There is an old joke in my office that goes like this: Everybody can retire in 15 years starting with nothing. I can prove it. Most people overspend until their birthday has a 5 in front of it. Then they panic. OMG! I have only 15 years until retirement! And then they get serious and get it done.
Of course it isn’t that simple. Many people do save early. Yet all too many suffer a diminished retirement due to financial habits in the years leading to retirement. A heavy debt load can move the starting block to negative territory, making the drive for retirement all the more challenging.
No matter your age or financial condition, you can always improve your situation. We will focus on tools for those 50 and older in this post, but make no mistake, each tool listed here has potential for people of all ages.
Using the story above, people who get serious about retirement can reach that goal by age 35 and even younger. The FIRE (financial independence, retire early) community is a prime example of people moving the urgency of retirement from age 50 to an earlier age. Which leads us to a simple concept: Decide when you want to retire by picking the year you will get serious about planning for retirement. Start at 25, retire by 40; start at 40, retire by 55; start at 50, retire by 65; never start, never retire.
The closer you are to retirement the more important it is to make financial decisions that will keep you on course. A major financial setback in the final run to retirement can be devastating. Today we will deal with those risks and work to mitigate them.
1.) You Need a Budget
When I was a wee tyke I was already budgeting. It was a simple ledger listing income and expenditures. If I wanted a new Wrist Rocket slingshot I needed to save for the purchase. (This is a true story.) That required a plan.
A budget is not about deprivation! A budget is about knowing where you are financially and managing income and spending.
A simple spreadsheet can do the trick. This is something I have used since I was in middle school. Back then I used paper and pencil. Later I graduated to Excel and similar spreadsheet software. It doesn’t have to be fancy; it just has to work! If you want bells and whistles you can try You Need a Budget. Fancy or something simple, all works as long as you start and remain consistent.
Budgeting is more than limiting expenses in each category. A budget shows you where you are spending and this allows you to eliminate waste without any sacrifice. Sometimes you will notice an expense that is out of line and it will become a conscious choice to reduce spending in that area.
The point is budgeting gives you control of your finances. You can’t manage what you don’t understand. As much as you think you know where your money is going, there is no way to really know and manage money properly unless you can see it. That is what a budget does. It works for anyone at any age, but is vital if you are reaching the end of your working years. This frees up money so you can pay-yourself-first.
2.) Eliminate Debt
It is hard to enjoy retirement when you are managing debt payments. A mortgage would be bad enough, but credit cards, auto loans and student loans are things you want wiped off the slate before you enter retirement.
Remember: Paying off debt is a form of investing. It is a backward way of thinking about allocation of excess funds. Investing is straightforward. Yet, paying off debt also has a return. High interest debt is a cancer to a budget. Paying off the debt reduces the interest expense. That lowers expenses and makes budgeting a world better.
Getting into debt is easy; getting out can be a serious challenge for many. There is help. If you have reached the crisis level consider contacting the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
Most people can reduce and eliminate their debt by tracking their income and spending on a spreadsheet. Budgeting is the place to start so you can visualize your finances. This should reveal the low hanging fruit. Modest tweaks to your finances can yield a significant boost to your free cash flow.
Dave Ramsey has made a career out of helping people get out of debt. His baby steps and debt snowball programs have helps thousands of people get out of debt and stay debt-free. I have witnessed many clients over the years benefit from Dave’s system. If you have debt you might want to consider looking into Dave’s programs. You can check out his books from the library if you don’t want to spend a penny. Financial Peace University is a good program. Or you can own his book The Total Money Makeover for under $12 at the time of this writing from Amazon. (Note: Many years back I was a Dave Ramsey Endorsed Local Provider in the tax field. Dave Ramsey is not an affiliate, but the Amazon link is.)
3.) Take the IRS Up on Catch-up Contributions
Once you reach age 50 the IRS allows you to supercharge your retirement savings. Congress made these rules because they stood behind me when I was working and quickly realized I was not joking when I say people get serious about retirement when the calendar stamps 50 candles on their birthday cake.
Of course, you can start before age 50, too. You can stash away serious money with a 401(k) or other retirement program. Once you are 50 and older you can top off your annual retirement contributions with an additional $6,500 in a 401(k), 403(b), 457 or SARSEP; $3,000 for SIMPLE plans; $1,000 for traditional and Roth IRAs (these are all 2021 numbers).
4.) Start a Health Savings Account (HSA) if Allowed
The HSA is one of the best financial tools in the tax code. If your health insurance is HSA qualified, be sure to contribute to an HSA savings account. Contributions are deductible. Withdrawals are tax-free if used for qualified medical expenses. You can’t use HSA funds to pay for health insurance premiums, but you can use them to pay Medicare Premiums. That means if your medical expenses are low your HSA becomes a wonderful tax-free tool as you prepare for retirement.
For 2021, you get a $1,000 contribution limit increase if you are 55 or older.
Consider Fidelity or other low-cost investment house for managing your HSA funds.
5.) Consult a Tax Professional
Most people reading this are not concerned about starting their financial plan; they already started and want to manage their finances to maximize benefits while reducing taxes.
