MONEY retirement planning

Get These 4 Big Things Right to Retire in Comfort

Senior woman relaxing in hammock
OJO Images—Getty Images

By focusing on a few essentials, you can keep your retirement strategy on track—and reduce stress too.

Take a look at financial websites or switch on a cable TV program and you get the impression that smart retirement planning requires you to stay constantly attuned to every wiggle in the economy and the stock market—and act on it: dump one investment, buy another, re-jigger your entire portfolio…do something, anything, to react to the latest buzz. This, of course, is nonsense.

In a constantly shifting global economy, there are far too many things going on for any person—any organization for that matter—to keep tabs on, evaluate and integrate into a master retirement plan. And then do it over and over again as conditions inevitably shift. It’s just not realistic.

Even if you could stay on top of the overwhelming amount of financial information, it’s still not always clear how best to react to news. For example, a good GDP report can be a plus for stocks if investors take it as a sign that a recovery is gaining traction—or bad if it stirs fears that interest rates will rise causing stock prices to soften.

So given the complexity of today’s financial world, what can you do to better assure you’ll have a secure and comfortable retirement? My advice: Focus on getting these four Big Things right.

1. Set a target—but make sure it’s the correct one. Generally, you’ll do better at any activity—career, health, sports—if you have a goal. Retirement is no exception. The Employee Benefit Research Institute’s latest Retirement Confidence Survey notes that people who’ve tried to calculate their retirement savings needs are more likely to feel very confident about affording a comfortable retirement than those who don’t.

Over the years, however, the target of choice seems to have become Your Number—or the specific amount of money you’ll need to fund a comfortable retirement. But Your Number isn’t a very good benchmark. It gives a false sense of precision, and can often be so big and daunting that it discourages people from saving at all. (What’s the point if I have zero saved and need $1,378,050?)

A better barometer: Keep track of the percentage of your pre-retirement income you’re on pace to replace both from Social Security and draws from your retirement savings. Granted, this figure isn’t exact either. Experts generally say that to maintain your standard of living you should try to replace anywhere from 70% to 90% of your income just prior to retirement. But it’s a number you can more easily get your head around, and more easily translate to an actual lifestyle. Many 401(k) plans include tools that allow you to see how you’re doing on this metric. If yours doesn’t, try the Retirement Income Calculator in RDR’s Retirement Toolbox.

2. Save at a reasonable rate. If you’re still in career mode, setting aside a sufficient amount each year in a 401(k) or other retirement accounts is the single most important thing you can do to improve your retirement prospects. What’s sufficient? I’d say 15% of salary is a good target. But if you can’t manage that, try starting at 10% and working your way up. Employer matching funds count toward that savings figure, so be sure to take full advantage of any employer largesse.

Once you reach retirement, tending your nest egg and managing the amount you spend is key. You don’t want to spend so much that you delete your savings early on; nor do you want to be so miserly that you leave this mortal coil with a big pile of cash behind you.

3. Invest like a smart layman, not a dumb pro. I’m being a bit facetious here to make a point. Professional investors and money managers are not dumb. But many of them do things that I consider dumb, like jumping from one market sector to another in a vain attempt to outguess the market or trading so often that they rack up transaction costs that depress returns.

The smart layman, on the other hand, knows that the two best ways to invest retirement savings are to set an overall mix of stocks and bonds that best reflects your appetite for risk, and then stick to low-cost investments that allow you to pocket more of the returns your savings earn. For guidance on creating a stocks-bonds blend that will generate the returns you’ll need without subjecting you to more downside risk than you can handle, you can check out this Investor Questionnaire.

4. Monitor how you’re doing, but don’t obsess about it. Retirement planning is a long-term proposition. So while you definitely want to be sure you’re making progress toward accumulating the savings you’ll need—or, if you’ve already retired, that you’ll be able to maintain your standard of living—don’t over do it. Re-assessing your progress once or twice a year by going to a retirement income calculator like the one highlighted in RDR’s Retirement Toolbox is probably sufficient.

Constant check-ups may make you more likely to tinker with (or, worse yet, dramatically overhaul) your investments or your plans. This urge to make changes is especially strong during periods of upheaval in the economy and the markets. And changes made on the fly or precipitated by an emotional reaction to duress often do more harm than good.

