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Road to retirement


Whether you're on the entry ramp or the leisure exit, these tips can ease your retirement journey.

Managing your IRA for maximum gain
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If your fund isn't performing the way you think it should be, that could be a clue that the fund's stock mix has changed.

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"If a value fund had suddenly taken off last year when most didn't, that may be because the fund switched over to more growth-oriented stock," says Scott. "You need to decide if the manager was right in making that decision."

Got a plan?
Like anything else, it helps if you have a plan. How much money are you putting in and into what asset classes? What rate of return are you expecting from each and are you getting it?

And once a year, go through and make sure your investment strategy matches your personal risk tolerance, says Scott, "especially given the bear market of recent years."

"It's a good test of whether you're overly committed to a particular area -- the stock market in particular," she says. But you don't have to obsess, either. Just "once a year," says Scott, "at whatever time is easiest for you."

Gates recommends regularly following the performance of your investments, then sitting down annually to look at how those investments fit your investment strategy and risk tolerance.

And it never hurts to talk to a professional.

"The shift away from defined-benefit pension plans has shifted an incredible burden to employees," says Gates. "It's an awesome responsibility, and most people don't have the expertise to do that."

What you want in an adviser: someone who can give you neutral advice and won't benefit financially from recommending certain products or assets.

Shop for someone "who's compensated in a way that doesn't lead to a conflict of interest between you and the advisers," says Scott. "That would be basically a fee-based adviser."

Also look for credentials, such as certified financial planner, certified public accountant or registered investment adviser.

In some cases, a little extra help might be closer than you think. Some employers actually offer financial planning services. But in general only half of the employees take advantage of the opportunity, according to John Hancock's 2004 survey.

"Financial planning gives them a target or reference point on how to invest and how to hang in during difficult time periods," says Gates. "People should periodically review their asset mix and determine if they're at their target. If they'd gone through financial planning they'd be able to come up with that."

Many financial institutions also have IRA calculators on their Web site that can help you figure out how much money you'll need for retirement. You can also tap sites that, for a fee, will help you decide which funds suit your financial goals and risk tolerance. Just like hiring a financial professional, though, it pays to know who's behind the curtain so that you can consider that along with the advice you receive.

As the idea of individual retirement savings has taken off the last few years, the number of Web sites with helpful information for investors has grown, too, says Gates. "It's just a question of getting people to understand the information."

-- Posted: Jan. 3, 2006
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