Even in retirement taxes are still a major expense. Consulting with a tax professional is a high-value investment.
In my office I make it clear to clients I am not interested in saving them money for one tax year only. My goal is to get the lowest tax possible for all years involved combined!
Retirement is different than your working years. The rules change and the tax code is different once you push into the traditional retirement years. You spent your entire life looking at income and the slice you will dedicate towards retirement investments.
Now you need to balance Social Security income, retirement income, tax brackets, tax credits and more. Social Security benefits can be tax-free, but it is getting harder to accomplish that. This is where a good tax pro comes in. Required Minimum Distributions play a role. Pension income and capital gains, too. Tax professionals who can navigate the moving parts are worth their weight in gold.
Steps you take today will affect your taxes in future years. I consult with many clients approaching retirement and in retirement each year. It is always a profitable consulting session for the client. The moving parts are numerous. A seasoned tax pro can help you navigate the options. Your facts and circumstances determine your optimal path. One size does not fit all.
Insurance is a strange animal. Each person’s situation is unique. Your health will determine the health insurance policy best for you. Some people might need life insurance, many will not. What about long-term care?
Insurance has a built in profit for the insurance company. Insurance should not be considered a good financial investment. Instead, it is a tool to help manage and protect your wealth.
As your financial resources increase you might wish to increase the deductible on your policies. Depending on the value of your vehicle, you may wish to forgo collision completely.
Insurance gets expensive as you get older, especially health insurance. It might be a wise choice to have disability insurance or long-term care coverage. Your personal situation will determine the proper course.
Discuss the issues with your insurance agent and then have a disinterested third-party (someone not getting paid a commission for the sale of the insurance policies) to review the choices provided. A financially knowledgeable family member or trusted friend might be a good choice. Or, you can discuss the options provided by the insurance agent with a tax professional or attorney that is versed in these matters.
7.) Legal Matters
All the bad party jokes have attorneys as the butt of the joke. While attorneys get a bad rap, they are the most powerful tool out there in protecting your wealth as your nest egg grows.
Estate planning requires a legal professional. Do you need a trust? Will? Durable Power of Attorney?
Attorneys are also trained in asset protection. When you have only a small net worth there is less to worry about. Once you build serious retirement assets you need to take steps protecting those assets.
Finding a qualified attorney is the challenge. I use Legal Shield (not an affiliate) in my office. They can answer simple legal questions and refer you to an attorney specializing in the area of practice you need.
The biggest risk is not starting or starting too late. The second biggest risk is a financial disaster as your approach your retirement date.
You do not want a financial surprise after 50. There just isn’t enough time to recover as you get older. And who want to work forever anyway? (You might enjoy working, but you don’t want to be required to work over poor financial planning.)
Tax planning and legal help are vital. The key is to review each facet of your life annually once you reach 50: investments, health, tax, legal, et cetera. Several tools have been provided above. I encourage you to use them.
Retirement isn’t out of reach. You can do this. If you are looking forward to an early retirement you can use most of the tools in this post; if you are over 50 you can lock and load on powerful programs that supercharge your net worth.
It all boils down to a plan. With a proper plan retirement will be the blessing you dreamed it would be.
It is never too late to start.
More Wealth Building Resources
Personal Capital is an incredible tool to manage all your investments in one place. You can watch your net worth grow as you reach toward financial independence and beyond. Did I mention Personal Capital is free?
Medi-Share is a low cost way to manage health care costs. As health insurance premiums continue to sky rocket, there is an alternative preserving the wealth of families all over America. Here is my review of Medi-Share and additional resources to bring health care under control in your household.
QuickBooks is a daily part of life in my office. Managing a business requires accurate books without wasting time. QuickBooks is an excellent tool for managing your business, rental properties, side hustle and personal finances.
A cost segregation study can reduce taxes $100,000 for income property owners. Here is my review of how cost segregation studies work and how to get one yourself.
Over the years I have used attorneys for a variety of needs. When I started a hedge fund the initial deposit was $25,000 and I was happy to pay it. We laugh at lawyer jokes and sometimes lawyers deserve the bad rap they get, but most of the time attorneys are a powerful part of your team preventing expensive problems before they happen. There is a reason why they are called counselors.
I encourage landlords and business owners to keep a relationship with an attorney. Buying and selling a property requires an attorney in my opinion and landlord/tenant issues can be reduced when a lawyer is consulted before actions are taken. There are also the surprise attorney needs. Who do you call when arrested for a DUI? (The first person who says Ghostbusters will be escorted out the door.) You don’t plan on certain events in life; they just land in your lap. Business owners and landlords have greater legal needs, but the average guy on the street finds himself in need of professional help a time or two in life as well (wills, probate, trusts, sale of property, et cetera).
Doctors, attorneys, and accountants know all kinds of stuff (a technical term only used inside the industry) people need at the most important junctures in life. Finding a doctor is as simple as a call to your health insurance provider. Most people see an accountant on a regular basis, while the legal eagle is only required periodically. Worse, even if you know a lawyer, your need may be in an area he does not practice. The logical place to ask for a referral is from your accountant. The contacts an accountant has usually means he has a list of attorneys available to share in your time of need.