That said, there can be times when adjustments are called for. But when they are, you’ll typically do better by making small changes and then later re-assessing whether you need to do more rather than going with a dramatic move that could knock you even farther off course.

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MONEY Social Security

How to Claim Social Security Without Shortchanging Your Spouse

Deciding when to take Social Security can have a big impact on your family's income. Here's what you need to know.

When it comes to claiming Social Security, millions of people make this huge mistake: overlooking the impact on their family’s income.

Many people don’t realize that Social Security pays a host of benefits beyond your individual retirement income. The program may also pay so-called auxiliary benefits to your spouse, your children and even your parents. A separate program may provide auxiliary benefits if you become disabled, and, in some cases, if you are divorced or if you have passed away. The amount of these benefits is tied to your earnings record—the wages you’ve earned over a lifetime during which you’ve forked over Social Security payroll taxes—and your decision on when to file your claim.

To make the best choices about when to claim Social Security, anyone who is, or was, married, and especially those with children, needs to consider not only their own retirement benefits but also benefits that might be available to family members. This is especially true of survivor benefits.

Let me give you an example. (I wish it was simple but very little about Social Security is simple.) Say you’re 62 and your wife is 58. You’ve heard that delaying Social Security will raise your income but you want the benefits now, so you begin looking into the process of claiming them.

If you file for benefits at 62 (the earliest claiming age unless you’re disabled or a surviving spouse), they will be reduced by 25% from what you could get at full retirement age, which is 66 for people now approaching retirement. What’s more, that payout would be a whopping 76% less than if you waited until age 70 to file. To use convenient numbers, if your benefit at 66 would be $1,000 a month, you would get only $750 a month if you filed at age 62 but $1,320 a month if you waited until age 70.

Perhaps you’re okay with receiving lower income, if you start getting it sooner. But how about your family members? These reductions would also apply to their auxiliary benefits.

The most dramatic impact of early claiming decisions affects widows. Husbands are overwhelmingly likely to begin taking their retirement benefits before their full retirement age, according to Social Security data. Yet husbands are likely to die several years before their wives, statistics show, which leaves many widows struggling on small incomes.

Granted, many women have salary records of their own, and as their wages have increased over the past 30 years, so have Social Security benefits. But many women now reaching retirement age have not accumulated Social Security benefits equal to that earned by their husbands.

That inequality is a real problem for widows. While they both are alive, each spouse can collect his or her own Social Security benefit. But after one dies, the surviving spouse can only collect the greater of the two benefits. This is likely to be the husband’s benefit, even if it’s been reduced because he filed for it early.

As a result, millions of widows in this country are receiving reduced survivor benefits based on their late husband’s earnings record. Had he waited to file, their survivor benefits would have been higher—much higher in many cases.

The trend is so pronounced that the agency devised a special way of calculating benefits to try and ease its impact. It’s called the Retirement Insurance Benefit Limit, or RIB-LIM in the agency’s acronym-crazy jargon. It’s also known as the Widow(er)’s Limit.

When you make the decision when to claim Social Security, make sure it’s in the best interest of everyone in the family. To really understand this decision, you’ll need to know about Social Security’s family maximum benefits. Tune in next week to learn how they work.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is an award-winning business journalist and a research fellow at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

MONEY retirement planning

The One Retirement Question You Must Get Right

Man slamming his head into chalkboard of theorems in frustration
Getty Images

Figuring out how big a nest egg you need is a huge financial planning challenge. Here are some helpful tips from an expert who retired at 50.

How much money do you need to retire? This is one of the most difficult questions in all of financial planning. Countless words are written, endless fees are charged, and plenty of sleep is lost, just trying to answer it!

But I’ll tell you a secret—a truth that none in financial services and few in the financial media will admit. We don’t know how much you need to retire! Beyond some broad ranges that have worked in the past, it’s practically impossible to calculate the precise amount of money needed to carry you through a retirement lasting decades or more into the future.

Why? Because, in addition to predicting a host of smaller factors, computing how much you need to retire requires pinning down two huge and essentially unknowable variables: the length of your life, and the real return on your investments. (That’s the actual return, after inflation.)

