7 Actionable Retirement Tips You Can Take for the New Year

Written by True Tamplin, BSc, CEPF®

Reviewed by Subject Matter Experts

Updated on January 18, 2024

Are You Retirement Ready?

Retirement Planning: Overview

Retirement planning involves strategic financial and lifestyle decisions to ensure financial security and comfort in the years following one's career. This process encompasses many considerations, from savings to investment, taxation, healthcare, and estate planning.

“Thinking about retirement as you head into the new year, you should revisit your retirement plan or create one if you have not done so already,” says US Bank's Rachelle Tubongbanua, CFP, AWMA.

Commencing a new year symbolizes a fresh opportunity to assess and refine your retirement plan. Timely action is critical in adapting to personal circumstances, market dynamics, and regulatory frameworks.

1. Set Realistic Retirement Savings Goals

Assess Current Financial Situation and Retirement Needs

Begin with a thorough and honest assessment of your financial situation. This evaluation should encompass all aspects of personal finance, including income streams, monthly expenses, outstanding debts, and existing savings and investments.

Considering the static figures and how these elements might change over time due to factors like inflation, career progression, and lifestyle adjustments is imperative.

It is equally crucial to forecast retirement needs, such as living costs in the preferred retirement location, anticipated health care expenses, travel plans, and hobbies or activities you wish to pursue.

Estimating retirement needs is not a one-size-fits-all process; it varies widely based on individual aspirations and lifestyle choices. For instance, a retirement plan for someone who wishes to travel extensively will look quite different from one who intends to retire in their current home and live a more modest lifestyle.

Determine a Target Savings Amount

Estimate the annual income requirement in retirement. A common rule of thumb is to aim for 70-80% of pre-retirement income. Then, factor in expected Social Security benefits, pensions, or other income sources to ascertain the gap that personal savings must fill.

It is essential to consider the impact of inflation on future purchasing power and the potential for unexpected expenses. It's often prudent to err on the side of caution by assuming a longer lifespan and higher inflation rates.

The final figure should represent a savings goal that feels both challenging and achievable, serving as a guiding beacon for financial decisions in the years leading up to retirement.

Create a Plan to Increase Savings Rate

With a target savings amount in mind, the focus shifts to how to reach this goal. Scrutinize your current budget to identify areas where expenses can be reduced, thus freeing up more money for savings.

It involves cutting back on discretionary spending, renegotiating recurring expenses like insurance premiums or utility bills, or finding more cost-effective alternatives for necessary expenses.

You may also explore ways to augment income, such as seeking promotions or raises or taking on part-time or freelance projects.

Another critical aspect of increasing the savings rate is automation. Setting up automatic transfers to savings accounts or investments ensures that a portion of income is saved before it can be spent.

This pay-yourself-first approach effectively builds savings without requiring ongoing discipline or decision-making.

2. Diversify Investments for Optimal Allocation

Review Current Investment Portfolio

Beyond merely listing the assets, evaluate the performance of each investment, its role in your overall portfolio, and how it aligns with your risk tolerance and investment horizon.

The goal is to diversify your assets across different asset classes (such as stocks, bonds, real estate, and cash), industries, geographic regions, and investment styles (like growth vs. value investing).

This diversification helps to mitigate risk, as assets react differently to market conditions. For instance, stocks may offer higher growth potential but are more volatile than bonds. On the other hand, bonds can provide a steady income stream but may offer lower growth potential.

Remember to consider the impact of fees on investment returns as high fees can significantly erode the value of your investments over time. Reviewing and adjusting your investment choices to lower-cost options, such as index funds or ETFs, can improve your overall returns.

Identify Gaps and Areas for Diversification

Assess whether you are overly concentrated in certain sectors or companies or have enough exposure to international markets. For many investors, there's a natural inclination towards 'home bias' – favoring investments in your own country.

While this may feel safer, it can expose you to country-specific risks and limit growth opportunities. Expanding your investment horizon to include international equities can provide access to growth in different economies and sectors.

Another diversification aspect is considering alternative investments such as real estate, commodities, or even newer asset classes like cryptocurrencies. While complex, they offer unique growth opportunities and further diversification benefits.

Rebalance and Reallocate Investments

Diversification is not a set-it-and-forget-it strategy. It requires ongoing attention and periodic rebalancing to maintain the desired asset allocation.

Rebalancing involves selling overperforming assets and buying underperforming ones to return to your original asset allocation. This can be counterintuitive, as it feels like selling winners and buying losers, but it's crucial for maintaining a balanced risk profile.

The frequency of rebalancing depends on various factors, including market conditions and changes in your financial situation or retirement goals. Some investors rebalance annually, while others may do so more or less frequently.

