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Get to Know Your Retirement Funding Options

Sep 09, 2020 5 min read Marcia Layton Turner

Key takeaways

  • To plan a secure retirement, first decide what retirement means to you.
  • Know what resources you have now—and what you'll need to add.
  • I.D. your current retirement funding options.


According to AARP, the so-called conventional wisdom is that you should have between $1 million and $1.5 million socked away for retirement, or 10–12 times your current income. But the truth is that everyone's number is different. Your "number"—the amount you need to retire comfortably—may be far less, or far more, than $1 million.

While higher income households tend to have higher retirement savings, in 2016 the median amount that families in the U.S. labor force had set aside for retirement was around $7,800, according to the Economic Policy Institute Opens in new window. And even this year, the Federal Reserve reported Opens in new window that fully one quarter of all U.S. working-age families have exactly $0 saved for retirement.

“My husband and I were shocked to discover when we began to plan for retirement just how much would be needed to sustain our current standard of living, much less our desires to travel and be able to pay for in-home care when medical issues almost inevitably arise," says Michele Moore, a relationship expert in Albuquerque, N.M.



“We were told by our first financial advisor that we, with no children, will need $2 million to retire 'comfortably,' with the same standard of (middle class) living," says Moore. Moore and her husband had hoped to retire in 10 years, at age 60, but now realize they may need to wait if their retirement savings are insufficient, “particularly considering the age at which you can get Medicare and the likelihood that the 401(k) situation may change," she says.

Factoring in the future costs of health care, which are likely to increase—plus the possible need for long-term care (whether in a skilled nursing facility, assisted living or aging in place)—can be an eye-opener for many clients, says Debbie Heffernan Gallant, a CFP, ChFC, RLP in Rockville, Md. Here are three keys to consider.

1. How much do you need?

Some Americans put off retiring because they “don't know how they'll spend their time and what kind of resources they'll need," says Gallant. Others, unfortunately, may be forced to leave the workforce before they are ready, due to declining health or changing economic conditions.

It's never too early to start thinking about how you'll afford retirement.

A first step in developing any retirement plan is to think about what you want your life to look like once you've retired. What kind of lifestyle do you desire? Where will you live? What kinds of activities are you looking forward to?

Picturing your future life in retirement helps determine how similar or different your expenses will be from your current lifestyle. That, says Gallant, then determines how much money you'll need to retire.

2. How much do you have already?

The second step in developing a plan is to conduct a thorough financial inventory, says Gallant. What resources do you have to fund your retirement right now? Your list may include some or all of these:

  • Social Security.

    If you or your spouse have been paying into the system during your career, you may qualify for benefits at age 62, although “full” benefits do not occur unless you wait until 66 or 67 (depending on when you were born) to start taking them. And waiting until age 70 can increase your monthly check by as much as 25% or more.

  • Employer retirement plans.

    While the number of employers offering pensions that give retirees monthly checks for life has declined, many employers do offer tax-deductible ways to save for retirement. These “defined contribution” plans include 401(k)s, 403(b)s, SIMPLE IRAs or 457(b)s. Such tax-deferred retirement accounts provided through your employer often include matching contributions, making them great ways to build up retirement savings while you're working.

  • IRA (Individual Retirement Account).

    Anyone with “earned income" from a job (or who is the spouse of a wage earner) can contribute to a tax-deductible traditional IRA or an after- tax-free Roth IRA that offers tax-free withdrawals if you meet certain criteria.

  • Mutual funds.

    These investments form the core of 401(k) and other workplace plans, IRAs and brokerage accounts. Instead of buying an individual stock or bond, a mutual fund invests in a diversified portfolio of securities (such as stocks and bonds). Because a mutual fund includes a pool of different securities, it can help reduce the risk that the poor performance of a single investment will disproportionately harm your overall portfolio.

  • Cash savings.

    Savings outside of your retirement accounts can include money you have in bank checking and savings accounts, as well as certificates of deposit (CDs). These are your most liquid, or easily accessed, retirement assets.

  • Annuities.

    To create a steady stream of income in retirement, many people turn to annuities. There are various types, generally differentiated by when they start paying out—deferred or immediate—and whether their payouts are fixed or variable. “An annuity could help prevent you from running out of money," says Gallant.

  • Other investments.

    You may also have other vehicles that could help create retirement income, such as dividend-paying stocks, bonds and real estate.

  • Human capital.

    What skills or experience do you have that someone else will pay for? The more income you can earn during retirement—whether through a freelance gig or part-time employment—the slower the speed at which you may have to spend down your other resources.

3. Putting the pieces together

Gallant likens creating a retirement plan to putting together a jigsaw puzzle. You dump all the pieces out—your existing resources—and start figuring out how to connect the pieces.

“Sometimes the picture you end up with doesn't match the picture on the box," says Gallant, meaning that the lifestyle you imagine and your existing resources don't mesh. You have to start thinking about how you can supplement or build up the resources you currently have available.

The approach to this puzzle, as with any retirement plan, is to consider the options that may be available to you:

  • Social Security.

    When you begin taking Social Security can affect the size of your monthly payments—for life. Research the benefits Opens in new window you’re likely to get if you begin collecting at, say, age 67 vs. age 70.

  • Personal savings.

    How much do you have in your workplace retirement plans, IRAs, investments and bank accounts? If you can, try to, "maxi out" your contributions to your workplace-sponsored plan contributions.

  • Guaranteed income.

    Do you have access to guaranteed streams of income? An annuity is one example; an employer pension is another. Or you may choose to use the equity in your home to create a stream of income with a reverse mortgage.

  • Human capital.

    Your ability to earn money through work, such as a side hustle or part-time job, or by leveraging other assets/resources, such as renting out a room in your home, may be something to consider as you develop your retirement plan.

Once you’ve reviewed your options, you can begin to fill in the missing pieces. This might include ramping up your monthly savings while you’re still working, selling off inactive assets or shifting investments to help maximize income. There are a number of options and, the sooner you start, the more you may have available to you.

“Don't wait until you've retired to think about these issues," Gallant says, “because at that point you've closed some doors." For example, you may be able to make some extra IRA or workplace retirement plan contributions before you leave work, to help maximize those benefits. However, once you've officially retired, some of those opportunities vanish.

The most important step, however, is the first one. Notes Gallant: “Spending time thinking about what you want for your future and how you will fund it is going to help you come up with the best plan."


What you can do next

Whether your retirement seems far in the distance or increasingly near, the more you know about your current situation, the better. Start by asking what a successful retirement means for you, what it may cost, and what’s available to help you get there.


Marcia Layton Turner writes regularly about personal finance and business. Her work has appeared in magazines and websites that include Businessweek, Entrepreneur, CNN Money, US News & World Report and Forbes, where she is a contributor.


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