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.  Here are 7 financial tips for empty nesters.

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 2019 is $19,000 plus an additional $6,000 if you’re over 50. IRA contribution limits are $6,000 plus an additional $1,000 if you’re over 50.  That means that a working, married couple could sock away an additional $320,000 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.  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.

Be Intentional,

Joe

Anxious?  Keep your focus on what you can control.

Anxious? Keep your focus on what you can control.

It’s understandable if you’re feeling a bit anxious. Not only was the U.S. credit rating just downgraded for the first time in history, but over the last few years we’ve had a housing bubble, a credit bubble, runaway government spending, soaring gas prices, a global recession, high unemployment, the risk of a U.S. debt default, and a fiscal crisis in Europe.

Add to that things like the tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan or the Arab revolts in the Middle East and you can almost see our national blood pressure rising. This is especially true if you, like 78 million other baby-boomers, are getting close to retiring.

In the face of so much uncertainty, how can you minimize anxiety and head into retirement feeling confident and assured?

Answer: Focus on things you can control.

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden once said: “The more concerned we become over the things we can’t control, the less we will do with the things we can control.”

Here’s an exercise that can help keep the focus on things you can actually do something about:

Take out a piece of paper and divide it into two columns. At the top of the left column, write “Things I can control about retirement.” At the top of the right column, write “Things I can’t control about retirement.” Now start filling in each.

You’ll probably notice that the right column is full of the things we mentioned earlier, like the markets, political uncertainty and unemployment.

The left column will be made up of things like saving, reducing debt, creating a retirement budget, evaluating housing options, creating a distribution plan, deciding when to take Social Security, planning meaningful pursuits and completing your estate plan.

As you look at those two columns, ask yourself this question: “During my typical day, do I spend my time and attention focusing more on the left column or the right column?” If you answered the right column, chances are that your stress level is high and your productivity is low. Focusing on things you can’t control is a recipe for frustration.

If you shift your focus to those things in the left hand column, you’ll notice that your productivity will go up and your anxiety will begin to go down. This is especially true in the area of your finances, because that is what is causing most people to lose sleep.

According to a recent poll by Gallup, the No. 1 retirement fear (held by 53 percent of Americans) is not having enough money. Only about a third of people felt that way when Gallup did the same poll in 2002. Thankfully, this is an area that you can actually do something about. Here are eight things you can do to boost your income security.

Save more

One obvious way to pad your nest egg is to save more. If you are still working, make saving a high priority. Both 401(k)s and IRAs have higher contribution limits for people over 50. Take advantage of those 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 delay retirement by five years and sock away an additional $280,000 simply by maximizing their 401(k) and IRA contributions. The delay also could give markets time to move higher which, when coupled with the new additions to your portfolio, could significantly improve your financial position in retirement.

Pay off debt

Debt adds risk and reduces cash flow. Those things are especially troublesome to someone in retirement. By retiring debt free, you can greatly reduce the amount of savings necessary to fund your retirement. Assuming a 4 percent withdrawal rate, it takes $25,000 in savings to generate $1,000 in income each year (25 to 1).

That means if you’re mortgage is $1,300 per month and you’re able to pay it off before you retire, you could slash $390,000 from the amount you need to save for retirement.

Work longer

Working longer may not sound fun, but neither is running out of money. If you haven’t saved enough, one option is to keep working and earning a paycheck. This strategy has multiple benefits: it allows you to save more, it gives your portfolio more years to recover and grow, it could help boost your potential Social Security benefits and it decreases the overall amount of income you need to draw over the years.

If the amount you need to make up is smaller, you also could consider working part-time. This could mean doing a phased retirement with your current employer or choosing something else entirely. Either way, it could give you increased freedom to begin following your retirement dreams while still providing some income.

Cut retirement expenses

If the idea of working longer doesn’t appeal to you, consider retiring on schedule and make up for any shortfall by reducing your retirement expenses. Examine your retirement budget for items you can reduce or eliminate.

Housing and transportation are often major expenses. Consider downsizing to a smaller home or sharing a car with your spouse. Staying active and healthy can save on health care co-pays and prescription costs. Substituting planned hobbies or activities with less expensive alternatives also can trim costs without significantly changing the quality of your retirement.

Taken cumulatively, these adjustments to your retirement budget can help reduce the strain on your nest egg and still provide a meaningful retirement.

Delay Social Security

If you delay collecting Social Security until after your full retirement age, you will get a permanent increase in your benefits. The increase is based on the year you were born. For example, those born after 1943 will get an 8 percent credit for each year they wait. The increase caps out at age 70, so a person waiting until then could see an increase of 24 percent to their benefits.

Review your asset allocation

The market upheaval of the last several years and investors’ response to that upheaval has wreaked havoc on many people’s asset allocations. Rather than having a balanced, diversified portfolio, many have sought safety by moving everything to cash or bonds. That could cause serious problems in the future if inflation picks up or the bond market stumbles. To protect your assets and maximize your returns over time you should meet with a trusted adviser and make sure the investments you hold are appropriate based on your risk tolerance, goals and time frame.

