5 Steps to Plan Your Retirement

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Getty ImagesRetirement travel requires a bigger nest egg than staying home.
By Tom Sightings

Only 1 in 3 Americans in their 50s has ever tried to plan for retirement, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research study. And a third of those who try to plan admit that they either gave up or failed miserably. The result: Barely 20 percent of pre-retirees have a useful plan for retirement.

But making a plan isn't all that difficult. Remember, it's not written in stone, so you don't need to get bogged down in details, and you don't have to worry about getting everything right. It's like making an outline for an essay. The outline gives you a rough idea of where you're going. But you don't actually write the essay until you start living your way through retirement. Here are five items to include in your retirement outline.

1. Manage your expectations. One rule of thumb says you'll need 70 percent of your pre-retirement income to live comfortably in retirement. But that's just a general rule. If you want to travel, join a golf club or help send your grandchildren to college, you might need more. But many people live on less, especially if they move to a less expensive area of the country and follow a simpler lifestyle.

2. Account for your changing expenses. Housing expenses tend to go down as we age, as our mortgage gets paid off and maybe we downsize to a less expensive home. Most other expenses also decrease, including costs for food, clothes, recreation and insurance. But medical care is one expense that goes up. According to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, a retired married couple spends up to $260,000 over their lifetimes for out-of-pocket health expenses, including long-term care. And don't forget to factor in inflation, which has recently been running near zero, but will more likely average 3 to 4 percent over the course of your retirement.

3. Don't shortchange your life expectancy. Surveys show that over half of pre-retirees underestimate how long they're going to live. Women underestimate more than men. According to the Social Security Administration, the average 65-year-old male can expect to live to age 84, and the average female will make it to 87. But you really need to plan for more than that. One out of five 65-year-old males and one out of three females will live to age 90. Your savings may run out, but Social Security won't. That's one reason to delay taking benefits as long as you can, up to age 70, so they accumulate for a larger payout later in life. But it's not just the money. You may have more time than you think. So sitting around and relaxing may not be all you want to do in retirement. You likely have time to start a business, travel the world, develop a new skill and find a new hobby.

4. Be ready for a reality readjustment. You may have a plan, but sometimes things don't work out the way you expect. For example, there is a considerable gap between when people think they're going to retire, and when they actually retire. The median expected retirement age is 65, according to a Gallup poll. But the actual retirement age is 61, because layoffs and health issues cut many careers short. The Gallup poll also found that 70 percent of American workers think they will continue to work in some capacity after they retire, but it turns out that many people can't find a suitable job. Only about 25 percent of retirees work in retirement. So whether your plans involve working or something else, do a little advance homework to see if your retirement dreams match up with reality.

5. Don't be too proud to get help. First of all, you should find a lawyer to draft your will as well as any health directives you may need. Then, whatever your ideas about retirement, start discussing them with your spouse or significant other. You might want to buy a boat and sail around the world, while your partner may want to settle down and babysit grandchildren. A plan is just a pipe dream until you start talking and heading in the same direction. Talk over your plans with your children and friends so they know what you're thinking. They may have some ideas or advice for you. And finally, if the world of finance seems too complicated, don't hesitate to consult an accountant or financial adviser to help turn your retirement dreams into retirement reality.

Tom Sightings is the author of "You Only Retire Once" and blogs at Sightings at 60.
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