When I coached baseball many years ago, a young ballplayer came to me asking for advice. I offered my opinion: he needed to get his act together. Then, like many young men might do, he griped about me to one of the other coaches.
Our paths crossed again when he was 28 years old, at which point he said, “Now that I have a family of my own, I’ve thought back on your ‘lectures’ and realized you were just answering my questions honestly. Thank you.”
Not surprisingly, my lectures as a coach weren’t so different from those I’d received from a WWII colonel turned coach and teacher at my high school. The only difference: I never asked for his opinion—it was offered as he held my shirt collar. Still, when I came home on leave from the Marine Corps a few years later, I showed up at my old high school, walked onto the practice field, and thanked him. He was a solid mentor when I needed one but was too young to know it.
Years later, as a retirement mentor, I’ve spent countless hours analyzing the habits shared by successful retirees. Six stand out, and I urge all of our readers to take these steps sooner rather than later. I’m not going to grab you by the shirt collar like my coach did, but I’m confident you’ll find this “lecture” worth reading.
#1: Cut the financial cord with your children.
All parents have one basic responsibility: to equip their children to survive on their own, both emotionally and financially.
Retirees are often the wealthier members of an extended family—or they are perceived as such. But having money does not make you a bank. If a family member needs money, let him or her borrow it elsewhere. The wealth you’ve accumulated has to last you the rest of your life. The best way to remind your family and yourself of this simple fact is to simply say “no.”
Of course, some accidents and disabilities cannot be prevented, and there are times to rally behind family members truly unable to put a roof over their heads or food in their bellies. But for every truly unavoidable catastrophe, there are dozens more instances of parents enabling a freeloader.
You’ve worked too hard to sacrifice your financial independence and give up your golden years. Even if you have enough to support two generations indefinitely, being the “Bank of Parents” won’t help anyone in the long run.
#2: Be your own “pension fund” manager.
Independence is the real goal of retirement. That means listening to experts, but also learning to make savvy financial decisions for yourself.
Today, pensions are virtually nonexistent in the private sector. Soon they won’t exist in the public sector either. So all of your retirement—including saving, investing, debt reduction, tax planning, estate planning—is up to you.
There’s a lot to learn, but the information is there for the taking. I’ve known too many people who retired with a large chunk of change only to panic because they had no clue how to manage it. These folks were afraid, rightly so, because their lack of financial know-how made them vulnerable.
Give yourself a financial education while you’re accumulating wealth so you can enjoy that wealth once you retire. Otherwise, you might leave a high-stress job for a high-stress retirement.
#3: Maximize your tax-preferred retirement savings.
Only 10% of those eligible for employer-sponsored 401(k) programs maximize their contributions. There are real financial benefits to contributing to your 401(k), and it’s a mistake to turn down that free money, especially if your employer will match all or part of your contributions.
In that same vein, tapping into retirement accounts to pay off bills is almost always a mistake. Unless you absolutely need the money for basic survival, you’re much better off leaving your retirement money alone. Like many things in life, once you tap those funds, it gets easier and easier to do it again.
Before Congress passed the first Social Security Act in 1935, retirement was for a wealthy few. Since then, Social Security has fostered the illusion that we need not worry about money and that retirement doesn’t require a large personal nest egg. Reality is far harsher.
I know people who’ve tried to live on their Social Security alone; now they are all back at work. A happy retirement rarely comes for people who choose to worry about retirement later.
#4: Get out of debt.
Many retirees are drowning in debt. It’s a topic we touched on in The Reverse Mortgage Guide when discussing why seniors are turning to reverse mortgages at an increasingly younger age.
Independence is pretty hard when you don’t have any money. And don’t fool yourself: if you have a million dollars in your brokerage account and a million-dollar mortgage, you’re broke. Forget all the fancy formulas. When you stop paying people to rent their money, that’s when real wealth building can start.
#5: Get some professional help.
Even if you have a small nest egg, I strongly recommend going to a professional certified financial planner (CFP) for a regular checkup. I don’t mean pay someone to manage your money, although that is an option. Much like an annual physical, however, we can all benefit from an independent, qualified professional assessing where we are and how to stay (or get) on course.
The checkup might cost a few hundred dollars, but it’s money well spent. Retirees cannot afford to be penny wise and pound foolish.
#6: Get in synch with your spouse sooner rather than later.
During your working years, you trade time and expertise for money. For most folks, the goal is to save enough so that they don’t have to work full time to survive. Then, during retirement you trade money for time to pursue other interests. Sad to say, many people struggle to pinpoint what those interests are once they get there. One spouse might want to travel while the other is a homebody, etc.
Retirement is no fun if only one spouse is living their dream. Happier couples talk and plan how they want to spend their time long before retirement day.
As someone in or approaching retirement age, you’ve lived long enough to be a mentor in some area of life. So you already know that mentoring is about telling people what they need to hear—whether it’s on the baseball field, in the boardroom, or at the kitchen table (where most life lessons are learned).
I urge you to pass your own “secrets to success” on to the next generation; they will thank you for it … eventually.
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