If you misjudge your life expectancy by even a few years, you could potentially die broke, or with tens of thousands of unspent dollars on the table. If you misgauge your real rate of return by just 1% (and the pros miss it by more than that, all the time), the error in a half-million dollar portfolio over a 30-year retirement will be about $175,000—one-third of the starting value, and a lot of money to go missing!

So there can be no precise answer to this question. And, yet, you must answer it, in some fashion, if you don’t want to go on working forever. So where do you begin?

As I’ve written before, knowing your expenses is an essential first step to retirement planning. You simply must know what it costs you to live each month, in order to get any sense for what you must save to retire.

From that monthly expense number you can subtract any guaranteed, inflation-adjusted income that you are certain to receive in retirement: Social Security for many of us, pensions for a fortunate few, and annuities for those who buy them.

Your remaining expenses must be funded from your investment portfolio. The traditional approach has been the 4% Rule, which states that you can withdraw 4% of your portfolio in the first year, then adjust that withdrawal amount for inflation each year, without fear of running out over the course of a 30-year retirement. However, some experts say this rule is too optimistic for the current difficult economic times, with low interest rates and high market valuations. On the other hand, if you retire in better economic times, or if you choose to annuitize your assets, the rule might be too conservative. (You can find online tools that will let you see the impact of using different economic assumptions—I mention three of the best retirement calculators in this article.)

Boiling down all the research papers, case studies, and opinions that I have read on this topic—and I read about it nearly every day—I can tell you this: The safe withdrawal rates from your retirement savings probably range from about 5% on the optimistic side to about 3% on the conservative side.

That means, for example, if your living expenses not covered by guaranteed inflation-adjusted income were $3,000 a month in retirement, then you would need between $720,000 in savings on the optimistic side, to $1.2 million on the conservative side, to provide for your lifestyle over a several-decade retirement.

Thus if your savings were in that range you could consider retiring. But there is more to it than that, especially for an early retiree. You would also need to factor in the risk that you would run low, and your ability to do something about it. That risk would be a function of the economic environment you retire into, and the longevity factors in your family. The ability to do something about it would be a function of your age and health at retirement, your professional skills, and your lifestyle flexibility.

In the end, there is no simple answer to the question “Do I have enough to retire?” But, there is a range of possibilities, based on historical data and your own risks and capabilities. And, even after you’ve made the retirement decision, you still need to assess and drive your retirement, especially in the early years. So, once you’ve started on the retirement journey, don’t fall asleep at the wheel!

Darrow Kirkpatrick is a software engineer and author who lived frugally, invested successfully, and retired in 2011 at age 50. He writes regularly about saving, investing and retiring on his blog CanIRetireYet.com. This column appears monthly.

MONEY Social Security

Here’s How to Avoid Making a Huge Social Security Mistake

Spousal benefits are a crucial Social Security option for millions of couples. But getting extra, and in some cases “free,” spousal benefits is not possible for couples that run afoul of the agency’s tricky “deeming” rules.

Spousal benefits are a crucial Social Security option for millions of couples. But getting extra, and in some cases “free,” spousal benefits is not possible for couples that run afoul of the agency’s tricky “deeming” rules.

To understand deeming, it helps first to understand the best-case scenario for spousal benefits. Take a couple where the wife is about to turn 66 and her husband is about to turn 70. For her, age 66 is considered “full retirement age”, when, among other things, she can claim benefits without any early retirement reductions. For him, age 70 is when he can claim the greatest possible benefit, assuming he has so far deferred filing.

In this example, if the husband files for his own retirement benefit at 70, his filing permits his wife to file only for her spousal benefit, which is equal to half of the benefit he was entitled to at his full retirement age — not, that is, half of the larger amount he can claim at age 70.

But if the wife files what’s called a restricted application for spousal benefits at 66, she can receive these benefits while deferring her own retirement benefit for up to four years until she turns 70. During this time she earns delayed retirement credits so she, too, can claim her highest-possible benefit at that time. During this period, she can receive what essentially are free spousal benefits – free in the sense that collecting them has no adverse effect on her own retirement benefits.

