity exposure the closer they get to retirement and make sure their portfolio is susceptible from large swings in the market, he said.

Even people who are just starting to save in their 40s and 50s can still contribute to their retirement.

“It’s never too late to save,” Jennings said. “There is no time like the present. People are living longer in retirement and retirement is not the end of the equation. It is a new beginning in your investment horizon.”

View Today's Highest Savings Account Rates

Consumers who only carry only “good” debt, or low interest debt which can be paid off with their current income, are headed in the right direction, said Mike Chadwick, CEO of Chadwick Financial in Unionville, Conn.

While job security can be difficult to maintain, keeping in touch and up to date on your company’s competition can give you an advantage, he said.

“If there is a round of layoffs, it is likely many people will be looking to the same few places for a new job and a previous relationship can be a big help here,” Chadwick said.

Encore Careerism

A recent Merrill Lynch study found that 55% of retirees age 50 or older retired earlier than expected with 27% who lost their job and 37% who experienced a personal health problem; however, nearly three out of five retirees launch into a new line of work and working retirees are three times more likely than pre-retirees to be entrepreneurs.

The majority of people are caught “flat-footed” by a lay off or corporate downsizing event and may not have a plan in place to retire five to ten years out, said Chad Carmichael, a principal consultant at North Highland, an Atlanta consulting firm.

Consumers should take action ahead of time by paying down their debt, bolstering their rainy day fund, deferring big ticket purchases and understand where their money is being spent, he said.

It is critical to figure out what your second act will be after an unexpected retirement. Consulting or part-time work are viable options, said Rebecca Pavese, a financial planner with the Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Atlanta.

“Assessing your financials needs should be addressed prior to retirement, even before you are close to retirement age,” she said. “This will give you enough time to make adjustments and also to decide if you need to look for a different job when you are younger rather than stay with a firm that tends to have a habit of forcing employees into early retirement.”

Some people choose to continue working and opt for an encore career, a career between your recently finished job and complete retirement, said Kimberly Clouse, chief client advocate at Covestor, an online marketplace for investing based in Boston and London.

“There are many shades of gray between your old career and stopping working altogether,” she said.

Approximately 9 million Americans ages 44 to 70 are working in second careers, and an additional 31 million are interested in pursuing an encore career, according to the AARP.

Accepting What You Can't Predict: Brass-Tacks Savings

Instead of focusing on your ideal retirement date, consumers need to structure their plan to retire a few years earlier, said Stein Olavsrud, a certified financial planner with FBB Capital Partners in Bethesda, Md. Although many Americans typically expect to retire at age 66, the brutal truth is that most retirees don’t stay on the job nearly that long. A recent Gallup Poll found the average age among retirees is closer to 62.

“Although we hate to admit it, we need to plan for the unexpected,” he said. “As you prepare for retirement, your planner can alert you to the potential risks of an income shortfall and can assist you in mitigating those risks through the use of savings and or insurance.”

Splitting your savings into two categories: a rainy day emergency fund and a catastrophic account will help mitigate any unexpected major life events that we hope will never happen, said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling in Washington, D.C.

“No one can predict the future,” she said. “That is why it is so important to prepare for the worst case scenario. I’ve never met a person who said they’d saved too much.”

--Written by Ellen Chang for MainStreet