You have been diligently working, saving and investing for retirement. You put in 40 or even 60 hours a week for almost 50 years. At long last, you get to kick back, play bridge, golf, fish, whatever pastimes you enjoy. You no longer have to trudge to the office or answer to the boss.

Then the pandemic hit: The economy starts tanking, a plunging stock market wipes out as much as a third of the value of your stock holdings and bond yields disappear. Now what?  

The good news is you have options. Start with these five things and your odds go up for a secure retirement.

1. Develop situational awareness. This phrase comes from the early days of military aviation and was defined as “the perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their future status.” It was considered essential for pilots if they were to survive their encounters with enemy aircraft.

For investors, it means objectively assessing the risks around you. Understand the range of potential outcomes for your investments. Learn what has happened historically. Prioritize the most important inputs. Remove the nonsense in your information diet and focus on helpful, informative and accurate sources. Steer clear of recession hysteria. Perhaps most important, recognize what is -- and is not -- within your control.

2. Have a “decumulation” strategy. How much of your assets will you draw down each year? This is a tough question that depends on many unknowns, including inflation, interest rates and bond yields, financial needs, even longevity. William Sharpe, winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize for his work on a model that's critical in making investment decisions, called the use of savings in retirement “the nastiest, hardest problem in finance.” 

The key to successfully managing this: Having a financial plan that recognizes the unknowns, then focusing on your goals.

Every plan should help you understand exactly what you can spend comfortably each year. Without this kind of a strategy, you risk either failing to spend what you want and can, or worse, outliving your money. Working from a position of detailed knowledge instead of guesswork is the best way to have a stress-free retirement.

3. Understand risks of fixed income. The spread between the highest and lowest quality bonds always seems to tempt some investors. Don't forget the lesson of the 2008-09 crisis: Chasing yield is an expensive and foolish proposition. And just because the Federal Reserve now is buying low-quality bonds doesn't mean you should.

Here's how to think about debt. Bonds serve as ballast against your equities. They also produce income. But most importantly, they promise a return of—not on—capital.

Because fixed-income should be part of any diversified portfolio, it's best to stick with investment-grade bonds. One can never go wrong with high quality corporate debt. I also like Treasury Inflation Protected Securities, or TIPS, as a modest hedge against inflation. Look for opportunities in the municipal-bond markets, especially general obligation bonds—but only from entities that are not overly indebted. We probably won’t see too many state defaults, but you can expect some scary moments from places like New Jersey and Illinois. If you’re near retirement, those are best avoided.

High-yield, or junk, debt can look appealing. But be careful. Look at what happened to the biggest high-yield exchange-traded funds the past few weeks: iShares iBoxx High Yield Corporate Bond ETF and the SPDR Bloomberg Barclays High Yield Bond ETF fell 22% and 23%, respectively, last month; both are still down more than 10%. Anyone who wanted to cash out or to rebalance their holdings was disappointed. (Yes, you could have sold during the crash, but a) you took a substantial hit on prices; and b) there was also a substantial discount to net asset value. These would have been bad sales. Investment-grade bonds rarely perform this poorly; they call them junk bonds for a reason.) Is that little bit of extra return worth all the extra risk?

4. Reduce risk, cost and concentration in equities. The obvious tradeoff with equities is that they provide higher expected returns than bonds because they carry more risk. That means not only the possibility of not generating the returns you hoped for, but stomach-churning volatility along the way. But because of generally rising longevity, you can't afford to be without them.

The solution is simplicity: Replace all of your individual stock holdings, expensive actively managed funds and alternative investments with broadly diversified, cheap index funds.

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