DIY and the Wealthy Accountant Roll-A-Dex
Like magic, my client list is now over 50% outside my state. The number of clients living more than 200 miles from the office doorstep has climbed steadily for more than a decade. The last year caused a major spike in out-of-state clients until fewer than half my clients actually walk through the door anymore. It is strange to see my parking lot with eight or so cars in it and no clients in the building, only employees busting tail to keep up with the work coming in electronically (what I call “over the transom” because many are sent without prior agreement).
Clients from out-of-state and people who do their own tax work sometimes need an attorney, too. I am happy to oblige when they ask my help. As more clients live further away I have fewer recommendations, until now. Sure, I have a full-time attorney on staff in my office; sure, I have a legal group with a retainer on file; sure, I lave legal teams in most states beckoning back to my hedge fund days. All this does not matter if I don’t have a qualified local attorney to help you in your particular need.
Most people do not need a legal team on speed dial with a retainer on deposit. What you need is an attorney to meet your specific needs. I have the perfect solution.
LegalMatch is a referral service for all your legal needs. The best part is the referral service is free. Each attorney will have their own set of fees, but you can get a comfortable number of lawyers to review before engaging at no cost. LegalMatch covers all areas of legal practice I could think of. What I like best about LegalMatch is their extensive help libraries to help you understand your legal situation better regardless if you have an attorney.
Here are some areas of law covered by LegalMatch:
- Landlord/Tenant: The rental business is a great opportunity for passive income. Even with a property manager you may find yourself in a situation where you want a lawyer you vetted on your team. You may own real estate in different parts of the country and having a legal contact in each locality is a powerful advantage.
- Business Law: Business owners have multiple issues to consider. Starting a business may require entity setup (LLC, LLP, corporation, et cetera). If you decide it is best to organize your business in a state other than your domicile for legal or tax needs you will need a registered agent. Many attorneys fill the registered agent needs if they are in the practice of entity creation. Example: My hedge fund was organized in Delaware. The laws of Delaware were superior in multiple ways over Wisconsin, my home state. I found the right legal team to organize the optimum entity solutions. Each situation is different. LegalMatch can help connect you with the right law firm for you.
- Marriage/Divorce: Readers of this blog tend to have a frugal mindset and divorce at a significantly lower rate than the national average. However, the hyper-savers/investors who frequent here also know with a massive nest egg certain precautions are necessary before you get married. A pre-nuptial agreement might be in order if one spouse has significantly more assets than the other.
- Estate: Most readers here need an estate lawyer. Building a large net worth requires a few simple legal procedures to protect your hard-earned gains. Wills and probate are a start; trusts are a major consideration for tax reduction and asset protection. Serious legacy planning starts in an estate attorney’s office. Your needs may be limited to consultation only all the way to full-blown trusts used to determine who gets what and when. You can protect a surviving spouse and children, even from multiple marriages. Estate laws are complex, especially when you are married in one state and move to another. The transient nature of our society makes a competent estate lawyer an absolute must.
- Bankruptcy: It can happen to the best of us. The Wealthy Accountant does not believe there is such a thing as a DIY bankruptcy.
- Personal Injury: You don’t plan on an auto accident or other injury, but it happens. You need an attorney when the medical bills start pouring in and the injury is the result of negligence. An initial consultation with an attorney can help you determine the correct course of action.
- Criminal: The United States is the most incarcerated society in the history of the human race, per capita and per volume. The next closest country to the U.S. is South Africa at half the U.S. rate. Either we are a failed society or the cops are looking for job security. Guilty or not, a criminal attorney is worth their weight in gold. I have seen some crazy stuff in my office over the years. LegalMatch is a perfect place to find an aggressive and competent criminal attorney fast.
- Employment, Liability, Immigration, and Intellectual Property: I have covered the more common attorney request I receive, including the areas of legal practice in this bullet point. There are areas of law not covered in this post, but probably covered by LegalMatch.
How Do I Get Started?
To get the most out of this free service you will need to accurately communicate your legal situation. It might be as simple as: I was arrested for DUI. HELP! Or it could be involved, such as in a landlord/tenant dispute or a business transaction.
You can start your attorney search with this link or by clicking one of the banners for LegalMatch on this page. Enter the geographic area you need a lawyer. For example: If you live in New York, but have a rental property in Florida where the legal issue exists, you enter the Florida ZIP code or city and then choose the legal category. Provide a detailed account of the legal issue. You should receive a response back from lawyers within a few hours in most cases. Remember, there is no cost for the referral, but the law firms will have their normal fees. As a disclosure: The Wealthy Accountant may receive referral compensation from LegalMatch, but never from the law firm.
It might be a good idea (if you own a business or investment property) to review attorneys for future reference. Since the service is free it is nice to have a relationship with a law firm before disaster strikes.
Feel free to share your legal experiences in the comments below.