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1. Is your spending under control?

Douglas McCorkle, a financial adviser at HollisWealth in Ontario, Canada, says many of the clients he speaks to simply don’t have the discipline to put their future needs ahead of their current desires.

“The people that come to me later in life are like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to retire,’ and, mathematically, they can’t because they spent so much time living for the moment instead of planning for retirement,” McCorkle says. “They’re being sold a story that you have to have everything today. No. Live for today, but save for tomorrow.”

Spending within your means is the first step to ensuring you’ll have something to put into a retirement savings vehicle. And there’s an easy way to assess just how much you have to work with.

“The only thing you need to look at is your tax return,” says McCorkle. “That will tell you how much money you can spend. Where you spend it is up to you.”

More: How much money do you need to retire?

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2. Have you calculated how much money you’ll need to retire comfortably?

There is no magic number for retirement savings. Your individual situation — income, tax bracket, cash flow, dependents, desires, debt — determines what your retirement will cost.

If you’re deciding to work longer because you’re aiming to earn a particular dollar amount, but haven’t actually calculated what you need to earn with a financial adviser, you might need to work less than you think.

Not everyone will require $1 million to retire comfortably.

“You only need what you need to spend,” McCorkle says. “Everything else goes in the ‘want’ column.”

McCorkle says many people who plan their own retirements don’t think to factor in their post-retirement tax situations. If a person’s income drops from $80,000 to $50,000 once they retire, for example, their tax bill will also be slashed.

Social Security income, and that person could have more money coming in than they did while they were working.

“We’ve got to clear this mentality out of our minds that you’re going to need a massive amount of money to retire, or that you can’t retire until you can live off your interest,” McCorkle says.

3. Does your investment strategy need to change?

There’s a widely held belief that once people near retirement, their investment strategies need to change. The thinking is that anyone about to experience a decrease in employment income should be exposed to as little risk as possible and concentrate on reliable, income-generating securities and bonds.

If you’re working longer due to financial pressures, that can be an enticing line of thinking. But it’s a guideline, not a scientific law. Experts advise against automatically rushing out and reorganizing your portfolio on the eve of your 65th birthday, especially if what you’ve been doing up until now has been working.

“If it ain’t broke, you don’t need to fix it,” McCorkle says. “You just need to adjust it once in a while.”

Let’s say you were 65 and one of McCorkle’s clients who saw an unusual 83% return for one of the funds in his portfolio due to the timing of when he bought and sold it.

Conventional wisdom dictates that you and your adviser should have realigned your portfolio, shedding some of those profitable growth stocks and replacing them with fixed-income investments.

The problem is those investments often don’t keep up with inflation.

“If you’re in a dividend-producing position and you’re getting a 3% to 4% yield, you’re keeping pace,” he says. “Bonds aren’t going to cut it.”

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4. Are you expecting real estate to save you?

With interest rates low and home prices still climbing, the thought of purchasing a property and riding the appreciation to a luxurious retirement can be pretty intoxicating. Most fantasies are.

But if your retirement savings are already bordering on insufficient, sinking your nest egg into a home is not necessarily going to free you from having to work an extra few years.

“I’m having that conversation with clients,” McCorkle says. “I simply tell them, ‘That is not going to happen.’”

As the U.S. Federal Reserve raises interest rates, purchasing a home in the next 12 months could put buyers in a precarious position.

As interest rates rise, buyer demand will inevitably taper off. And that will release some of the pressure that’s been driving prices into the stratosphere and inject a new level of uncertainty for sellers: What will their homes sell for in a sane market?

Plus, rising rates will mean an end to currently affordable mortgages. You might have scored a killer deal on your mortgage at 58, but what happens if that rate doubles when you’re 63, and goes even higher when you’re 68?

“Debt is the biggest enemy of retirement,” McCorkle says. “If you are going into retirement with debt, that is very, very bad. People just don’t get it.”

More: How to retire at 50


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Clayton Jarvis is a mortgage reporter at MoneyWise. Prior to joining the MoneyWise team, Clay wrote for and edited a variety of real estate publications, including Canadian Real Estate Wealth, Real Estate Professional, Mortgage Broker News, Canadian Mortgage Professional, and Mortgage Professional America.


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