SBJ: Your Retirement Planning Checklist

Industry Insight


Some of us spend more time planning a vacation than planning a comfortable retirement. It’s never too early to seek balance between current needs, wants, and dreams, and the planning and savings necessary to fulfill future retirement needs, wants, and dreams. Here are retirement planning essentials to get ahead of right now.

  1. Project what your retirement will look like in terms of both basic and lifestyle expenses (travel, hobbies, “toys”), then estimate how much to save toward those goals. Re-calculate regularly to ensure you’re on track, and to account for changing retirement expectations. If you’re many years from retirement this may be tricky…do your best, use online retirement calculators and/or seek professional assistance, and keep in mind it’s better to over-save a bit than to under-save.

Account for 2-3% inflation, and test “bad-case” scenarios, for example early death of a spouse which will leave only one Social Security check each month; or a large emergency expenditure which might knock your plans sideways.

  1. Business owners: seek professional guidance for exit planning tactics to help increase the value of your business now, and put formal plans in place well ahead of time to facilitate a lucrative and smooth transition to family, employees, or third parties. 
  1. Take advantage of tax deferral and company contributions if you are able to participate in a workplace retirement plan—and accept planning assistance from the investment company if it’s offered. If you’re a business owner and don’t have a workplace retirement savings program, look into it for the sake of your own planning needs (and incidentally as an excellent employee retention tool).
  1. Seek at least a basic understanding of investment products: the long-term rate of growth of your savings can dramatically affect your progress, and ultimately the quality of your retirement. Stock funds tend to offer good growth potential, at the price of short-term volatility (ups and downs). If you’re more than about five years from needing to take withdrawals, you can invest aggressively. But avoid excessive trading, and don’t try to time markets because that does not work.

As you approach retirement, calculate the amount of cash you’ll need from your investments within the next five years, and protect at least that much from market downturns, by moving it into bond funds for example. This will help avoid having to “sell low” as recessions typically only depress stock values for 3-5 years. This approach may help you worry less and give you a better shot at meeting your retirement accumulation goals. Repeat this calculation each year all the way through retirement. If you still lose sleep worrying about the stock market rollercoaster, follow your heart and perhaps invest more conservatively…understanding there may be a lifestyle trade-off down the road if your investment growth is insufficient.

  1. As retirement approaches, and throughout retirement, create a detailed household budget—and follow it!
  1. Understand Social Security claiming strategies to help maximize retirement income, and consider how Social Security claiming choices might affect a surviving spouse in case of a death (seek professional guidance if needed).
  1. Don’t jump the gun on raiding tax-advantaged investment accounts. Tax deferral is a wonderful, rare gift from the IRS, so don’t ruin it by incurring penalties before age 59 ½, or by spending tax-deferred money—401(k)’s, IRA’s etc.—when other funds are available. However: be sure to take your IRS Required Minimum Distributions from tax-deferred accounts starting at age 70 ½, otherwise you may be subject to large penalties. Work with your tax professional to make sure you follow current rules.
  1. Adjust your “risk management products” as needed: life insurance, health insurance, long-term care insurance, Medicare supplements starting age 65, etc.. Seek professional guidance if needed, as these are critically important to your financial health.  
  1. Periodically update estate planning documents such as wills and trusts throughout your life, with professional legal guidance. No asset should go through probate before passing to heirs—so make sure everything you own of significant value, including real estate, has a beneficiary document attached. Get beneficiary forms directly from the companies that issue your investment or bank account statements; and from the DMV for cars/boats, or anything else with a title. For real estate, work with a title company or attorney. 
  1. Review retirement projections periodically before and during retirement to see if reality matches your projections, and adjust as needed.

Bonus tip: both now and in retirement, take advantage when the U.S. dollar is relatively stronger than other currencies, for lower-cost world travel. This relates directly to your final checklist item: enjoy your retirement…you earned it!

CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNERTM consultant Kenny Gott is President at Piatchek & Associates and author of the book "Bottom Line Financial Planning". He can be reached at