You may be ready to retire, but your money may not be
By Andrea Coombes Columnist, www.marketwatch.com
Are you a retirement “do-it-yourselfer,” convinced you can plan for your own retirement without paying for a financial adviser? That’s all well and good, but given that money managers work with people in a variety of financial situations, their experiences with the problems that prevent people from retiring can offer insights into how to overcome those challenges.
I spoke to a few experts to find out how they handle that difficult situation: a client who wants to retire but whose financial picture suggests she shouldn’t yet do so.
But sometimes people don’t show up at the adviser’s office until they’re eager to leave the workforce for good. In those cases, she said, advisers sometimes are forced to deliver bad news.
“We just had that situation with an individual and his wife,” Skeans said. “He’s thinking about retiring in two to three years. It was very obvious to me when I looked at his balance sheet, coupled with what I backed out as to their spending, that if they retired immediately they would put themselves into a precarious situation.”
One red flag was that this couple hadn’t accounted for their retirement tax bill. “All of their assets were in tax-deferred accounts,” Skeans said. “Every dollar they spend is going to be a dollar plus the taxes. That means, if you’re trying to support a standard of living after tax, you’re going to have to gross that money up.”
So, one lesson is to remember that the government is going to take a bite out of your retirement account. Here are more lessons financial advisers say they’ve been forced to teach new clients:
1. Be disciplined about a budget
In 2008, Skeans said, a client who was about 64 years old was laid off. “He decided he wasn’t going to look for other work,” she said. “We ran the projection. Obviously, at that point in time the portfolios were down because of the market and I was deeply concerned.
“Fortunately the guy was a finance guy, a controller for a small company. He heard us loud and clear that the biggest thing he and his wife needed to do was stay within a budget,” she said.
At the time, Skeans talked with the couple about how to stabilize their finances through reduced spending. “He was very adamant he did not want to go back to work,” she said. “We were able to help him and his wife structure a budget and they have stuck to it and continue to do so.”
And now? “Eight years later, their portfolio is just slightly below where it was eight years ago,” Skeans said.
2. Take a practice run
People sometimes underestimate what they’ll spend in retirement, especially in the early years when they suddenly find themselves with plenty of free time and energy, said Tripp Yates, a wealth strategist at Waddell & Associates in Memphis, Tenn.
“I’ve seen it where people do a budget for retirement and they tell me, ‘OK, we’ve done all the numbers and we can live off $50,000 a year,’” Yates said. Too often, that’s a bare-bones budget that doesn’t take into account travel and other activities. “The first five to 10 years of retirement, people are probably going to spend more rather than less, because they’re in fairly good health and want to enjoy that time,” he said.
One way to get a good handle on your spending is to test-run your retirement budget, he said. In one recent conversation with a couple, he told them: “Maybe one spouse who really wants to retire can. The other spouse continues working and maybe we take six months to a year and try to live on that budget, practice, see if it’s actually doable before both husband and wife call it retirement,” Yates said.
3. Don’t focus on the market
Given the media’s attention on the market’s every move, it’s no surprise that people seeking help from an adviser often fret about what happen next. That’s the wrong focus, said Robert Klein, president of the Retirement Income Center in Newport Beach, Calif. (Klein is also a writer for MarketWatch’s RetireMentor section.)
“People read so much in the media about performance and that’s naturally their focus until you show them on paper it’s all about your goals and planning for those and controlling what you can control,” he said. While investors must make sure their investments are diversified, there’s no way of knowing when the market might take another steep plunge.
“You have to control what you can control and develop prudent strategies that are going to work no matter what the market does,” Klein said.
4. Be clear about your goals
Retirement planning is about more than “just having X dollars in income,” Klein said. Figure out what you want retirement to look like, and then work from that. “It’s about a lifestyle in retirement. What are they going to be doing day-to-day in retirement?” he said. “Then you can focus on the finances: ‘What is it going to take so I can do that?’”
For some people, a hard look at a retirement lifestyle leads them to choose to work longer, Klein said. “A lot of people are better off working longer even if they can afford to retire. They just don’t have the hobbies. It’s a whole different routine when you retire,” he said. “Phased retirement is really good for a lot of those people, so they can take baby steps into retirement,” he added.
5. Use software that provides a picture
If you’re planning your own retirement, are you using financial software that will create projections as a chart? “Most people don’t communicate with numbers, they communicate pictorially,” said Kimberly Foss, founder of Empyrion Wealth Management Inc. in Roseville, Calif.
Foss said she shows clients a simple chart depicting how long their money is likely to last if they retire now. In some cases, she might produce a second chart that shows how spending less might make their outlook improve, and then talk with the client about options, such as downsizing the house or refinancing, working longer or delaying the purchase of a new car.
For one couple, seeing those pictures and having that discussion made all the difference, Foss said. They wanted to spend the same amount of money in retirement that they’d been spending while they worked, but the size of their savings account didn’t support that goal. So, they switched from the country club to a lower-cost health club, refinanced into a cheaper mortgage and started cooking at home more rather than eating out.
Reducing those costs and others preserved their portfolio for the long haul. Said Foss: “It created the income so that they could retire.”
6. Get real with your adult children
In some cases, people retire but unforeseen expenses put their financial security at risk. Skeans said one client unexpectedly found herself supporting her adult daughter and grandson, who live in her home, even as she herself recently entered a care facility.
“She’s taken out enormous amounts of money to help her daughter and grandson,” Skeans said. “She’s supporting their household and she’s paying the cost of assisted living. I said, ‘If you continue at this pace, this portfolio is going to be gone in five years.’”
Skeans said if the client sells her home—that is, asks her daughter to find her own place—that money would bolster her finances. “She should be able to make it and still leave something to this daughter in the end,” Skeans said. “She said, ‘I’m going to talk to my daughter about that.’”