It's what you do before your retirement that actually counts. For most clients, the word retirement typically evokes images of warmer climates and finally having the time to pursue their dreams -- the hard earned fruits of a productive working life.
Yet today, even a long and productive working life doesn't automatically guarantee one entree to financially secure "golden years." Compounding the problem is that many workers who are closing in on retirement haven't adequately planned for it when that day suddenly arrives.
The main reason prospective retirees get caught off guard? Procrastination, says Richard Stone, a principal in the tax and accounting department at MBAF-ERE CPAs, LLC, a division of public accounting firm Morrison, Brown, Argiz & Farra (MBAF), and not accumulating enough money that they will actually need to enjoy a comfortable retirement.
"It requires a lot of foresight, particularly from a financial point of view, that you don't necessarily want to outlive your money," Stone said. "The lack of planning probably covers most things, in terms of not setting aside money in a 401(k) plan and not looking at proper pension plans and proper pension options."
To avoid such a cash-strapped retirement, Stone says, he helps prospective retirees set goals and be able to modify their retirement plans if certain unexpected financial speed bumps pop up.
"Some workers say, 'Let me retire -- I don't want to work anymore and I don't need any more money,'" Stone said. "But they don't realize that people are living longer these days -- not necessarily better but longer -- and they're unprepared for it."
To make sure his clients are preparing for retirement, Stone says, he gives new and existing clients a "financial checkup" at least once a year to determine whether their financial profile has changed. If it has, he says he may offer them advice on how to maximize their investments and retirement savings plan.
"You have to be financially proactive with clients," Stone says. "I call every one of my clients at least once or twice a year. I ask, 'how are you? What's going on? Has anything changed this year?' You have to get involved and get to know as much as you can about the client so you can offer advice for all phases of their financial life."
And while Stone says his major job is to help clients predominantly from a tax point of view, he also tenders financial planning advice based upon each client's financial status and "life issues."
"I discuss with clients, whether they're young, old or middle-aged, tax planning and saving with them every year," Stone said. "If they have college-age children or younger, then obviously the first goal is to financially prepare to be able to pay for college."
Stone say when a client's children are out of college, he suggest that's the time for them to develop a long-term retirement game plan. "That's the time to sit down with them and ask, 'What do you want to do? Is there a business involved? Is there any succession planning needed for the children?,'" he said.
In the case of a client who Stone determines had their lifelong nest egg shrink after the 2008 market crash, he says, he tries to direct them to consider other financial alternatives that may generate retirement income to make up for the loss. "Sometimes it involves even considering getting a reverse mortgage or a salable home to children or something like that to generate money," Stone said.
He adds: "I push retirement and estate tax planning with people in their late 40s and early 50s -- that's the time to really start," Stone said. "When your kids are through college is the time to look toward retirement and estate tax planning."
Stone says retiring too early may also be an emotional or psychological issue; with some retiree candidates not yet prepared to how they will fill their time now that they no longer go to work have ample free time to fill.
"It's a dramatic lifestyle change," Stone said. "If you are not a golfer, you don't have hobbies and you don't like to travel, then what are you going to do, sit at home and watch TV 90 percent of the time?" Stone said in his 25 years as an accountant he has seen clients who retire who then go back to work. "Many people go back to work or set up a small business," he said. "More often than not, it is to keep them active."
For clients who are about to retire and those still several years off Stone offers these guidelines to avoid the common retirement pitfalls:
1) Maximize 401(k), IRA, and other pretax retirement plan opportunities, particularly when an employer matches contributions. Avoid borrowing from the plan, except as last resort.
2) Diversify holdings and manage investment risk; do not fall in love with company stock.
3) Properly analyze of pension and annuity options -- single life vs. joint life and guarantees; consider age differential of spouses, health and realistic life expectancy.
4) Don't retire before being mentally and financially ready. Develop a budget for your lifestyle. Are you prepared to spend more time with spouse, on hobbies, etc?
5) Consider insurance options, including life, long term care, disability, health.
6) Avoid high mortgage balances and high interest rates in retirement; compare to investment income.
7) Consider Roth IRA conversion opportunities.
8) Don't take Social Security too early because people have longer life expectancies.
- Jim McConville