Retirement planning is not like a slow cooker. Just drop in the contributions, set it and forget it, and at retirement it will be ready? No, it doesn’t work that way. Retirement planning is more like preparing a gourmet French meal. It requires combining the right ingredients in the right way at the right time. Different life stages present different challenges to retirement savings and call for different actions.
Let’s look at five important life stages in a retirement saver’s journey to retirement.
Life Stage 1 – Starting off: The first time most people contemplate retirement is when they take their first job and have the opportunity to contribute to a retirement plan. This is the life stage of hopeful youth but also the time when financial reality sets in. Many at this life stage are stretching their paycheck to pay down student debt and car loans while covering rent and other expenses. The remoteness of retirement keeps many from thinking about savings at this stage. Unfortunately, many do not realize that they may have more disposable income now than they will later in life, and the cost of waiting to make contributions is most expensive in this life stage. Young people must put away whatever they can for retirement—their contributions should be at least high enough to secure the employer’s match. Time and compounding interest are on their side. Whatever they put into retirement savings at this life stage will make a significant difference in retirement.
Life Stage 2 – Starting a Family: The next major life stage for retirement savings is when people get married and start a family. Now a spouse and possibly children must be factored into both the immediate finances and retirement planning. Many people purchase life insurance for the first time during this life stage. Some start to think about their children’s future education and wonder whether they should increase retirement savings or save for a child’s education. From a retirement savings standpoint, it makes sense to try to increase retirement contributions (ideally at least enough to secure the full employer’s match) and put away any extra for college expenses. People in this life stage still have about 30 years until retirement, and the powers of time and compounding will grow their retirement savings.
Life Stage 3 – Mid-career: As people progress in their career, they may finally cross over from living on a tight budget to having extra income to spend or save. At this life stage, many are ready to renounce their tight budget and start living “the good life.” They may buy a bigger house and a new car, or take some nice vacations. In this life stage, it is important to re-evaluate the family budget, adjust it as needed, and then recommit to living within the budget. People should sit down with an advisor to see how well they are saving for retirement. They can enjoy the fruits of higher salaries by spending some and saving more. Savers who resist the temptation to “keep up with the Joneses” and continue to increase retirement savings will reap a good reward in retirement.
Life Stage 4 – Nearing Retirement: In the last years before retirement, a saver must make important decisions. Some must select a pension option to maximize income for themselves and their spouse. Those nearing retirement need help watching the market and their investments. Reallocating and rebalancing retirement accounts for protection against market downturns is important in this stage. Beginning to think about the desired retirement lifestyle is also appropriate now, if not earlier. An advisor’s services are essential in making sure the various risks of retirement have been considered.
Life Stage 5 – Early Retirement: Reaching retirement can produce a sense of relief and accomplishment for some, but feelings of apprehension or boredom for others. Retirement is a big life change in many ways and requires addressing some important financial questions. Market performance in the early years may be key to a successful retirement for those who have invested in equities, so keeping an eye on the market is important for protecting retirement assets. And establishing good retirement spending habits early in retirement can allow savings to last.
Retirement planning is not a simple recipe, but rather the preparation of a savory dish that needs time, care, and the right ingredients to create the most enjoyable retirement possible. Bon appétit!