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How to ruin your retirement in 6 easy steps

Reprinted courtesy of MarketWatch.com.

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Many people I know have concluded that retirement was worth waiting for and worth planning for. Those who planned well (and who are lucky enough to have good health) are generally finding this to be a very satisfying time in their lives. But those who didn’t plan well or who couldn’t save enough are finding that retirement can be difficult.

My commitment is to help people, but this week I’m switching roles so I can give you some dynamite tips for having an unhappy retirement. (Of course, what I’m really advocating is that you do not do these things.)

1. Don’t save enough money. Spend (and borrow) whatever it takes to keep yourself and your family happy. You can always catch up later when you get into your peak earning years, when the kids are gone, or when you’re finally finished paying for whatever else is more important right now.

The likely result: You could find yourself in “panic mode” in your 50s and 60s. You could have to work longer than you want. You could have to reduce your living standards after your work life is through. You could fall prey to persuasive salespeople (see my final tip below) who do not have your best interests at heart. Or maybe even all of the above.

2. Be careless about how you plan and budget for retirement expenses. When I was an advisor, I was amazed how many investors neglected to include taxes as a cost of living in retirement. If you’re living off of distributions from a non-Roth IRA or 401(k), the full amount of those distributions is likely to be taxable. For extra credit: Don’t spend any money on a financial advisor to help you plan.

The likely result: You may go into “panic mode” when your accountant hands you an unexpected tax bill.

3. Lock in your expectations about your life in retirement and make rigid financial decisions. There are plenty of ways to do this. You could sell your house and move somewhere cheaper even though you don’t know anybody there and you’ve never lived through a winter or summer in your new locale. You could buy a fixed annuity to have an income that’s certain. You could fail to establish an emergency fund. (After all, what could go wrong?) You could get sick or need surgery that isn’t covered by Medicare or other insurance.

The likely result: Things will happen that you don’t expect, probably sending you once again into “panic mode” and making you vulnerable to the pitches from all manner of enthusiastic salespeople.

4. Ignore inflation, since it doesn’t seem like a current problem. Assume that $1,000 will buy roughly the same “basket of goods and services” in 2026 and 2036 that it will today. Be confident that you know what the future holds. After all, the years of high inflation that are often cited happened a long time ago. Things are different now.

The likely result: You probably won’t be thrust into “panic mode” since inflation is usually gradual. But one day you will realize with a start that things are costing a lot more than they “should,” and your income can’t keep up.

5. Keep all your money where it’s “safe,” in fixed income. You’ll have lots of company among current retirees whose “golden” years are being tarnished because they have to rely on today’s historically low interest rates. Don’t invest even 20% of your money in equities, because, as we all know, you can lose money in the stock market.

The likely result: You may start retirement with sufficient income to meet your needs, but those needs will probably increase, especially for health care, in your later retirement years. Your fixed income may be safe, but it won’t expand to meet increased needs.

6. Attend investment seminars and trust the presenters, then make important decisions without getting a second professional opinion. You could follow the unfortunate example of a couple I know who, in their 50s, attended a retirement seminar, met privately with the presenter/saleswoman, then rolled their entire retirement accounts into a variable annuity. They thought they were giving themselves good returns, future flexibility and saving a lot of money in taxes.

In reality, they gave themselves huge headaches and nearly lost half their life savings. I helped them fight the unpleasant (and ultimately successful) battle to get out of their contract and recover their money.

This couple could teach us all some lessons, but the terms of their settlement makes that unlikely. If they disclose that they got their money back, or if they disclose how they were deceived and cheated, they will have to give the money back to the insurance company.

The likely results: You will be disappointed in the decisions you make. You will have many reasons to never trust an investment sales pitch again. You will have less money in retirement than if you had never heard of that particular seminar.

So now you have it: Six easy steps to ruin your retirement. I hope, of course, that you do just the opposite of each one of these. Unfortunately, I think there’s a high likelihood that somebody you know has fallen into one or more of these traps.

My advice: Learn from their mistakes.

For more, check out my podcast “How to avoid the 20 most common investment mistakes retirees make.”

Richard Buck contributed to this article.