Two surefire ways to retire sooner

Two surefire ways to retire sooner

“When can I retire?”  I get that question a lot.  If you’re curious about the answer, look no further than your retirement budget.  The more money you want to spend during retirement, the more you’ll need to save before you get there and the longer you’ll likely need to work.  It stands to reason then, that you can probably retire sooner if you can figure out a way to spend less during your golden years.  What are some ways to downsize your expenses without downsizing your dreams for retirement?

Think Big

It has almost become dogma over the last decade that financial security comes by giving up things like your daily latte.  That advice can certainly help you sock away a few extra dollars over the years, but if you’re getting close to retirement and find yourself tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollar short of your goal, drinking Folgers instead of Starbucks isn’t going to solve your problem.  It’s just not a big enough line item in your budget.  If you want to make a big impact, you need to focus on big expenses.

According to a recently released report by the Social Security Administration, the two biggest expenses for most retirees are housing (35 percent) and transportation (14 percent).  Said another way, almost half of your retirement budget will go to pay for the roof over your head and the vehicles in your garage.  Let’s look at an imaginary couple to see how cuts in those areas can make a big difference.

John and Linda would like to retire next year.  They decide to hire an adviser to look over their plan and, much to their dismay, the adviser tells them that they need to save another $300,000 to adequately fund their retirement.  At the rate they are saving that would mean delaying retirement for another 10 years.  Instead, they look at their retirement budget for ways to cut back.

With the kids gone, they have more space than they need, so they sell the house for $250,000, move into a $150,000 condo and pocket the extra $100,000.  With carpooling and soccer games a thing of the past, they trade in their SUVs on two smaller cars (net gain $20,000) and even kick around the idea of sharing a car once neither of them is working.  The smaller house and more fuel-efficient cars also means that they’ll be spending about $500 less each month ($6,000 per year) on taxes, utilities, gas and maintenance.  Assuming a 4 percent withdrawal rate, that $6,000 annual savings means that they can get by with $150,000 less in their nest egg.

The total benefit, then, from cutting back in just those two areas was $270,000 (or 67,500 lattes).  Not bad.  They still have $30,000 to go, but at the rate they’re saving they should be able to set that aside and still retire next year as planned.

[Note: To consider ways to trim your own budget, you can download a free retirement budget worksheet at www.intentionalretirement.com/budget.]

Retire Debt

Another way to increase retirement security and perhaps even retire sooner than expected is to eliminate debt.  It used to be common for people to enter retirement with little or no debt.  Unfortunately, that is no longer the case.  According to a recent study by the Employee Benefits Research Institute, 65 percent of American families with a head of household age 65-74 had debt.  The age group with one of the biggest spikes in debt was 75 and older.

Not surprisingly, debt makes it harder to fund your retirement.  It cuts into your cash flow and increases the risk that you will run out of money.  Again, let’s assume that you can draw 4 percent per year from your assets during retirement.  That means that for every $1,000 in annual income that you want during retirement, you’ll need $25,000 in savings.

Look at your current budget.  How much do you spend each year on debt payments (e.g. mortgage, car, credit cards)?  Multiply that number by 25.  How much is it?  $250,000?  $500,000?  More?  That’s how much you’ll need to save in order to service that same amount of debt in retirement.  As you can see, retiring will be much easier if you retire your debt first.

So as you plan, don’t think of retirement as a particular age or work status.  Think of it as the time in your life when you can afford to pay your bills through means other than your job (e.g. personal savings, pension, Social Security).

When you look at it that way, it becomes clear that you can reach your retirement goals from two different directions.  “Save more for retirement” is certainly one way, but “spend less in retirement” can be just as effective.

~ Joe

Note: I first published this article in the Omaha World Herald.
Financial Checkup Checklist

Financial Checkup Checklist

Just like it’s a good idea to get a health checkup every year, it’s a good idea to get a financial checkup as well.  Doing so can help you detect problems early (while they’re still treatable) and will also help you gauge your progress and make sure you’re on track for a healthy retirement.

