13 smart retirement moves in 2009

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If what doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger, then retirement investors will rule the roost in 2009.

While the financial world crashed and burned in 2008, there was hardly a moment to pause and ask, “OK, but what can we learn from this?”

Now as consumers take a breather, pop the corks and usher in 2009, it’s a great time to reflect on how those costs came with a few lessons. Here is what Bankrate learned.

1. Exhale

“It sounds like a cliche, but take a deep breath,” says Chris Farrell, author of “Right on the Money! Taking Control of Your Personal Finances.”

“There’s a lot of fear,” he says. “It’s clear we’re in a recession. And, particularly for people in retirement, it’s disconcerting to realize how much of your savings has vaporized.”

For younger workers, “it’s probably the first time they’ve seen something like this,” says Greg Daugherty, executive editor of Consumer Reports.

“But that money has vaporized only on paper, unless you’ve cashed in,” he says. “Unless you have to do something — and some people do — if you have time to ride it out, you’ll do just fine.”

Smart money always avoids the extremes. “The worst thing you can do is cash out in a panic or arrive at retirement unprepared with everything in stocks,” says Jill Gianola, a Certified Financial Planner and author of “The Young Couples Guide to Growing Rich Together.”

2. Keep saving

“As hard as it is, you want to keep doing it,” Farrell says. “You still get a nice tax deduction. And even though some employers are cutting back on the match, that match is still the best return on investment you’ll get.”

Even without a match, a retirement investment is a good deal, says Wayne Bogosian, co-author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to 401(k) Plans.”

“The only guaranteed money you have for your financial future is money you put there yourself,” he says.

If you thought it was a good idea to save and invest aggressively when the markets were doing well, it makes even more sense now, says Bogosian. “Your portfolio will come back faster and farther,” if you keep making those contributions, he says.

3. Realize the upside

In terms of what you’ve lost on paper, “the only thing depressed is the share price,” says Bogosian. “The number of shares you own is the same.” And when those share prices grow, so will your portfolio.

“It’s hard for folks to follow this advice, but what I’d say is look at this as an opportunity,” Bogosian says. Toward that end, keep putting money into your retirement fund. And if you can step it up a little, that can be a smart move, he says.

“Some stocks and mutual funds are at 15- to 20-year lows,” says Bogosian.

When it comes to retirement savings, “if you can afford to kick it up a notch, do it,” he says. “It will pay you huge dividends when the markets come back.”

4. Retirement savings or rainy-day fund?

The short answer, when it comes to saving, is to contribute to both. You save for retirement because no one else is going to do it for you. And you start your emergency fund for the same reason.

“Even if you’re saving for retirement, keep putting some away each month into an FDIC-insured account for a rainy day,” Gianola says.

5. Rebalance your portfolio

With many stock-based investments shrinking in value, it’s easier than ever to slide out of your target asset allocations. So the portfolio that started out with 80 percent stocks and 20 percent bonds could be closer to 70/30 or 60/40, depending on when you last revised your holdings.

“If you haven’t rebalanced your portfolio in a while, this is a great time to do it,” Bogosian says.

With rebalancing, you buy and sell enough assets to bring the portfolio back to your ideal goal. Because you’re buying and selling, this step is not without costs. But it’s part of smart money management if you want that portfolio to thrive.

How often do you rebalance? The advice varies, but many money pros recommend doing this at least once a year, or when your assets get beyond a pre-selected percentage of your target asset allocation.

6. Take control of your retirement money

If 401(k) contributors never specified an investment strategy when they enrolled, employers may have automatically slotted them in default plans tied to a presumed retirement date, Bogosian says. While the economic climate is changing, those investments are on auto-pilot.

“Seeing huge negatives on your statements? You’re probably in a very aggressive portfolio,” he says.

Either come up with your own, more diversified, strategy or select one that’s less aggressive, Bogosian says. You don’t have to start from scratch. Just set it up so that future contributions are allocated using your new strategy, he says.

7. Revisit your idea of risk tolerance

Now that you’ve seen yourself in a drastic downturn, reassess your risk tolerance, Gianola says. After your portfolio rebounds, adjust your asset allocation so that your investment strategy reflects your true risk tolerance, not just your reward tolerance.

