Seven Rules for a Secure Retirement

retired couple laughing in the kitchenWe are witnessing what could be a watershed moment when it comes to planning for a secure retirement.

Millions of Americans were already alarmingly ill-prepared for their so-called "golden" years when the stock market crashed and the housing market melted down. Now, just as many people are finally recovering some of their losses, retirement savings face a host of new threats: states halting pension payments, high levels of unemployment, changes to Social Security and Medicare (thanks to our record deficit).

The bottom line is that if you want a crack at the happy and secure retirement we all dream of, you must take control of your retirement planning today. Here's our road map of seven simple, proven tips to planning for a worry-free retirement.Rule #1: Hands Off Your Retirement Funds!

Your 401(k), 403(b) or IRA plan is not a piggy bank! Don't borrow from your retirement plan unless it's a dire emergency.

At the end of 2009, a whopping 21% of all people in 401(k) plans that allowed loans had an outstanding loan balance. Very often, money borrowed from retirement plans never gets repaid.

You are mortgaging your future when you tap into a savings plan -- money meant to help fund a happy retirement.

When you are looking for a way to pay off debt, pay for college and just make ends meet, we know it can be tempting to borrow from your nest egg. Don't do it! Treat your retirement funds as a locked vault, not a piggy bank.

Rule #2: Cut Expenses and Ramp Up Your Savings

You always hear people talk about needing to save more for retirement, but everyone ignores the other half of the equation: spend less!

We're not telling you to live like a pauper now so you can retire in style later. Instead, we want you to spend smarter. A huge chunk of your hard-earned money is drained away on necessary-and costly-everyday items. Once you cut your spending on these money-guzzlers, you can plow that "found" money into your nest egg.

Need a jump-start? Here are a dozen easy ways to spend less on life's necessities.

Rule #3: Know the Right Time to Start Taking Social Security Benefits

Retire at 65 and start taking Social Security ... right?

Maybe, maybe not. Your ability to receive a full monthly Social Security benefit depends on your year of birth.

Start your Social Security payments at the wrong time and it can cost you a small fortune. For example, if you are turning 62 between now and 2016, and start your benefits at age 62, you will get 25% less than if you started your benefits at age 66. But wait until you are 70 to start taking benefits and you'll get 132% more than you would if you started at 66!

So there can be a huge financial plus to delaying your Social Security benefits, but your strategy depends highly on your age since the "normal" retirement age ranges from 65 to 67 depending on when you were born.

Use this chart to determine your "real" retirement age so you know when you will qualify for maximum Social Security benefits.

Rule #4: Forget the Old Rule of Thumb

Forget the old retirement "chestnut" that you'll need only 70% to 80% of your pre-retirement income to maintain the same standard of living in retirement.

That may have worked years ago, but not now. Ignore this outdated formula and plan on needing 100% of your income.

Yes, you'll have some expenses that go away-like dry cleaning for work clothes and commuting costs. But think about new expenses you will incur, like travel, increased health care costs, potential long-term care and more.

Plus in today's new reality, there is one big factor you must consider ...

Rule #5: Don't Forget About Inflation

Have you been shopping lately? $4 a gallon gas ... record prices for corn, sugar and cotton ... food prices up 25% over last year. Anyone who tells you not to worry too much about inflation rearing its ugly head isn't paying attention.

Inflation is here, and we expect it to get worse.

We have increased the inflation rate we recommend you use in your retirement planning to 4%. It may be higher or lower at times, but that's about where we believe it will average out over the long run.

That means the 8% return you are counting on, for example, gets cut in half after you factor in inflation. That makes a huge impact on your bottom line.

Rule #6: Pay Yourself First

This is one of those retirement planning "secrets" that receives little attention. But if you can make this one a habit, you'll see your savings grow faster than you can say, "Show me the money!"

When you get your paycheck, put a pre-designated chunk directly into your savings or investments immediately -- before you spend one red cent on anything else.

We know that saving money for a long-term retirement goal can be tough with so many priorities competing for your money every day. So use this secret weapon: set up an automatic investment plan (AIP) that takes a piece of your paycheck and deposits it directly into your retirement account before you ever see the money.

This is a simple way to pay yourself first each month and create a regular investment you never even have to think about. You can set up an AIP with most banks and mutual funds.

Rule #7: Contribute the Maximum to Qualified Retirement Plans

We know, we know ... easier said than done.

But, a little sacrifice now will pay dividends years from now. Investing in your IRA, 401(k), Roth, or 403(b) gives you tax benefits you won't get by stashing your nest egg elsewhere. And if you are fortunate enough to work for a company that offers matching contributions, that's free money toward your retirement.

Whether you are 30 or 60 years old, use these tips today to build a financially secure retirement.

They days of depending on your employer or your union or your government to take care of you in retirement are long gone. You can still achieve a safe, secure retirement, but only one person can make it happen: you. In addition to these seven retirement planning tips, check out ways to:
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