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Worst Money Moves for Retirement Planning

Over the last few years, the way Americans view retirement has changed significantly. Although millions of baby boomers are nearing retirement age, whether or not they’ll be able to leave the 9 to 5 behind any time soon remains to be seen. For younger workers, the need to rev up their retirement savings has never been greater but a recent survey shows that nearly a third of employees have less than $1,000 saved. Whether you’re already saving or you have yet to get started, avoiding these common missteps can help you get closer to your goal.

Related: How Much Do I Need to Save for Retirement?

Waiting to Save

By far, the worst thing you can do when it comes to retirement planning is to put off saving. The longer you delay, the greater the odds that you’ll come up short when it’s finally time to retire. It may not seem that important but starting to save in your twenties versus your thirties or even forties can make a huge difference in the size of your nest egg.

It’s easy to make excuses about why you’re not saving yet. Maybe you’re trying to pay down your credit card debt first or you’re helping your kids out with college expenses. While paying down debt or helping your child get a quality education may be viewed as wise investments, the most important thing you should be investing in is yourself.

Cashing Out Your Savings Early

Most people change careers at least once during their lifetime and if you’ve been contributing to your employer’s retirement plan, you’ll have to decide what you want to do with your account once you leave your old job behind. It certainly can be tempting to just take the money and run but you have to consider the consequences before cashing out.

Withdrawing money from an old 401(k) not only depletes your retirement savings but it can also land you a hefty tax bill. If you’re under age 59 1/2, you’ll have to pay taxes on the money plus a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty. If you take out a sizable amount it can bump you into a higher tax bracket, significantly increasing your tax liability.

Related Article: Why You Should Rollover Your Old 401(k) Directly to a New 401(k)

The smarter choice is rolling your 401(k) over into an IRA or a similar tax-advantaged retirement plan. You can ask your employer to transfer the money directly to the brokerage where your new account is held, which allows you to avoid federal withholding and the early withdrawal penalty. The money will continue to grow and you won’t have to pay any taxes until you begin making qualified withdrawals.

Counting on Your Spouse’s Retirement

If you’re married, banking on your spouse’s retirement savings plan is a great way to sabotage yourself financially. For example, thinking that only one of you needs to be contributing to your employer’s 401(k) effectively cuts your savings in half, not to mention the fact that you’re losing out on free money in the form of a (possible) company match.

You also shouldn’t count on your significant other’s pension, since many pension plans place limitations on the amount of benefits a surviving spouse is entitled to. Figuring out the best way to save can be a little trickier when only one spouse works. Setting up a spousal IRA allows the working spouse to make contributions on their partner’s behalf and it provides an added safety net for retirement. If you’re both employed but neither is eligible to participate in a workplace plan, funding a traditional or Roth IRA for each of you may be your best bet.

Trying to Get Rich Quick

Saving for retirement is meant to work more like a marathon rather than a sprint to the finish. When you’re trying to make the most of your savings it’s tempting to try and chase after the biggest investment returns. While you may see some short-term payoffs, bigger returns usually go hand-in-hand with a higher risk level. If you jump into a particular investment without getting all the details you could end up shortchanging yourself if it doesn’t pay off.

Diversity is one of the most important aspects when planning your investment portfolio. Rather than lumping all of your funds together in the same boat, it’s more prudent to spread your savings out so that you get a good mix of investments. Generally, the younger you are the more risk you can afford to take on but it may be worth it to include some relatively safer options, such as bonds.

Routinely reviewing your investments is a good way to see what’s working and what’s not. It’s also important to go over your portfolio from year to year to see if your performance and asset allocation still match up with your goals. As you get older and closer to retirement, your risk tolerance should decrease significantly and if you’re stuck on auto-pilot it could end up costing you.

The Bottom Line

It’s never too early to start getting your retirement ducks in a row. If you’ve made any of these savings mistakes it doesn’t mean you can’t get back on the right track. The more active you are in trying to correct them, the better off you’ll be in the long run.

You don’t have to do it alone either. A financial advisor can help you get on track and stay on track with your retirement savings. In fact, according to industry experts, people who work with a financial advisor are twice as likely to be on track to meet their retirement goals. A matching tool like SmartAsset’s SmartAdvisor can help you find a person to work with to meet your needs. First you’ll answer a series of questions about your situation and goals. Then the program will narrow down your options from thousands of advisors to up to three registered investment advisors who suit 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 the program does much of the hard work for you.

Photo Credit: Douglas Deavers Financial Services Inc.

Rebecca Lake Rebecca Lake is a retirement, investing and estate planning expert who has been writing about personal finance for a decade. Her expertise in the finance niche also extends to home buying, credit cards, banking and small business. She's worked directly with several major financial and insurance brands, including Citibank, Discover and AIG and her writing has appeared online at U.S. News and World Report, CreditCards.com and Investopedia. Rebecca is a graduate of the University of South Carolina and she also attended Charleston Southern University as a graduate student. Originally from central Virginia, she now lives on the North Carolina coast along with her two children.
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