Retirement is a major life transition that requires changes to your income and lifestyle. Here are the final preparations you should be making if you plan to retire in 2015.
Decide when to sign up for Social Security. When you sign up for Social Security drastically affects how much you will receive each month. Most baby boomers are eligible to receive full benefits at age 66. If you sign up before age 66, your monthly payments are reduced, and if you delay claiming up until age 70, your payments increase. "You want to consider the penalty for taking it early and the benefit of delaying it beyond full retirement age," says Christopher Rhim, a certified financial planner for Green View Advisors in Norwich, Vermont. Members of married couples may also be able to claim spousal and survivor's payments and strategize ways to maximize their benefit as a couple. You can get a personalized estimate of your benefit by creating an online account at socialsecurity.gov/myaccount.
Take care to sign up for Medicare on time. It's important to sign up for Medicare as soon as you are eligible to do so. "You should start submitting the paperwork for Medicare up to three months before age 65," Rhim says. "It's not something you want to wait and delay on because there are some financial penalties if you sign up later." Also, take a look at Medicare's premiums, deductibles, copays and coinsurance so you can get an idea of how much you will need to pay out of pocket. If you retire before age 65, you will need to find another source of health insurance until you qualify for Medicare, perhaps through your state's health insurance exchange or your former employer.
Assess your workplace retirement benefits. Make an appointment with your human resources department to determine which workplace retirement benefits will carry over into retirement. Some fortunate employees get traditional pension payments and retiree health insurance after leaving their jobs. You should also check when you vest in your 401(k) plan and get to keep your employer's contributions.
Consider rolling over your 401(k). When you leave your job, you have the option to roll your 401(k) balance over to an individual retirement account. To decide if this is a good move, you need to compare the fees and investment options in the 401(k) plan with those in an IRA. "If they do roll it all over into an IRA, they get certain benefits from it," says Laura Mattia, a certified financial planner for Baron Financial Group in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. "A lot of times when you consolidate, you can take advantage of price breaks and lower fees." However, if you leave your job at age 55 or older (or age 50 for public safety employees) and plan to dip into your 401(k) balance immediately, you may want to leave the money you will need in the 401(k) plan. You can take penalty-free 401(k) withdrawals from the 401(k) associated with the job you left at age 55 or later, but if you move the money to an IRA, you will have to wait until age 59½ to avoid the 10 percent early withdrawal penalty.
Make a long-term investment plan. Investors obviously want to keep their nest egg safe, but you also need to make sure that it lasts the rest of your life and keeps up with rising costs. "You really don't want to get too conservative because your portfolio has to overcome inflation and management fees and trading costs," Rhim says. "If you are looking at 20 to 25 years of retirement, that is a long-term planning horizon and you need a competitive return. That really is a call for stocks. You simply can't get that type of return with bonds and cash." You also need to develop a plan for how you will spend down your assets in a way that minimizes taxes and penalties. "You should list all your financial assets, where they are and identify what the strategy is behind them," Mattia says. "You want to make sure you are reacting according to your strategy and not making decisions emotionally."
Remember required minimum distributions. Beginning after age 70½, you will typically be required to withdraw money from your traditional retirement accounts every year and pay income tax on each distribution. The penalty for failing to withdraw the correct amount is 50 percent of the amount that should have been withdrawn.
Develop a plan for emergencies. Covering your basic monthly costs in retirement isn't enough. You'll continue to need an emergency fund in retirement to cover unexpected bills. "I always tell people to keep between six months to a year's worth of expenses in a liquid interest-bearing account that you can get to whenever you want," Mattia says. "Having some cash out at all times also gives you flexibility, so if investments are not going in the right direction, you can leave them alone for a while to get back on the right track."
Decide how you will send your time. What you decide to do in retirement will have a big impact on your costs and quality of life. "Certainly you will spend less on gas and don't have to spend as much on work clothes, but some people are also going to spend more money now because they have the time and don't just want to sit around the house," says Craig Schmith, a certified financial planner in Durham, North Carolina. "If you've got pent-up demand to travel, especially internationally, and you haven't had time to do that, you need to think about budgeting that in."
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