This claiming strategy has been so well-publicized that the Obama Administration has proposed ending it — reportedly because the maneuver is used predominantly by wealthier workers, who are most likely to be able to afford deferring their benefits to age 70. But let’s debate the fairness of this proposal another day.

The problem is that this maneuver doesn’t work at all when people file before reaching full retirement age. Say that our couple is instead aged 62 and 65. And remember that 62 is generally the earliest that people who are married can file for spousal benefits. So our couple figures that the 62-year-old wife will file for spousal benefits on the earnings record of her 65-year-old husband, while she defers her own retirement benefits. This may be a logical assumption based on the ideal claiming scenario of our first couple. But it won’t be allowed by Social Security.

Here’s where “deeming” comes in. Remember that for the wife to file for spousal benefits, her husband first has to file for his retirement benefits. And because she is younger than full retirement age, Social Security’s rules will “deem” her to be also filing for her own retirement benefit when she files for her spousal benefit. There is no way around this if she is younger than 66. And the benefit she will actually receive won’t be both of these benefits but in effect only the larger of either her retirement benefit or her spousal benefit. Further, because she’s filing before reaching full retirement age, both benefits will be subject to early claiming reductions.

And remember her hubby, who filed for his own retirement at 65 to enable her to file for spousal benefits? He will get a reduced early retirement benefit, not the benefit he could get by waiting until full retirement age, let alone the benefit he would get if he deferred retirement until age 70.

Unfortunately, very few people even know deeming exists, so many of them unknowingly file for both spousal and retirement benefits at the same time without realizing it.

In 2012, 6.8 million persons – nearly all of them women – were simultaneously receiving two benefits at the same time, according to Social Security records. But the agency says it has no idea how many of these people were affected by deeming and how many of them were aware their filing action had automatically triggered a claim for a second benefit at the same time.

The bottom line here: You can qualify for two Social Security benefits at the same time but you can only collect an amount that is equal to the greater of the two benefits. In practical terms, the second benefit is lost to you because of deeming. If you can defer one benefit instead, it might be possible to have the best of both benefits.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is an award-winning business journalist and a research fellow at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

MONEY Pensions

Reasons to Hold Off on That Pension Buyout Offer

Lump-sum pension buyouts are a good deal for employers. But workers who take them could lose out if interest rates rise.

If you work for a company with a pension plan, don’t be surprised if you get an offer soon for a lump sum buyout—a deal where you accept a pile of cash in exchange for the promise of lifetime income when you retire.

The price tag for these offers is especially attractive right now, from the plan sponsor’s perspective. But workers might do better by holding out for a better deal, or by rejecting the buyout altogether.

A growing number of plan sponsors are trying to get out of the pension business, or lighten their obligations, by buying out workers. The number of buyout offers has accelerated in recent years, in part because of interest rate changes mandated by Congress that reduce their cost to plan sponsors.

Now, revised projections for average American longevity are giving plan sponsors new reasons to accelerate buyout offers. New Internal Revenue Service actuarial tables that take effect in 2016 show average lifespans up by about four years each for men, to an average of 86.6 years, and women, to 88.8 years.

The new mortality tables will make lump sum offers 3% to 8% more expensive for sponsors, according to a recent analysis by Wilshire Consulting, which advises pension plan sponsors. Another implicit message here is that lump sum offers should be more valuable to workers who take them after the new mortality tables take effect.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in lump sum offers from plan sponsors,” says Jeff Leonard, managing director at Wilshire Consulting, and one of the experts who prepared the analysis. “But if it was one of my parents, I’m not sure if I’d encourage them to take the offer now or wait.”

The reason for his uncertainty is the future direction of interest rates. If rates were to rise over the next couple years from today’s historic low levels, that would reduce lump sum values enough to offset increases generated by the new mortality tables. Leonard estimates that a rate jump of just 50 basis points would eliminate any gain pensioners might see from the new tables.

Deciding whether to accept a lump sum offer is highly personal. A key factor is how healthy you think you are in relation to the rest of the population. If you think you’ll beat the averages, a lifetime of pension income will always beat the lump sum.

Another consideration is financial. Some people decide to take lump sum deals when they have other guaranteed income streams, such as a spouse’s pension or high Social Security benefits.

