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retirement checklist

The U.S. Census Bureau states that the average American retires at age 63. Yet the Social Security Administration defines full retirement age as between 65 and 67, depending on your year of birth. Your employer may say something different. Deciding when to retire is one of the hardest decisions you’ll have to make. Retire too late and you may not have the energy to enjoy it. But if you retire too early, you could end up in financial trouble. So how can you know if you’re truly ready to retire?

When you’re mulling over your retirement readiness there’s more to consider than your current retirement savings. We made this checklist to help near-retirees determine if they’re really ready. Ideally, you’d cross off each item on this retirement checklist before leaving your job.

1. Take inventory of your assets.

First things first: You need to figure out where you stand financially. Evaluate your budget. Write down every debt, liability, savings balance, income stream and insurance policy you have. Don’t forget about properties, vehicles and other valuable possessions that affect your bottom line. A good way to do this is by creating a worksheet that you can adjust on a regular basis. This process will allow you to assess your current financial situation and plan accordingly.

As you review, keep in mind that you won’t be getting a paycheck once you retire. Experts often say you’ll need at least $1 million to retire comfortably, but Bureau of Labor Statistics records show that the average American age 55 or older spends $49,279 every year. Whichever benchmark you use, it will at least give you something to measure your current status against.

2. Build an emergency fund.

Before you take any major financial step, you want to be sure you’re protected should things not go according to plan. Hopefully you aren’t learning about emergency funds for the first time when you’re within years of retirement. But if you have somehow gotten this far without a financial security blanket, now’s the time to create one. It will cover you in the event of personal catastrophe, and it can also make up for delays in the start date of your pension or Social Security.

Some experts recommend that you sock away three months of living expenses, while others suggest you save enough for at least a year. Six months’ worth of funds should be enough to cover you in case of emergency. Base the amount of this six-month fund on your expenses, not your income. No matter your current state of employment, this fund is about how much you’re spending. Remember to include expenses currently covered by your employer (like healthcare) because your emergency fund will need to transition into retirement with you.

Keep your fund somewhere safe and separate from your other savings so you aren’t tempted to spend it. A passbook savings or money market account could be a good option. They’re liquid in case you need to access your funds, but still earn interest.

3. Eliminate all debt.

retirement checklist

In an ideal world, we’d all enter retirement without any debt. Since your income is likely to decrease, any fixed payments will start to take up a larger share of your expenses. If you’re nearing retirement, it’s time to take a look at the debt column of your inventory. Add interest rates and terms in a new column beside your outstanding debts.

So, how should you tackle your debts? There are generally two thoughts on where to start: either by paying down debts with the smallest balance or debts with the highest interest rates. If you can stomach it, we suggest starting with highest-interest-rate debts. This is usually credit card debt, followed by personal loans and car loans. And we don’t just mean hitting the monthly minimum. To really make a dent, you’ll have to put as much money as you can to paying down your priority debt without sacrificing making the minimum payments on other debts. Mortgages are a good debt to save for last as these tend to have low interest rates.

No matter what repayment strategy you choose, the most important thing is sticking with it. Map it on a calendar, track your progress and ask a friend or family member to keep you accountable. Any time you successfully pay off a debt, give yourself a small reward to stay motivated.

4. Determine your retirement needs.

Before you can retire, you have to decide how you want to retire. Consider where you want to live, whether you’ll have a job (this may sound crazy, but some people like to work in retirement) and what your expenses will be. Try to be realistic in terms of retirement length, too. This can be difficult to predict, but you can always refine your estimate down the line.

You should also create a timeline to show when different streams of income will begin. This will help you manage cash flow and determine how much you need to save to retire. Look to your Social Security account, employee-sponsored retirement accounts, individual retirement accounts and, for some, wages and a pension. Be sure you’re thinking of each income in post-tax dollars, as many retirees fail to factor in taxes. See how your pre- and post-retirement budgets compare. The more realistic you are, the better prepared you can be. If you need help building or vetting your plan, you can find a financial advisor to help.

5. Square away health insurance.

Healthcare is one of the biggest expenses you’ll face in retirement. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey, healthcare costs account for an average of 11% – 15% of retirement spending, depending on the retiree’s age. Don’t feel bad if this means you have to make a quick adjustment to Step 4.

In addition to factoring these expenses into your budget, you’ll also want to consider where you’ll be getting health insurance coverage. If you retire at or after the age of 65, you can largely rely on Medicare for your retirement needs. You can get an overview of Medicare’s coverage and costs at the official site. Pay special attention to anything you need that isn’t covered. Some people like to have a supplemental insurance plan.

