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In your 40s, there's one figure you need to keep in mind: $1,200.

That's approximately the average monthly Social Security benefit received by retired American workers. Those collecting based on a spouse's earnings history receive an average monthly benefit of about $600.

So if you're a married couple and can get by on $21,000 or so a year, you may not need to worry about saving much for retirement. For everybody else, though, retirement savings need to be a priority.

It should have been a priority all along, of course, but the 40s is a crucial decade for building wealth. It's likely that your income is higher and your net worth is expanding, but your money may not seem to go far because you're grappling with such big expenses: homeownership, your children and their educations, paying down debt.

Gauge your progress

You have less time to recover from missteps, though, so it's important to get your money right. Here's the snapshot of the typical 40-something's finances:

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

  • Incomes and wealth are up. The median income for 40-something households, more than $60,000, is about 11% higher than for 30-something households, according to the Federal Reserve's most recent Survey of Consumer Finances. Net worth is dramatically higher for the older group: a median of $133,100 versus $51,200 for 30-somethings. More than 70% of 40-something households own their own homes, compared with 64% of those in their 30s.
  • Credit card balances are ticking up. A majority of people in their 40s carry credit card debt, and the median balance is $3,800, sharply higher than the $3,000 carried by households in their 30s. The percentage carrying big balances is up as well: 14% of people in their 40s have more than $10,000 in credit card debt, compared with 6.4% of people in their 20s and 12% of people in their 30s.
  • Yet fewer are falling behind. Higher incomes and more experience managing money may explain why only 6.2% of 40-somethings are 60 days or more late on a bill, compared with 9% of those in their 30s. Negative net worth is more of an anomaly as well, with just 6.3% of people in their 40s owing more than they own, compared with 11.5% of those in their 30s.
  • More people are getting serious about retirement. The percentage of people who have workplace retirement plans or individual retirement accounts rises to 60.7% for those in their 40s, compared with 54.2% of 30-somethings. Account balances are higher as well: a median of $50,000 versus $15,300.

What to focus on now

Clearly, those retirement-plan balances are still a long way from comfortable nest eggs, which is why it's so important to take these steps:

  • Make retirement savings your top goal. With all the other claims on your paychecks, it can be tempting to skimp here. But every dollar you fail to put aside now could mean $10 less in retirement income. At the very least, make sure you're taking full advantage of any company match in a workplace 401k or 403b plan.
  • Pay off those credit cards. Swelling credit card balances -- or really, credit card balances of any amount -- are a sign of trouble. If your balances are so big you can't pay them off within a few years, consider talking to a legitimate credit counselor (one affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling) and with a bankruptcy attorney about your options.

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  • Smart college strategies. Parents want to give their kids a good start in life, but don't gut your own future while you're trying to ensure theirs. Be wary of taking on more debt than you can easily repay, and consider lower-cost alternatives if paying or saving for college means stinting your own retirement savings.

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.