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3 Tips for a Happy Retirement

Maurie Backman, The Motley Fool

We all want to be happy in retirement, but unfortunately, seniors seem to be growing increasingly dissastisfied with their post-work lives. In a recent study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, most seniors said they're experiencing at least some degree of disappointment, and the number of retirees who consider themselves content has dropped to its lowest point on record.

If you'd rather not join the ranks of those seniors who aren't loving retirement, it's time to take steps to avoid that fate. Here are a few things you need to do to enjoy your golden years to the fullest.

Older couple embracing and laughing

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

1. Save -- a lot -- in advance

It's no secret that retirement costs money. Not only will you face the same basic living costs you did when you were working, like housing, food, and transportation, but if you're like most seniors, you'll probably see your healthcare costs go up. If you want a retirement that's devoid of financial stress, you'll need to start saving for it as early on in your career as possible. And if you're like most people, you'll need to work on ramping up your personal savings rate over time so that if you didn't start out saving from the get-go, you have an opportunity to catch up.

How important is it to start saving early? Here's a table that highlights the difference between kick-starting your savings efforts at various ages throughout your career.

If You Start Saving $400 a Month at Age:

Here's What You'll Have by Age 65 (Assumes a 7% Average Annual Return):

25

$958,000

30

$663,000

35

$453,000

40

$303,000

45

$197,000

50

$120,000

TABLE AND CALCULATIONS BY AUTHOR.

You can't help but notice the difference between giving yourself a 40-year window versus a mere 15 years to put money away. In the former scenario, you stand to retire with close to $1 million, and at an out-of-pocket cost of just $192,000. On the other hand, if you wait too long to start saving, you'll have one of two choices: set aside much, much more each month for whatever working years you have left, or extend your career longer than desired to make up for lost savings opportunities.

Of course, there's a third option as well -- to go ahead and retire without enough savings to support yourself. But if your goal is to be happy in retirement, that's hardly the right way to go.

2. Put your savings to work

The money you save for retirement shouldn't just sit in an account collecting minimal interest. Rather, you should invest that money and grow it into the largest sum possible.

Now for the most part, this means focusing your investments on stocks during your working years, when you have ample time to ride out the market's ups and downs. But if you don't put your savings in stocks, you risk losing out on the sort of returns that could turn your modest monthly contributions into a sizable nest egg over time.

The majority of Americans, in fact, invest too conservatively for retirement and risk falling short when their careers come to an end. But if you're willing to go heavy on stocks, you stand to come out ahead, as the following table illustrates:

Investment Style

Average Annual Investment Return

Total Accumulated Over 40 Years (Assumes a $400 Monthly Investment)

Conservative – mostly cash

1%

$234,000

Moderately conservative – cash and bonds

3%

$362,000

Moderately aggressive – mostly bonds and some stocks

5%

$580,000

Aggressive – mostly stocks

7%

$958,000

TABLE AND CALCULATIONS BY AUTHOR.

Focusing your investments on stocks means giving yourself the greatest likelihood of accumulating some degree of wealth. And the more money you have to work with in retirement, the more enjoyable a lifestyle you'll be able to buy yourself.

3. Learn to live large on less

With the average household nearing retirement having just $163,577 saved, countless seniors are apt to be headed for disappointment when they realize their nest eggs can't buy them the lifestyle they imagined. (Remember, while $163,577 might seem like a decent savings balance, at a 4% annual withdrawal rate, which has long been the standard, that's just $6,500 a year in income, give or take.) If you're entering retirement without a lot of savings, then the sooner you adjust your expectations, the happier you'll be in the long run.

It could very well be that you planned on traveling extensively in retirement, or enjoying your city's nightlife frequently. But if your savings can't support those dreams, then seek out new ways of finding fulfillment. That might mean volunteering, spending more time outdoors (parks are generally free), or finding low-cost ways to socialize (like events at your local community center) rather than stretching your budget to pay for entertainment.

Similarly, if you don't have enough savings to keep up with a pricey home, you may need to consider downsizing or moving someplace more affordable. These are the kind of concessions that can throw you if you let them. But if you go with a positive and realistic attitude, you're likely to be happier with your circumstances.

Being happy in retirement often boils down to saving for it well in advance, investing wisely, and learning to be content with what you have. And the sooner you realize this, the better positioned you'll be to plan for a fulfilling future.

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