Retirement planning is the process of identifying your long term income, determining your intended lifestyle and defining how to reach those goals. When planning for retirement, you'll need to consider a variety of factors, such as when you'll retire, where you'll live and what you'll do. Keep in mind with each additional year you hope to retire early, your investment needs greatly increase. Also consider the difference in cost of living between cities, or even among neighboring zip codes. Add on daily expenses, medical expenses, vacations and emergencies, and you begin to see how the costs of retirement add up.

Your retirement goals will rest largely on the income you can expect during your retirement, and will likely evolve as your ideals, risk tolerance and investment horizon change. While specific investing “rule of thumb” guidelines (like “You need 20 times your gross annual income to retire” or “Save and invest 10% of your pre-tax income) are helpful, it’s important to step back and look at the big picture. Consider these six essential rules for truly smart retirement investing.

Understand Your Retirement Investment Options

You can save for retirement in a variety of tax-deferred vehicles, some offered by your employer and others available via a brokerage firm or bank. It's important to take advantage of all your options, including investigating what kind of retirement benefits your employer may offer; some employers still offer guaranteed pensions which is a big bonus during a time of volatility in the stock market.

When building your portfolio in a retirement account, it's important to understand the risk/reward relationship when choosing your investments. Younger investors may focus on higher risk/higher reward investments such as stocks because they have decades left to recover from losses. People nearing retirement, however, are less able to recover and therefore tend to shift their portfolios toward lower risk/lower reward investments such as bonds. Retirement vehicles and common portfolio investments include:

Retirement Vehicles:

  • 401(k)s and Company Plans – Employer-sponsored plans, including 401(k)s, that provide employees with automatic savings, tax incentives and (in some cases) matching contributions.
  • Defined Benefit Plans - An employer-sponsored retirement plan where employee benefits paid during retirement based on a formula using factors such as salary history and duration of employment.
  • Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) – Individual savings accounts that allow individuals to direct pretax income, up to annual limits, toward investments that can grow tax-deferred.
  • Roth IRA - An individual retirement plan that bears many similarities to the traditional IRA, but contributions are not tax deductible and qualified distributions are tax free.
  • SEP - A retirement plan that an employer or self-employed individual can establish. Contributions to SEP IRAs are immediately 100% vested, and the IRA owner directs the investments.
  • SIMPLE IRAs - A retirement plan that can be used by most small businesses with 100 or fewer employees.

Portfolio Investments

  • Annuities – Insurance products that provide a source of monthly, quarterly, annual or lump sum income during retirement.
  • Mutual Funds – Professionally managed pools of stocks, bonds and/or other instruments that are divided into shares and sold to investors.
  • Stocks – Securities that represent ownership in the corporation that issued the stock.
  • Bonds – Debt securities in which you lend money to an issuer (such as a government or corporation) in exchange for interest payments and the future repayment of the bond’s face value.
  • Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) – Uniquely structured investment funds that trade like stocks on regulated exchanges that track broad-based or sector indexes, commodities and baskets of assets.
  • Cash Investments – Low-risk, short-term obligations that provide returns in the form of interest payments (for example, CDs and money market deposit accounts).
  • Direct Reinvestment Plans (DRIPs) – Plans offered by corporations that allow you to reinvest cash dividends by purchasing additional shares or fractional shares on the dividend payment date.

Start Early

No matter what you read about retirement investing, one piece of advice stays the same: start early. Why?

  • Barring a major loss, more years saving means more money by the time you retire.
  • You gain more experience and develop expertise in a wider variety of investment options.
  • You have more time to survive losses, which increases your ability to recover from major hits and gives you more freedom to try higher risk/higher reward investments.
  • You make saving and investing a habit.
  • You can take advantage of the power of compounding - reinvesting your earnings to create a snowball effect with your gains.

Remember that compounding is most successful over longer periods of time. Here’s an example to illustrate: Assume you make a single $10,000 investment when you are 20 years old and it grows at 5% each year until you retire at age 65. If you reinvest your gains (this is the compounding), your investment would be worth $89,850.08.

Now imagine you didn't invest the $10,000 until you were 40. With only 25 years to compound, your investment would be worth only $33,863.55. Wait until you're 50 and your investment would be valued at just $20,789.28. This is, of course, an overly simplified example that assumes a constant 5% rate without taking taxes or inflation into consideration. It’s easy to see, however, that the longer you can put your money to work, the better. Starting early is one of the easiest ways to ensure a comfortable retirement.