The size of the proposed buyout matters, too. If you’ve only worked for your employer a short time and the payout is small, it may be convenient to take the buyout and consolidate it with your other retirement assets.

Some people think they can do better by taking the lump sum and investing the proceeds. It’s possible, but there are always the risks of withdrawing too much, market setbacks or living far beyond the actuarial averages, meaning you would need to stretch that nest egg further.

And doing better on a risk-adjusted basis means you would have to consistently beat the rate used to calculate the lump sum by investing in nearly risk-free investments—certificates of deposit and Treasuries—since the pension income stream you would receive is guaranteed. Although the math here is complicated, it usually doesn’t work out in a pensioner’s favor.

Could you wait for a better deal? Lump sum buyouts are take-it-or-leave it propositions. But Leonard says workers who decline an offer may get additional opportunities over the next few years as plan sponsors keep working to reduce their pension obligations. “Candidly, I think we’ll see a continued series of windows of opportunity.”

MONEY retirement planning

How Today’s Workers Can Dodge the Retirement Crisis

For Millennials and Gen X-ers, it all depends on whether we can rein in spending after we stop working.

Trying to figure our whether mid-career folks like myself are adequately preparing for retirement can get a bit confusing. If you look at Boston College’s National Retirement Risk Index (NRRI), as of 2013 as many as 52% of households aged 30-59 are at risk of falling at least 10% short of being able to produce an adequate “replacement rate” of income.

That doesn’t sound too good, does it? But a discussion of the methodology of this survey and others at a recent meeting of the Retirement Research Consortium in Washington D.C., shows that things might not be so dire after all.

It turns out that the NRRI might be setting an unrealistically high bar for retirement income. The index’s replacement rate assumes that a household’s goal is to maintain a spending level in retirement that is equal to their pre-retirement living standard. It also includes investment returns on 401(k)s and IRAs in its calculation of pre-retirement income, even though those earnings are specifically earmarked for post-retirement. By including those investment gains, the NRRI may be targeting a replacement rate that is too high, causing more households to fall short, as Sarah Holden, director of retirement and investment research at the Investment Company Institute, pointed out in the meeting.

It’s already hard for someone in their 30s or 40s to figure out how much they need to be contributing today to replace the income they will have right before they retire. Adding to this guessing game is the debate over whether spending really goes down in retirement. You’ll pay less for work lunches, commuting expenses, and so on, but you might spend more for travel in the early years of retirement and, later on, more for health care costs.

In contrast to the NRRI calculations, many financial planners assume that would-be retirees will automatically cut spending when their children turn 21, and therefore only need to replace about 70% to 80% of their pre-retirement income. But as Frederick Miller of Sensible Financial Planning explained at the consortium’s meeting, that’s simply not the case anymore. He sees many clients continuing to support their adult children, helping them to pay for health insurance, rent, graduate school or a down payment on a home. While generous, this support obviously detracts from retirement savings.

So which assumption is correct? Should we be saving with the expectation of spending less in retirement or not? In reality, we should certainly prepare for eventually reducing consumption since, in the long run, we may have no choice about doing so. When spending does decline after retirement, it is almost twice as likely due to inadequate financial resources rather than voluntary belt-tightening, as Anthony Webb of Boston College discovered in a small survey of households.

The question of how much is enough will vary greatly by household. But it’s clear that my generation, and those that follow, face stiff headwinds—longer life expectancy, a likely reduction in Social Security benefits, and low interest rates, which greatly reduce the ability to generate income. Cutting back on spending during retirement, as well as during our working years, may be the single greatest contributor to our financial security that we can control.

Konigsberg is the author of The Truth About Grief, a contributor to the anthology Money Changes Everything, and a director at Arden Asset Management. The views expressed are solely her own.

MONEY Investing

Do You Really Need Stocks When Investing For Retirement?

Senior man on rollercoaster
Joe McBride—Getty Images

You may want to skip the thrills and chills of equities. But if you stick with bonds, be ready to do serious saving to reach your goals.

Even when stocks are doing well—and they’ve been on an incredible run the past five years with 17% annualized gains—there’s always a looming threat that the bottom could fall out of the market as it did when stock values plummeted more than 50% from the market’s high in 2007 to its trough in 2009. So it’s understandable, especially now when doubts abound about the longevity of this bull market, that you might ask yourself: Should I just skip stocks altogether when investing for retirement?

