Image: Retirement cliff © Getty Images (Image: Retirement cliff © Getty Images)

Dear Liz: I'm 52 years old and have been through divorces that left me broke. I have no retirement and live on a low salary. How or what can I do for a retirement at this point in life?

Answer: You may have seen some chirrupy magazine headline insisting, "It's never too late to save for retirement!" Except that's a lie. The longer you put off saving, the harder it is to catch up. At some point, it becomes all but impossible to avoid a steep drop in your standard of living when you quit work.

You're close to that point. Someone who has nothing saved by age 55 would have to put aside 43% of her pay to maintain her standard of living in retirement, assuming she retires at 65 and Social Security and pensions kick in 25% of her income. That's according to a T. Rowe Price analysis.

Roger Ibbotson, founder of market tracker Ibbotson Associates, came to a similar conclusion, which is that people who start saving for retirement after age 35 have an increasingly hard time putting aside enough to avoid what's known as a cliff retirement (meaning your lifestyle falls off a cliff).

Since you don't make a lot, Social Security may replace more than 25% of your income. The lowest-wage workers can expect to have around 40% of their income replaced. But your low pay also may prevent you from saving much, which leaves you in the same quandary: You're hurtling toward a retirement that will leave you with less income than you have now.

That's not to say saving is futile. Anything you manage to put aside will help you make ends meet after you stop working. Cutting your expenses so you can save more will help now and in the future, since you'll need less on which to live. A few smart choices will allow you to stretch your savings even further.

Here are your next steps:

Image: Liz Weston

Liz Weston

Do some reconnaissance: Find out how much Social Security you can expect based on your earnings record. Assume you'll work at least until your full retirement age of 67. Delaying your retirement until 70 would allow your benefit to grow even more and may be a good plan if you're in good health and longevity runs in your family. Another option to explore is taking spousal benefits. If any of your marriages lasted 10 years or more and you haven't remarried, you can get a check based on your ex's earnings. If you start spousal benefits at your full retirement age, you'll have the option of switching to your own benefit when it maxes out at age 70. AARP has an excellent primer called "Maximizing Your Social Security Benefits," which you should read to understand your options. Taking benefits at the right time and in the right way can boost how much you receive by tens of thousands of dollars, so this is worth investigating.

Don't assume you'll just work forever. Some people justify their lack of savings by saying they plan to work until they die. Life may have other plans. About half the retirees recently interviewed by the Employee Benefit Research Institute said they left work earlier than they'd intended. More than half the time, they were sidelined by illness or disability, but layoffs and the need to care for loved ones also led to earlier-than-expected retirements. Given your late start, you should aim to stay on the job longer, but saving more will help you if you have to bail sooner than you think.

Read "Your Money or Your Life." This book, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, is the bible for the voluntary simplicity movement, which advocates achieving financial independence by radically cutting expenses and maximizing income and savings. You may not want to go to some of the extremes described, but the book is all but guaranteed to change the way you view money and could inspire you to create a more manageable financial life.

Plan to work part-time in retirement. Keeping a part-time gig in retirement will reduce the amount of savings you need to tap. A light-duty job also can keep you engaged, offering mental stimulation and opportunities to socialize as well as providing a paycheck.

Don't swing for the fences. Taking the right amount of risk is essential for your retirement plans to succeed. Invest too conservatively and you'll lose purchasing power over time. Take too much risk and you could wipe out your nest egg right when you need it the most. People in their 50s should invest 60% to 80% of their portfolio in stock mutual funds or exchange-traded funds, said Christine Fahlund, a senior financial planner with T. Rowe Price.

Get a better job. One of the best ways to accelerate your retirement savings is to have access to a 401k or other workplace retirement plan that offers a match. Also, people 50 and over can take advantage of "catch up" provisions that allow them to put an additional $5,500 into their 401ks (for an annual total of $23,000 in 2013) plus an additional $1,000 into an IRA (for an annual total of $6,500). If your job doesn't offer a match or if it doesn't pay you enough to max out your retirement savings options, it's time to look for one that does. In the meantime, you can open a side business that will allow you to stash a portion of your profits in a SEP-IRA. If the job market is bad in your area or you need extra training, take action now -- this really is your last shot at filling your retirement coffers.

Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.

Click here to become a fan of MSN Money on Facebook

More from Liz Weston: