You’re about to retire, and you have little saved. Now what?

First, realize that you’re not alone. According to the National Institute on Retirement Security, the median retirement savings for Americans ages 55 to 64 is $12,000. One in three have saved nothing at all.

Some facing this dilemma assume there’s no reason for retirement planning. Instead, they decide they won’t — because they can’t — retire.

Unfortunately, retirement isn’t always optional. Some jobs pose demands we simply cannot meet as we age, even for those who are healthy. Downsizing, illness, or infirmity can also cause many of us to leave our jobs sooner than we’d like.

So if this describes you, what now?  

At CFP Board, we believe “Financial Planning is for Everyone” — and that includes retirees who are short on time and money. Your planning may be more about repairing than preparing, but there are still ways you can improve your financial situation.

  • Get a grip — a tight one — on variable spending. Start by eliminating or cutting discretionary expenses, i.e. those you can control. Entertainment or restaurants are the usual targets, but don’t forget any extra spending on adult kids. Then focus on those items that are not discretionary, but vary in terms of amount. Food, clothing and transportation are all necessary expenses, but can be done more or less expensively, depending on your choices. Information and the Internet are your greatest allies for finding low-cost alternatives.

  • Be prepared to “unfix” certain fixed expenses. Take a hard look at those bills you must pay each month and consider what could be done to eliminate or reduce them. If you pay a mortgage, could you downsize to a smaller home without a loan? Better still, could that smaller house be found in a location with lower property taxes or insurance costs? Could you live without a second car, and all the fixed expense that goes with it? 

  • Reinvent yourself. You may have lived more days than you have saved in dollars, but this doesn’t mean you lack capital completely. You have your human capital, which amounts to decades’ worth of skills, interests, experience, and life wisdom that can be put to productive use. Ideally, this can translate into an encore career or even a part-time job to bring in some income. Think of yourself as your retirement portfolio: What kind of return can you generate on this investment? Take some risks with this capital, contrary to the advice usually given to retirees with respect to their financial assets.  Apply for positions you would never have considered when you were working — hourly, seasonal, manual, clerical — whatever it might take to generate a paycheck. If you’re not too crazy about your post-career job options, consider this: Anything you can do to delay taking Social Security before full retirement age will result in a higher benefit.  Delay even longer and your benefit will increase by 8 percent each year until you turn 70.

  • Love thy neighbor, or at least get to know him. Staying connected and active in your community can also help you with inadequate financial resources. For one thing, having a social network can keep you healthier, which in turn may reduce your medical costs.  You’ll learn about important low or no-cost services made available through area senior agencies. You may even find out about “shared-cost” arrangements that other seniors are participating in — such as shared housing or transportation — that can make your scarce resources go a lot farther. But you can’t take advantage of these benefits if you spend your retirement with the shades drawn and the lights off. 

A final cautionary note:  When in a tight place, it’s natural to grab for anything that gives you breathing room. Two solutions may present themselves to desperate retirees. One is bankruptcy, which promises relief from your debt and another chance to get your cash flow under control. The other is a reverse mortgage, which promises retirement income from your home equity. Both are legitimate tools, but both need handling with care. To benefit from either, you have to do the planning that you haven’t done before.