To help, I put together this Financial Checkup Checklist with areas that you should be reviewing.  Go through it and then touch base with me if you have any questions or there’s anything I can help you with.  Have a great week!

~ Joe

 

7 retirement resolutions for 2013

7 retirement resolutions for 2013

Well, another year is in the history books.  Where does the time go?  It seems like just yesterday that I was singing along to Prince’s “Party Like It’s 1999” and worrying that my coffee machine was going to be a victim of Y2K and here we are a “Baker’s Decade” into the new millennium.

As the years go by, I, along with millions of others, find the idea of retirement morphing from a vague concept to an impending reality.  The signs are subtle at first.  An AARP magazine in the mailbox.  A “take this job and shove it” daydream at work.  A lingering glance at the orange and red sections of the USA Today weather map.   If retirement looms large on your horizon, then there’s no time to waste.  Below are 7 resolutions for the New Year to make sure that your planning is on track.

Recalibrate after the “Fiscal Cliff.”  As the dust settles in Washington, there are several variables in your retirement plan that you may want to review.  In particular, any changes in your tax bill can affect everything from your planned retirement date to your distribution strategy.  Entitlement reform was delayed (color me surprised!), but any eventual changes to Medicare and Social Security will also affect your retirement.  Schedule a meeting with your adviser to factor in these new variables and make sure that your plans are still realistic.

Increase your contributions.  Are you getting a raise in 2013?  Sure you could use that to upgrade your iPad or buy tickets to the soon to be announced Rolling Stones tour, but a third option would be to route that extra cash into your retirement accounts.  Contribution limits for 2013 are increasing to $5,500 (plus an additional $1,000 for those over 50) for IRAs and $17,500 (plus an additional $5,500 for those over 50) for 401(k)s.

Create a debt payoff plan.  If you subscribe to the 4 percent withdrawal rule, then for every $1,000 in income you need to generate during retirement, you’ll need $25,000 in assets.  Doing some simple arithmetic, it’s easy to see that retiring with a mortgage, car payment or other debts can add hundreds of thousands of dollars to your “Number.”  Reduce that burden by committing to a plan to retire debt free.

Get on the same page with your spouse.  Try this experiment.  At the dinner table tonight say “I can’t wait to retire in 2016 so we can move to San Carlos, Uruguay and I can realize my dream of becoming a real life gaucho.”  The response that you get will show you how important it is to be on the same page with your spouse when it comes to your retirement planning.  Now that the conversation is going, spend some time talking through your hopes, dreams and plans so that you can iron out any differences and compromise on a plan.

Take a mini-retirement.  You wouldn’t want to get all the way to Uruguay only to second guess the whole gaucho thing.  As you get closer to retirement, you should start using whatever vacation and sick time you have to test drive your plans.  A mini-retirement is a great way to learn more about a place or to experiment with your retirement budget.  Use what you learn to refine and improve your plans.

Set aside your first year of expenses.  In case you hadn’t noticed, the financial markets have been a bit—what’s the word?—schizophrenic the past decade or so.  If retirement is just around the corner, you run the risk of having to withdraw money from your nest egg at a time when your investments are performing poorly.  Experts refer to this as sequence risk.  To avoid that problem, set aside one year of your retirement expenses in cash.  If the markets are doing well, you can draw income from your investments.  If markets are doing poorly, you can draw from your cash and give your investments a chance to recover.

Update your estate plan.  Estate and gift taxes were scheduled to change drastically in 2013, but got a last minute reprieve with the deal in Congress.  The estate tax rate increased to 40 percent from 35 percent, but other than that, most existing estate tax rules were made permanent.  Work closely with your attorney and financial adviser to make sure that your plan is up to date and designed to minimize taxes.  Also be sure to have a strategy in place to cover any potential liability (e.g. life insurance) and make sure that your beneficiary designations and powers of attorney are up-to-date and reflect your wishes.

That list of resolutions makes me long for the days of simpler goals like “join a gym” or “quit smoking.”  But hey, no one said retirement was going to be easy.  If it was, the world would have more gauchos.

