It’s easy to ride the highs and lows of the stock market when you’re still working. After all, the advice for what to do with your 401k in a down market is pretty standard: wait it out. The average bear market — usually defined as a dip of 20 percent or more — lasts for 13 months and bounces back in about 22. If you’re in your 40s or 50s, the best move is to take a deep breath, maybe brew some herbal tea and be patient.
But if you’re on the verge of retirement or already retired, you’ll need a different approach — or stronger tea. You’re at the point where you need to start putting that money to work and simply waiting a few years while the markets go through their natural cycle might not be possible. As such, using a more nuanced response to a bear market is necessary, one that neither results in panicked selling that costs you money nor leaves you unable to enjoy your retirement the way you want to. So here’s a closer look at how you should approach a bear market as a retiree.
RELATED: Take a look at these financial tasks you shouldn't hold off until retirement:
30 Things You Shouldn’t Hold Off Until Retirement
30 Things You Shouldn’t Hold Off Until Retirement
1. Create a Post-Retirement Budget
How much you spend in retirement might differ dramatically from what you spent during your working years. That's why pre-retirees need to create a post-retirement budget, said Emily Guy Birken, personal finance expert and author of "Choose Your Retirement."
"To do this, you will need to determine your retirement income, including how much you expect to withdraw from your investments and what you expect to receive from Social Security or a pension," she said. "Going into retirement without a post-retirement budget is a good way to overspend in your early years."
Once you have a budget set, try living on your post-retirement budget for the year leading up to retirement, said Birken. Doing so "will help you acclimate to the changes" and "psychologically transition to your post-career life," she said. It'll also give you time to figure out if you're even ready for retirement or not so you can tweak your plan before the big day comes.
3. Avoid Lifestyle Inflation
The years leading up to retirement are when your income will likely be at its highest.
"Keep your budget the same in spite of salary raises," said Pauline Paquin, owner and founder of personal finance blog Reach Financial Independence. "That will boost your retirement nest egg and allow you to live on a fraction of your last income in retirement."
4. Reduce Living Expenses
"Start streamlining your lifestyle now in preparation for retirement," said Carla Dearing, founder and CEO of online financial planning service SUM180. "Take a close look at your monthly expenses and identify those items you can do without. This gradual approach will let you significantly cut your monthly expenses without feeling the shock of adjustment."
5. Check Your Savings Numbers
"Although this sounds like a no-brainer, it makes sense to double, triple and quadruple-check [your retirement numbers] before you abandon the safety net of a regular paycheck," said Robert Steen, enterprise advice director for retirement at USAA. "We recommend having roughly 10 to 12 times your final salary saved up before you start your retirement."
6. Identify Income Sources
Review and list guaranteed income sources — like Social Security, pensions and existing annuities — as well as income-generating investments such as IRAs, 401ks, taxable investment accounts and savings accounts, to get ready for retirement.
"If you have any doubts about your ability to cover any of your retirement expenses, or legacy goals, get some expert help," said Steen. "A financial advisor can provide additional perspective, advice and solutions to help you reach your retirement goals."
7. Plan Your Second Act
Some retirees pursue a passion project, while others seek a little extra income on the side to make ends meet. Dearing recommends using your last year of employment to plan for your post-retirement career.
"Build the skills, resources and professional network you'll need to earn additional income after you leave your current job," she said.
8. Coordinate Timing With Your Partner
"It is fun to think of retiring together and immediately embarking on your elaborate travel plans, but if you stagger your retirement, more of your retirement assets will stay invested," said Dearing. "You'll also have the continued benefits from one of your employers; the medical coverage alone might have a significant impact."
9. Boost Retirement Savings
"It can be difficult for many people to max out their retirement accounts throughout their working lives. But during your last year, strive to sock away as much as possible," said David Hryck, personal finance expert and partner with New York City tax law firm Reed Smith. Your last working year is the final opportunity to put away as much as possible and pad your retirement savings account.
10. Take Advantage of Catch-Up Provisions
"The government encourages saving in the final years leading up to retirement by allowing catch-up contributions to retirement accounts," said Daniel Zajac, partner with Simone Zajac Wealth Management Group. For people 50 years of age and older, the IRS allows a pre-tax deferral of $24,500 into an employer-sponsored retirement plan.
IRA participants age 50 and older who meet income requirements can also contribute an extra $1,000 per year. "I've never heard a retiree complain that they saved too much for retirement," Zajac said.
11. Consolidate Financial Accounts
It's easier to keep track of your investment income if your accounts are in as few places as possible. Hryck suggests consolidating financial accounts to simplify record-keeping and achieve easier cash flow tracking as you get ready for retirement.
However, he warns individuals to "consider the consequences from a tax perspective prior to making any moves, such as selling stocks or mutual funds."
12. Reduce Your Portfolio’s Risk Profile
"The worst time to take a negative in your portfolio is right before retirement," said Tom Till, financial professional and owner of APPS Financial Group, which helps families and individuals with financial planning. "It will directly affect how much you can live on during retirement."
