From dealing with unexpected medical costs to supporting adult children, Americans often find themselves facing expenses they weren't anticipating in their golden years. Plus, it's harder to save for retirement today than it was 50 years ago.
Over 30% of Americans plan to continue working after they retire, according to a 2019 survey by TD Ameritrade. If you're not sure how long you'll need to work or what to expect when you retire, find out the hard truths so you can figure out when you should retire.
Last updated: Feb. 10, 2021
What happens in the market during the 10 years before and after your retirement date can play a significant role in how well-funded your portfolio is.
"It's difficult to replace lost money during this period of time, either because of time constraints or the loss of earned income," said Patrick Daniels, a financial planner at Precedent Asset Management in Indianapolis.
To protect your retirement savings during what Daniels refers to as the high-risk window, he suggested that individuals "take a conservative approach with their investments."
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Steer clear of high-potential investments like stocks, and you could end up making a mistake in retirement and outspending your lifestyle, said Joseph Carbone, a certified financial planner and founder of Focus Planning Group in Bayport, New York.
"Retirees should be looking to invest in total return-type strategies that focus on stock appreciation -- more specifically dividend-producing stocks -- and good-quality bonds that don't have long maturities," Carbone said. "Many of my clients who are in or approaching retirement have a 60% stock and 40% bond allocation, with an emphasis on dividend-producing stocks and bonds that have a duration of less than six years."
About 64% of Americans have less than $10,000 saved for retirement, according to a recent GOBankingRates survey. Even if you plan to spend your golden years living modestly, that dollar amount won't come close to cutting it. Matt Ritt, a certified financial planner and investment advisor with Questis, suggested that investors "start saving as early as you can."
He advised investors to take advantage of 401(k), 403b and IRA accounts and maximize contributions whenever possible. To find the funds, "limit your expenses and stick to a reasonable spending plan," Ritt said.
More than half of millennials have $0 saved in the bank for retirement, according to the GOBankingRates survey.
That's a shame, too, because the younger you are, the greater your potential to grow your nest egg through the power of compound interest. Start saving just $200 per month at age 25, and you could have $621,735 accrued by age 65, assuming an 8% rate of return.
Sadly, baby boomers -- the group closest to retirement age -- aren't doing much better.
According to the GOBankingRates retirement survey, 30.7% of people over age 55 have retirement savings below $50,000, which is considered insufficient for those approaching their golden years. Late savers might have to play catch-up with their retirement contributions -- or even delay retirement for a few years.
The average life expectancy in the U.S. today is 78.6 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the ugly truth about retirement is that the longer we live, the more we have to shell out to fund our extended golden years.
"With Americans living longer than ever, it's no surprise that their biggest concern is outliving their income," said Jim Poolman, executive director of the Indexed Annuity Leadership Council. "But the good news is, there are solutions for outliving income, such as looking into products that offer guaranteed lifetime income -- such as fixed indexed annuities."
Start taking Social Security payments before your full retirement age and you'll permanently decrease your monthly payment. Wait until age 70 and you'll get more money with each check.
Still, that doesn't mean one strategy is always best, particularly when you factor in spousal and survivor benefits. Fortunately, there are several Social Security optimizers that can help you figure out the best time to start taking Social Security benefits, such as the Quicken Social Security Optimizer.
The younger you are, the more you can benefit from Roth accounts because they're funded with after-tax dollars, which accumulate investment earnings tax-free for the life of the investment, Ritt said. That makes them a great option if you expect to have a higher tax rate in retirement than you do now. By tapping your Roth account before your taxable account, you decrease the amount of distributed funds you'll pay tax on for that year.
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"Those nearing retirement and those that have just begun retirement face the challenge of planning cash flows for their new lifestyle," said Scott Smith, a certified financial planner with Olympia Ridge Personal Financial Advisers in Rochester Hills, Michigan.
Before you tap your IRA or brokerage account, Smith suggested creating a five-year cash-flow plan, which should consider the tax repercussions of distributing from your pension, annuity, Social Security, retirement savings and even available part-time income.
