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Improving Your Odds in the 'Retirement Gamble'

Roger Wohlner

PBS' "Frontline" recently aired "The Retirement Gamble," an excellent documentary on some of the problems with the retirement savings system in the U.S. While the show brought out some excellent points, it seemed to have a pre-conceived agenda and a reflexive bias against the financial services industry.

Specifically, it failed to highlight that there actually are good 401(k) plans out there, and they can be used to accumulate a significant nest egg.

Regardless of your take on the show, here are some tips to "improve your odds" of a successful retirement.

Get a financial plan in place. Winging it is not a strategy, it's a virtual guarantee of retirement failure. Numerous studies have shown that those with a financial plan accumulate more assets and improve their odds of reaching their financial goals. Join that group, find a competent fee-only financial planner, pay their fee and let them help you chart a course to a solid financial future.

Take advantage of your workplace retirement plan. If you have a 401(k) or similar plan available to you, use it. At the very least contribute enough to earn the full match if one is offered. Contribute as much as you can afford. Gradually increase your deferral percentage each year if you aren't contributing the maximum.

Make sure that you allocate your 401(k) as part of an overall portfolio. In addition to your retirement plan account, you likely have other investments outside of the plan. Treat your 401(k) account as part of this overall portfolio when making investment choices.

Make affirmative decisions about your retirement plan when leaving a job. In today's world it is not unlikely that a person might work for as many as 10 employers during their career. I see far too many folks who just forget about their 401(k) accounts at old employers. You really need to manage this money, make it work for your retirement. Make a decision. Leave the money in your old employer's plan, roll it to your new employer's plan (if applicable), or roll it to an individual retirement account. Whatever you do, do something, have a strategy for this money.

If you are self-employed make sure you save for retirement. Fund an IRA, start a SEP-IRA, a Solo 401(k), or perhaps a pension plan for yourself. Start out by contributing what you can and keep increasing your contributions as your income allows. The choice of plans may evolve over time with changes in your circumstances. You work too hard not to take care of your retirement needs.

Become knowledgeable. While you may never become a financial expert, it's your retirement, and your financial future. Take an interest, read, and learn. This will help you even if you hire a professional. A bit of knowledge and your good common sense can go a long way in avoiding financial scammers and rip-offs.

Saving for your retirement isn't easy. A bit of planning and preparation can increase your odds of success.

Roger Wohlner, CFP®, is a fee-only financial adviser at Asset Strategy Consultants based in Arlington Heights, Ill., where he provides financial planning and investment advice to individual clients, 401(k) plan sponsors and participants, foundations, and endowments. Roger is active on both Twitter (@rwohlner) and LinkedIn. Check out Roger's popular blog The Chicago Financial Planner where he writes about issues concerning financial planning, investments, and retirement plans.

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