Do the Math

You make money, you spend money. For many, this is about as deep as their understanding of cash flow gets. Instead of making guesses about where your money goes, you can calculate your net worth. Your net worth is the difference between what you own (your assets) and what you owe (your liabilities). Assets typically include cash and cash equivalents (for example, savings accounts, Treasury bills, certificates of deposit), investments, real property (your home and any rental properties or a second home), and personal property (such as boats, collectibles, jewelry, vehicles and household furnishings). Liabilities include debts such as mortgages, automobile loans, credit card debt, medical bills and student loans. Adding up all of your assets and subtracting the sum of your liabilities leaves you with the total amount of money you truly possess (your net worth), and a clear view of how much money you'll need to earn to reach your goals.

As soon as you have assets and liabilities, it’s a good time to start calculating your net worth on a regular basis (yearly works well for most people). Since your net worth represents where you are now, it’s beneficial to compare these figures over time. Doing so can help you recognize your financial strengths and weaknesses, allowing you to make better financial decisions in the future.

It’s often said that you can’t reach a goal you never set, and this holds true for retirement planning. If you fail to establish specific goals, it’s difficult to find the incentive to save, invest and put in the time and effort to ensure you are making the best decisions. Specific and written goals can provide the motivation you need. Examples of written retirement goals:

  • I want to retire when I’m 65.
  • I want move to a small house near the kids.
  • I want to travel internationally 12 weeks each year.
  • I’ll need $48,000 each year to do these things.
  • To retire at 65 and spend $48,000 for the following 20 years, I'll need a minimum net worth of $960,000 (a simplified figure that does not take into consideration taxes, inflation, changes to Social Security benefits, changes to investment earning rates, etc.).

Keep Your Emotions in Check

Investments can be influenced by your emotions far easier than you might realize. Here's the typical pattern of emotional investment behavior:

When investments perform well

  • Overconfidence takes over
  • You underestimate risk
  • You make bad decisions and lose money

When investments perform badly

  • Fear takes over
  • You put all your money into low-risk cash and bonds
  • You don’t make any money

Emotional reactions can make it difficult to build wealth over time, as potential gains are sabotaged by overconfidence and fear puts a wrench in the spokes of investments that could grow. As such, it is important to:

  • Be realistic – Not every investment will be a winner, and not every stock will grow as your grandparents’ blue-chip stocks did.
  • Keep your emotions in check – Be mindful of your wins and losses – both realized and unrealized. Rather than reacting, take the time to evaluate your choices and learn from your mistakes and successes. You’ll make better decisions in the future.
  • Maintain a balanced portfolio – Create a blend of stocks, bonds and other investment instruments that make sense for your age, risk tolerance and goals. Re-balance your portfolio periodically as your risk tolerance and goals change.

Pay Attention to Fees

While you are likely focus on returns and taxes, your gains can be drastically eroded by fees. Investment fees cause you to incur direct costs – the fees that are often taken directly out of your account – and indirect costs – the money you paid in fees that can no longer be used to generate returns.

Common fees include:

  • Transaction fees
  • Expense ratios
  • Administrative fees
  • Loads

Depending on the types of accounts you have and the investments you select, these fees can really add up. The first step is to figure out what you're spending on fees. Your brokerage statement will indicate how much you're paying to execute a stock trade, for example, and your fund’s prospectus (or financial news websites) will show expense ratio information. Armed with this knowledge, you can shop for alternative investments (such as a comparable lower-fee mutual fund) or switch to a broker that offers reduced transaction costs (many brokers, for example, offer commission-free ETF trading on select groups of funds).

To illustrate the difference that a small change in expense ratio can make over the course of an investment, consider the following (hypothetical) table:

Source: Investopedia estimates

As the table shows, if you invest in a fund with a 2.5% expense ratio, your investment would be worth $46,022 after 20 years, assuming a 10% annualized return. At the other end of the spectrum, your investment would be worth $61,159 if the fund had a lower, 0.5% expense ratio – an increase of more than $15,000 over the 2.5% fund’s return.

Get Help When You Need It

"I don’t know what to do" is a common excuse for postponing retirement planning. Like ignorantia juris non excusat (loosely translated as ignorance is no excuse), lack of knowledge about investing is not a convincing excuse for failing to plan and invest for retirement.

There are plenty of ways to receive a basic, intermediate or even advanced "education" in retirement planning to fit every budget, and even a little time spent goes a long way, whether through your own research, or with the help of a qualified investment adviser, financial planner, Certified Public Accountant (CPA) or other professional. You're planning for your future well-being, and "I didn't know what to do" won't pay the bills when you're 65.

The Bottom Line

You can improve your chances of enjoying a comfortable future if you make the effort to learn about your investing choices, start planning early, keep your emotions in check and find help when you need it. While these steps may seem overly simple, a lack of action can have huge consequences for your financial future. Stay informed and engaged in your retirement planning now to reap the benefits of a well-invested retirement plan later.

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