Protect against sequence risk

Stock and bond returns can be volatile.  Sequence risk is simply the risk that you will retire and begin withdrawing money during a period of low (or negative) investment returns.  Those early negative returns greatly increase your odds of running out of money.

One way to minimize sequence risk is to have a year or two of withdrawals sitting in cash.  If you retire just prior to a bull market, you can pull income from your growing investments.  If you retire on the cusp of a bear market, you can take withdrawals from your cash.  That way you won’t be forced to sell investments in a down market in order to fund retirement and you will be less likely to run out of money.

Draw a greater percentage from your nest egg

Deciding how much to take from your portfolio each year during retirement is one of the most important decisions you will make. You don’t want to run out of money, but you don’t want to live like Scrooge either. Most experts peg the “safe” withdrawal rate at around 4 percent per year. If 4 percent of your nest egg isn’t enough to meet your needs, you can always take more. Keep in mind, however, that the more you take, the greater the chance that you will outlive your assets.

As you can see, by focusing on those things that you can control, you can minimize anxiety and maximize security as you approach retirement. Statistically speaking, the world doesn’t come to an end very often. Rather than worrying about all the things that make headlines, focus instead on giving your very best to those areas that you can do something about.

Thanks for reading.  If you enjoyed this article, use the share buttons on our site to share it with your friends.  Touch base if I can ever help.

Joe

I originally published this article at www.fpanet.org.

How the U.S. debt downgrade will affect your retirement (and what to do about it).

How the U.S. debt downgrade will affect your retirement (and what to do about it).

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, S&P downgraded U.S. debt one notch last Friday from AAA to AA+.  Aside from the short-term angst in the markets, how will the downgrade affect those of us planning and saving for retirement?  Here are three likely consequences from the downgrade as well as steps you can take to minimize the impact on your plans.  Note: Just a friendly reminder—nothing on this site should be considered investment advice for your specific situation.

Expect increased volatility—This is the first time in history that our country’s debt has been downgraded from AAA.  Expect continued volatility in both the stock and bond markets as traders and investors digest the news and react accordingly.

To protect your assets and maximize your returns over time you should meet with a trusted adviser to make sure that your asset allocation is appropriate based on your risk tolerance, goals, and time frame.

Also, for those at or near retirement, increased volatility means increased sequence risk.  What is sequence risk?  Stock and bond returns aren’t linear, and sequence risk is simply the risk that you will receive lower (or negative) investment returns in the early years once you start drawing money for retirement.  Early negative returns greatly increase your odds of running out of money.

One way to minimize sequence risk is to have a year or two of withdrawals sitting in cash.  If you retire just prior to a bull market, you can pull income from your growing investments.  If you retire on the cusp of a bear market, you can take withdrawals from your cash.  That way you won’t be forced to sell investments in a down market in order to fund retirement.

Expect higher interest rates—In an ironic twist of fate, the world responded to the downgrade of U.S. bonds by buying—you guessed it—U.S. bonds.  That’s because (ratings be damned) the U.S. bond market is still the most liquid, transparent bond market in the world and investors still flock to it in times of trial.

All of that buying pushed prices higher which sent interest rates lower.  Don’t expect that to last, however.  Just as a person with a low FICO score can expect to pay higher interest rates to borrow money, the U.S. Government can expect to pay higher rates if bond investors perceive it to be a greater credit risk.

That’s bad news if you’re a borrower (think higher mortgage rates), but good news if you’re a lender (think higher dividends on your bond portfolio).  Interest rates are at generational lows.  Consider the downgrade the canary in the coal mine that they’re eventually going higher.  To minimize risk and increase cash flow in retirement, set a goal to retire debt free.

Expect higher taxes—If rates go up, then the U.S. will be spending more of your tax dollars on interest payments.  That’s an expense that they can little afford.  In fiscal 2010, the U.S. government spent $3.456 trillion, but only had $2.162 trillion in tax receipts.  That’s a deficit of $1.294 trillion.  Similar deficits are projected for years to come.

To get its fiscal house in order, the government has two primary tools: cut spending and raise taxes.  We all saw what a difficult time Congress had making even modest spending cuts during the debt ceiling debate.  Even if they could agree on cuts that eliminated 100 percent of discretionary spending (i.e. non-military and non-entitlement), the budget would still be deep in the red.  What does that mean?  At some point down the road we can expect higher taxes.

How can you prepare for that?  As you work on your retirement budget, assume that things like income and capital gains taxes will be higher than they are now and save enough to cover the added expense.  Also, different states have different tax burdens.  Some states tax Social Security and pension benefits while others do not.  Sales and property taxes also differ greatly from state-to-state.  As you consider where to retire, don’t forget to consider how your income, property, and purchases will be taxed during retirement.  Finally, if you have some time to go before retiring, consider putting as much as possible into your Roth IRA and Roth 401(k).  Distributions from those accounts during retirement are free from federal tax.

