So you say you’ve got a pretty good nest egg set up in a 401(k) or an IRA—maybe you’re even one of the lucky ones that has an old-fashioned pension. You've been diligent, and you know it.
All that doesn’t mean you can completely set it and forget it. Even if retirement is decades off, you may want to be proactive now.
It can be helpful to regularly assess your retirement plan to help make sure you’re still on track with the progress you’re making—but knowing that and acting on it can be two different things.
Other than following general rules of thumb, like rebalancing your portfolio once a year, are you unsure when or how often you should be revisiting your strategy?
Here are six common clues that may signal when you and your retirement savings need to get back on the same page.
1. You dread opening your statements
Are the statements from your brokerage firm piling up in the same place where you keep your junk mail?
This might not just be about laziness. Perhaps you’re willfully ignoring them because you’re afraid of what the numbers will say. This behavior tends to emerge during recessions or other times of general market instability, according to Michele Clark, CFP®, principal of Clark Hourly Financial Planning in Chesterfield, Missouri. “One husband told me that when the economy got bad, his wife started to put financial statements away in a drawer without looking at them.”
This type of attitude, though, doesn’t help your anxiety; in fact, it may only add to it. One way to help take your head out of the sand is to make it easier to know where you stand on a regular basis. One way to do this is by linking your financial accounts to your account at LearnVest.com, so you can check on your retirement in the same place that you would check your daily transactions.
While you shouldn’t be rash about changing your entire strategy purely because of volatility, if you find it’s hard for you to ride the market waves then you may need to consider rethinking your risk tolerance. Just remember that your retirement investments are for the long haul, so consider tuning out the market noise and sticking to a strategy that works for your timeline.
2. You feel your retirement mojo slipping away
When you first started saving for retirement, you may have experienced the excitement of seeing your balances grow, and you may have found yourself thinking of how you could save even more.
Now, though, it's likely that day-to-day bills and more immediate money goals have taken up all your brain space, and you’re starting to lose your fervor. “Sometimes people decide they need to get serious about retirement and are very focused, but over time they lose interest,” says Kevin O’Reilly, CFP®, principal of Foothills Financial Planning in Phoenix. “And that means that they’re not going to be doing the things they need to.”
Here’s one reason to keep up the enthusiasm: According to one 2012 study, being actively engaged in your financial life before retirement—whether it’s day-to-day budgeting or long-term investing—is more likely to mean a healthier money life in retirement.
To help stay engaged, try to find ways to bring retirement top of mind. For instance, you could keep a picture of your dream retirement locale pinned up next to your desk—anything to remind you of the future that lies ahead.
Also, consider setting regular calendar alerts to remind yourself to increase your retirement contributions. LearnVest Planners typically recommend increasing your savings by 1% every six months, if possible.
3. You started living larger after your last raise
If you’re lucky enough to land that well-deserved pay hike, it can be natural to feel entitled to allocate some of that to increasing your quality of life. Maybe you’ve decided you can’t live without that golf-club membership or a bigger home.
But in doing so, you could be setting yourself up for disappointment in your retired life. “I’m concerned about people who get a 20% raise and then raise their standard of living—but don’t raise their contributions to their retirement,” Clark says.
After all, it can be easy to get used to an elevation in lifestyle, and whatever you’re indulging in now, you’ll probably want to continue after you retire. Unfortunately, many of us don’t think that far ahead: More than half of U.S. households are at risk of not having enough money to maintain their living standards in retirement, according to findings by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
So every time you get a jump in your paycheck, you should also be thinking about what this means for your future self. Ask yourself: What do you have now that you might be willing to forgo in retirement—and what can’t you live without?
"It’s easy to get used to an elevation in lifestyle, and whatever you’re indulging in now, you’ll probably want to continue after you retire."
4. You used up all your bonus money
Like with raises, bonuses sometimes have a way of making you feel suddenly richer. But think of it this way: A bonus is typically part of your compensation package and hence deserving of some serious thought.
O’Reilly works with a lot of clients who work at Fortune 100 technology companies, and thus receive weighty bonuses every year. He says it’s worth considering following their lead: “They’ll put all of their bonus in their retirement portfolio, covering all their [retirement] contributions in one shot,” he says. If you do follow this strategy, however, just make sure you're aware of the IRS' annual contribution limits to retirement accounts, as well as what type of matching policy your company may have with regard to lump-sum contributions.
If you’re already on track as far as your paycheck-to-paycheck retirement contributions go, it certainly doesn’t hurt to consider throwing in a bit extra when that bonus arrives. “I get a lot of very financially minded clients who use their bonuses to remodel their kitchens or get cars,” says Clark, “and then they want to know what to do with whatever is left over.”
Here’s one simple rule of thumb to consider: the 90/10 rule. When your bonus money comes in, put 90% toward big financial goals like retirement and save 10% for a splurge, if this is something you can afford to do.
5. You leave a lot of extra cash in your checking account
While having a lot of money left over at the end of the month may not seem like cause for alarm, the truth is you may be losing out on potential investment value. “Many people don’t understand the impact of having their money in cash,” says O’Reilly. “It’s losing spending power every day.”
Not putting that leftover money into a retirement account “is one of the most common behaviors I see,” he adds. Part of the issue may be that people think—often mistakenly—that they’re already maxing out their 401(k) contributions.
“Often I’ll check and see that clients are actually maxing out the amount of money they were allowed to three years ago,” Clark says. “A lot of executives are so busy they don’t change the amount. I think half of the people who say they’re maxing out their 401(k)s actually aren’t.”
"People think—often mistakenly—that they’re already maxing out their 401(k) contributions."
Remember that the allowable maximum contribution can change from one year to the next, so check in with the IRS rules to make sure you’re actually putting in every dollar you’re entitled to.
6. You haven’t tried crunching your retirement number
“The most common [question] I get from new clients is, ‘I’m 60 and I want to retire in five years, but I have no idea if I can,’” O’Reilly says.
Figuring out what you’re spending now can serve as a good jumping-off point toward predicting what you may need for everyday expenses during your retirement. If you’re already keeping a budget or keeping tabs on your expenses at LearnVest.com, then you’re probably ahead of the game.
But if you’re not, try writing down how much you spend for such things as food, clothes, entertainment, dining, travel, etc., every day for about two months, and then factor in expenses like health care or long-term care, which will probably go up as you get older.
You can also try plugging numbers into a retirement calculator, or consider following the 85% replacement ratio, which states that you’ll need to replace about 85% of your income in retirement. If you're not sure whether you're on the right track to meet your retirement goals, consider speaking to a Planner for help crafting a strategy that may work for you.
Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. owns the certification marks CFP®, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, CFP® (with plaque design) and CFP® (with flame design) in the U.S., which it awards to individuals who successfully complete CFP Board's initial and ongoing certification requirements.
LearnVest Planning Services is a registered investment adviser and subsidiary of LearnVest, Inc. that provides financial plans for its clients. Information shown is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended as investment, legal or tax planning advice. Please consult a financial adviser, attorney or tax specialist for advice specific to your financial situation. Unless specifically identified as such, the people interviewed in this piece are neither clients, employees nor affiliates of LearnVest Planning Services, and the views expressed are their own. LearnVest Planning Services and any third parties listed in this message are separate and unaffiliated and are not responsible for each other’s products, services or policies.