Starting around age 55, the 10 to 15 years leading up to retirement may represent your last opportunity to build your nest egg. And:
- You might feel as though you’re in the homestretch of executing a carefully crafted plan that’s been decades in the making.
- Or you might be panicking because you’ve saved next to nothing.
Most people fall somewhere in between, wishing they had more assets (who doesn’t?) but also having a decent financial cushion — one that, especially when combined with Social Security, will at least keep them out of poverty even if it doesn’t allow them to enjoy a dream retirement free from financial worry.
Choose your approach
The best strategies for growing wealth in the decade or so leading up to retirement will be different if you’re someone who has been maxing out their retirement accounts consistently compared with someone who hasn’t been saving enough or has raided their accounts somewhere along the way.
Someone who has been saving consistently for a long time will want to focus on the following aspects of planning, said Jose L. Novoa, a planning associate with Madan+Associates:
- How diversified their assets are.
- How their assets will be taxed in retirement.
- How to approach required minimum distributions (RMDs).
- How much they can spend per year in retirement.
- What estate planning tasks they still need to address.
Someone with fewer resources saved, Novoa said, will want to focus on these aspects:
- Saving as much and as consistently as they can.
- Considering how much risk they’re willing to take to grow their assets in the next 10 to 15 years.
- Reconsidering retirement expectations, goals, and timelines.
Saving as much as you can, as early as you can, is always a great strategy for funding your retirement. And “early” is relative. The opportunity to save more in your 20s, 30s, and 40s is gone, but today will always be earlier than tomorrow and is still a fine place to start. It’s the only option you’ve got. (Related: Saving in your 40s and 50s)
Create a road map
One of the best ways to reach any goal—including reaching retirement with a comfortable amount saved—is to create a detailed plan.
That plan starts with identifying the goal you’re trying to reach and the gap between that goal and where you are now.
Let’s say it’s a $500,000 gap. Half a million dollars is a lot of money. It might sound unattainable. So, break it down.
If you’re 10 years from retirement, that’s $50,000 a year you need to save — or earn from returns on investments — to reach your goal. To break it down further, it’s $4,167 a month.
Here are some ways you could possibly accumulate it.
The best-case scenario is that you and your spouse both work for companies that offer a 401(k) plan. In 2023, you can each save $22,500 ($23,000 in 2024) plus an additional $7,500 in catch-up contributions for those 50 and older. If you both max out your contributions, you’d exceed your goal.
Even better, if your employer makes nondiscretionary contributions or matching contributions, you could meet your goal with less impact on your take-home pay.
Now let’s look at a less-rosy scenario. You’re single and your employer offers no retirement plan whatsoever. It’s totally up to you to save for your retirement, and you’re subject to the far lower savings limits of IRAs: just $6,500 plus an additional $1,000 catch-up contribution if you’re 50 or older.
That’s not even two months’ worth of your $4,167 a month goal. What else can you do to reach it?
One option is to earn self-employment income. That would give you the ability to open and contribute to a self-employed 401(k) or other self-employed retirement plan. You’d then be able to enjoy the benefits of tax-deferred saving and investing that your employer doesn’t offer. (Related: The freelancer’s benefit checklist)
Choosing a high-deductible health plan and opening a health savings account is another option. You’ll pay more out of pocket before your coinsurance kicks in, but if you don’t need to spend the money you contribute to your HSA, you can save and invest. HSA accounts, in some cases, can be even better than retirement accounts for reducing your taxes. (Related: HSAs for retirement planning)
If you own a home, you might consider renting out one room or even your garage. And if you’re comfortable renting out your whole home occasionally, you could generate income while you’re out of town and not using your home anyway. (Related: Rent out your home in retirement?)
If any major events are ever held near your home, you might be able to earn thousands of dollars just from renting your home out during those occasions. And renting out part of your home gives you access to tax deductions homeowners normally don’t get.
Whatever your options, breaking down the big goal into a bunch of smaller goals can help you see how to get from where you are to where you hope to be.
Change your behavior
If you want to increase your savings rate, you’ll have to change your behavior. And that starts with changing your mindset.
If you’ve never thought of yourself as someone who could retire wealthy, you could be holding yourself back. This isn’t some “law of attraction” advice about how if you just imagine wealth coming to you, it will happen. Increasing your net worth requires a practical approach.
