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Stacy Rapacon, special to CNBC.com
Thursday, 22 Oct 2015 | 11:43 AM ET

Do you have enough saved for retirement? The question makes most people anxious, and with good reason, because in many cases — especially for those who ought to be closest to the milestone — the answer is no.

A Wells Fargo survey released Thursday is the latest to bear that out. In fact, it found that near-retirees have the least amount of money saved for retirement of any group surveyed. Americans ages 60 or older reported having a median retirement savings of just $50,000 while those age 55 to 59 had saved three times as much. The annual survey, conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of Wells Fargo, included more than 1,200 people age 40 and older.

Saving earlier helped put the younger cohort ahead of their elders. Respondents ages 55 to 59 said they began saving when they were 31, on average, while those age 60 and older waited until they were 37.

“It’s a small difference in when they started, but it’s created a big gap in savings for two age groups right on the doorstep of retirement,” said Joe Ready, head of Wells Fargo Institutional Retirement and Trust.

On track to do even better, those ages 40 to 49 (the youngest group surveyed) started saving at an average age of 27. They reported having a median $80,000 put away for retirement.

To make up for any delay in saving, most people plan to save more later. But math doesn’t favor that strategy. If you start saving with $500 and add $100 each month for 35 years, earning a modest 6 percent with quarterly compounding, you wind up with nearly $145,000. If you wait 10 years, even if you double your principal and contribution amounts (starting with $1,000 and putting in $200 each month), you’ll still have less than that amount after 25 years because you’ve missed out on a decade of compounding. “What people don’t realize is they’re losing the power of time,” said Ready.

Another common strategy is to work longer. Unfortunately, that’s not always up to you. Nearly half of retirees in the study said they were forced to retire early for reasons beyond their control — 37 percent cited health issues and 21 percent said it was an employer decision.

The lesson is clear: Start saving as soon as possible. Outline all your expenses and identify where you can spend less. “Once you realize your spending and potentially make cuts, you can increase your savings between now and your retirement,” said Nicole Mayer, a partner with financial planning firm RPG Life Transition Specialists, based in Riverwoods, Illinois. “You need to get a plan in place and blueprint your future, even if your future is almost here.”

The first step is to contribute to your company’s 401(k) or similar plan, if one is available. According to the study, consistent savers with access to a 401(k) have saved four times as much as those without the option — a median of $200,000 versus just $50,000 saved, respectively. In 2015, you can contribute up to $18,000 in such a plan; if you’re 50 or older, you can add an extra $6,000 this year. (The IRS announced Wednesday that the limit for 401(k) plan contributions will remain the same in 2016.)

If you can’t reach those maximum amounts, contribute at least enough to capture any company match. (You can still boost your contribution rate for 2015.) Most employers with matches offer 50 to 100 percent of as much as 6 percent of an employee’s salary. “That’s essentially free money,” said Anthony David, a Washington, D.C.-based investment advisor and first vice president of wealth management with Morgan Stanley.

If you’ve maxed out your employer-sponsored retirement account, or don’t have access to one, consider opening an individual retirement account. In 2015, the contribution limit for IRAs is $5,500, and you can boost that amount by $1,000 if you’re 50 or older. (The same contribution limits will remain in place next year, according to the IRS.)

With both a 401(k) and an IRA, you may have the option to go with a traditional or Roth account. Which you choose depends on your current and future tax situations. “The key is to save in tax-efficient ways,” said David. “You have to determine whether your tax bracket will be higher now or when you start withdrawing for retirement.” If you expect your tax bracket to be high when you take distributions on your account, go with a Roth so your withdrawals will be tax free (assuming you qualify under the income limits to contribute to a Roth). If you expect your tax bracket to be lower later, depositing pretax dollars into a traditional account may be the better choice for you.

Another tool you may be able to use is a health savings account, if you are under age 65 and have an HSA-qualified health-care plan. In 2015, individuals can contribute up to $3,350 in pretax dollars to an HSA; families can put in up to $6,650. And if you’re 55 or older, you can bump those amounts up by $1,000. Your withdrawals will also be tax free if you spend the money on qualifying health-care expenses, including deductibles and a range of other out-of-pocket expenses. Bonus: Whatever money you don’t use rolls over from year to year — “all the way through retirement when you can use it as a retiree health plan,” said Ready.

Correction: This story was updated to reflect that a Roth IRA may make more sense if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket when you take distributions.