But if you’re inclined to give stocks a pass—or even just considering that option—you should be aware of the drawbacks of that choice. And, yes, there are substantial drawbacks.

Despite their gut-wrenching volatility—or, more accurately, because of it—stocks tend to generate higher returns than other financial assets like bonds, CDs and Treasury bills by a wide margin over the long term. That superior performance isn’t guaranteed, but it’s been pretty persistent over the last 100 years or longer.

Those higher long-term gains give you a practical advantage when it comes to saving for retirement. For a given amount of savings, you are likely to end up with a much larger nest egg by investing in stocks than had you shunned them. Another way to look at it is that by investing in stocks you can build a large nest egg without having to devote as much of your current income to savings.

Just how much of an advantage can stocks bestow? Here’s an example based on some scenarios I ran using T. Rowe Price’s Retirement Income Calculator, which you can find in Real Deal Retirement’s Retirement Toolbox.

Let’s assume you’re 30, earn $40,000 a year and are just beginning to save for retirement. The calculator assumes you’ll want to retire on 75% of your salary, so the target retirement income you’re shooting for is $30,000 (This is in today’s dollars; the calculator takes into account that your income will be much higher 35 years from now.)

First, let’s see how much you would have to save if you invest in, say, a mix of 70% stocks and 30% bonds, certainly nothing too racy for a 30-year-old with 35 years until retirement. To have at least a 70% chance of retiring on 75% of your pre-retirement salary at age 65 from a combination of Social Security payments and draws from your nest egg, you would have to set aside roughly 15% of your salary each year. (Or, if you have an employer generous enough to match, say, 6% of your salary, you’d have to kick in only 9% to reach 15%.)

You could improve that 70% probability by saving more or homing in on low-cost investment options, but let’s stick with the scenario above as a baseline for comparison.

So how would you fare if you decide to skip stocks altogether and invest solely in bonds? Well, if you stick with a 15% savings rate, your chances of being able to generate 75% of your pre-retirement income would drop to less than 20%. Not very comforting. You can boost the odds in your favor by saving more. But to get your chances of generating 75% of pre-retirement income back up to the 70% level, you would have to save almost 25% of your income each year. That’s a standard most people would have trouble meeting.

And the percentage of salary you would have to save would be even higher if you decide to hunker down in cash equivalents like money funds and CDs: just under 30%, or almost a third of your income.

Even if you had the iron will and perseverance to meet such lofty savings targets, diverting so much income from current spending to saving could seriously diminish the standard of living you and your family could enjoy during your career.

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting anyone should just load up on stocks willy-nilly. That would be foolish, especially as you near or enter retirement, when a stock-market meltdown could derail your retirement plans. Indeed, in another column, I specifically warn against relying too much on outsize returns (whether from stocks or any other investment) to build a nest egg. Smart investing can’t replace diligent saving.

The point, though, is that stocks should be part of your investing strategy prior to and even during retirement. The percentage of your savings that you devote to equities can vary depending on such factors as your age, how upset get when the market goes into a steep funk and how much you’re willing to entertain the possibility of not having enough money to retire comfortably or running short of dough during retirement. Some of the links in my Retirement Toolbox section can help you settle on a stocks-bonds mix that makes sense for you.

But if after considering the pros and cons, you decide stocks just aren’t for you, fine. You’d just better be prepared to save your you-know-what off during your career, and keep especially close tabs on withdrawals from your nest egg after you retire.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. He previously wrote the Ask the Expert column for MONEY and CNNMoney. You can reach him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

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MONEY retirement planning

9 Steps to a Successful Retirement Plan

These time-tested moves can help you achieve a retirement that meets your financial goals and is emotionally satisfying too.

Your retirement will benefit from an informed understanding of key numbers, as I explained last week. How big is your nest egg? How much money will you need to live on? How much should you draw from your funds each year? How long do you expect to live?

Whether your retirement is successful, however, will depend not so much on these numbers but on whether your later years fulfill your emotional needs.

