In a recent white paper titled “The Retirement Mirage,” David Blanchett, head of retirement research at Morningstar Investment Management, noted that choosing when to retire “is one of the single most important financial decisions we make in our lives.”

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No one has ever compared retiring early to a market crash, but according to some new research from Morningstar Investment Management, leaving work early could be at least as hazardous to your wealth as a market meltdown.

It’s a significant issue because while most seniors think they can manage the timing of retirement in ways that they can’t control the market, the end of a working career can be as hard to anticipate as the end of a bull market.

In a recent white paper titled “The Retirement Mirage,” David Blanchett, head of retirement research at Morningstar Investment Management, noted that choosing when to retire “is one of the single most important financial decisions we make in our lives.”

Yet most people don’t view it that way, thinking of retirement date as being more about lifestyle than finances.

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Moreover, Blanchett noted, retirement “plans” are often wrong. The person who expects to retire at 65 may wind up leaving the work force at, say, 63; whether that exit is prompted by health issues, job changes or something else, the financial impact is the same, and it’s devastating.

The research is alarming for two reasons:

1) Everyone who feels like they have insufficient retirement savings figures they will simply work longer to play catch-up, and the statistics say that won’t work for everyone who needs it.

2) Blanchett said that if you factor retirement uncertainty into the picture, some investors may need to double their current savings to reach their targets by a sooner-than-expected retirement date.

That’s no typo; read it again slowly.

Double the savings, just to have enough.

Ouch.

This is where individuals must compare the timing of retirement to a market crash.

Two key concerns that financial planners try to address are “sequence of return risk” and “longevity risk.”

These are related issues affecting how long your money lasts. Sequence-of-return risk is simply the potential that someone retires right as the market takes a nosedive, meaning they start drawing on their nest egg at a point when the market is shrinking it.

Studies show that when the early years of retirement see normal withdrawals plus bad market conditions, it jeopardizes the ability of the savings to last a lifetime. (Conversely, quitting work at a point when the market is going gangbusters can significantly improve the duration of savings.)

Longevity risk is simply the chance that you outlive your money because you planned to reach age 90 or 95 but were fortunate enough to get more time.

Now consider what happens when someone loses or leaves their job a few years before the plan.

It’s a dead stop to earnings, it starts the draw on savings earlier, it’s a temptation to take Social Security benefits earlier — never a great idea from a financial-longevity standpoint — and more.

Asked which is worse, a market crash in the first years of retirement or the loss of employment before schedule, Blanchett said he thinks that the impact of the quicker-than-expected retirement is the bigger concern.

“The thing you can do that helps the most [in creating a successful retirement] is delay retirement,” Blanchett said in an interview on my podcast, Money Life with Chuck Jaffe. “If you delay retirement by a year, you have one more year to save, one more year for your assets to grow, one less year to plan for and one more year you can delay claiming Social Security.

“When you retire early, it is pretty devastating on your overall retirement picture … because it’s permanent and you really can’t rebound from that,” he added.

Working longer is the plan for the millions of Americans who fall into the enormous group of people who haven’t reached their financial goals as retirement age approaches.

But planning to work longer and making it happen are two different things.

A recent employee Benefits Research Institute study showed that the median expected retirement age was 65, but that the actual retirement age was closer to 62. Likewise, recent research from Gallup noted that people typically retire four years earlier than they expect.

“Most people who say they are going to retire later don’t actually retire later,” Blanchett said. “The expectation may be that you’re going to retire at age 70, but it’s more likely you are going to retire at age 66.”

Combating this one is tough because most people haven’t really considered it extensively in their financial planning.

The planner or the robo-adviser or the personal work sheet asks for a planned retirement age. That becomes essential for computing how long the saver has to reach their goals and how much they must save to get there.

“You need to look at that plan and then also say ‘What if I have to retire earlier than that?’ ” Blanchett explained. “Look at your plan and say ‘What happens if I have to retire at 62 instead of 65?’ ”

If you can be happy with the results when the last few years of saving are lopped off and your retirement life is extended by three years, then retirement is secure and comfortable at any age.

If, however, your ability to feel comfortable that your nest egg will last through your final days would be compromised by losing the job early, it’s time to change your planning.

That means saving more, or having some way to delay accessing your retirement funds and Social Security early.

“People can’t control what the market does — you can’t know if you will retire into a good market or a bad one,” Blanchett said, “and people can’t control exactly when they will retire a whole lot better. … What people can control is how much they save. If they save as if they might have to retire early, they will be a lot happier than if they are forced to retire early and never planned for it.”