For generations our government has encouraged consumers to spend, spend, and spend some more in order to “stimulate the economy.” President Bush the second even sent out extra tax refunds so Americans would see just how much fun spending could be.

The national debt clock—which currently hovers around $17 trillion—certainly indicates how much fun the federal government has spending our money. Think of it like a national credit card: the government has the authority to charge purchases, but we get stuck with the bill.

During a recent online event, former US Comptroller General David Walker mentioned that the government's unfunded promises for Medicare, Social Security, and a range of other things totals over $70 trillion. That figure is growing at a rate of about $6 million per minute. Essentially, the federal government is like an insurance company that collected premiums over the years but spent every last dime… and then some. When we go to file a claim, the coffers will be empty.

My message: save your family, and save yourself. Surely we all want the economy to improve, but spending to make that happen spells disaster for us as individuals. It spells disaster for our spouses, our children, and anyone else who depends on our financial stability. And it sure spells disaster for retirement. Folks, it's time to save money.

There are real barriers to retirement success—management fees and shabby yields come to mind—even if you are saving regularly. Let's take a look at national 401(k) trends to see where we stand.

Fidelity Investments publishes a quarterly analysis of the 401(k) accounts it manages. At the end of the first quarter of 2013, Fidelity reported a record high for the overall average balance of its clients. This record of $80,900 represented an 8.4% increase over 2012.

Fidelity also looked at pre-retirees age 55 and older with a history of 10 years or more at their current employer. The average balance for this group was $255,000, nearly double since the market low during the first quarter of 2009, when it dipped to $130,000.

Sounds like we're in good shape, right? Hold on a minute. According to Fidelity's second-quarter analysis, the average balance remained “relatively steady … ending up at $80,600.” And it did some creative marketing when reporting: “For employees who were continuously employed and in a 401(k) plan for the last 10 years, the average balance rose to $211,800, up nearly 19 percent from a year ago.” That's a euphemistic way of analyzing the figures.

Fidelity manages a lot of 401(k) money and collects a lot of fees for doing so. Surely its marketing people would have frowned on a report stating that the average balance over the quarter decreased by $300 overall and $43,200 (16.9%) for the 55-plus subgroup, despite the fact that employees continued to add to their 401(k) plans each month.

People on the verge of retirement are putting an awful lot of money in their 401(k)s. Employees in Fidelity's pre-retiree subgroup contributed an average of 10.3% of their annual salaries during 1Q. When combined with the average employer contribution, the total rose to 14.8%.

What do Fidelity's reports tell us? Anyone contributing to his 401(k) program should review its performance regularly. What is it invested in? What percentage goes to fees? To be fair, I did not compare Fidelity's performance or fees to the competition, and I certainly don't mean to discredit the company. However, its quarterly analyses are a prime example of how numbers can be twisted, leaving investors bewildered.

I mentioned a timely Frontline special in Getting the Most from Your 401(k) a few weeks back. The show's host reported: “It's this simple: Fund fees can erode as much as half or more of your prospective gains.” That's a stark statistic, but true nonetheless.

To maximize retirement savings, we must be fee vigilantes. One way to control fees is by personally selecting your 401(k)'s investments. Over the last five years, 65.44% of active, large-cap fund managers failed to outperform the S&P 500. However, there are many ETFs that can do the same thing as those funds for a fraction of the fees.

In the May issue of Money Forever, we compared two $500,000 portfolios. One was charged 0.65% less in fees than the other. Over 20 years, that 0.65% difference meant $219,894 more money for the lower-fee portfolio—quite a chunk of change to give up for an unnecessary fee.

We are saving, just not enough. Once a worker reaches age 50, he can make “catch up” contributions to his 401(k)—up to $5,500 in 2013 for an eligible person with a traditional 401(k). That is on top of the normal $17,500 limit. Plus, every dollar is tax deferred. But according to Fidelity, only 14.4% of its pre-retirees made catch-up contributions in 1Q. Why miss out on the tax benefit and opportunity to save?

Imagine a 50-year-old named John. John is in the 28% tax bracket and decides to contribute the additional $5,500 catch-up. Because his contribution is tax deferred, his tax bill drops by $1,540. That means his net take-home pay is only $3,960 less and his contribution will grow tax-free.

If John continues to make this $5,500 catch-up contribution for the next 15 years, he will have an additional $136,622 at age 65.

Retirement in America is reverting back to the pre-pension, pre- Social Security era. There are tax-preferred vehicles to help us save for retirement, but we have to do the heavy lifting.

Remember, the federal government has $70 trillion in unfunded liabilities. The US population is approaching 317,000,000 people; that means $220,820 of debt for every man, woman, and child. I suppose I could tack on the $17 trillion or so from the debt clock, but why quibble about pennies? That is debt we will never be able to pay, and promises we can never count on.

Real people have to live within their means. Since the end of WWII, our government has made no pretense about doing the same. It is time to flip the government the bird and fend for ourselves. Let them preach “spend, spend, spend” all they want. We know better. Save, save, and save some more. You will never be sorry you did.

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If you want to be a fee vigilante, we can show you how. Our timely special report, The Top 10 ETFs to Replace Your Expensive Mutual Funds, explains how to cut unnecessary fees from your portfolio—fees that, frankly, are not warranted by exceptional returns. I want the most for my money, and I bet you do too. Click here to learn more about slashing portfolio costs today.

On the Lighter Side

I want to thank all of our subscribers who took the time to say hello at the recent Casey Research Summit in Tucson. I hosted a couple of our “Basics of Living Well in Retirement” breakout sessions during the conference. Knowing this article was in the works, I was quite pleased when three subscribers mentioned they were maximizing their 401(k) contributions, including their catch-up contributions. Way to go!

I also had an opportunity to speak with Dr. Elizabeth Lee Vliet in Tucson. If you caught last Friday's Casey Daily Dispatch, you know that Dr. Vliet is an expert on Obamacare and all its perils. My wife and I spent some time with her, and let's just say I am no less worried about medical care for seniors than I was last week.

Alex Daley made quite the presentation, titled “Investing for Yield Without Losing Your Shirts When Interest Rates Rise.” Our premium subscribers will notice that we have already implemented a couple of his ideas, and there are many more to come.

If you were unable to join us in Tucson, there is still time to pre-order the complete audio selection from the Summit at the discounted rate. Listen to Doug Casey, Ron Paul (a delightful gentleman in person), Dr. Lacy Hunt, and many others—right on your couch. Click here to find out more.

And finally…

Here's a tidbit from my friend Bruce K., whom I drove to the church to marry his bride way back in 1959.

A minister was completing a temperance sermon. With great emphasis he said, “If I had all the beer in the world, I'd take it and pour it into the river.”

With even greater emphasis he said, “And if I had all the wine in the world, I'd take it and pour it into the river.”

And then finally, shaking his fist in the air, he said, “And if I had all the whiskey in the world, I'd take it and pour it into the river.”

Sermon complete, he sat down.

The choir leader very cautiously stood up and announced with a smile, “For our closing song, let us sing hymn number 365, Shall We Gather at the River.”

Until next week…