Taking the steps to finance your retirement
Once you have some ideas about your retirement lifestyle, you can start to figure out how to finance it. That might sound like an overwhelming task, but it doesn’t have to be. Let’s break it down into some manageable steps to help you think through the many options available to you, no matter what your situation.
- Get familiar with a retirement savings calculator.
These are easy to find on many retirement investment websites and help you with two key estimates:
- the total savings you will need by the time you plan to retire
- how much you need to be saving along the way to potentially meet that end goal
Another bonus is they can also help you figure out how far you will get with the amount you are currently saving.
Now you’ve got some concrete estimates to work with. The size of the numbers may seem daunting, but as we go through the next steps, you might realize the potential of actually achieving them with a strategic plan that optimizes your savings options.
- Consider maxing out your tax-deferred savings options.
Saving in a way that lowers your annual income taxes intuitively sounds like a good idea, right? And that’s exactly what you are doing when you contribute to either your employer-sponsored plan, such as a 401k or a 403b plan, or an individual retirement account (IRA), which you might have if you are self-employed or your employer does not offer a retirement savings plan.
While these accounts are generally the most efficient way to save, it is worth noting that they are regulated in several important ways. First, the investment options will be limited to a select few that have been carefully vetted by plan administrators. There may also be restrictions about when you can change your asset allocation, such as only at the end of the month. In addition, while these accounts are exempt from capital gains taxes and allow you to defer income tax, you will have to pay income tax on distributions from the account, once you start to take them. Furthermore, if you need to access money from the account before you are 59 ½, you will have to pay a penalty.
- Consider opening additional savings and investing accounts.
If you are fortunate enough to be able to make the maximum contribution to your tax-deferred contributions, you can still save more. Additional savings can range from a simple savings account at your bank that earns interest to various types of after-tax investments.
You won’t get the pre-tax benefit, but you have the flexibility not being bound by the same restrictions as pre-tax retirement accounts. Keep in mind that, generally speaking, investing involves risk, including loss of principal invested.
- Make a plan for your Social Security benefits.
While some people may not be counting on Social Security to be enough to retire on, it can still provide a meaningful income in addition to your other savings. The amount you are entitled to receive is based on the income you earn over time. The Social Security website has a calculator where you can estimate your benefits and include this in your retirement planning. You can start receiving Social Security payments as early as 62, but if you can wait until you are 70, you will receive larger payments. There are numerous variations on benefits for spouses and widows so get to know the rules so that you (and your spouse) can figure out the optimal time to start receiving distributions.
- Think about whether home ownership is right for you.
Home ownership can be viewed as a way of saving: if you steadily pay off your mortgage, you end up with a valuable asset, one that might even appreciate over time. If you plan to move when you retire, especially if you plan to downsize, you can pocket the difference between the house you are selling and the smaller one you buy, adding to your retirement savings. While this can be an efficient strategy for some, it can also come with significant costs and risks: unexpected expensive home repairs, an unplanned move that means you have to sell quickly, job loss that compromises your ability to pay the mortgage or a weak housing market when you finally want to sell.
- Consider additional savings options for dependents.
While college savings plans and life insurance don’t finance your retirement, they may help with costs or situations that occur during the retirement years. 529 college savings plans allow you to save efficiently because capital gains that accrue in the accounts over time will not be taxed—and that can be a huge savings over the course of 10 to 20 years. Life insurance can help you provide for your dependents should something happen to you. With life insurance, you pay an annual premium so that in the event of your death, your dependents receive a lump sum death benefit payment.
One of the most challenging aspects of creating a comprehensive plan to save for retirement is striking a balance between realistic return expectations and a desired standard of living. It may be a good approach to focus on creating a flexible portfolio that can be updated regularly to reflect changing market conditions and retirement goals.