Retirement is traditionally a time for kicking back, with plenty of hard work leading to the big day. But it takes careful strategy — and hard work of another kind — to arrive with style and security.
If you’re ahead of the game or on track, good for you (and your future). But even if you’re behind, you can still set yourself up for retirement success. Financial planning help and an understanding of the financial planning process make up big parts of the picture, along with a basic understanding of planning for retirement.
Here are 17 financial planning tips to get you retirement strategy on track.
Guide to Planning for Retirement
1. Max out your 401(k).
You can go a step further in 2015, as the IRS has upped the maximum contribution level to $18,000, up from $17,500 in 2014. If you have an Individual Retirement Account (IRA), the annual maximum is just $5,500 — but you can make additional “catch up” contributions of $1,000 a year if you are aged 50 and older.
Related: 28 Retirement Mistakes People Make
2. Make sure you get your employer match.
No one would turn down free money in theory. But that’s exactly what most folks do when they drop the ball on matching retirement funds when an employer offers them. “A typical situation would match 50 percent of employee contributions for the first 6 percent of salary that an employee contributes,” said Dirk Quayle, founder, president and board member of NextCapital in Chicago. So if you haven’t signed up for matching funds, then … Do it. Now.
3. Consider enlisting financial planning help from a pro.
In a 2014 Charles Schwab survey, 70 percent of 401(k) participants said they’d be very or extremely confident in making 401(k) investment decisions with professional help. That compares to only 39 percent who felt that same confidence making decisions on their own.
4. Examine investment fees.
Fees can eat at your attempts to build retirement savings. Typical investment fees are around 40 percent of yearly returns, Forbes estimates. But making small changes, like opting for an index fund rather than an actively managed fund, you can get fees down to just 15 percent. Reinvest the savings, and you’ll end up with thousands more come retirement. Let’s say you can save $600 in fees this year. If you reinvest that initial $600 and the same amount saved every year for a total of 10 years, you’ll wind up with $7,684, assuming just a 3 percent annual interest rate return on your investment. Use your own numbers to make a calculation at investor.gov.
5. Pay off debt.
Ask yourself if you’re paying down high-interest debt too slowly — and losing money in the process, because you want the power of compound growth working for, not against you. If you pay $400 a month into a credit card balance of just $15,000 with an APR of 19.99% — not uncommon for many cards these days — it will take you five years and you’ll dish out a total of $8,728 in interest in additions to the principal. By the way: That’s a whopping 57 percent profit for the card company.
6. Know your retirement number.
Hoping to retire on a cool $1 million? Consider that in 2045, you’ll need $2.4 million to have the same purchasing power as $1 million today, assuming 3 percent annual inflation.
7. Increase your cash reserves.
Putting investments and cash reserves in separate buckets means you’ll have money to ride out stock market down cycles. Instead of selling investments at a loss before retirement, you can draw on the cash reserves and ride out the market’s dip.
8. Ensure you have the right insurance coverage.
If you want your insurance payments to contribute to your retirement assets, whole life insurance accumulates a cash value that you can withdraw or borrow against. Term life is much cheaper per month — leaving more money for you to invest — but once the coverage period ends, you get nothing back.
9. Focus on asset allocation.
If you’re trying to decide between, say, target-date funds, bonds and more aggressive stock picks, consider a mix over an absolute pick. “Diversifying across asset classes as well as within asset classes is a smart way to go,” says Jimmy Lee, founder and CEO of The Wealth Consulting Group in Las Vegas. “Though it doesn’t ensure a profit or protect against a loss in a declining market, being diversified provides the potential for a smoother ride.”
10. Know your Social Security benefits.
The federal government’s Social Security website links to a calculator that helps you estimate your retirement benefits. You’ll have to provide personal information to get those numbers, including (natch) your nine-digit number.
11. Use Social Security to stretch out your 401(k) contributions.
As you’re heading toward retirement, you can start collecting benefits at the government’s “retirement age” (between 66 and 67, based on year of birth). But if you’re still working, you can live off those benefits and use more of your salary to invest in your company’s 401(k) and give it more time to grow.
12. Don’t siphon your retirement accounts.
It’s tempting to look at retirement accounts as a source of surplus cash, but leave them be unless it’s an absolute emergency. The IRS has stiff tax penalties if you withdraw from them before you retire: a 10 percent additional tax on certain early distributions from certain retirement plans.
13. Talk to successful retirees.
While it should never substitute for professional advice, talking to those who have retired well can give you good ideas to think about. In particular, those who turned modest means into a major nest egg could have some solid tips.
14. Turn discretionary spending into investing.
Those who delay retirement investing too often confuse needs with wants. “Cell phone bills, cable TV packages and automatic services of all kinds gradually become necessities, and the would-be investor never jumps out,” said Stig Nybo, president of U.S. retirement strategy for Transamerica Retirement Solutions in San Francisco.
15. Get a second (or third) opinion.
Just as you’d see another doctor to confirm a diagnosis, it’s often a great idea to compare the recommendations of one financial planner to another. Where you see an overlap of agreement, there’s a good chance you’ve hit on an essential ingredient in your retirement plan.
16. Start early.
Millennials who have the vision to start retirement accounts early will reap the rewards later. A 25-year-old who socks away $4,000 a year for just 10 years (with a 10 percent annual return rate) will accrue more than $883,000 by the time they turn 60, according to U.S. News. But you can still do well if you’re 35 and contribute $4,000 annually through age 60. On that path, you’ll accumulate roughly $480,000.
17. Don’t think it’s too late.
Even if you’re 55, retirement security is possible. Dave Yeske, a certified financial planner and managing director at the wealth management firm Yeske Buie, calculates that if you’re 55 and can put away $14,400 a year plus delay your retirement to age 67, you’ll accumulate $295,000 just in that short period, assuming an 8 percent annual return.