1. Have a discovery phase
Call it an assessment, checkup or discovery, but a key part of planning for retirement is taking an overall look at what’s going on. See where your money is invested, check the performance and scrutinize your contributions. Online tools, such as Bankrate’s best retirement calculator or retirement income calculator, can help you to see if you are on track to accumulate enough money to meet your expenses and the live you want to live in retirement.
2. Learn the rules
The rules of retirement financing are complicated, but you don’t have to be Einstein to learn them. Get the lowdown on a couple of specifics. Should you be in a Roth IRA or a traditional IRA? One has tax-deductible contributions, the other has tax-free withdrawals.
Social Security has different claiming strategies, and one notable loophole — “file-and-suspend” — is over. As you prepare for retirement, check your Social Security account to see how you might claim a bigger benefit by waiting until your full retirement age. At the very least, you should know that for every year past 62 you delay benefits, your monthly check increases.
3. As interest rates rise …
The Federal Reserve has been raising interest rates, and here’s the good news about that: You might finally see a bump in in the returns on your traditional savings or money market account. The process will be slow and gradual because institutions will be conservative in passing along any rate increases to consumers.
“It’s not a windfall, but savers may finally begin to see some relief,” says David Fleisher, president and CEO at Firstrust Financial Resources in Philadelphia. “Anything is better than zero, which is where we’ve been for the last several years.”
4. Have a cash cushion
Going into retirement 100 percent invested in the stock market is a bad idea.
Imagine you plan to retire on Sept. 30, and on Sept. 29 the market plummets. Or that there’s a big crash any time after you retire. Buffer against a bear market by having two years’ worth of liquid savings, so you can meet your expenses and not have to sell your investments at the worst possible time.
A few years before you plan to retire, redirect your contributions for retirement into cash investment options, such as money market funds or CDs, instead of mutual funds. Matt Sommer, director of the retirement strategy group for Janus Capital Group in Denver, says this is an easy way to build cash and ramp down on equities.
5. Stay diversified
Retirement savers often don’t know if they should put their salary deferrals into a 401(k) or, if it’s available, a Roth 401(k) — a workplace account that combines the after-tax features of a Roth IRA and a traditional 401(k). “If we knew exactly what your tax bracket is going to be 20 years from now, we could tell you,” Sommers says. “But we don’t.”
Instead of choosing one or the other, hedge your bets by diversifying and keeping some of your retirement money tax-deferred and some in a Roth account. When you mix things up across the different categories, you’ll have more flexibility when it comes time to pull the money out.
6. Fill in all account beneficiaries
Make sure you designate beneficiaries. Otherwise, your family members could wind up spending months in surrogate or probate court. “Why even go through that?” asks Ethan Braid, founder of HighPass Asset Management in Denver. “The big benefit (to designations) is avoiding emotional trauma.”
Set aside a few hours to go through your planning documents to see if your 401(k)s, life insurance and IRAs have clearly named beneficiaries. Make sure your wishes are explicit. An attorney’s letter is not enough.
7. Pay down debts
It’s easier to save for retirement when you don’t have student debt hanging over your head. A study by Aon Hewitt found that more than half of workers (51 percent) with outstanding student loans contribute no more than 5 percent of their salary to retirement savings.
It’s not just younger workers who carry student debt. Though millennials are likeliest to have student loans, 26 percent of Generation X and 13 percent of baby boomers still have student loan obligations.
When you’re about to enter your retirement years, credit card debt — and any student debt — should be paid down.
8. Take advantage of the ‘fiduciary rule’
After a delay of a couple of months, what’s known as the “fiduciary rule” is now scheduled to take effect in June. It requires advisers and brokers who work with retirement savers to put your interests first. Advisers can’t simply sell you an investment with upfront costs, such as an annuity or certain mutual funds, just because it’s profitable. They must be certain it is right for your goals and your situation.
If you work with an adviser, ask what the professional’s compensation model is: commission on investments sold, a flat fee or a percentage of assets. Investors should know how they’re being charged, and whether that’s the most cost effective for their situation.
The rule will be fully implemented in January 2018.
9. Get to know the fees in your retirement accounts
Whether you prefer passive funds tied to the stock market or actively managed funds, find out how much you pay in fees. The difference between an investment with a 1 percent fee and an investment that costs 0.05 percent can add up to thousands of dollars over the decades.
Aside from how much you decide to save, the cost of investments is one of the few things you can control when it comes to saving for retirement. If you are in higher-cost investments and you’re satisfied with the performance, that’s fine. But know how much you’re paying so you can decide if the return is worth it.
10. Save more today
Financial experts now recommend saving as much as 15 percent of your salary for retirement. The way to get there? Increase the amount you save by a one or two percentage points at a time. Some workplace retirement plans have an auto-increase feature. If yours doesn’t, raise your contribution yourself on your birthday, after New Year’s or any other significant day. Set a reminder on your calendar. If you get a raise, boost your savings by that amount — or at least by a portion of that amount.