Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Baseline Decisions about Retirement: Calling it Quits

There is no accurate predictive tool to tell you what the next year, five, or ten will be like. You can’t even make an educated guess. You can make a few assumptions. But the real truth is you will be making those based on biases, illusions, and dreams that may or may not come true. So who do you cross the threshold of retirement with any degree of confidence? Perhaps a little real time preparation would be nice.
Most of the people (Boomers) thinking about retirement know one or two things: first and not the least, they no longer want to work. This sort of commitment will come from a sector of the working population who has felt the largets physical toll on their bodies. That doesn’t mean that they have labored so hard – although many do – it suggests physical exhaustion with getting up, going to workplace that no longer holds any interest other than a paycheck, and may be causing you more mental grief, which often translates into physical problems, than would otherwise be worth it.
The second is that you think you can afford it. In either of these two instances, the desire may outweigh the resources. But you are willing to give it a try. Here are a couple of things you should consider before you make the leap.
Refinance. If you are still paying on your mortgage, while you are working is the best time to get a new deal. If the statistics hold true, you probably do not own your house. Unlike your parents, who entered retirement in full ownership of the home they lived in, you will be entering into this time-of-no-work with a mortgage hanging over your head. Get the lowest possible interest rate possible and if you can draw some of the equity, make some improvements that will make the home more liveable and in need of less maintenance.
Now you have a baseline for your shelter needs. Your car may or may not be something you will need but I’m willing to bet, you’ll want one. While the lure of a sports car or something similarly racy is appealing as you approach second youth, keep in mind that you will need to get in and out of it and so will your friends.
You still have to eat, do stuff and be entertained. If you haven’t begun tracking your budgetary needs by now, start. Now cut them by about a third. Even if you believe that you have saved enough and have enough to live on, you won’t spend as much in the fifth year of retirement as you will in the first. And ten years into it, the number will go down further. So calculating a third of what you use now will not only take into consideration your diminishing activities, but the cost of inflation, taxes and insurance (which includes health).
Understand this: You need a will to keep things out of probate. But you do not want to think of your assets as inheritable. What some planners call capital preservation is fine while you are closing in on retirement – in other words, while you are still working – but preserving capital once retired can be a foolish and costly mistake. Preserving capital for your heirs is not and should not be part of your plan. There a two things you should know. As you age, you will spend less money on leisure and more on your health. The second thing you should know: keep your risk low but if your income needs a boost, tap your capital in reserves. Each $50,000 saved will net about $500 a month (at a reasonable 5% return) for eight to nine years. That can be a real boost to your lifestyle and help with any health insurance gaps.
Understand this, part two: If you are married, one of you will die first, Regrettable but true, one spouse will survive the other and in many instances, it will be the woman. Good financial prudence and smart decisions at retirement will make this transition much easier. When calculating pension benefits or annuity decisions, do so based on the fact that your spouse will need money after you die. You may have to live on less. BUt the peace of mind will be the legacy you leave to your partner. Don’t worry about the kids. Just your spouse and his/her welfare after-the-fact.
So the bottom line is: get your home finances in order (refinance, repair, and re-evaluate), understand the constraints of fixed incomes (cars, entertainment, health concerns), be sure you have a will and make sure your kids know your finances, have met your lawyer or financial planner and are authorized to speak with them, and lastly, do what you can to stay healthy – both before you retire and after the fact. Nothing will get cheaper. But then, it never has in your lifetime. If you have to work longer, keep in mind that $50,000/5%/$500 rule, understanding that five years more work at $6,000 a year in contributions to an IRA (more to a 401(k)) will get you very close to having that amount eight years into your retirement.
All of this of course is based on the assumption that you have done your best, used your plans at work and have lived life smartly. If not, there is little time to waste.
Paul Petillo is the managing editor of and and is a fellow Boomer

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