It might be an understatement to say that retirement planning has been looking a little different lately, considering the impact that Covid-19 has had on our health and the economy. Some people may have considered retiring early with fewer savings than they’d planned.
Even if your retirement looks pretty secure, the beginning of a new year is always a good time to reevaluate things. Things may have felt a little more intense as of late, and while there are new things to consider, tried and true principles also hold.
Here are ten things you can do to ramp up your retirement planning in 2021.
1. Consider that you may have to retire earlier than planned.
A lot of people end up retiring earlier than they’d originally planned. By some estimates, more close to half of all retirees stopped working before their target retirement date, and this way before Covid.
In the post-Covid world, being prepared for early retirement is smart, especially if you’re nearing retirement age. With layoffs looming and the chance of increased exposure in the workplace, early retirement is not out of the question, whether it’s by choice or not.
People who are nearly retirement age would be wise to start making plans, just in case. Although vaccines are on the horizon and economic recovery may be around the corner, it’s still important to be prepared.
2. Focus on your debt now.
If you have debt, the best time to pay it off is while you’re still working. If you’re thinking about retiring in the next year or so, focus on paying off any debt, especially high-interest loans and credit card balances. Pay off car loans and student loans if you can, and consider making extra mortgage payments if you can afford to do so. It is very difficult to pay down debt when you are on a fixed income, so eliminating as much as you can before retirement is a good idea.
3. Know your options.
You can begin collecting Social Security at age 62 and taking distributions from your 401K without penalty at age 59 ½. But that doesn’t mean you should. If you continue to wait for both Social Security payments as well as 401K distributions, these items tend to continue their growth. For most people this proves beneficial over the long-run. Most plans require minimum distributions at age 72. Should that be your goal?
You have a lot of options when it comes to retirement, and the best way to deal with them is to speak to a financial advisor who understands the ins and outs of all these choices and the repercussions of your decisions. Ideally, you should start planning well before you plan to retire.
No matter what you choose, you still need some sort of investment strategy, even when you begin taking withdrawals in retirement. Sometimes, it helps to divide your investments into buckets, planning for both the immediate future and building long-term savings that can survive a market downturn in the future.
4. Practice retirement spending.
Most people have heard that you should plan to live on 80 percent of your income when you enter retirement, but this rule of thumb isn’t all that useful. Instead, take a look at your real spending needs to figure out where you’ll be when you retire.
One way to do this is to track your spending very closely over the next year to see what you will need during the first year of retirement, making adjustments as needed. For example, you’re probably not going to spend as much on transportation, fuel, and parking fees when you’re not going to work every day, but you might spend more on travel since you’ll have more time. Take a close look at your expenses and see where you can make adjustments to reduce spending as much as you can.
The fact that people are traveling less during the Covid pandemic may be helpful in this respect. Some people are staying at home and spending less. If these savings are put to use in the right way, you may be able to pay down some debt or build up savings.
5. Think long and hard about taking out a Coronavirus Hardship Withdrawal.
The CARES Act eased the rules about early withdrawals, allowing people to withdraw up to $100,000 from their 401ks and IRAs without any withdrawal penalties, though they will still have to pay income taxes with the option of spreading the tax bill over three years.
If you took this withdrawal because you lost your job and needed the money to get through but found another job, it’s best to pay the money back as soon as you can. Why? If you lost your job, you’re likely to be in a lower tax bracket in 2020 than you will in 2021 and beyond. This means you’ll pay less in taxes if you pay them as soon as you can.
You also have three years to repay the money to your retirement account, avoiding paying taxes altogether. If you have the means, focus on paying the early withdrawals back so your money can earn interest before you retire.
6. Think about health insurance.
Americans are eligible for Medicare at age 65, but enrollment isn’t automatic and it takes some time for coverage to kick in. Research what you need to know in the months leading up to your 65th birthday to make sure you sign up in enough time to have your coverage kick in.
It’s also important to know what Medicare covers. Most Americans will still have to pay for things like copays and supplemental insurance, which can be quite an expense when you’re living on a fixed income. Make sure these expenses are factored into your retirement budget so you know where you stand.
That said, you also need a plan for what you’re going to do if you’re forced into early retirement and are not yet eligible for Medicare. What plans are offered in your state? Is COBRA an option? Can you work out something in an early retirement package with your employer? It helps to know what you’re facing before you’re stuck without insurance.
7. Take advantage of your health savings account.
If you can build up a decent health savings account, you can use it to cover some of these healthcare expenses in early retirement. If you don’t have an HSA, start one and sock away as much as you can every year. These contributions can grow tax-free over years, which gives you a way to pay for healthcare expenses late in life.
Health savings accounts offer tremendous benefits. Contributions are tax-deductible and withdrawals are tax-free when you use them to pay for medical expenses. These accounts are often tied to insurance plans with high deductibles, so they may not work for everyone. That said, they are a good option for healthy people who don’t have many healthcare expenses.
8. Do a post-crisis risk assessment.
The Covid pandemic and economic problems of 2020 were something that everyone experienced, albeit to different degrees. You might feel that you weathered the storm well or assume that, once this is over, it won’t happen again, but thinking this way is a mistake. Be honest with yourself about how well you can weather another surprise. Focus on building a safety net. If nothing else, Covid has taught us that nothing is certain and there may be another crisis right around the corner.
Preparing for the next thing isn’t easy at the moment as some savings staples, like CDs or treasury bonds, have low returns because of historically low-interest rates. In some ways, this is forcing people to take on riskier investments to get a higher return, and no one is sure what the payoff for that will be in the future.
9. Don’t count out getting a part-time job.
Working a part-time job in retirement is a great way to supplement your retirement income, and it can be quite lucrative. Depending on your career, you may have opportunities to consult or freelance occasionally, or you may choose to work a more traditional part-time job to stay social and meet new people.
Any dollar you make after retirement can help extend your savings even longer. Retirement is a great time to turn a hobby or skill into a source of supplemental income. Consider renting out a room as an Airbnb, driving for Uber, or delivering for a company like Shipt or Doordash.
10. Should you put off retirement?
If you’re feeling like early retirement is inevitable or you’re a little gun-shy about leaving the workforce, we understand. There’s a lot of uncertainty at the moment and it might be better to postpone retirement if possible. The truth is that if you haven’t saved enough, you’re likely better off sticking it out as long as possible, even if that means having to push off collecting Social Security for a year or two. If you can stretch out your options by getting a part-time job to get you through a few more years, that might be the best option.