It's easy to assume that if you're, say, 20 or 25 years away from retiring, you needn't do much about it now, other than socking away some money. But if you'd like at least to not run out of money in retirement and ideally to have a very comfortable and enjoyable retirement, you should be making smart moves throughout your life.
Here are 11 smart retirement moves you can make now and this year -- most of which are effective no matter how old you are now.
Image source: Getty Images.
1. Have an emergency fund
If you aren't prepared to support yourself in case you are laid off or fall ill or if you wouldn't be able to pay a $1,000 unexpected car repair bill, you need an emergency fund. We all need a plan for how we'll get by if life takes a nasty turn. Draining your retirement account is a bad plan, so stock an emergency fund with about six to 12 months' worth of living expenses, including rent or mortgage payments, food, utilities, transportation, taxes, insurance, and so on.
2. Get out of debt
Always aim to carry no revolving high-interest rate debt, such as that from credit cards, as it can be debilitating. It's not unusual to be charged annual interest rates of 25% or more, and on $15,000 of debt, that can cost you around $3,750 each year!
3. Have a retirement plan
Don't leave your retirement up to chance. Figure out how much money you'll need in retirement and how you'll amass it. Determine and plan for what your income sources will be, too -- such as Social Security, savings, pension income, and so on. Consider buying an immediate or deferred fixed annuity, as a good one will deliver regular income, potentially for the rest of your life.
Plan for more than just your financial life in retirement, too. Think about where you want to live or where it makes most sense to live, financially or socially. Think about what you will do in retirement to keep boredom away and whether you'll want or need to find a part-time job for a while. See whether there any steps you might take now to prepare, such as visiting areas where you might move, exploring employment possibilities, or trying out new hobbies or social groups.
4. Save and invest more
The more you can save, the better off you'll be in retirement. The earlier you start doing so, the better, too. Your earliest invested dollars can be your most powerful, as they have longest to grow -- still, ideally, aim to increase your saving each year, perhaps by socking away some or all of any raises. Here's how much you might amass, depending on how far from retirement you are:
Growing at 8% For:
$5,000 Invested Annually
$10,000 Invested Annually
$15,000 Invested Annually
Data source: author.
5. Earn more, spend less
If your retirement savings are well below where they should be -- as they are for most people -- take some drastic steps to beef them up. The sooner you do so, the longer your money can grow for you. You might take on a second job for a few years, or regularly do some extra work on the side, such as tutoring, driving people around, or giving music or language lessons. You could take in a boarder for a while or rent out a room on Airbnb now and then. These may not be appealing ideas, but they can make a big difference.
Spending less can help you sock away more, too. Devote a few months to tracking all your spending, to see where your money goes. Then draft a budget and stick to it. Live below your means -- such as by using coupons, comparing prices before buying (on all kinds of purchases, from cars to insurance to televisions), bypassing some luxuries, and brown-bagging some lunches. Using cash-back credit cards when shopping can help, too.
6. Make use of IRAs and 401(k)s
Consider opening and/or funding a traditional IRA. In 2018, as in 2017, you can contribute up to $5,500 to one or more traditional or Roth IRA(s) -- in total. If you're 50 or older, the limit is $6,500. With a traditional IRA, a $5,500 contribution will reduce your taxable income by $5,500 -- saving $1,375 on your tax bill this year, if you're in the 25% tax bracket. That money can be invested, growing on a tax-deferred basis until it's taxed when you make withdrawals in retirement.
Even better for many people is the Roth IRA. With a Roth IRA, a $5,500 contribution has no effect on your taxes in the contribution year. But follow the Roth IRA rules, and you'll be able to withdraw all your contributions and earnings tax-free! If your Roth IRA swells to $200,000 over time, that can all be tax-free income in retirement.
Make the most of your 401(k), too. 401(k)s have much higher contribution limits -- for 2018, it's $18,500 plus $6,000 for those 50 or older -- so aim to contribute generously to them, at least enough to take full advantage of any available matching funds. That's free money, after all.
Image source: Getty Images.
7. Invest more effectively
If you're aggressively saving money, that's terrific, but be sure to be investing it effectively, too. Don't just buy and forget what you own. Aim to only hold stock in companies that you have researched, keep up with, and have great confidence in. If you don't have the ability or interest to decide which stocks to buy and when to sell, simply opt for one or more low-fee broad-market index funds. One based on the S&P 500, for example, will distribute your money across the 500 companies in the S&P 500, which make up about 80% of the U.S. market.
Consider including dividend payers in your portfolio, too. If you have $300,000 in dividend payers with an average overall yield of 4%, you're looking at $12,000 in annual income. Plus, dividends tend to be increased over time.
You're charged fees all over your financial life -- in your investment accounts, bank accounts, mutual funds, retirement accounts, and so on -- so aim to keep them as low as possible. Take inventory of the various fees you pay and see whether you might switch to some lower-cost options. If you can pay one percentage point less in annual fees on $100,000, you'll save $1,000 -- per year.
Finally, rebalance your portfolio regularly. If you haven't rebalanced your portfolio in a long time, you may be far from your desired allocation of, say, 10% in international stocks, 20% in bonds, and 70% in U.S. stocks. If so, you'll have too many or too few eggs in various baskets. Sell off assets from the too-full baskets and add to the not-full-enough ones.
8. Be insurance-smart
Insurance can eat up a lot of our income, so be smart about it. For example, you may not need to be paying for life insurance any more, if your kids are grown and your spouse will be fine financially without you. If no one depends on your income, consider ending your policy in order to save money.
Meanwhile, you may want to buy long-term care insurance. Long-term care can be very costly -- which is why insurance for it is costly, too. It's smart to look into it while you're still middle-aged, as the earlier you buy it, the less it will cost. Less wealthy folks probably can't afford it and wealthy folks might just pay for care on their own if it's needed, so it's best considered by middle income people.
Tending to your health can also pay off in retirement, as you may be able to save a lot of years and dollars by getting fitter -- eating more nutritiously and exercising. As you approach age 65, be sure to read up on your Medicare options, too.
Image source: Getty Images.
9. Prepare your paperwork
No matter how old you are, you need to have a will, a durable power of attorney for finances, a living will, and a healthcare power of attorney (sometimes called a healthcare proxy). You might also look into setting up an estate plan and a trust, among other things. Don't put it off if you're still in your 30s or 40s. Plenty of young adults die, and few of them expected to.
10. Be strategic about Social Security
Don't just leave your Social Security income to chance. You can control how big your checks are to some degree by starting to collect them earlier or later than your normal (in the eyes of the Social Security Administration) retirement age. There are some other income-maximizing strategies to consider, too, especially if you're married.
11. Consult a financial advisor
Finally, don't think you have to plan for your retirement on your own. It's such a critical matter that it can be well worth spending some money consulting a professional. Ones designated as fee-only won't be looking to earn commissions from selling you products, and you can seek one at www.napfa.org. Yes, you may pay several hundred dollars or more for their service, but a good pro might save you much more than that.
This list might seem daunting, but you don't have to do every single move -- at least not all at once. Break them up into doable tasks and get to them as soon as you can. The thought of doing so may not be exciting, but the thought of saving (or accumulating) thousands of dollars sure can be.
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