Money is important to happiness, of course. But there are other requirements here, including feeling secure about your future, not being exposed to investment risks you consider excessive, satisfying your concerns and goals for the legacy you wish to leave behind, and, when all is said and done, feeling you’ve run the best race of your life.

These are emotional and aspirational goals and you can’t put numbers to them. Yet, everyone has them, so it’s important to factor them into your retirement savings, investing and spending plans.

I’ve written gobs of stories about “can’t miss” and “best practices” retirement plans, speaking with retirement experts across the spectrum. From them, I’ve fashioned an approach to retirement that I like so well that I’ve adopted it for my own retirement plan. Here it is.

My advice to you, as with pretty much all financial advice, is to use this approach as a starting place. Adopt it, modify, or toss it out. But by all means, think about it and use it to help you make your own retirement plans.

My plan is shaped by my risk tolerances (low) and desire for financial security (high). It creates a 100% likelihood that I will not outlive my money. It is also a strategy that includes the needs of myself and my wife. We are willing to leave some money on the table in the interest of security. And we also are willing to defer some retirement income and thus “lose” money should we die earlier than we hope.

Step One: Add up sources of guaranteed retirement income—Social Security and pensions. In terms of longevity risk, the odds favor at least one member of a 65-year old couple living into their 90s. Therefore, give serious thought to deferring Social Security until age 70, when it has reached its maximum value.

Beyond being guaranteed, Social Security payments also increase each year to reflect the prior year’s inflation. They are, quite simply, the very best retirement dollars around. And I don’t buy all the gloom-and-doom stories about the program’s demise. Social Security will be here for a long, long time.

Step Two: Unless you know a shorter life is in the cards, opt for joint survivorship payments on any pension proceeds. They will be smaller than payments that would stop upon you or your spouse’s death. But both pensions will continue so long as either of you live. The goal here is to maximize security, not dollars.

Step Three: Tote up how much guaranteed money you will receive every month once you stop working. This could be a long time off or, depending on an adverse health or other life event, just around the corner.

Step Four: Build a detailed record of household spending, perhaps divided into major spending buckets—mortgage, utilities, good, cars, insurance, out-of-pocket healthcare, etc. Make note of required versus discretionary spending.

Step Five: Compare your projected guaranteed retirement payments with your current required spending needs. The goal here is for the two numbers to match. If they do, then in a worst-case world, you will always have enough money to keep a roof over your head and maintain a lifestyle that is close to the one you now have.

Step Six: If your fixed income today is projected to be smaller than your current fixed expenses, you will need to downsize. This might involve your home. Getting out from under mortgage and upkeep costs is the largest downsizing opportunity for most people.

Step Seven: If downsizing doesn’t get you there, consider using a portion of your nest egg to get more guaranteed lifetime income by purchasing an immediate annuity that will close the gap. This would reduce your savings, of course, but it scores very, very high on the “Sleep at Night” scale! Consider a longevity annuity as part of your solution.

Step Eight: Having balanced your fixed income and expenses, you can tap your investment portfolio to fund the gratifying things you want to do during your retirement years. If market returns are good, you will be able to do more. And during the inevitable periods of poor market performance, you can reduce discretionary spending without putting your basic standard of living at risk.

Step Nine: Set aside a portion of your savings against the day when one of you dies, so that it can compensate for the loss of one Social Security benefit. If you want to leave a financial legacy, set it aside here as well. If you still own a home after downsizing, use your equity as a piggy bank you hope never to break open. But it will be there for healthcare and other unforeseen emergencies.

That’s my plan. What’s yours?

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is an award-winning business journalist and a research fellow at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

MONEY Ask the Expert

Can Rental Income Save Your Retirement?

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: Is rental income a good way to diversify my retirement portfolio?

A: For some people, yes. “Rental property can provide another stream of income, a hedge against inflation if rental prices rise and an asset that hopefully will appreciate over time,” says Diann McChesney, a certified financial planner at Asset Strategies Inc. in Avon, Conn. But being a landlord isn’t for everyone and not all properties are a good investment, says McChesney.