Contact a financial planner or take an online survey to determine your risk tolerance and adjust your portfolio accordingly. "I have seen people have to work an extra two to four years because they failed to take this step when close to retirement," Till said.
13. Create a Distribution Strategy
The accumulation and distribution of assets require two entirely different strategies and, particularly for those with a long retirement horizon, there will likely be a need for simultaneous accumulation and distribution plans.
"It is key to work with someone who is knowledgeable about distribution in this phase of life," said Till. Distribute too much or earn too little, and you risk not having enough capital to make it through retirement.
"Credit card debt can carry an interest rate of up to 20 percent," said Till. "Student loan debt never goes away, and the government can choose to withhold your Social Security benefits if you have outstanding student loans."
15. Relocate for Retirement
If you're planning to retire elsewhere, Benjamin Sullivan, a certified financial planner with Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Scarsdale, N.Y., suggests moving or buying a second home while still employed.
"While many retirees can qualify for a mortgage, it's much easier to prove you have the income to support a mortgage if you make the move while still earning a full salary," he said.
16. Work Extra Hours
"Some pensions and severance payments are calculated based on the income you earn in your last few working years before retirement," said Sullivan. "Therefore, working additional hours or taking on additional projects in your final working years can give you extra income now and in the future."
In other words, a little extra hard work now can create a substantial payoff once you transition out of the workforce.
"Lack of adequate insurance coverage can lead to high unexpected costs that might cause you to go into debt," said Harrine Freeman, financial expert and CEO of H.E. Freeman Enterprises. The majority of bankruptcies result from an unexpected, expensive medical concern. Long-term care insurance can help defray the high costs associated with an unforeseen ailment or potentially needing long-term care.
18. Refinance or Pay Off Your Mortgage
"The thing you absolutely must do is straighten out your mortgage financing before retiring because you might not qualify with your reduced income after retirement," said Casey Fleming, author of "The Loan Guide: How to Get the Best Possible Mortgage." "If you don't do this, you might find yourself with too high an interest rate that you can't get rid of, too high a payment for your new, lower income or plenty of equity but no way to access it readily."
19. Declutter Your House and Mind
"Clearing our mental clutter is an essential step to getting ready for the next chapter in our lives, which often includes getting rid of stuff," said Catherine Allen, co-author of "The Retirement Boom: An All-Inclusive Guide to Money, Life and Health in Your Next Chapter."
Not only are these items unlikely to be worth as much as you think, but the odds are also good that your family members won't hang on to them.
"Our kids and grandkids are minimalists and don't want to save Aunt Hattie's china or Grandpa Paul's stamp collection," she said.
20. Know How Your Income Affects Your Taxes
"When an individual's 'combined income' — defined as half your Social Security benefit, plus your other adjusted gross income — exceeds $25,000 as a single person, your benefit becomes taxable," said personal finance writer JoeTaxpayer. "Simply put, the tax burden on $30,000 of Social Security benefits and $20,000 from retirement funds will be far less than if the two were reversed."
"For each year you delay benefits past age 62, you gain a 6 percent to 8 percent increase in lifetime annual benefits. That adds up quickly," Steen said. You can check your personal Social Security benefits at SSA.gov.
22. Engage in Your Interests and Hobbies
Many pre-retirees forget to account for how they'll spend their time once they're no longer headed to the office each day. "Chart out your time both at the macro-level (annual vacations, trips, etc.) and at the daily level — what will you do immediately after waking up?" said Paula Pant, personal finance blogger and founder of Afford Anything.
If you fail to plan ahead for retirement hobbies, "you'll develop restlessness, spend too much money out of boredom and potentially jump back into the workforce due to a lack of anything else to do," she said.
23. Apply for a Reduced Real Property Tax Program
"Many of the elderly lose their homes due to the inability to pay their real property taxes and in some cases, the amount owed is less than $1,000," said Freeman. "Owing taxes during retirement will reduce your monthly cash flow and might put you in a financial bind that could take months to recover from."
"Home repairs can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars per repair, and might lead to usage of credit cards if you cannot afford to pay for the repairs on your fixed income," said Freeman. An up-to-date home warranty can cover many unexpected repair costs, which can help keep a retiree from busting the budget.
25. Build an Ultra-Emergency Savings Account
"The standard advice for emergency savings accounts is to have six to 12 months' worth of living expenses. However, if you plan to no longer have earned income, increase your emergency savings to 18 to 24 months' worth," said David Auten and John Schneider of The Debt Free Guys blog.
"For the 12 months leading into retirement, cut your expenses and put all additional savings into your ultra-emergency savings account," they added. That way, it can help keep invested assets secure, if and when an unexpected financial emergency occurs.
26. Review Family Financial Obligations
An emotional drive to help loved ones financially can erode a nest egg.
