FINANCIAL PLANNERS frequently tell stories of clients who visit seeking advice only weeks or months before their planned retirement. Some people have already submitted their retirement papers when they first meet with a financial professional.
That’s way too late. Some people in their 50s and 60s have neither the savings nor the income to retire. They will need to continue working or drastically reduce expectations about their retirement lifestyle. You don’t want to learn these cold, hard facts just weeks before your planned retirement.
“Folks come to us when they get to retirement. At that point, the damage has been done. There’s not much you can do to go back and fix things folks should have done a lot earlier,” says Chuck Mattiucci, senior vice president at Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh. “By the time you get to retirement age, you should have had years of planning and advice.”
Retirement planning should begin to firm up when you reach age 50. By then, here’s what should already be done.
Increase contributions to retirement savings. You should have begun regularly saving for retirement early in your career. “We like to see that clients have already been, if possible, maximizing what they can put into retirement plans,” says Dan Prebish, director of life event services at Wells Fargo Advisors in St. Louis, Missouri. Aim to increase the amount you saveevery year, if possible. “It’s a good habit to try,” Prebish says. “Ask (yourself), ‘Can I do a little more this year compared to the year before?'”
Save outside of your 401(k) or IRA. You don’t want to put all of your savings in a retirement account. “People put all their money in the tax-deferred account, and don’t understand the consequences,” says Karen Scott Mims, a tax attorney and president of Harbour Pointe Wealth Management in Columbia, Maryland. “You have $1 million, but it has a tax mortgage against it.” Withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income, so the tax amount will depend on your tax bracket.
It’s better to diversify your retirement savings among the three tax buckets: taxable, tax-deferredand tax-free. “Save enough in the employer plan to get the match,” Mims says. “From there, I would figure out what I will do with the rest of the funds.”
There are limits on the amount of money you can put into a qualified retirement plan. “Beyond that, you should have another bucket of retirement income that isn’t tax-deferred or taxable at your income tax rate when you pull this money out,” Mattiucci says.
Have an emergency fund. You should have or be building an emergency fund separate from your retirement savings. Four in 10 adults, if faced with an unexpected expense of $400, would either not be able to cover it or would cover it by selling something or borrowing money, according to a 2018 Federal Reserve report. “Having that security for all of the things that can happen prior to retirement, whether medical costs, weather disaster or losing a job, is really important,” Prebish says.
Work with a professional. Don’t wait until you are about to retire to meet with a professional and ask for advice. “If you haven’t worked with someone, it’s a good idea to work with someone to start planning,” Mattiucci says. Ideally, your plan should be made long before you retire. “We would prefer this is done in the past and when you are progressing toward retirement,” Mattiucci says. “You need to have an idea of how much money you need to live the way you want to live in retirement, and you should review it on an annual basis.”
Reduce or eliminate debt. A debt-free lifestyle makes it easier to put money aside for the future. “You need to be paying down your debt,” says Matt Sadowsky, director of retirement and annuities at TD Ameritrade. “It is critical to get rid of expensive credit card debt and enter into retirement as debt-free as possible. By the time you are in your 50s, getting control of your savings and spending and paying down debt should be priorities.”
Participate in a health savings account. If you are enrolled in a high-deductible health insurance plan, you are eligible to participate in a health savings account. “No other account type has the triple tax benefit – tax-free input, tax-free deferral and tax-free output,” Mims says. “The most you can have in an IRA or other retirement account like a 401(k) is two out of three.”
Hire a tax attorney. You need to make tax planning decisions throughout the year, not just at tax time. “You make a decision at the time that has tax consequences, but ask afterward, ‘How does this go on my tax return?'” Mims says. “Hire a professional.” Preparing for taxes in advance can help you reduce your current tax bill and the tax you will owe in retirement.
Have an estate plan and check beneficiaries. You should have your will and medical directives done. “You never know what can happen,” Mattiucci says. “Make sure the money you worked for goes where you want it. That’s important.”
Check your beneficiaries on your IRAs, brokerage accounts and 401(k) to make sure they are updated. Major life events might change your beneficiary, and you need to submit forms to select a new beneficiary. “It’s a good idea to once a year make a practice of checking things, so it becomes habit,” Sadowsky says.
Be realistic about transportation and housing costs. If your mortgage or car payment is preventing you from saving for retirement, it’s time to make significant changes to your lifestyle. “Either you have too much house or too much transportation, and you are not saving enough for retirement,” Mims says. “That’s where you meet destruction when it’s time to retire.” lf you are part of a couple, each person should have the ability to pay the monthly mortgage amount in case one spouse loses a job or is unable to work.
Know where and how you want to spend your retirement. Make a plan about where you will live in retirement and how you will pay for it. “This is a good point in your life when you want to have an idea where you want to spend your retirement,” Mattiucci says. “Some people retire where they are. Other people want to retire to a warmer climate, whether out West or down South.”
Begin to dream about what you are going to do in retirement. “Have an idea of how you will spend your retirement,” Mattiucci says. “A lot of people don’t think about it. Then they find out they are bored. There are folks re-entering the workforce because they are bored.”