With so much uncertainty, it’s easy to get discouraged.  A quick review of history, however, shows that we have always had times of volatility and uncertainty.  The key is to manage through them by recognizing the challenges you face and doing everything you can to meet them head on.  Do that and when times get better (which they inevitably will) you will be well positioned to benefit.

Thanks for reading.  Touch base if I can ever help.

Joe

How (and why) to retire debt free

How (and why) to retire debt free

It’s almost impossible to open a newspaper these days without reading about your retirement “number.”  That is, the amount of money you need to set aside to fund your retirement years.  While important, the “number” is only one way to skin the proverbial cat.  What if I told you that you could slash 20-40 percent off the amount you need to save without reducing your standard of living in retirement?  Would you be interested?

While it may sound too good to be true, that is exactly what you can do by entering retirement debt free.  To see why, let’s look at an example.  Imagine two couples, the Drakes and the Palmers.  They’ve been friends for years and live next door to each other in a small community in Oregon.  The couples, both in their mid-sixties, plan on retiring next year, so they sit down with their respective advisers and calculate how much they’ll need.

The Drakes outline their retirement budget and determine that, in addition to Social Security, they will need $5,000 per month or $60,000 per year.  Approximately $1,300 of that is for their mortgage and $400 is for a car payment.  Assuming a withdrawal rate of 4 percent, the Drake’s adviser tells them they will need a nest egg of $1.5 million to generate the income they need ($60,000 ÷ .04).

The Palmers expect their retirement expenses to be nearly identical to their friends the Drakes with one big exception: they have no debt.  Ten years ago they set a goal to enter retirement debt free.  They paid extra on their mortgage each month and resisted the urge to buy expensive new cars.  As a result, rather than $5,000 per month they only need $3,300.  Assuming a withdrawal rate of 4 percent, their adviser tells them that their “number” is $990,000.

So even though they are planning nearly identical retirements, the Palmers can generate the cash flow they need with nearly half a million less than the Drakes, simply because they have no debt.

Cash flow during retirement

During retirement, your portfolio takes over the job that the payroll department handled during your working years, namely to send you a paycheck every month.  As we saw in the example above, debt makes that task much more challenging.  It cuts into your cash flow and increases the risk that you will outlive your money.

Even so, more people are following in the footsteps of the Drakes than ever before.  According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, more than 60 percent of people aged 55-64 have mortgage and home-equity debt.  Funding retirement is difficult enough without handicapping yourself with liabilities.  Here are three steps you can take to make sure your debt retires when you do.

1) Commit

Paying off your house and other debts takes time and requires a serious commitment.  It might even mean putting your retirement dreams on hold.  Getting into debt is easy, but getting out of debt means adjusting your lifestyle and choosing to live below your means so that you can allocate the excess to your creditors.  If married, discuss the plan with your spouse so that you can hold each other accountable and work together towards a common goal.

2) Develop a plan

Once you’re committed to the idea of retiring debt free, it’s time to develop a plan.  Make a list of all your debts, including credit cards, car loans, mortgage debt, and school or business loans.  Next look at your budget and see how much you can allocate towards deleveraging each month.  Some say you should start by paying off the loans with the highest interest rates.  Others say you should start with your smallest loans and pay those off first so you can build momentum by seeing quick progress.  Choose whichever you think would work best for you.  As you pay things off, use the money you were allocating toward that loan and apply it to the next loan on your list.

When you get to large loans like your house, contact your lender and ask for a payoff amortization schedule so you can track your progress.  Don’t be tempted by the thought of holding on to your mortgage interest deduction.  Congress is considering eliminating this tax break in order to close the budget gap, but even if they don’t, it may not provide you much benefit in retirement.  You’ll likely be in a lower tax bracket and mortgage interest is front loaded, so the deduction shrinks over time.

These arguments aside, it’s questionable whether paying interest to get a tax deduction is a benefit in the first place.  Let’s say you pay $20,000 in mortgage interest in a given year and you’re in the 25 percent tax bracket.  Deducting $20,000 from your income would save you $5,000 in taxes.  Only in America does it make sense to spend $20,000 in order to save $5,000.  How much better would it be to pay your mortgage off, send Uncle Sam the extra $5,000 in taxes, and pocket the remaining $15,000?

3) Outline your retirement budget

Once you’ve cleaned up your balance sheet and are ready to move into retirement, develop a detailed retirement budget that matches your income with your expenses.  This will help you keep a reign on your spending so you can stay debt free.

As you can see, debt is inherently limiting at a time when most hope for greater independence and opportunity.  Eliminate it and you will gain the freedom, flexibility, and peace of mind that so many see as the hallmarks of a great retirement.

Note: I first published this article at www.fpanet.org.