"Helping out family and friends is great, but don't do it at the expense of your retirement savings," said Steen. "Outliving your resources is a real risk. So, even if you think you have the cash available, seek professional advice before making a decision."
27. Review Life Insurance Coverage
When you retire, you might lose the group life insurance coverage offered through your employer.
If you "still have financial obligations such as dependent children, a mortgage or a car loan, consider buying a private life insurance policy if you're entering retirement with debt, or if you would lose benefits if you or your partner dies," said Steen.
28. Consider Healthcare Coverage
"Knowing exactly what to expect from your healthcare benefits is vital for retirees," said Birken. Fidelity has calculated that a 65-year-old retiring couple will need $275,000 for healthcare over the span of their retirement.
The first step she recommends is a meeting with your human resources department to find out if you're one of the lucky few who will receive employer-covered healthcare during retirement. If not, find out when your health benefits will lapse in retirement and, if you're under age 65 when you retire, you'll need to do to sign up for COBRA.
29. Get Organized
Organization doesn't just make your life easier in retirement; it also ensures loved ones can easily find key documents in case of an emergency and if you're unable to access them yourself.
"Compile critical information in a safe place, such as a fire safe," said Allen. "Keep paper copies of important documents, in case you lose the electronic."
You should also make a list of all your online accounts and passwords, such as your bank and investment accounts, so your family can easily find this information when the time comes.
30. Check Your Emotional Readiness
"Just because 'everyone' retires at age 65 doesn't mean you have to do the same," said Steen. Before leaving your career, ask yourself if you're retiring because it's something you look forward to or because it's something you expected to do at a particular age milestone.
If you're constantly asking yourself, "Am I ready to retire?" and never pulling the trigger, you might want to hold off on quitting your day job.
"If you are very unsure of the decision to retire, and have a choice, then don't do it," said Steen. "Working longer, perhaps at something new and different, can help you maintain yourself, both financially and mentally."
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If You Are Close to Retirement
If you’re still working but haven’t retired yet, the main method for preparing for a bear market retirement is adjusting your asset allocation before stocks start to fall — namely, moving money out of stocks and into bonds and cash the closer you get to the end of your career. If you have kept moving assets into bonds over time, you should be in reasonably good shape even when the stock market doesn’t play along with your personal timetable. In fact, dropping values on the stock markets will almost always mean the face value of your bonds will be rising, so you could be in a relatively strong position depending on how aggressively you’ve been shifting things around.
However, if you haven’t prepared for the downswing, there are still workarounds. Firstly, as unpleasant as it sounds, you might consider delaying your retirement by a few years. Not only can you avoid selling stocks when the prices are down, but you’ll boost your monthly Social Security payments by as much as a third if you put off your last day.
If you’re not ready to do that, one calculated risk you could take is to focus on selling off portions of your bond portfolio. Since bonds are usually up when stocks are down, you should be getting a good price, and you can probably make up ground after markets recover by shifting money back into bonds when they’re down and stocks are back up. Just know that — in the worst-case scenario — this could backfire in a big way. Your asset mix is already stock heavy and you would only be making that worse in the short term, so an especially bad or long bear market could leave you in an even worse situation a few years later. When in doubt, talk to a financial advisor.
Once again, if you stayed ahead of things with your asset allocation, this bear market retirement shouldn’t lead you to make any dramatic changes to your retirement plans. The one consideration: ensure any part of your portfolio you are selling off in the near term be from your bond portfolio until the market recovers — at which point you can tweak things again to rebalance to your desired asset allocation.
But, if you have failed to keep enough of your portfolio in bonds and cash, the important thing to remember is that overreacting could just make things worse. You’ve got a long way to go in retirement, so finding other adjustments to your finances that don’t involve selling off stocks is ideal. That might mean having to cut back on your spending, downsizing your home and leaning more heavily on your Social Security checks for a few years. Or you could consider looking for some short-term ways to pick up extra income — possibly consulting gigs in the industry you just left. Either way, making some smaller sacrifices now can probably help you avoid much bigger ones later on. Just remember to learn from this and be sure to shift money from stocks to bonds and cash after the smoke has cleared.
Keeping the right mix of stocks to bonds in your portfolio will help you avoid having to worry too much about riding out a bear market, even deep in your retirement. Sound familiar?
Repetitive as that advice might be at this point, there’s a reason why it’s so standard. Bonds that you hold to maturity and cash are pretty much the go-to, tried-and-true method to buffer yourself against market volatility — one that matters the longer you’re retired.
That said, if you tried to boost your retirement account by shifting to a stock-heavy mix and then got caught with your pants down so to speak — because this is exactly why most financial advisors would suggest not to do that — it’s still not the end of the world. You’ll just need to make some tough choices about how to proceed, and the same suggestions apply: consider taking on a part-time job or downsizing your living situation. Other than that, you might just have to bite the bullet and take a hit on your portfolio.