If you’re retired or about to retire and have fully funded your retirement, “this may be the time to continue take some risk off the table as your portfolio is recovering,” Bogosian says.

The percentage of stocks to bonds in your portfolio is up to you and your financial advisor, but you probably don’t want to go below 50 percent in stock-based investments, he says.

For retirees who’ve taken a bath, leaving the money where it is seems illogical. But it’s the quickest way to rebound, Bogosian says. In the meantime, make ends meet by cutting spending or boosting income, he says.

And if you’ve decided that you need less risk from here on out, change your strategy only as your portfolio of stocks recovers. “After they rebound, that’s when (investors) want to take risk off the table,” he says.

8. Be discerning

No one’s telling you to stick your fingers in your ears. At the same time, recognize that what you hear on the news “are sound bytes of the worst in our economy,” Bogosian says.

It pays to be just as selective when it comes to accepting investing advice, says Karen Altfest, Certified Financial Planner and vice president of L.J. Altfest & Co., a New York-based fee-only financial-planning firm.

“Make sure it’s coming from a good source,” she says.

Many employee assistance programs will make a financial advisor available for free, Bogosian says.

You may also choose to go for outside help. One resource is the National Association of Professional Financial Advisors, a professional organization of non-commissioned, fee-only financial planners. Its Web site is NAPFA.org.

9. Avoid get-rich-quick schemes

When economic problems abound, scam artists and get-rich-quick schemers pop up like mushrooms after a rain.

But fear and emotion are bad motivators. So is a get-rich-quick mentality. “Beware of quick fixes for systemic problems,” Bogosian says. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Also avoid lotteries, sweepstakes or pleas for help that promise thousands or millions of dollars in return for some of your own money or use of your bank account.

Even with legitimate investments, make sure that you’re acting for the long-term, with plenty of information. “If you’re doing something other than what you have been, ask yourself, ‘why am I doing it?'” says Bogosian. “What’s my motivation? What do I expect to get out of it?”

10. Convert your conversion

“If you converted a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, you may want to convert it back,” Bogosian says.

Here’s why: If that $10,000 IRA has dropped in value to $7,000, you still have to pay taxes on $10,000. To pay taxes on its actual worth, you need to convert it back to a traditional IRA, then convert it back again to a Roth, he says. The result is you pay tax on what the account is actually worth.

11. If you’re in or near retirement, plan ahead

Typically, in retirement you keep a certain amount of assets liquid, often one year’s worth of funds. In today’s economy, you might want to have one to two years worth of living expenses “where you could get your money out,” Altfest says.

She says to put it in a money market account or short-term CD. “Look for the best yield you can get, knowing that in today’s market it will be fairly low,” she says.

12. Compare retirement income and outflow

“It’s all about cash flow in retirement,” Gianola says. “Can you pull in enough to meet your expenses?”

In retirement, 4 percent a year is the typical withdrawal rate, says Daugherty. But that percentage might equate to a smaller dollar figure than in years past. If possible, resist the temptation to withdraw at a faster pace, he says.

Instead, try cutting or postponing non-essential expenses and think about boosting your income and your retirement savings with part-time work.

13. Invest in yourself and rethink your idea of retirement

Conventional retirement is vanishing, not just because of the economy but because people are living longer. So ask yourself whether you want to stop working or if you want to shift into another line of work or a part-time schedule.

“What really comes out of this is that it’s important to invest your time in education and skills where your next job is going to be,” Farrell says. Look at your goals and dreams. What are the companies you want to work with? “Get to know them,” he says.

Ask yourself what skills will you need, what education will be required and what networking will you have to do?

Says Farrell, “It can make it a much more enriching experience if you have invested your time in what you want to do in the next stage of life.”

Written by
Dana Dratch
Personal Finance Writer
Dana Dratch is a personal finance and lifestyle writer who enjoys talking all things money and credit. With a degree in English and writing, she likes asking the questions everyone would ask if they could and sharing the answers — along with smart money management tips from the experts.