"Often, these choices are made without tax efficiency in mind, and the retiree ends up paying more in taxes than they really need to," Smith said.
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Many procedures aren't covered by Medicare, including dental, hearing, vision and long-term care in an assisted-living or nursing facility. Many retirees also face unexpectedly high deductibles and co-pays.
"The best solution is to include unexpected medical costs in your budget as you build your retirement savings," said Joshua Zimmelman, founder of Westwood Tax & Consulting. You can also enroll "in a Medicare supplemental insurance plan, which will help pay for co-payments, deductibles, co-insurance, prescription drugs and medical care while traveling overseas," he said.
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The average couple retiring in 2019 at 65 will spend $285,000 on medical costs in retirement, according to a report by Fidelity. And not all those expenses will be covered by Medicare.
"A health savings account, or HSA, can be a huge help when it comes to preparing for those healthcare costs in retirement," said Jody Dietel, senior vice president, advocacy and government affairs at HealthEquity. When paired with a high-deductible healthcare plan, HSA contributions are made tax-free, the balance accrues tax-free and withdrawals are made tax-free, Dietel said.
"The account can build a healthy nest egg that can save you from having to pull from your 401(k) for those unforeseen healthcare costs," Dietel said.
Around 70% of people over age 65 will need long-term care at some point in their lives, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "The cost will vary by state, but three years can easily set you back $300,000," said Mark Struthers, a certified financial planner at Sona Financial in Chanhassen, Minnesota.
To protect against this likely expense, Struthers suggested that retirees purchase long-term care insurance, which was created to cover long-term costs -- like skilled nursing, assisted living and hospice care.
Regular physical exercise and activity can help you manage and prevent chronic disease, which is expensive to treat, according to the CDC. Sample exercises and diet information for retirees and people getting closer to retirement can be found at the National Institute on Aging.
Thanks in large part to strategic moves by the Federal Reserve, the U.S. has seen very little inflation for the past 25 years. Still, as anyone who's lived through a sky-high inflationary environment can attest, 10%-per-year inflation can happen.
Inflation "can be devastating for retirees," Struthers said. "If we are in retirement for 30 to 40 years, and we have a fixed income stream, its purchasing power can easily be cut by 60 to 70%."
To combat inflation's effects, Struthers suggested investing in inflation-sensitive assets like Treasury inflation-protected securities (TIPs), I-Bonds and real estate.
You should have a solid understanding of how much money you're spending -- but if you don't, you're not alone.
"Over half of the people I talk to who are gearing up for retirement don't have a good understanding of how much they spend and where it goes," said Daniel P. Johnson, a certified financial planner and founder at Forward Thinking Wealth Management in Akron, Ohio.
Retirees need to know this information because they'll use their investments to fill the gap between what's going out and what's coming in through their pensions and Social Security plans.
"There is a huge difference if you are anticipating to need an additional $20,000 annually from your investments to fill the gap versus actually needing $50,000," Johnson said.
Many parents find themselves stuck between wanting to help their children pay for college and wanting to save for retirement, said Sally Brandon, senior vice president, client service and advice at Rebalance IRA. However, "putting a lot of money into a college fund isn't going to help if your retirement savings suffer as a result," she said.
Instead, Brandon suggested setting a budget for what you can afford to pay toward college.
"Tell your child what portion you can afford to pay," she said. "If you have extra money after putting away what you need for retirement, so much the better."
Not all employers offer a 401(k) or similar plan. "While a 401(k) is a great retirement tool when available, there are other options available to you," Brandon said. For people without an employer-sponsored plan, she recommended setting up an automated payment plan to fund a Roth IRA.
"A Roth IRA helps you save both for emergencies and retirement. Money you put in as a contribution can be taken out tax-free later," Brandon said. "The account can also act as (an) estate planning tool and is generally more tax-efficient than a traditional IRA."
A survey by American Financing found that 44% of Americans ages 60 to 70 have a mortgage when they retire, according to the Chicago Tribune. "Some retirees even upsize their homes," said Cary Carbonaro, a certified financial planner with Goldman Sachs and author of "The Money Queen's Guide: For Women Who Want to Build Wealth and Banish Fear."
