Tips for Retirement Planning in Your 50s

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Retirement seems way out there on a distant horizon when you're in your forties. That horizon begins inching much closer when you reach your fifties, but you can take some steps to catch up if you find that your savings aren't quite where you'd like them to be yet.

Consider playing around with online retirement calculators. They can help you figure out how much income you might have in retirement given your current amount of savings and your investments.

Retirement Calculators: Caveat Emptor

Free online calculators can give you a broad overview of the relevant components of your retirement plan, but they're based on assumptions. Most online retirement calculators don't accurately factor in taxes, and this can make a big difference in the results as well. You might want to enlist the help of a competent retirement planner if you want to nail down a more detailed projection. 

Get a Handle on Spending

Nobody likes to hear it, but the fastest way to save more is to spend less. Trimming your lifestyle to one that costs a little less will allow you to save more now, and it will cost you less to maintain your standard of living in retirement later.

You can get a good handle on your spending habits by completing a ​retirement budget worksheet. Don't overlook health insurance costs. Take a close look at your estimated healthcare costs in retirement before you make any permanent plans, particularly if you plan on retiring before you reach Medicare age. These costs can be much higher than you might expect.

Trim Down Debt

It goes without saying that you don't want to head into retirement dragging a boatload of debt along with you. Credit cards certainly factor in here, but your largest, most cumbersome debt is probably your mortgage.

You could shave thousands a month off your must-pay budget if you can manage to pay off your home before you stop working.

You could begin making extra principal payments each month in your fifties, as much as you can afford, then refinance the smaller balance to achieve more retirement-friendly payments. Or you could take the plunge and sell your home, particularly if it's more space than you now need and it's costly to maintain. Take the cash and purchase something smaller.

Voila. No more mortgage payment. You'll save on taxes and insurance if you downsize as well.

Educate Yourself

Get a heads-up on the rules about retirement accounts and how they change as you reach specific ages, but there's a warning here, too. Online content, books, and classes are all great resources, but it can still be difficult to determine which advice applies best to your personal situation. Again, professional help from a retirement planner can help guide your decisions. 

Focus on Your Career

For most people, earning power is one of the greatest assets they have, so don't be too quick to let that job go. Finding work that you enjoy might be the perfect solution. You might find that you want to stay in the workforce longer if you enjoy what you're doing, and there are some benefits to doing so.

First, you'll continue to pay into Social Security, potentially increasing your eventual benefits. They're based on your highest 35 years of earnings. If you're enjoying a pretty good wage now that you've been in the workforce for a while, these earnings can offset some of the years in which you didn't earn so much, like when you were first starting out in the workforce.

Look for ways you can earn extra money through enjoyable hobbies and skills if you just really don't want to punch a time clock any longer. 

Keep in mind that you'll have to plan for a longer retirement if you're determined to stop working in your fifties. You'll need enough funds to last you 35 to 40 years rather than 20 to 30 years, so you'll have to save a lot more. And you'll pay a 10-percent tax penalty if you dip into most retirement plans before age 59 1/2 if you do so for any reason other than a qualifying emergency.

Invest and Save Rather Than Speculate

You have to be able to count on your retirement money being there for you, so now isn't the time to speculate. Learn what it means to build a portfolio, then do it. Build one that's appropriate for your goals. Don't rely on "investment experts" who make unrealistic promises. 

And remember that there's no such thing as a free lunch or a perfect investment. Nothing offers absolute safety with no risk. Even so-called "safe" investments can't ensure that your rate of return won't be less than inflation and that you won't lose purchasing power over time. Your best option is to create a mix of investments with different levels of risk.

Play Catch Up

The Internal Revenue Code increases the contribution limits for tax-free retirement accounts beginning in the year in which you turn 50. You can save an extra $1,000 in an IRA, or a total of $2,000 if you're married and both you and your spouse are 50 or older. The 50-plus limit for 401(k) plans is $6,000 more as of 2019.

This puts 401(k) contribution limits at $25,000 per person in 2019—$19,000 plus $6,000—and at $7,000 per person for IRAs: $6,000 plus $1,000. And that 401(k) limit does not include your employer's contributions. This is definitely something you might want to take advantage of each year until retirement if you have the financial bandwidth.

You might also want to gather up all your 401(k) plans from previous employers if they're still sitting with them and plunk them all down in one plan for optimal growth. Choose a plan with the lowest, most manageable fees. If nothing else, this should help you more easily keep track of your savings and investments as retirement approaches.

Review Your Plan Regularly

The more often you look at your finances, the more likely you are to make progress. Consider working your way through a retirement planning checklist. After you’ve gotten all the way through the list, begin conducting annual or even semi-annual reviews. Start at the top and work your way back down again, updating as you go along.