I originally published this article at www.marketwatch.com.  Photo by Sacha Fernandez.  Used under Creative Commons License.
20 tips to ensure a nice nest egg in 20 years

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.

Three key retirement mistakes to avoid

Three key retirement mistakes to avoid

Retiring in the place you want, with the people you want, doing the things you want, for as long as you want takes money, good genes, and a bit of luck, to be sure.  But perhaps what is more important is the role that good decisions play.  One of the earliest lessons in life is that actions have consequences and boy is this true in the final third of life.  If you’re at or near retirement, the decisions you’re about to make will have consequences for you and your family for decades to come.  Unfortunately, it only takes one bad decision to ruin a lifetime of good ones.  So what are the biggest mistakes to avoid as you approach and enter retirement?

Retiring based on your birthday instead of your bank account.

Imagine that I wrote the name of a city on a piece of paper and sealed it inside an envelope.  Giving you the envelope I said: “Without looking inside, drive to the airport and randomly buy a plane ticket to anywhere in the world.  When you arrive at your destination, open the envelope and see if it matches with the destination that I wrote on the paper.”  What are the odds that you would end up in the right city?  Not good right?

As ridiculous as it sounds, that is how most people plan for their retirement.  Don’t get me wrong.  People save; they just don’t do it with a great deal of deliberation or a clear understanding of the end goal.   Instead they do it via a completely random series of 401(k) and IRA contributions.  Much like traveling without knowing your destination, saving for retirement without knowing your end goal will likely leave you far from where you need to be.

If asked when you want to retire, your answer should be a dollar amount, not a year.  Retirement is about independence, not simply age, and money is critical to independence.  You should know exactly how much you need to save in order to fund the type of retirement you want.  Without that knowledge, there is no guarantee that your efforts will get you to where you need to be.  In fact you are almost guaranteed not to reach your goal.  Doing so would be more the result of dumb luck than anything else.

Retiring with too much debt.

I’ve written about debt here before, but it bears repeating.  Too many have gotten caught up in the debt frenzy and now, as they approach a time that is supposed to be about enjoying life and living their dreams, they instead find themselves beholden to their jobs and struggling to make ends meet.

An increasing number of people are entering retirement with no pension, inadequate savings, a big mortgage (sometimes two), an average of about six credit cards, and debt on one or more cars.  Work is not a choice at that point any more than it’s a choice for the thirty-year-old with all the same obligations and a growing family to feed.

Having debt adds risk and reduces cash flow, two things that are especially troublesome for a person at or near retirement.  Your primary goal should be to retire debt free and have your income at your disposal.  If you retire with debt, you will spend precious years of your retirement paying for the purchases of yesteryear instead of using your income to live the life you’ve always dreamed of.

Fumbling your distribution strategy.

Farming and cooking are two different things.  One is about creating and the other is about consuming.  Likewise, saving for retirement and turning that savings into an income stream are very different tasks.  When converting your savings into an income stream, taking too much, too soon from the wrong account or in the wrong markets could be the difference between retirement bliss and retirement blunder.

A distribution strategy typically occurs in two phases.  Phase 1 involves moving the money from pre-retirement accounts (e.g. your 401k) to post-retirement accounts.  Phase 2 involves creating an income stream from those post-retirement accounts.  The ideal time to begin working through your distribution strategy is with a year or so to go before retirement.  You should be thinking about how much you need, where it’s going to come from, and whether your nest egg is up to the task.

When you retire, your portfolio takes over the job that the payroll department handled during your working years, namely to send you a paycheck every month.  If you retire when you’re sixty-five and live until you’re eighty-five, it needs to cut you 240 monthly paychecks.  There are a host of variables that will affect its ability to do that, such as the distribution rate you choose, investment returns, inflation, how long you live, and good old-fashioned luck.  Some of those things you can control and others you can’t, but having a well conceived, sustainable distribution strategy will help ensure that you don’t outlive your money.

Retirement is a major transition.  That transition is not always easy and is often fraught with potential risks and pitfalls.  By diligently completing each necessary task and avoiding the mistakes that ensnare so many, you can head confidently into what will surely be one of the most fulfilling and rewarding periods of your life.

