>. Realistically, it's frippin' hard to save a lot of money with a below-average income. It's real easy to get sideswiped by a substantial unexpected expense that I'd just deal with without affecting my retirement savings plan.
It's not easy. Mindset makes a huge difference though; it doesn't have to be that hard. In the 1950s, the average income was what we'd call $24,000. (That is, $24,000 in current dollars). Average families bought homes of around 1,000 square feet or so. They cooked. Making coffee at home costs 27 CENTS. Buying Starbucks is what, $6? They played a board game versus spending $35 taking the family out to a movie.
If you play board games and make coffee, if you have a lifestyle like June and Ward Cleaver, you can save all income beyond $20,000. It's a different mindset than most Americans today, certainly. And it's entirely doable. The big thing, I think, is to pay yourself first. The FIRST $xxx dollars goes to savings, then you decide how to spend the rest, rather than trying to save whatever is left over after you're done spending.
I've rarely seen a substantial expense that's actually unexpected. The roof needs to be replaced - yeah we've been expecting that for 20 years. We knew in 1995 that the roof would last about 20 years before needing replacement. The car died? Been expecting that since the warranty ran out. I can't predict WHICH month the car will die, but I know one of the cars will probably need major repairs between 150,000 and 200,000 miles, so each month we set aside $100 for car repairs and maintenance. Medical expenses can be unexpected, which is why we have insurance, to cover unexpected high expenses. We expect to pay the deductible each year, or close to it. We actually don't know which it will be this year - the house, the car, or medical, but we can certainly expect that one of three will have a $x,000 expense each year. That is, we expect an average $x,000 / year expense from those three combined.
So we have three types of savings. One is for expected significant expenses, like replacing the roof or air conditioner. Figure each year this fund needs to cover 1/4th of the cost of your car. (Fixing a new Porsche costs more than fixing an old Chevy pickup). The next is for retirement - a special case of expected expenses. The third is the emergency fund, $1,000-$5,000 for unexpected expenses. Unlikely expenses over $5,000 get insured. Neither an expected expense nor an unexpected expense will touch your retirement if you've put a bit into each of these three accounts each month.