Are you on track to retire? I’ll show you some steps you can take to ensure you are moving in the right direction.
Disclosure: This article is part of the #LifeUninterrupted campaign sponsored by USAA, which is designed to help future retirees learn how they can transition into retirement without worrying about financial interruptions. Note: We are receiving a fee for posting; however, the opinions expressed in this post are my own. I do not earn a commission or percentage of sales.
Retirement planning is part art, part science. The science part is generally fairly easy to figure out. It’s just math. The problem, however, is knowing which numbers and inputs to use. With retirement planning, you’re often dealing with imperfect data. That’s where the art comes in.
Experienced financial planners are trained to look at the future retiree’s entire financial plan, including retirement savings and investments, pensions, current and future financial obligations and much more. Then they take this information, along with additional information you provide, and give you feedback on your retirement outlook. The result is often extremely useful to help you see if you are able to retire now, if you are on track for retirement or if you need to do a little more to prepare for retirement.
Things You Can Do to Prepare for Retirement
Everyone is in a different situation and place in life, so I will talk about how my wife and I are preparing for retirement. We are both around 40 years of age, so we are still close to 25 years from the traditional retirement age of 65.
Contribute to Retirement Accounts
We started saving and investing for retirement when we were in our 20s. We each contributed to the Thrift Savings Plan and opened Roth IRAs. In retrospect, I could have contributed much more to my TSP account when I was younger, but I valued flexibility with my cash flow. I maxout my Roth IRA every year, which was a great move.
My wife and I have been very fortunate and were able to stash a lot of money in our retirement accounts over the years. I don’t take it for granted.
But it’s almost never too late to get started. Most people still have time to increase their retirement savings. Remember, every dollar you save today will be even more valuable in the future. The younger you start the better, as the power of compound interest will work its magic and do the heavy lifting as you get older.
Eliminate or Avoid Debt – The Killer of Financial Dreams
Another thing my wife and I did well was to avoid most debt. We have had a mortgage since we got married, and we are in the process of building a home that will also have a mortgage (we will buy it with a VA Loan). But other than that, we don’t have any debt. I did come into the marriage with a small car loan, but I paid it off within the first year of our marriage. I actually had the cash in my account to pay it off, but I preferred having that flexibility as an emergency fund.
Eliminating debt is something I encourage everyone to do. It may take time to pay everything off, especially if you have large student loans, credit card bills or other large payments. But I promise you, paying off all debt will be one of the most important financial decisions you ever make.
If you have debt, take a moment to imagine how quickly your investment account would grow if you could invest the amount you make in monthly debt payments. The best part is, you would then have interest working for you, instead of against you. Your investment accounts would grow very quickly if you could add a few hundred dollars (or a few thousand dollars!) to them each month.
As I mentioned above, my wife and I are about to purchase a new home. While we will likely use a 30-year mortgage, my goal will be to pay off our home before we reach retirement age. This will help us avoid the ongoing expense in retirement and help our retirement dollars to go further.
Reduce Ongoing Expenses
Ben Franklin wrote, “Beware of little expenses. A small leak will sink a great ship.”
That can be applied directly to our spending habits. While I’m not perfect, I’ve made it a goal to avoid excessive financial obligations, even those that don’t seem to be big. My wife and I have avoided debt outside of our mortgage, we regularly shop for lower insurance rates, we each have an affordable cellphone plan (hint, look for military discounts for your cellphone), and we don’t use cable TV—instead, we use our digital antenna or a streaming service. We also don’t spend a lot on subscriptions, eating out or other luxuries. We still have fun and meet all our family needs, but we don’t need to spend a fortune to do that.
I encourage you to take a look at your spending every few months to see if there are items that cost you money on a regular basis but don’t bring you equal value in return. If so, find ways to reduce those expenses.
Again, this ties in with the above section. Each dollar we don’t spend for our ongoing expenses is another dollar we can use to reach financial independence more quickly. And of course, once the habit has been established, this will help us to more easily afford retirement.
Understand the Incredible Value of a Military or Government Pension
My wife and I both served on active duty for several years. However, we both transitioned out of the service and, for a few years, had no military affiliation. Several years after leaving active duty, I read a book that changed my life. That book was “The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Military Retirement,” by Doug Nordman. (Doug also started the website, The Military Guide.)
His book had a big impact on me and opened my eyes to the value of military retirement benefits, including the value of a military pension.
That got the ball rolling on my joining the Air National Guard, which I was able to do after an eight-and-a-half-year break in service. I later commissioned in 2017, and I am currently just over eight years away from earning a retirement from the Air National Guard. That will be incredibly valuable.
How Valuable are Military Retirement Benefits?
I recommend reading these articles for more information, and you can use your own judgment.
- Is Military Retirement Pay Enough to Retire On?
- A Military Retirement is Worth Millions of Dollars
- How to Calculate the Present Value of a Military Pension
- How Much Is the COLA On My Military Pension?!?
The last link is an important one. Military and government pensions are inflation adjusted, meaning your pension will receive cost-of-living adjustments each year based on the same formula used for Social Security benefits. It’s incredibly powerful and will help you maintain your spending power as you age.
Social Security Benefits are Also a Valuable Part of Your Retirement Plan
Speaking of Social Security benefits, you should be eligible for them once you reach age 62, though you will have to take a discounted rate if you begin then. Full benefits start at age 66. If you wait beyond age 66, you will receive a higher payout.
Depending on when you served, your military service may increase your Social Security benefits.
How much will you receive for Social Security? You can create a free account with the Social Security Administration at SSA.gov, which will show you your earnings history and an estimate of your future retirement benefits at age 62 and at other ages if you decide to wait before receiving benefits. Additionally, Social Security benefits are based on your highest years of income. Working a few more years at a higher pay rate may increase your Social Security benefits.
Protect Your Legacy: Insurance and Estate Planning
Buying adequate life insurance is one of the most important steps you can take. I think of it as a love letter to my family. If anything happens to me, I know they will be taken care of. I have two policies, one through USAA and another through the SGLI. Together, I know those policies would go a long way toward providing for my family should the worst happen to me.
I also recommend reviewing all your insurance policies at least once a year. This includes auto, home, life, health, an umbrella policy if needed and anything else you may need insurance for. The hope is that you will never need insurance, but if you do, the benefit will almost certainly far outweigh the cost.
Estate planning is one area I need to work on. My wife and I recently moved to a new state, and we realized that our will and estate plan are out of date and need to be updated. We plan to address this in the very near future. Estate planning is an essential act — another love letter to your family, if you will. It will ensure your desires are met and will help your survivors avoid costly probate, court and legal fees.
Putting These Together
This seems like a lot to do and, in some ways, it is. But the good news is that you don’t have to do it all today. You likely have years to prepare for retirement, so you can take the time to ensure you have your financial house in order.