Additionally, as you approach retirement, your risk tolerance and investment horizon change, necessitating a reallocation of assets. This often involves shifting from growth-oriented investments to more income-generating and conservative ones.

However, given longer life expectancies, it's also important to maintain a portion of the portfolio in growth-oriented assets to ensure your savings continue to grow and keep pace with inflation.

3. Maximize Tax Efficiency in Retirement Planning

Explore Tax-Advantaged Retirement Accounts and Contribution Limits

Maximizing tax efficiency is a critical aspect of retirement planning. 401(k)s, Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), and Roth IRAs, offer various tax benefits that can enhance your savings.

Understanding the specific advantages and rules of each account type is crucial. Traditional IRAs and 401(k)s, for instance, typically allow for tax-deductible contributions, meaning you can reduce your taxable income now, but you will pay taxes on withdrawals in retirement.

On the other hand, Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s are funded with after-tax dollars, so while there’s no immediate tax benefit, retirement withdrawal is generally tax-free.

It's also important to be aware of the contribution limits for these accounts, as they often change annually. For example, 401(k)s contribution limits have increased from $22,500 in 2023 to $23,000 in 2024.

“If you have the ability to do so, maximize your retirement plan contributions to align with the limit increases for the new year. If not, at a very minimum make sure you are contributing up to the company match so you are not leaving money on the table,” advises Tubongbanua.

For those over 50, catch-up contributions are an additional feature, as they allow you to contribute extra amounts to your retirement accounts. For 2024, the catch-up amount is set at $7,500.

Consider Roth Conversions and Tax-Free Withdrawals

Roth conversions involve transferring funds from a traditional IRA or 401(k) to a Roth IRA. This can be a powerful strategy, especially if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement or if tax rates are expected to rise. However, Roth conversions require careful planning.

When you convert, you must pay income tax on the converted amount in the year of the conversion. Therefore, analyzing whether the immediate tax cost is worth the long-term benefit of tax-free growth is essential.

4. Optimize Social Security Benefits

Understand Eligibility and Claiming Options

Social Security provides a source of income in retirement based on your earnings history, but the amount you receive depends significantly on when you choose to start taking benefits.

The earliest age you can start receiving benefits is 62, but claiming at this age results in a reduced benefit. Full retirement age (FRA) — the age at which you are entitled to full benefits — varies depending on your birth year, ranging from 65 to 67.

Delaying benefits past your FRA up to 70 can increase your monthly benefit. Each year you delay, your benefit grows, which can be a substantial advantage over the long term, especially if longevity runs in your family.

Understanding the implications of these choices is crucial. For example, if you continue to work while receiving benefits before reaching your FRA, your benefits may be temporarily reduced based on your earnings.

Additionally, other factors, such as spousal benefits, divorce, and survivor benefits, play a role in your claiming strategy and can significantly affect your retirement income.

Research Ways to Maximize Lifetime Benefits

For married couples, coordinating when each spouse claims benefits can significantly impact the household's total benefits. Strategies such as "file and suspend" or "restricted application" were popular, but recent rule changes have limited these options.

For singles, considering factors such as health, life expectancy, and financial needs is key. If you are in good health and have other income sources, delaying benefits to increase the monthly amount may be advantageous.

Implement the Chosen Strategy

Understand the process of applying for benefits and the timing involved. It is recommended to start the application process a few months before you want your benefits to begin. Consider how your Social Security claiming strategy fits into your broader retirement plan.

For example, if you plan to delay Social Security, you may need to draw more heavily from your retirement savings in the early retirement years. Conversely, if you claim earlier, your investment strategy might shift to support longer-term growth and sustainability of your funds.

5. Plan for Healthcare and Long-Term Care Expenses

Research Medicare Coverage and Enrollment Requirements

Navigate Medicare's various parts (Part A for hospital insurance, Part B for medical insurance, Part C for Medicare Advantage plans, and Part D for prescription drug coverage) for making informed decisions about your healthcare in retirement.

It's important to be aware of the enrollment periods for Medicare to avoid late enrollment penalties. The Initial Enrollment Period starts three months before you turn 65 and ends three months after the month you turn 65.

If you miss this window, you can enroll during the General Enrollment Period (January 1 to March 31 each year) but may face late penalties.

Explore Long-Term Care Insurance Options

Medicare generally does not cover long-term care costs, such as in-home or nursing home care, which can be substantial. Long-term care insurance can help cover these costs, but policies vary greatly in coverage, eligibility, and premiums.

Generally, starting early is important, as premiums are typically lower when you are younger and healthier. You’ll need to consider factors such as the daily benefit amount, the length of coverage, the waiting period before benefits start, and any options for inflation protection.

Protect Against Potential Medical Expenses

This aspect includes setting aside savings for healthcare expenses, considering health savings accounts (HSAs) if available, or integrating healthcare costs into your overall retirement budget.