To get the most out of a rental property, be judicious about where you buy. Like most things in real estate, location is critical. Buy in a place where there is strong demand for housing so you can command a good rent and you don’t have a hard time finding tenants. You may not want the hassle of owning it in your older retirement years, If you plan to sell it down the road, it’s important to own a property that will be attractive to other investors.

A good rental property has many of the same things you look for in a home: A nice neighborhood, well-regarded schools and jobs that attract people to the area. Be careful about buying a fixer-upper. Unless you are handy or have a lot of time to handle repairs, maintenance problems will eat into the income. Today’s low interest rates make taking on a mortgage reasonable but the real key is ensuring that the rental income generates positive cash flow. If you want an income from the property, rent should more than cover your mortgage, property taxes, maintenance and repairs, says McChesney.

Keep in mind that banks require a larger down payment for—20% to 25%—and charge higher rates. It’s also an illiquid asset, so you won’t be able to tap your investment as easily as you can money in, say, an IRA. While you can get a tax break writing off expenses while you hold the property, once you sell it you’ll pay taxes on that depreciation.

The bottom line: A rental property can be a good way to diversify your retirement portfolio and provide another source of income in your later years. But “there’s a lot more to it than collecting rent,” says McChesney.

MONEY Roth 401(k)

The Great Retirement Account You’re Not Using

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RTimages—Getty Images

Roth 401(k)s are showing up in more workplaces, but only about 10% of eligible workers saved in one last year. That's a big mistake.

Since they were launched in 2006, Roth 401(k)s have been typecast as the ideal plan for millennials. Paying taxes on your contributions in exchange for tax-free withdrawals, the reasoning goes, is best when your tax rate is lower than it’s likely to be in retirement. It turns out Roth 401(k)s may be the better option for Gen Xers and baby boomers too.

That’s the conclusion of a recent study by T. Rowe Price, which found that Roth 401(k)s leave just about all workers, regardless of age or tax bracket, with more money to spend in retirement than pretax plans do. “The Roth 401(k) should be considered the default investment,” says T. Rowe Price senior financial planner Stuart Ritter.

Yet few workers of any age invest in Roth 401(k)s, which let you set aside $17,500 in after-tax money this year ($23,000 if you’re 50 or older), no matter your income. Just as with a Roth IRA, withdrawals are tax-free, as long as the money has been invested for five years and you are at least 59½. Some 50% of employers now offer a Roth 401(k), up from just 11% in 2007, according to benefits consultant Aon Hewitt. But only 11% of workers with access to a Roth 401(k) saved in one last year. Big mistake. Here’s why:

Higher income. Every dollar you save in a Roth 401(k) is worth more than a dollar you put in a pretax account. That’s because you’ll eventually pay income taxes on those pretax dollars, while you get to keep every penny in a Roth. Granted, you get an upfront tax break by saving in a traditional 401(k), and you can invest that savings. Even so, a Roth almost always overcomes that headstart, the T. Rowe Price study found.

The fund company’s analysis looked at savers of different ages and tax brackets, both before and after retirement. As the graphic shows, a Roth 401(k) pays more even if you face a lower tax rate in retirement than you did during your career. The only group that would do significantly better with a pretax plan: investors 55 and older whose tax rate falls by 10 percentage points or more, which would mean up to 6% less income.

roth edge

Greater flexibility. With a tax-free account, you can avoid required minimum withdrawals after age 70½ (as long as you roll over your Roth 401(k) to a Roth IRA). You can also pull out a large sum in an emergency, such as sudden medical bills, without fear of rising into a higher tax bracket.

Tax diversification. Having tax-free income can keep you from hitting costly cutoffs. For every dollar of income above upper levels, 50¢ or 85¢ of your Social Security benefits may be taxable. “Many retirees in the 15% bracket actually have a marginal tax rate of 22% or 27% when Social Security taxes are added in,” says CPA Michael Piper of ObliviousInvestor.com. And if you retire before you’re eligible for Medicare and buy your own health insurance, a lower taxable income makes it more likely you’ll qualify for a government subsidy. In short, when it comes to retirement, tax-free money is a valuable tool.

More from the Ultimate Retirement Guide:
What Is a Roth 401(k)?
Which Is Better for Me, Roth or Regular?
Why Is Rolling Over My 401(k) Such a Big Deal?

 

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