A hefty mortgage payment can seriously crimp cash flow, particularly for people on a fixed income. "Cutting your costs by downsizing is always a good idea," Carbonaro said. "Taxes, utilities and maintenance costs almost always go up."
Then again, paying down your mortgage might not be the best solution if it leaves you without enough of a retirement savings cushion.
"If most of your wealth is tied up in your primary residence going into retirement, it can be tricky to find a good solution that allows you to maintain your desired lifestyle -- especially if you want to stay in the home," said Taylor Schulte, founder and CEO of San Diego-based commission-free financial planning firm Define Financial.
Schulte suggested downsizing and using some of the equity to help fund your retirement. "Many people in this situation have a home that is far too large for their needs anyway," he said.
Depending on where you live, you might consider moving to a place where your retirement money goes further. For many people, especially if they're worried about retirement, it's a move that can cut costs substantially. It's also an opportunity to relocate to a more attractive climate or move closer to grandkids and like-minded transplants.
Some older Americans recognize the physical and mental health benefits that come with keeping an active mind. Others simply can't afford to retire. Whether you work past age 67 by necessity or choice, one thing is for sure: The added income can help boost your retirement nest egg.
Cutting off the kids might be a necessary step if you're looking to retire. In fact, 79% of parents are continuing to support their adult children financially, according to a report from Merrill Lynch and Age Wave.
For many Americans, middle age is also the prime income-earning age and ideally when savers should have the most disposable income available to bolster retirement accounts. Financially funding a loved one during those years can have a serious impact on your retirement savings.
Benjamin Brandt, a certified financial planner and president at Capital City Wealth Management in Bismarck, North Dakota, suggested folding a plan B option into a retirement plan. If you suspect your child might boomerang home, for example, "being proactive rather than reactive will always lead to better retirement outcomes," he said.
Most adult children are unwilling to withhold support from a parent, so Brandt suggested that workers plan ahead if they anticipate this expense.
"If a client thinks it is likely they will care for a parent, they could build a contingency plan," he said. They could switch to part-time work earlier than expected, Brandt said, or perhaps even work longer if excess funds are needed more than excess time as a caretaker.
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A 2019 Nationwide Retirement Institute survey found that 38% of older adults have or have had their adult children live with them, and 16% have or had their parents live with them. Some older adults may end up having to provide financial assistance and care to both generations at the same time.
"This phenomenon is so common that it has a name: the Sandwich Generation," Brandt said.
By supporting loved ones, many people are sacrificing their own ability to save for retirement. The Nationwide Retirement Institute survey found that 21% of older adults are somewhat or very concerned about financially supporting their adult children and/or parents.
No one wants to think about their own mortality, but according to information available from the National Institute on Aging, it's best to discuss end-of-life care preferences long before illness strikes.
Individuals should consider when they want to use life-prolonging measures, where they want to receive care and what they want to happen if they're physically unable to care for themselves. An ugly truth about retirement is that these are the years when those decisions need to be made, and it's best to talk to your loved ones -- and your doctors -- about your wishes.
Even for people with a modest inheritance to pass down, it's often difficult to initiate the money conversation, especially when you're not sure how your future heirs will react to the news of an impending windfall. Some children feel guilt at the thought of an unearned financial boon and squander the funds. Others can misinterpret your intentions. "Did Dad love my sister more than me?" can be an oft-uttered phrase among children of the deceased.
To avoid misinterpretation, have a sit-down conversation with your future heirs so they understand the rationale behind your decisions and can start preparing emotionally.
Many people are not comfortable discussing death, said funeral director Veronica Reyes. Still, avoiding the topic can lead to bigger problems, particularly if you wait until your health is ailing.
"Solidifying your burial or cremation arrangement plans now, with a cool and clear head, allows you to lock in a fixed price," Reyes said. "Your loved ones will not have to worry about being burdened with confusing decisions and unexpected funeral costs."
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