Be careful what you wish for. This is one of my favorite sayings and is particularly apropos when it comes to retirement planning. For most people, once they retire, there’s no going back. Retirement is one of, if not the biggest, life-changing events.
A plethora of changes awaits you, some good, others not so good. Unless you spend time with yourself, significant others, and seasoned professionals understanding and preparing for them, it could prove to be a very challenging time of your life.
Retiring on your terms isn’t just about having sufficient financial resources to sustain you and your family throughout retirement. While financial security is critical, the ability to enjoy a fulfilling life is essential to a successful retirement. The following are 10 keys to retiring on your terms.
1. Acknowledge that 65 doesn’t have to be your retirement age
Don’t fall into the trap of choosing age 65 as your retirement age unless this is when you really want to retire.
Most people revolve the timing of their retirement around government health and retirement plans. In particular, availability of Medicare at 65 drives many retirement decisions. Social Security, which can kick in with a reduced benefit as early as 62, with a full benefit offered between age 66 and 67 depending upon when you were born, is another factor for many people.
While availability of Medicare and Social Security are important financial considerations, with proper planning and alternative resources, they don’t need to be, and furthermore shouldn’t be, the driving forces for determining when you will retire.
2. Visualize your retirement
If you want to achieve any goal, you need to visualize yourself doing it. Whether it’s becoming a professional opera singer or a high school math teacher, or retiring, you need to picture yourself in your desired role.
Visualization requires asking important questions. What dreams do you want to achieve when you’re no longer working? What will motivate you and help you continue to grow as a person? Will you pursue travel, hobbies, or other activities that you currently don’t have time for? Will you start a part-time business? Does volunteering interest you? How will you occupy your time on a typical day? Answering these and other important questions will help you imagine what retirement will look and feel like to you.
3. Start early
The most important recommendation I can give for retiring on your terms is to start planning well in advance of when you want to retire. There are many ducks that need to be lined up, both financial and nonfinancial, before you can successfully retire.
How early should you start? Given the fact that you could be spending one-third of your life in retirement, you can never start planning too early. Retirement asset planning should ideally begin 30 years in advance of your planned retirement with a gradual transition to retirement income planning beginning 20 years before your retirement date.
The ability to live retirement on your terms is directly related to the amount of time and thought you spend preparing for it.
4. Commit your plan to writing
Any successful plan needs to be in writing. A major undertaking like retirement planning is no exception.
Since you’re going to retire on your terms, your plan will reflect your financial and nonfinancial goals, including your vision of retirement. Once this is defined, short- and long-term strategies for achieving your goals will need to be developed and included in your written plan. These strategies need to include specific steps for planning, managing, and protecting your retirement income.
Your plan is your blueprint for retiring on your terms.
5. Build flexibility into your plan
While a written plan is essential for retiring on your terms, it needs to be flexible. Several planning variables, such as the timing and duration of specific inflation and income-tax rates are beyond our control, and, as such, require flexibility.
Another example of the need to build flexibility into your plan revolves around your choice of a retirement age. Rather than planning on retiring at a specific age, plan for different scenarios, e.g., 60, 64, and 68. Do this even if you don’t think there’s any chance that you will retire at one of these ages. This will help you visualize financial and other changes you would need to make under each scenario that will help you decide which scenario best suits you and your family.
6. Monitor your plan
Your plan isn’t a one-time exercise that you put on autopilot. It needs to be regularly monitored at scheduled intervals, preferably quarterly, to review planned versus actual achievement of various financial and nonfinancial milestones.
Timely changes need to be made to your plan to reflect new opportunities and changes in your personal and financial situation, goals, and health situation, as well as changes in the economic environment, tax laws, and other government regulations.
7. Share your plan
Don’t keep your plan a secret. If you want to achieve your goals, you need to be accountable for them. At a minimum, you should develop and monitor your plan with your spouse or significant other as applicable.
Your plan should reflect each of your respective unique goals as well as your shared goals. Given the fact that everyone should retire on his/her terms, planning for different potential retirement dates needs to also be considered whenever couples are involved.
8. Work with a team of experienced professionals
Retirement planning isn’t for do-it-yourselfers. It’s extremely complicated with a lot of moving parts that need to be analyzed and coordinated on an continuing basis. One mistake can be extremely costly and potentially devastating to an otherwise sound plan.
Using your goals and your visualization of a successful retirement, your retirement income should be planned, managed, and protected by a team of professionals. Your team should be lead by a retirement income planner with experience and training in financial and nonfinancial matters unique to retirees. It should also include a CPA, investment adviser, insurance agents, and an estate attorney whenever these services aren’t provided by your retirement income planner.
Working with a team of professionals will enhance accountability and the likelihood of retiring on your terms.
9. Embrace change
Retirement income planning is quite different from traditional retirement planning where asset accumulation is the primary objective.
Two important differences are (1) the types of strategies that are used and (2) the issues that need to be addressed. Things like income conversion and retirement plan distribution strategies and long-term care, Social Security, and Medicare planning techniques require specialized knowledge, expertise, and experience.
In order to retire on your terms and take advantage of various opportunities, it’s important that you be receptive to exploring and implementing investment, insurance, tax, and other financial planning ideas and strategies that may have previously been foreign to you, including income longevity strategies where appropriate.
10. Recognize that retirement planning doesn’t retire when you do
Retirement planning, once it’s initiated, is a lifelong commitment. Even if you follow my third recommendation and start retirement asset and income planning 30 and 20 years, respectively, in advance of retirement, you shouldn’t stop doing retirement planning when you retire.
This would be like planting a fruit tree and never watering it. Retiring on your terms is a lifelong endeavor. Like the fruit tree, it requires continuing nourishment that must adapt to changes in one’s environment.