"She's obviously a person who's motivated to save money, but it's an illusory benefit, because she's running up credit card debt to do that," says Eric Tyson, a financial planner and the author of "Personal Finance for Dummies."

It also means tough change at home.

"If that debt's been accumulated because of the brother and mother, then they can help pay," Tyson says. "This is not to blame anybody, but they've got to sit down and have a candid discussion."

Newcomb agrees: Mom and brother need to step up. To prepare for next decade, Erin needs to switch tacks and concentrate on her current bills.

"As life unfolds, circumstances change, and it's OK to change our financial plan," Newcomb says. "That's something that's important for people to do, and it's not hard to do."

Good income but no savings

John Geyer is a typical, post-housing-crash baby boomer: Despite years of good income and 12 years of house payments, he now finds himself divorced, without equity and with less than $15,000 to his name -- and that's in 401k's.

"In 2021, I'd like to be talking about retiring in five years," he says. "The obvious thing now is to put more in the 401k." But how?

Geyer, 55, grosses $94,000 a year as a project engineer in Phoenix. But after paying the mortgage ($1,600), alimony ($1,500), a car loan ($200) and typical household bills and insurance, his $5,000 monthly take-home pay is whittled down to $400 for gas and food. He has no savings and owes $3,300 on a credit card.

"This is an emergency situation because he's 55 years old, and he has to get serious about retirement," Tyson says. "He's obviously behind in where he should be."

Geyer is representative of a growing segment of Americans ages 55 to 64: He and his ex-wife always worked, but they refinanced their home to help pay graduate school bills, raise two kids and cover medical procedures. They also lived comfortably. After the bust, any remaining equity vanished.

Studies by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College indicate that more than half of Americans in this age group will have to work longer or lower their living standards in retirement.

That's likely the prescription for Geyer, says Tyson.

"He should do some basic retirement analysis so he can get a sense of where he's going to be in 10 years, and I'm sure it's going to be somewhat disappointing," Tyson says.

Anyone who's curious about what their income will look like can punch their data into a retirement calculator, such as this one at Vanguard. A rough estimate for Geyer indicates that if he added 6% a year to his 401k for the next 15 years, he would draw a $3,263 monthly income in retirement, most of it from Social Security. That's less than half what he grosses now.

To be better set in 2021, Geyer needs to drastically cut his spending. First, eliminate the credit card and car debt. Then track every dollar.

"He's got to look at each category of spending and say, 'Is this a category I'm willing to reduce?'" Tyson says.

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The good news? He has paid handsomely into Social Security. "He should have accumulated a benefit of at least $2,000 a month, and that's a nice asset," Tyson says. "He's going to get paid."

Unemployed and recently divorced

Jennifer Schmits is 41 and in good financial shape, with up to $110,500 in retirement, savings and pending home-sale profits. But that's now. And it was her husband who always did all the finances.

Schmits was divorced late last year and has a 3-year-old at home. Her goals for 2021 amount to a list of "I wants": a single-family home with a yard, a nice neighborhood, a private school, an annual vacation.

Currently unemployed, Schmits is on the job hunt and hoping to pin down $50,000 to $75,000 annually in the marketing field.

The lesson for Schmits (and for anyone else in transition), advisers say: Get personalized financial guidance sooner rather than later. Sure, explore getting settled (In Schmits' case, that means renting an apartment), but don't commit to any major payments before mapping out a long-term plan with an expert.

"I frequently hear people say, 'I wish I had looked into this earlier. I wish I had tended to this earlier,'" Steele says.

"Money is the fuel of our lives, and many people don't ever think of it like that," Steele adds. "She could technically take all her IRA money and throw it down on the house and then have nothing left. She needs someone to guide her."