When you’re faced with a decision about how to spend your time or manage your money, ask yourself, “What would someone who wanted to be wealthy do?”
The answer might be:
- “Work with a financial professional.”
- “Get advice on how to reduce my taxes.”
- “Start taking better care of my health so I can hope to keep working and avoid high medical bills.”
Indeed, the answer might be something different from what you’ve been doing all along.
Sometimes, it can be hard to make changes if your friends and family are in similar circumstances as yours. You don’t have a real-life role model for how to be more financially secure. But you can find like-minded people online or in a community group who can share their own journeys and strategies and offer encouragement. Even if you've never had a good financial role model, it’s not too late to find one.
A financial professional can help you create a realistic plan and offer solutions you may not be aware of. There’s no harm in having a consultation with several to see how they could help you and look for the right personality fit — a key aspect of generating the trust you’ll need to actually follow your professional’s guidance. (Related: Working with a financial professional – why not go it alone?)
Preserve and grow what you have
No matter how much or how little you’ve accumulated for retirement, you want to make the most of it.
- One way you can do that is by making sure inflation isn’t eroding your savings. Inflation is always a concern, even when rates are around 2 percent.
- Another is to have a plan in place to deal with market volatility, or even take advantage of it.
In the higher-inflation environment we’ve experienced lately — 7 percent in 2021, 6.5 percent in 2022 — it’s extra important to pay attention, especially because an approach that moves an increasing portion of your portfolio into more conservative investments as you approach retirement might mean that it fails to keep pace with inflation.
In addition, it makes sense to look for opportunities to diversify into investments that can help guarantee retirement income.
Annuities offer one way to increase your financial security in retirement. They can help you meet retirement income goals, avoid outliving your assets, and diversify your portfolio, among other benefits.
If you buy a deferred fixed annuity, you’ll earn a guaranteed rate of return and you won’t have to take any market risk. If you’re comfortable with some market risk in exchange for the possibility of higher returns, you might consider a deferred variable annuity.
Whether and when to buy an annuity is a subject perhaps best explored with a financial professional, but the years leading up to retirement may be a good time. You’ll have time to contribute to your annuity before converting it to an income stream. (Related: 5 reasons why you may need an annuity)
There is also market volatility to consider.
While 2022 saw the S&P 500 decline by almost 20 percent, in the long run, stock market returns have outpaced inflation and helped people grow their wealth. Because you won't likely need your entire nest egg the moment you retire, it’s often advisable to remain invested in stocks with a portion of your portfolio.
First, market downturns can represent a buying opportunity that allows you to purchase more shares for less money. Of course, there is always risk with investments, especially when it comes to stocks. So, you need to consider your own risk tolerance when considering such moves. And consulting your financial professional may be wise, in order to assess what such investments may mean for your overall financial plan.
Additionally, whether you are increasing your investments or not, what if you need a source of retirement income for living expenses while allowing your savings to weather a downturn? This is where permanent life insurance — like a whole life policy — can play a role. Its cash value component can be used to provide income, allowing the policyowner to avoid dipping into retirement savings.1 (Related: How life insurance can help in retirement)
What if you are approaching retirement but don’t have a sizable permanent policy in place? There are whole life policies available that can be paid up in as few as 10 annual payments. Depending on the face value, the premiums can be substantial, but the cash value component can also build up quickly. A financial professional can provide information on the options. (Related: Short vs. long premium policies: The difference)
Start thinking about the distribution phase
When you retire, you’ll start drawing down your assets. Many people accumulate the bulk of their retirement savings in tax-deferred accounts, such as traditional IRAs and 401(k)s. That can mean paying significant taxes in retirement. These accounts also have required minimum distributions (RMDs) beginning at age 73.
Beyond RMDs, you may also want to consider how much to tap those accounts to meet living expenses while maintaining funds. (Related: The ideal retirement withdrawal rate)
There may be opportunities in the years leading up to retirement (and in early retirement) to get some of those taxes out of the way and create more flexibility around how much you have to take out of your retirement accounts and when. (Related: RMDs and the QLAC option)
Growing your wealth in the 10 to 15 years leading up to retirement may mean learning new strategies, behaviors, and mindsets that can help you make up for lost time — or putting the finishing touches on a long-term plan.
To get the support you need, reach out to like-minded people, and consider getting help from a financial professional.
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