The biggest retirement mistake you can make

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If someone is going to make the biggest, most consequential retirement mistake possible, it's usually going to be this: neglecting to create a vision of what they want from their retirement.

Not having a plan for retirement is like launching an interplanetary space shuttle without having any regard for its destination. You'll likely run out of fuel before you reach a reasonable destination.

Have you ever taken a summer road trip? Sure you have. You pack meals (or bring enough money to eat out), get that oil change, bring enough clothes, and check off a bunch of to-dos before you actually hit the road. That's smart. You plan for vacations, why not plan for what could be your longest vacation of all: retirement!

Who knows, your retirement could last 30 years or longer. You're going to need a lot of money saved to last you that long. Well, either that, or discover a missing inheritance just in time or have a money-making business or two.

Don't be like so many people who reach retirement age to discover that Social Security benefits won't cut it and they have to dramatically reduce their lifestyle. That's a bummer.

Instead, ask yourself two questions . . . .

When Would You Like to Retire?

The first question is probably the easiest to answer: "When would you like to retire?"

It's commonly expected that people will want to retire in their 60s, but perhaps you should dig a little deeper and discover when you'd like to retire.

You don't have to go with the flow. Instead, consider retiring early, perhaps in your 50s or 40s. Alternatively, you may never want to fully retire, and would just like enough supplemental income to help you live with only a small, part-time job.

Truly, the choice is yours.

Remember, however, that certain retirement accounts require you wait until a minimum age to withdraw funds. Additionally, there are penalties for taking Social Security benefits early. If you're going to retire early, remember that you may not have access to funds if you are depending on certain types of accounts. Talk with a well-qualified financial advisor to understand the limitations of retiring early.

How Much Money Would You Like to Have?

The second question is difficult to answer: "How much money would you like to have?"

You might think the question is easy, but remember, your lifestyle and the cost of goods and services will probably be different in retirement.

Choosing an arbitrarily high number might put significant strain on your lifestyle in your younger years. Choosing an arbitrarily low number might not get you all the way through your desired retirement years.

You're going to need to do some homework to figure out how much money you'll need in retirement. Is it $1 million? $2 million? More? Less? Talk with a financial planner to consider all of the variables at play in figuring out how much money you'll need for retirement.

One approach is to work backwards. Ask yourself: How much money would I like to have every year in retirement? $40,000? $50,000? Your financial advisor can work the numbers to figure out how much you'll need to save in order to raise your chances of being able to take your desired withdrawals in retirement.

If you find yourself having difficulty answering these two questions, and you can't see that far down the road, you're certainly not alone. Instead, try asking yourself what your three-year goals are. What would you like to achieve financially in three years? Perhaps it's obtaining a new job, paying off all your debt, or selling a home with space you no longer need.

If you can't envision your retirement right now, you have to start where you're at. Don't give up on creating a financial plan just because you don't know what you want your retirement to look like.

It's best to start now. Be thinking about what you want your future to look like, even if you don't yet know what you want your retirement to look like. Over time, as you get closer to retirement, you'll discover what's important to you and will be able to more clearly envision your retirement.

Don't make the mistake of never envisioning it, however. Too many people do that, and then their retirement is determined by chance instead of a plan. And oftentimes, when that happens, retirement doesn't look so pretty.

I encourage you to sit down with a good financial planner to work out the details of your retirement. At the least, have them prepare a financial plan for you. It will be worth the effort. Believe me, once you have a plan in place, you'll be able to breathe easier knowing that you're on the right path toward a better future.

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