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Many older millennials are waking up on the other side of 40 and realizing their chance to “start early” when it comes to investing has already passed. Others are picking up the pieces after divorce, illness or a long-term layoff that decimated what assets they’d managed to accrue. Whether you’re starting late or starting over, right now is still a great time to begin working toward financial security.

While it’s true the sooner you begin, the easier it is to build wealth, all hope is not lost if your portfolio is a late bloomer. If you’re beginning before age 45, you still have two decades for your investments to compound if you retire at age 65 or later. That means you also have two decades to continue to increase your income, reduce your debts and otherwise prepare your finances for retirement.

The bad news is early retirement is probably off the table, but you likely knew that already. Without a huge cash windfall such as an inheritance or lottery win, you will not be able to build an investment portfolio large enough to let you exit the workforce before your 60th birthday. But the good news is you’re not going to be forced to work until you’re dead, either. In fact, you may even be further along than you might think.

In your 40s, you’ve likely established yourself in some ways, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Your student loans are probably paid off, your children have outgrown the daycare years, and you may even own a home. In short, you’re probably not starting from $0, even if that’s currently the balance in your investment accounts.

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What matters now is you take advantage of the decades ahead to build your nest egg. You need to prioritize your income and contributions to your investment accounts, reduce your spending and avoid financial mistakes at all costs. Where your 20s allowed for missteps and do-overs, you don’t have the luxury of making mistakes in your 40s and 50s. You have to get it right this time.

Thankfully, you’re entering or are already in the peak earning years of your career, and can command a salary that may be multiples higher than what you earned in your 20s or 30s. If you’re not yet earning the income you want, there’s still plenty of time to acquire designations or credentials, switch employers, negotiate a raise or continue to climb the corporate ladder where you are. A higher income will be the key to playing catch-up on your retirement accounts in the years to come, so make it a priority.

Where a 25-year-old will only need to set aside $325 per month to build a $1-million dollar portfolio by age 65 (assuming an average annual rate of return of 8 per cent), a 45-year-old will need to put away $1,833 per month to get the same result. If that figure is too daunting, remember that every year matters: you can get away with saving nearly $300 less and only sock away $1,542 per month if you’re willing to retire two years later, at age 67. The number drops again to $1,167 per month if you retire at age 70.

These aren’t small sums of money, but parents who have just spent $2,000 a month for the past five years to keep their child in daycare probably won’t find them impossible to work into their budget. Much like childcare, your RRSP contributions are tax deductible, so that should take the edge off fitting them into your monthly expenses.

If you can’t set aside more than $1,000 toward your retirement account each month, a smaller amount will do. After all, retiring with $500,000 is still better than $0. The worst thing you can do in your 40s or 50s is to give up on saving and investing entirely because you believe it’s a lost cause. It will always be better to have money than to not, so saving and investing at any age always makes sense.

As you’re setting money aside, focus on getting the best return possible. This doesn’t mean seeking out risky stocks or crypto, but rather reducing investment fees and trading commissions. A robo adviser or self-managed portfolio of ETFs are your best low-cost options. If you stick with mutual funds, make sure the MER is less than 1 per cent.

In addition to making every effort to supercharge your retirement accounts, it’s time to clean up the rest of your finances as well. It’s all well and good to trim your budget of unnecessary subscriptions or clip coupons on your next grocery shop, but you should be thinking bigger. Consider tackling any expense that makes up 15 per cent or more of your spending: namely, housing and transportation.

If you’ve enjoyed any of the phenomenal gains in property values over the past decade, you might start timing your exit to capitalize on that profit. It could make more sense to downsize at or near retirement, rather than waiting until you can no longer live independently. Doing so will let you shift the equity you’ve built in your home over to income-generating securities in your TFSA and RRSP, while also reducing large expenses such as property taxes and home maintenance. In terms of transportation, if you’ve always leased brand new vehicles with hefty monthly payments, it may be time to switch to something more practical to free up money in your budget.

Correcting bad spending and saving habits is likely to be the biggest challenge for rectifying your finances after 40, says fee-only financial adviser Robb Engen. If you’ve gotten used to spending everything you earn over the past two decades, putting any limits or restrictions in place will take some getting used to. You can’t use debt to fill the gaps, either. Skipping your next vacation or putting off home renovations until you can pay cash instead of tapping credit cards or a HELOC is now a matter of necessity. You can’t afford to carry unnecessary debt any more.

While the downside of not taking your finances seriously until your 40s or later means the window to make mistakes and easily recover from them has closed, the upside is that you still have plenty of time to get things organized. As long as you’re living and breathing, there’s always something you can do to improve your finances. A late start still leaves plenty of time to win the race; you just need to run a little faster.


Bridget Casey, MBA (Finance) is founder of Money After Graduation, a financial e-learning company. You can follow her on Instagram at @bridgiecasey and Twitter at @BridgieCasey.