Things get trickier – and more expensive – if you plan to retire early. If you don’t receive health insurance from your former employer or through your spouse’s employer and don’t yet qualify for Medicare, you’ll have to get health insurance on your own. Whatever your situation, just make sure your insurance doesn’t lapse when you need it most. Know the terms and conditions of your coverage as well as how much you can expect to pay in premiums, deductibles, co-pays and out-of-pocket costs.

6. Plan your estate. 

No one likes to think about their demise, but as you near retirement you’re also realistically getting closer to the end of your life. Being prepared with an estate plan will ensure your family is not plagued with financial burden after you’re gone and that your money is dispersed according to your desires.

In addition to creating a will, you’ll need to assign a power of attorney and healthcare proxy to make decisions on your behalf should you become incapacitated. You’ll also need to establish guardians for living dependents and appoint beneficiaries on life insurance plans, retirement accounts and shared assets. Consider taxes here too, as you don’t want your estate bequeathed to the IRS. You can also craft a letter with any information that hasn’t been accounted for, like desired funeral arrangements or dissemination of sentimentally valuable family heirlooms.

Ensure all documents are properly notarized and stored somewhere safe. Include an inventory of personal data like your Social Security number, date of birth, bank account numbers, insurance policy numbers and digital passwords to keep things organized and easy to access. After you’ve created your plan, remember to review it at least every five years or whenever you experience a life-changing event.

7. Investigate retirement investments.

It’s never a bad thing to have more income. One of the worst mistakes American workers make is designing their investment portfolio around their retirement date. This leaves little earnings potential for their post-retirement life.

Investigate how retirement investments could supplement your retirement account earnings. Keep in mind that your risk tolerance may change as you age and stop earning a paycheck. You may want to employ a total return portfolio that allows you to withdraw a certain percentage while working toward a long-term rate of return, but that isn’t your only option. Retirement income mutual funds, government bonds, real estate, closed-end funds, dividend income funds and annuities are all good options for retirees. The more you know, the better you can decide which option is right for you.

8. Learn how to withdraw funds.

retirement checklist

You’ve (hopefully) spent your entire adult life investing money into your retirement accounts, so it may seem crazy that it’s finally time to take it out. Of course, you’ll have to understand how to do this first.

If you have an employer-sponsored plan, figure out if you want to leave money there or roll it into an IRA account. Consolidating is probably the better option if you’re over 59 1/2. At this time, you can take money out of your retirement accounts without incurring an early withdrawal penalty.  By 70 1/2, the law requires you to take required minimum distributions (RMDs). You should make your decision based on what’s both tax-efficient and what you and your family feel most comfortable with. You can work with the institution that manages your funds to figure out how withdrawals work.

Next, you’ll have to decide when to sign up for Social Security. Most experts suggest you wait to sign up until full retirement age so you can receive full benefits, but you can sign up anytime between the ages of 62 and 70. The longer you wait, the bigger your check will be. You can apply for Social Security online, by phone or in person at a local Social Security office.

9. Say goodbye to your coworkers.

Congratulations! Once you’ve ticked off each of the above items and reached your retirement savings target, you are officially ready to retire.

Tips for Getting Retirement Ready

  • Don’t hesitate to consult an expert. If you’re not sure where to begin or you’re worried you’re behind, a financial advisor is a good person to turn to. In thinking about how to choose a financial advisor, the advisor’s area of expertise and fee structure are two factors to consider. A matching tool like SmartAsset’s SmartAdvisor can help you find a person to work with to meet your needs. First you answer a series of questions about your situation and your goals. Then the program narrows down more than 3,000 advisors to three fiduciaries who meet your needs. You can then read their profiles to learn more about them, interview them on the phone or in person and choose who to work with in the future. This allows you to find a good fit while doing much of the hard work for you.
  • Make sure you’re investing in the right retirement plan for you. A 401(k) might be a good option for you if your employer offers one and a match to go with it. But that isn’t the only option. You may also want to consider traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs.

Image credit: © Alphan, ©, ©

Liz Smith Liz Smith is a graduate of New York University and has been passionate about helping people make better financial decisions since her college days. Liz has been writing for SmartAsset for more than four years. Her areas of expertise include retirement, credit cards and savings. She also focuses on all money issues for millennials. Liz's articles have been featured across the web, including on AOL Finance, Business Insider and WNBC. The biggest personal finance mistake she sees people making: not contributing to retirement early in their careers.
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