For those still working, contributing to an HSA can be a smart strategy as it offers triple tax advantages — contributions are tax-deductible, the money grows tax-free, and withdrawals for qualified medical expenses are not taxed.

Funds in an HSA can be rolled over year to year and invested, making it a valuable tool for saving for future healthcare expenses.

6. Establish an Effective Estate Plan

Review or Create a Will and Trust Documents

An effective estate plan ensures that your assets are distributed according to your wishes and that your loved ones are provided for in your absence. The cornerstone of this plan is a well-drafted will and, depending on your circumstances, trust documents.

A will provides instructions for how your assets should be distributed and can appoint guardians for minor children. State laws determine how your assets are divided without a will, which may not align with your intentions.

Trusts, on the other hand, offer more control over how and when your assets are distributed. They can be handy for minimizing estate taxes, protecting assets from creditors, and providing for beneficiaries who cannot manage a lump-sum inheritance effectively.

Designate Beneficiaries and Update Designations

Beneficiary designations on your financial accounts play a critical role in estate planning. They often supersede instructions in a will, meaning the assets will be transferred to the named beneficiary upon your death, regardless of your will.

Regularly updating beneficiary designations is also crucial. Life changes, such as a marriage, divorce, or the death of a beneficiary, can necessitate changes to these designations. It’s also wise to name contingent beneficiaries in case the primary beneficiary is unable to inherit.

Ensure a Smooth Transfer of Assets

Organize all your financial documents, including account information, insurance policies, property deeds, and digital assets, and let your executor or trustee know where these documents are stored.

Communication is key. Discuss your estate plan with your heirs to prevent misunderstandings and conflicts after your passing. While these conversations can be difficult, they provide clarity and peace of mind for you and your beneficiaries.

Sometimes, you might consider transferring certain assets while you are still alive. This can be an effective way to reduce your taxable estate and see your beneficiaries enjoy the assets. However, it’s important to account for the potential tax implications of such transfers.

7. Leverage Resources and Professional Advice

Research and Use Retirement Planning Tools and Calculators

In today's digital age, a wealth of financial planning tools and calculators are available to assist in retirement planning.

Retirement calculators can provide a starting point for understanding your retirement needs. Still, it’s important to remember that they are based on assumptions about inflation rates, market returns, and life expectancy, which can vary significantly.

Therefore, while these tools are useful for initial planning, they should not be the sole basis for your retirement strategy.

Several types of calculators and tools are available, including those that help you estimate your Social Security benefits, project your retirement savings growth, calculate required minimum distributions (RMDs) from retirement accounts, and plan for tax implications in retirement.

Seek Recommendations from Reputable Financial Advisors

While online tools and resources are helpful, there is often no substitute for personalized, professional advice. A reputable financial advisor can provide guidance tailored to your unique financial situation and goals.

They can help you navigate complex financial decisions, offer insights into investment strategies, and assist in tax and estate planning.

Finding a qualified financial advisor involves some research. Look for advisors with credible certifications, such as a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) or Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA).

It’s also important to understand their fee structure (fee-only or commission-based) and ensure their investment philosophy aligns with your goals and risk tolerance.

Getting recommendations from trusted sources, reading reviews, and interviewing potential advisors can help you find the right professional to partner with in your retirement planning journey.

Stay Informed

Numerous online resources, from financial news websites and blogs to webinars and online courses, can provide valuable information and insights. These resources can help you stay up-to-date on the latest financial trends, tax law changes, and investment strategies.

Additionally, many financial institutions and government agencies offer educational materials and guides on retirement planning.

Educating yourself about financial matters can empower you to take a more active role in your retirement planning and work more effectively with your financial advisor. Remember, seek information from reputable sources and be wary of advice that seems too good to be true.

Final Thoughts

Embarking on retirement planning for the new year requires proactive steps to make a comfortable retirement. Start by assessing your current situation, setting clear and achievable goals, and creating a plan that aligns with your future aspirations.

Regular review and adjustments to your retirement plan are vital as personal circumstances and economic conditions change. This ongoing commitment will ensure that your retirement strategy remains relevant and robust, paving the way for a financially secure and fulfilling retirement.

7 Actionable Retirement Tips You Can Take for the New Year FAQs

About the Author

True Tamplin, BSc, CEPF®

True Tamplin is a published author, public speaker, CEO of UpDigital, and founder of Finance Strategists.

True is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance (CEPF®), author of The Handy Financial Ratios Guide, a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, contributes to his financial education site, Finance Strategists, and has spoken to various financial communities such as the CFA Institute, as well as university students like his Alma mater, Biola University, where he received a bachelor of science in business and data analytics.

To learn more about True, visit his personal website or view his author profiles on Amazon, Nasdaq and Forbes.

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