Monday, August 22, 2011

Are You Asking: Now What?

I've been away a couple of weeks on hiatus but is seems there is nowhere in the world you can escape the marketplace concern. We have turned into a nation of economy-watchers. It's as if the voyeuristic nature of simply gazing helplessly, frozen in place or prompted by muscle memory, should force us to make investment, retirement and personal finance decisions right now even though we might just regret them at some point in the future. So I offer you a four part series on what we should do in the coming weeks as we anticipate that the previous weeks will give us more of the same.

So we begin with Now What Retirement

Believe it or not, some people, the true Boomers are actually on track for retirement. Right on the cusp of making the decision is quite possibly the wrong time to make most difficult one you will ever make. You may have second guessed your investment strategies over the last several years but had you been closer to what we consider traditional retirement age, those choices became fewer. And harder.

In fact, had these Boomers been preparing as they should have, sitting on their well-diversified portfolios and riding out the downturn in 2008 until the present, they may have actually found inaction more fruitful than shifting gears - gears that should have been set for low in the first place. And now, as the market roils for what looks to be another rise, dip and with any luck, rise again in the coming months, the nearest retirees need to make choices that are just as prudent as they are. For those of you who are not ready but at that age, the sooner you answer the following questions, the closer you too will get to the point.

What to do with your 401(k)? For this person, the choices are relatively narrow with consequences on each decision possibly impacting their income decades down the road. To leave your money in your old employer's 401(k) might be a good idea if your old employer has a good plan. They may have low cost fund options and on the other hand, have higher than needed administrative costs. If your plan had the foresight to include an annuity and you are a woman, this quasi investment (part mutual fund/part insurance plan) will give you a relatively clear look at your future income based on a unisex life expectancy. (Annuities bought outside your 401(k), will cost a woman more because of the expected longer-life span for women as compared to the same age man.)

And if I have to rollover? In most cases, you will be jettisoned form the plan which means you now have to make the choice. If you are a man, the decisions you make should always include "what if I die first" as the ultimate determination of how you take money from your retirement plan. For women, the consideration should be less about what your spouse may or may not do but what you should do should he make the wrong choice. You will need to protect your life first, and doing something that goes against your very nature: putting everyone else second.

Once again, you will consider the annuity. But you probably shouldn't commit your entire nest egg to it. You will need access to cash and keep that money invested at the same time has been the hardest job seniors have had in the low interest rate environment we have right now. A 10-year Treasury, based on inflation at its current levels, is actually considered a loss. So you will need to keep some of your money invested, perhaps across low-cost index funds.

Does Debt have an impact? It will be tempting to use this payout to get your retirement debt in order. This is generally not considered a good option unless that debt is so large that it will saddle you for the rest fo your life. On a fixed income, a debt counselor can construct a good plan and get the process moving along quicker and more efficiently. Keep in mind, you may love the house or condo you live in, but if the debt from trying to own it is too high, a debt counselor will tell you what you can't admit to yourself. If you overpaid for your home and do not expect to live long enough to recover your payment and equity, the counselor should be able to help with this as well.

Without debt, your home may be the single greatest retirement safety net you have. But don't use it until you are actually about to fall. Tapping the equity in advance of when you might have an emergency need is foolhardy in most instances. Wait as long as possible. Involve your children and your attorney (who has your will) and if you have one, a financial planner. You'll need experts.

Should I take Social Security? As to Social Security, take it when you need it. Experts are telling us to wait as long as possible. And it is sage advice. But if it is possible to take it, save it and return it at full retirement without having spent it, you can upgrade your monthly payment to the full payment due at full retirement. But you have to save it. And even if you don't, you now have the emergency medical account you might need is the interim. But if you can do it, don't calculate this income until the last possible minute. Ladder your retirement income so as to get an economic boost every several years with Social Security withdrawal being the last step.

And don't become frustrated with the argument that you could have done more. We all could have. But regret doesn't solve the issue at hand: dealing with what you have is the most important job right now.

So take your eyes of the news. Long-term issues are rarely reported on any channel. They just aren't sexy. If this reality is difficult to imagine, live the sixth months before you retire on half of your current income. Can't seem to do it? Then you need to rethink how much you will need, in part because for most retirees, even if they are beginning retired life with 75% of their current income, inflation, taxes and health care considerations will soon bring it to fifty percent. So calculate from there.

Next up: now what investments

Paul Petillo is the Managing Editor of

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