Retirement Readiness Checklist
Gauging your financial affairs in advance of retirement is a job in and of itself. Of course, financial management before and in retirement is so complex that I’d recommend that you also obtain professional help, or at least a second opinion on your plan, before you embark on it. But even if you ultimately end up employing a financial advisor to be your guide as you prepare to retire, using a checklist can help you comprehend the key variables that will make your retirement plan succeed or fail. It can help you course-correct before it’s too late.
If you’re starting to think about retirement and what your retirement plan should look like, here’s a checklist to help you think through the key variables.
Consider Your Retirement Date
One of the key steps as you develop your retirement plan is considering when you plan to retire. Of course, the financial payoff of working longer has been well documented: delayed portfolio withdrawals, additional retirement plan contributions and tax-deferred compounding, and a larger Social Security benefit can all contribute to a plan’s sustainability.
But it’s worthwhile to consider your expected retirement date from a number of additional angles, not just the financial dimension. You’ll also want to consider quality-of-life issues, health, and whether you can actually continue to do your job later in life.
It’s also important to bring a healthy dose of humility to retirement date planning. People who thought they would hang it up early often ended up working longer than they estimated, whereas many who had anticipated delaying retirement didn’t do so. Health issues or layoffs often force people out of the workforce earlier than they might consider ideal, while others continue to work longer than they anticipated because they need or enjoy their jobs or value the social dimension. In other words, as valuable as it is to set a goal date for retirement, you may end up deviating from it for one reason or another.
Assess Your In-Retirement Income Needs
The next step in the process is to take stock of your planned in-retirement spending. One common rule of thumb is the 80% rule – that is, in retirement, you’ll need to replace about 80% of your working income. Taxes may go down and you don’t have to save as you did when you were working, which represents the bulk of that 20% reduction.
But affluent retirees tend to spend much less than 80% of their working incomes, on average, whereas retirees with lower working incomes tend to consume a higher percentage of their working incomes in retirement. That’s only logical, in that affluent households likely have heavier savings rates, whereas lower-income households consume a bigger share of what they make.
Moreover, many retirees plan lifestyle changes in retirement that will affect their spending. Some retirees may be planning to downsize or move to a lower-cost part of the country to make retirement more affordable, for example, while other retirees may expect spending to increase because of heavy travel plans. Making lifestyle adjustments like these can be incredibly impactful from a financial standpoint, but they may not be agreeable to many.
Because forecasting your anticipated income needs is such an important component of crafting your retirement plan, make sure you right-size your income needs by looking at your expected outlays line item by line item. Also remember that your spending won’t necessarily be static from year to year; you may have higher-spending years, especially in the early and later parts of retirement, and lower-spending ones, too.
Build an emergency fund.
Before you take any major financial step, you want to be sure you’re protected should things not go according to plan. Hopefully, you aren’t learning about emergency funds for the first time when you’re within years of retirement. But if you have somehow gotten this far without a financial security blanket, now’s the time to create one. It will cover you in the event of personal catastrophe, and it can also make up for delays in the start date of your pension or Social Security.
Some experts recommend that you sock away three months of living expenses, while others suggest you save enough for at least a year. Six months’ worth of funds should be enough to cover you in case of emergency. Base the amount of this six-month fund on your expenses, not your income. No matter your current state of employment, this fund is about how much you’re spending. Remember to include expenses currently covered by your employer (like healthcare) because your emergency fund will need to transition into retirement with you.
Keep your fund somewhere safe and separate from your other savings so you aren’t tempted to spend it. A passbook savings or money market account could be a good option. They’re liquid in case you need to access your funds, but still earn interest.
Pay Off All Debt
In an ideal world, we’d all enter retirement without any debt. Since your income is likely to decrease, any fixed payments will start to take up a larger share of your expenses. If you’re nearing retirement, it’s time to take a look at the debt column of your inventory. Add interest rates and terms in a new column beside your outstanding debts.
So, how should you tackle your debts? There are generally two thoughts on where to start: either by paying down debts with the smallest balance or debts with the highest interest rates. If you can stomach it, we suggest starting with highest-interest-rate debts. This is usually credit card debt, followed by personal loans and car loans. And we don’t just mean hitting the monthly minimum. To really make a dent, you’ll have to put as much money as you can to paying down your priority debt without sacrificing making the minimum payments on other debts. Mortgages are a good debt to save for last as these tend to have low interest rates.
No matter what repayment strategy you choose, the most important thing is sticking with it. Map it on a calendar, track your progress and ask a friend or family member to keep you accountable. Any time you successfully pay off a debt, give yourself a small reward to stay motivated.
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