20 tips to ensure a nice nest egg in 20 years

(Note: This is Part 2 in a three part series that I did for the Omaha World Herald on retirement planning for different life stages.  I’m re-posting it here for all of you who don’t live in snowy, freezing Omaha!)

Forty-five is an interesting age.  It’s like the Junior High of aging.  Too old to fit in with the kids at the Kanye West concert, but too young for the senior discount crowd at Denny’s.  Exactly halfway between 25 and 65, it’s like a weigh station between the carefree and exciting days of your 20s and what will hopefully be the carefree and exciting days of retirement. 

With 20 years to go, it’s a good time to reflect on the planning you’ve done so far and see if you are on the right track.  If not, you’ve still got time to do something about it, but the clock is ticking.  Here are 20 ways to make sure you’ll have enough in 20 years.

1. Actually figure out what you need.  Too many people retire based on their birthday instead of their bank account.  Knowing how much you’ll need will help you save with purpose and intention. A good rule of thumb is to shoot for a nest egg that is 25 times larger than the amount you want to take from it each year. 

2. Get out of debt.  No one in the history of the universe has gotten rich spending money they don’t have on things they don’t need.  You won’t be the first to crack the code.

3. Perform budget triage.  Most budgets don’t bleed to death from a gaping wound, but rather a thousand little cuts.  Wasting $20 per day for 20 years will shave about $334,000 from your nest egg (assuming an 8 percent annual return).

4. Beware any sentence that begins with “Hey dad.  Can I…”  People in their teens and twenties are incapable of ending that sentence with anything that doesn’t cost you money and put a hole in your nest egg.  Whatever the request, just answer with a firm “Yes, as long as I can move in with you in 20 years because I had earmarked that money for retirement.”

5. Make your saving automatic.  Saving is like going to the gym or eating your vegetables.  You know you should do it, but it takes discipline.  Make it easy on yourself by having money automatically deducted from your checking account or paycheck each month.

6. Focus on the basics.  Saving and investing doesn’t need to be complicated.  You can contribute $17,000 to a 401(k) and $5,000 to an IRA each year.  Start there.  Maxing out your contributions for 20 years would add about $1,006,000 to your nest egg (assuming an 8 percent annual return).

7. Refinance.  Interest rates are at historic lows.  If you still owe money on your house, consider refinancing into a loan with the same payment, but a lower rate and shorter term.  You’ll save thousands in interest and you’ll enter retirement with no mortgage. 

8. Get healthy.  In 1900 the three leading causes of death were influenza, diarrhea, and tuberculosis.  Today they are heart disease, cancer and stroke.  All three of those diseases are expensive (even with insurance) and heavily dependent on things like diet, exercise, smoking, drinking, and stress.

9. Beware midlife crisis purchases.  If you’re tempted to buy a Hemi powered midlife crisis-mobile, don’t.  Buy a nice used grocery getter instead and put the difference in your IRA.

10. Add up everything you’ve spent during the last 12 months on beverages (e.g. soda, red bull, alcohol, venti non-fat no foam double shot hazelnut lattes, etc.).  If the number is greater than the world median annual income (about $1,700), reacquaint yourself with the benefits of water. 

11. Make it personal.  You’re not planning “retirement,” you’re planning “your retirement.”  Once you realize that and spend some time thinking about the things you are really looking forward to, you’ll be incredibly motivated to make it happen.

12. Avoid mistakes, especially those that result in large investment losses.  At 20 you had plenty of time to recover.  At 45, large losses are like meteors to dinosaurs.  They are extinction level events.  Don’t put all your eggs in one basket (like your own company’s stock) or make questionable investments (like that can’t miss tip from your brother-in-law).

13. Meet with a trusted adviser annually.  Answer three key questions at each meeting: How did my investments do this past year?  Am I still on track for retirement (see number 1)?  What changes do I need to make? 

14. Work on your marriage.  Middle age is a risky time for you and your spouse.  Having a happy marriage is reason enough to put forth the effort, but if you need something more, remember this: A sure fire way to derail your retirement is to divide all your assets in half.

15. Don’t be too conservative.  The markets have been crazy these last few years and a lot of people responded by moving everything to cash.  That may help you sleep well, but it won’t help you grow your assets and outpace inflation.  Repeat after me: Safe is risky.

16. Review your asset allocation.  If instead of moving to cash, you ignored your investments through the recent market turmoil, there’s a good chance that the ups and downs threw your portfolio out of balance.  Research shows that your asset allocation is responsible for 90 percent of your investment returns.  Work with your adviser to rebalance to a more appropriate allocation.

17. Downsize.  Once the kids are gone, reconsider the necessity of having a house big enough to have its own gravitational field.  A smaller place means that you’ll be spending less on your mortgage, heating, cooling, insurance and property taxes.  Invest that savings for retirement.

18. Take advantage of peak earning years.  You’ll likely make a lot of money in your 40s and 50s.  As the kids grow up and move on, be sure to make your peak earning years your peak savings years as well.

19. Beware of fees.  A good adviser or mutual fund can add value, but pay close attention to the fees you are paying.  It’s not just the fees, but the compound interest those fees would have earned had they stayed in your account.  Over a 30 year period, an extra 1 percent in fees is enough to shave 25 percent off the ending value of your investments. 

20. Don’t retire early.  Calling it quits before your full Social Security retirement age could mean a 20 percent permanent reduction in benefits.  It’s worth remembering that the number one reason people retire early is poor health (see number 8).

Unless you’re a trust fund baby or a lottery winner (and let’s be honest, they all quit reading after number 3), you’ve probably got a little work to do.  But have no fear.  You can do a lot in 20 years.  The key, as with most things, is to start.  Ready?  Go.

2 Responses to “20 tips to ensure a nice nest egg in 20 years”

  1. Niel February 8, 2012 at 5:56 pm #

    Thanks Joe. I love #10.

    • Joe Hearn February 8, 2012 at 9:28 pm #

      I plead guilty on that one! When I had Margie read the article she gave me the “pot, kettle, black” speech.” 🙂

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