A Pre-Retirement Checkup

You can see it on the horizon. Never-ending days of rest and relaxation. No stress. No pressure. No job. No worries. At least that's how many people picture retirement as they trudge off to work every day and dream about the future. Talk to retirees for awhile and a new picture emerges. Boredom, financial worries, stock market jitters, a lack of purpose and even depression are often cited as post-retirement concerns.

To avoid working all of your life and dreaming about retirement only to be disappointed when it arrives, you need to do more than just monitor the balance in your 401(k) plan. Find out what you can do to make sure that your retirement lives up to your dreams.

Manage Your Debt

If you don't want to worry about money after you retire, you need to take action well in advance of the day you expect to receive that gold watch and fond farewell. Because you're going to be on a fixed income after you retire and debt servicing can take a big chunk out of that fixed income, you need to retire your debts before you retire from your job. The easiest way to get started is to pay off your credit cards. If that's not possible, at the very least pay them down. Debt consolidation can help you with this effort.

Once the cards are under control, it's time to eliminate your car payment. Get yourself a good, solid set of wheels, so you can roll off into the sunset with years of carefree driving ahead of you. Next, it's time to tackle your housing needs. Paying for a place to live tends to take a huge bite out most paychecks, so making sure that your castle is paid for in-full is great way to manage a fixed income. If you can't afford to pay off your mortgage, consider the merits of moving to a less expensive place.

Build Up a Big Emergency Fund

Once the paychecks stop coming, the bills will continue to arrive. When you need a new car, a new hot water heater, or some expensive dental work, you don't want to have to worry about how you're going to pay for it. And you don't want to take a big chunk out of your nest egg to cover these costs. The best thing to do is plan in advance for those unexpected expenses.

“An emergency fund provides instant liquidity for dealing with unexpected expenses without having to tap into assets that could create taxable events – like retirement funds or taxable brokerage accounts. It also helps you avoid accumulating negative debt; for example, credit card debt,” says Mark Hebner, founder and president of Index Fund Advisors, Inc., in Irvine, Calif., and author of “Index Funds: The 12-Step Recovery Program for Active Investors.”

Prepare for Medical Expenses

Evaluate your health and take care of any outstanding medical issues while you're still covered by your employer's healthcare coverage. If you're not sure how to cover the cost of healthcare during retirement, health savings accounts can help. These require you to have a high deductible health insurance plan, so they aren't suitable for everyone.

Without a doubt, you will need to make plans for healthcare coverage, if for no other reason than the fact that it's expensive. Consider long-term care insurance. “But long-term care is more than that,” says Marguerita Cheng, CFP®, chief executive officer of Blue Ocean Global Wealth in Gaithersburg, Md. “Where do you want to receive the care? How will you pay for the care? Who do you want to provide the care?”

No one is immune to the possibility of needing long-term care, and the costs can deplete a life savings.

Make Plans

Spending all day doing nothing sounds great until all day becomes all month or all year. Far too many people spend all of their working years working and don't make time to cultivate friendships and hobbies. This can lead to disappointment when retirement arrives and it turns out to be lonely and boring.

Just as you have to plan your finances, you also need to plan for the social and mental aspects of retirement. You can go back to school to study art or get a degree that you've always wanted. You can volunteer for a local charity. You can even work part-time. A part-time job can provide healthcare coverage in addition to income and opportunities to get out of the house and socialize.

Take Retirement for a Test Drive

A few years before you are ready to retire is the best time to see if the reality of retirement matches your dreams. By this stage in the game, you should have a good idea of how much money you'll have to work with and that you'll have to watch your spending. If you reach your retirement years before achieving your savings goals, you'll need to have a strategy to ensure that you'll be able to retire at all.

To test out your retirement, start living as if you were already retired. One experiment is to stop using credit cards and pay all of your bills in cash or with checks for a few months. This is a great way to figure out how much money you're really going to go though. When the wallet is empty, you're out of money. If you run out of money before you run out of bills, you'll have to work out a tighter budget to help you stretch your money a little further.

It's also time to join a club or take up a new hobby. This little exercise will give you a preview of the life that awaits. If the experiment suits you, you'll have a good idea about whether retirement is something that you will enjoy.

The Bottom Line

If you're nearing retirement, spend some time thinking about how you want to live and what you can do to reach your retirement goals. As you approach retirement, continue to contribute to your goal and make adjustments to your plan. When retirement arrives, you'll be ready!