Thanks for reading!  If you found this article helpful, feel free to share it with a friend.

Joe

 Note: Portions of this article were excerpted from my book The Bell Lap: The 8 Biggest Mistakes to Avoid as You Approach Retirement.  Visit the Resource Page for more information.

Essential financial tips for empty nesters

Essential financial tips for empty nesters

If your kids are grown and moving on to the next stage of their lives, it’s time for you to begin thinking about the next stage of yours.  For many, the empty nest years fall in that decade or so just before retirement.  Because of that, it’s an ideal time to make adjustments to your finances and make sure you’re on track to meet your retirement goals.  If your kids have flown the coop, here are seven key financial moves you should consider making.

Adjust your insurance coverage

With your kids out on their own, it’s time to review your insurance coverage.  If they’re no longer driving your cars, ask your insurance agent about removing them from your policy or getting a distant-student credit.  Similarly, if they have health coverage provided by their school or a new employer, removing them from your policy will likely reduce your premiums.  And don’t forget about life insurance.  If your kids are through school and the house is paid for, you probably don’t need as much life insurance, but you may want to consider adding long-term care insurance.  Meet with a trusted adviser to evaluate your circumstances and craft a plan that is appropriate for your current stage in life.

Re-focus your finances

Several studies have shown that the cost of raising a child from birth to age eighteen can run anywhere from $250,000 to $500,000.  That’s a big chunk of change and causes many people to neglect their planning for things like retirement.  With fewer mouths to feed and big expenses like college and braces out of the way, it’s time to re-focus your finances on you.

The good news is that you’re likely in your peak earnings years and retirement plan contribution limits are higher for people over age fifty.  Take advantage of those higher limits by putting away as much as possible. The maximum 401(k) contribution for 2011 is $16,500 plus an additional $5,500 if you’re over 50. IRA contribution limits are $5,000 plus an additional $1,000 if you’re over 50.  That means that a working, married couple could sock away an additional $280,000 in just five years simply by maximizing their 401(k) and IRA contributions.

Re-do your budget

A budget for a family of five looks drastically different than a budget for two.  Take a hard look at your expenses and re-design your budget with your new circumstances in mind.  I’ve already talked about insurance and savings, but don’t forget to consider things like cell phone plans, cable tv channels that only junior watched, the grocery bill, and memberships or subscriptions that you were covering for the kids.  Once you’ve freed up some extra money each month, see point two.

Go back to work

If you stayed home to raise your kids, consider going back to work at something you really enjoy.  Not only can a job replace some of the purpose you derived from raising the kids, but it can also increase the Social Security benefits you’ll be eligible for and provide extra money for savings or meaningful pursuits.

Consider downsizing

Selling the home you raised your family in can be difficult, but it might make sense if you don’t need the space or if you plan on moving when you retire.  Even if you don’t initially downsize your house, work at downsizing your stuff, especially those things that you no longer need now that the kids are gone.  Here’s a great article by Leo Babauta on how to de-clutter a room.  Paring down your stuff will make the transition easier if you eventually decide to move to a smaller place or retire in a different state.

Downsizing can also help you unlock the value in your home.  For many, their home is their biggest asset.  If your house made sense for a growing family, but is overkill now that the kids are gone, moving to a smaller place could free up tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for retirement.

Get out of debt

The typical empty-nester has about ten or fifteen years to go until retirement.  That’s plenty of time to make sure your debt retires when you do.  Retiring debt free can slash 20-40 percent off the amount you need to save for retirement.  For more information, read my earlier post on how (and why) to retire debt free.

Review your asset allocation and retirement plans

As you get closer to retirement, you will likely want to adjust your investments to make your portfolio more conservative.  Meet with a trusted financial adviser to make sure your asset allocation is appropriate and to track your progress towards retirement goals.  If married, it’s also a good idea to talk with your spouse about your retirement plans and dreams to make sure you’re both on the same page.

As you can see, sending the kids out on their own can be a major transition, both emotionally and financially.  By taking a few simple steps and being intentional with your planning, you can enter the next stage of life with confidence and purpose.