Expert Insights for Smart Financial Planning

Know What You Want in Retirement Before You Buy the Tools to Build It

Getty Images

Too many people go about building their retirement plan backward. They get caught up in the investment part of the plan first and figure they'll worry about what their actual goal is later.


Imagine you hired a contractor, gave him some money and told him to go out and buy whatever tools and supplies he might need for the job — but you didn’t say what you wanted him to build.

SEE ALSO: Income, Not Age, Should Determine Your Retirement Date

He doesn’t know if it’s a house or a commercial office building. Or maybe it’s a hotel or hospital.

And, of course, the tools differ depending on the project.

That’s how a lot of people go about building their retirement plans. They tend to focus on the tools they think they should have — stocks, bonds, annuities, real estate or commodities — instead of what they ultimately hope to accomplish with those tools: a comfortable lifestyle with enough money to last at least 20 or 30 years.

That’s a big project that requires a lot of problem-solving:

  • You should have an emergency fund with six months’ to a year’s worth of easy-to-access money to cover everything from home or car repairs to unexpected health care costs.
  • You have to generate income, so you have something to pay the bills when your paycheck goes away.
  • You have to pay attention to taxes, and figure out how to outpace inflation.
  • You have to take long-term care costs into consideration, too, and put away something in case you or your spouse needs special or extended health care.
  • And you may want to leave some money behind for your children or grandchildren.

The project should start with an income plan.

If you haven’t done so already, you’ll need to put together a realistic budget for your retirement years. Next, you should figure out how you’ll cover those day-to-day costs with money you know you can count on — Social Security, a pension if you have one, maybe an annuity or rental properties. Once you’ve done that, you can determine how much you’ll need to add every year from your investment savings.

And that’s when you can begin looking for the appropriate tools and strategies to generate the income you’ll need.

It starts with a change in the way you look at investing. While you’re working, your goal is to accumulate money — and the tools you choose should help you with that — but when you are in or near retirement, you have to worry about making that money last.

See Also: Don't Overlook These 5 Retirement Income Risks

It helps to break your needs into three levels.

1. Income for your immediate needs.

This is the money you’ll use to supplement your guaranteed income streams and pay your bills, so you want to make sure it’s enough and that it’s safe.

I like the idea of creating your own pension with a deferred annuity, a contract in which the money you deposit grows, protected and tax-deferred, until you’re ready to use it. Many people misunderstand annuities: They like the idea of lifetime income, but they believe that if they die prematurely, the money will be lost and won’t go to their loved ones. But this type of annuity includes a death benefit component that ensures your beneficiaries will receive any remaining principal investment and any gains in the account.

2. Income for your intermediate needs.

Once you’ve figured out how you’re going to pay your monthly expenses, you can move on to some other things that might come up during retirement. Maybe you’ll want to buy a new car at some point, or to travel, or you may need something to live on until you turn on the income from your deferred annuity.

This money can come from stocks and bonds, but they should still be conservative investments. If you’ll need to access the money sometime in the next 10 years, you can’t afford to take a lot of risk with it.

3. Income for your long-term needs.

This is money you won’t touch for at least 10 years, but it will come in handy when you have to deal with inflation and more health care costs and if you want to leave money to your children. Because these are costs you’ll face down the road, you can choose more aggressive investments to help pay for them. If the market experiences a downturn, you’ll still have time to recover. And if you’ve already covered the costs you might have in the short to medium term, you won’t have to sell at a loss.

Unless you win the lottery or inherit a fortune, the money you have when you retire is pretty much all you’re going to have to work with. How you’ll make it last is up to you.

To build a stable retirement, come up with a vision of what you want to accomplish, use a well-designed blueprint to get you started (preferably with the help of an experienced financial professional), and then worry about gathering the tools that can help you do the job.

See Also: Keep More of Your Retirement Savings with Tax-Bracket Planning

Kim Franke-Folstad contributed to this article.

Investment advisory services offered through AE Wealth Management, LLC (AEWM). AEWM and Freedom Financial Group are not affiliated entities. Investing involves risk, including the potential loss of principal. Any references to protection benefits, lifetime income and safety generally refer to fixed insurance products, never securities or investment products. Insurance and annuity product guarantees are backed by the financial strength and claims-paying ability of the issuing insurance company.

Tad Hill is the founder and president of Freedom Financial Group, a retirement planning firm in Birmingham, Ala. Hill is a Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor (CRPC) and a Registered Financial Consultant (RFC). His clients are those who are either already retired or who are within five or 10 years of retirement.

Comments are suppressed in compliance with industry guidelines. Click here to learn more and read more articles from the author.

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.