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Opinion: Here's a 10-point retirement planning checklist

Industry Insight

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Some of us spend more time planning a vacation than planning a comfortable retirement. It’s never too early to seek balance between current needs, wants and dreams, and to consider the planning and savings necessary to fulfill future retirement needs, wants and dreams. Here are retirement planning essentials to get ahead of right now.

1. Project what your retirement will look like in terms of both basic and lifestyle expenses (travel, hobbies, “toys”), then estimate how much to save toward those goals. Recalculate regularly to ensure you’re on track and to account for changing retirement expectations. If you’re many years from retirement, this may be tricky. Do your best, use online retirement calculators and/or seek professional assistance – and keep in mind it’s better to over-save a bit than to under-save.

Account for 2-3 percent inflation, and test “bad-case” scenarios, for example, early death of a spouse, which would leave only one Social Security check each month, or a large emergency expenditure, which might knock your plans sideways.

2. Business owners: Seek professional guidance for exit planning tactics to help increase the value of your business now, and put formal plans in place well ahead of time to facilitate a lucrative and smooth transition to family, employees or third parties. 

3. Take advantage of tax deferral and company contributions if you are able to participate in a workplace retirement plan – and accept planning assistance from the investment company if it’s offered. If you’re a business owner and don’t have a workplace retirement savings program, look into it for the sake of your own planning needs (and incidentally as an excellent employee retention tool).

4. Seek at least a basic understanding of investment products: The long-term rate of growth of your savings can dramatically affect your progress and ultimately the quality of your retirement. Stock funds tend to offer good growth potential, at the price of short-term volatility. If you’re more than about five years from needing to take withdrawals, you can invest aggressively. But avoid excessive trading, and don’t try to time markets because that does not work.

As you approach retirement, calculate the amount of cash you’ll need from your investments within the next five years, and protect at least that much from market downturns, by moving it into bond funds, for example. This will help avoid having to sell low as recessions typically only depress stock values for three to five years. This approach may help you worry less and give you a better shot at meeting your retirement accumulation goals. Repeat this calculation each year all the way through retirement. If you still lose sleep worrying about the stock market roller coaster, follow your heart and perhaps invest more conservatively, understanding there may be a lifestyle trade-off down the road if your investment growth is insufficient.

5. As retirement approaches, and throughout retirement, create a detailed household budget – and follow it.

6. Understand Social Security claiming strategies to help maximize retirement income, and consider how those choices might affect a surviving spouse in case of a death.

7. Don’t jump the gun on raiding tax-advantaged investment accounts. Tax deferral is a wonderful, rare gift from the IRS, so don’t ruin it by incurring penalties before age 59 and a half, or by spending tax-deferred money – 401(k)s, IRAs, etc. – when other funds are available. However, be sure to take your IRS required minimum distributions from tax-deferred accounts starting at age 70 and a half, otherwise you may be subject to large penalties. Work with your tax professional to make sure you follow current rules.

8. Adjust your “risk management products” as needed: life, health and long-term care insurance, as well as Medicare supplements starting at age 65. Seek professional guidance if needed, as these are critically important to your financial health.
 
9. Periodically update estate planning documents, such as wills and trusts, throughout your life. No asset should go through probate before passing to heirs, so make sure everything you own of significant value, including real estate, has a beneficiary document attached. Get beneficiary forms directly from the companies that issue your investment or bank account statements, and from the state for cars/boats, or anything else with a title. For real estate, work with a title company or attorney. 

10. Review retirement projections periodically before and during retirement to see if reality matches your projections, and adjust as needed.

Bonus tip: Both now and in retirement, take advantage when the U.S. dollar is relatively stronger than other currencies, for lower-cost world travel. This relates directly to your final checklist item: Enjoy your retirement – you earned it.

Certified financial planner Kenny Gott is executive vice president at Piatchek & Associates Inc. and author of “Bottom Line Financial Planning.” He can be reached at kgott@pfinancial.com.

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