With the finish line near in the insane race known as retirement planning, your focus may be on stuffing your 401(k) and IRA with more money. Nothing wrong with that. Just add these three moves to avoid costly mistakes.
∙ Stress-test your assumptions. Start with your retirement portfolio. By now you’ve taken a few spins through a retirement calculator. The thing is, most calculators assume your portfolio will earn the average long-term annualized return for stocks and bonds: 10% for stocks and 5% for bonds. For a portfolio 60% invested in stocks and 40% in bonds, the annualized return from 1926 through 2019 works out to around 8.5%.
It makes great sense for the financial firms that build the calculators to use historic norms. But you only have one decade until you retire, and over that short period, there is no guarantee you will earn the long-term norm. In fact, plenty of thoughtful investment pros expect returns will be below average in the coming decade.
Next, let’s review your work assumption. Planning on working longer in part (or whole) for financial reasons? Join the crowd.
But even before COVID-19, research had unearthed an uncomfortable truth: The high odds you will be laid off at least once after you turn 50, and that your next job will likely pay less.
Then there’s longevity. Make it to age 65 in good health and there are more than slim odds that you may be alive in your 90s.
All that suggests a fresh spin through a calculator. How do things look if you plug in a 4% annualized return for the next decade (for the record, some market experts think that might be optimistic). Or what happens if you get laid off and your next paycheck makes it impossible to keep saving at your current rate? Or saving at all? And when using a retirement income calculator, be sure to plug in a life span to age 95. Got especially good genes in the family? Might want to see how things play out if you were to live to 100.
∙ Pay off debts before you retire. File this under obvious yet overlooked. The lower your expenses in retirement, the less you need to have saved and the longer your savings will last. So often the focus is on saving more. Bringing your spending down as you head into retirement can be just as important.
If you’re eyeing aging in place, make it your goal to have the mortgage paid off in your early 60s, even if your plan is to work longer. Having this major monthly expense erased gives you flexibility to handle curveballs such as an earlier-than-expected retirement or an illness. No one ever lost sleep in retirement because they had the mortgage paid off.
If rerunning the calculator gave you pause, and you still have kids yet to go to college, you can’t afford to borrow for their education. Those dollars need to be used to build your retirement savings. And even if you are in solid retirement shape, be careful borrowing for a child’s college education. If you can’t have it paid off before you retire, that’s asking for trouble. This isn’t punishing your kids; it’s saving them from having to support you (more) down the line. There are plenty of affordable schools where your family’s net price won’t break the bank.
∙ Sit down with a planning pro. There comes a time when even the most enthusiastic DIYer benefits from some help. That time is now.
After years of saving for retirement you now face entirely new challenges: How to convert savings into a steady stream of reliable income that will outlast you. How to hatch a plan so the highest earner in your household waits until age 70 to claim Social Security (the extra guaranteed benefit is hands down the best retirement deal available). How to make sure that the surviving spouse will have enough income. How to run the numbers to see if and when a Roth conversion might make sense.
Getting some professional insight seems like a smart investment. The good news is that there is a growing army of certified financial planners you can hire on an hourly or project basis; you don’t necessarily need to commit to an ongoing relationship.
Just be sure to confirm that anyone you work with operates as a fiduciary. Fiduciaries as a rule steer clear of conflicts of interest, which, sadly, many advisers are all too happy to dabble in. (Suggesting an investment to you that earns the adviser a commission is a conflict of interest a fiduciary will not engage in.)
If a prospective adviser comes back with something along the lines of “Yes, I always work in your best interest,” that’s not a good answer. Best interest is not the same as fiduciary.
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