December 4, 2017
Experts Corner

Gen Xers who haven't planned for retirement need not worry

Joel Johnson

You're 50 years old and you haven't begun planning for retirement. You haven't put aside a dime, opened a retirement account or, quite frankly, thought much about it. Then you wake up suddenly in the middle of the night and think, "What have I done?! I've blown it — it's too late!"

If this happens go back to sleep and rest easy. When you wake up in the morning you can be assured that it's not too late to begin planning. It never is.

We'd love to think everyone begins planning for their retirement the moment they hit the workforce at age 18 or 22, but it usually doesn't happen that way. Life tends to get in the way and the idea of "retiring" is something we tend to put off until a later date. And yes, for some, that later date never comes, and suddenly they're in their 50s and still have nothing planned.

And that's okay because they can start right now and still be in solid shape when they near retirement. Here's a simple three-step process on how to do it.

Step 1: Get rid of debt — The only major debt people should have is their mortgage; that is debt on a stable or appreciating asset. But everything else should go, or at least be managed to the point where it's not a burden. This particularly speaks to credit card debt, personal loans, medical debt and even car loans.

Regarding the latter, one very sensible approach could be moving from a new car to one that is pre-owned (usually three years old or less). Not only are these cars fairly reliable, but they can be obtained at roughly half the price of a new one.

Step 2: Create an emergency fund — Much like state and local governments have rainy day funds, so too should people and families have emergency funds, a savings account put aside for only those times when it is absolutely needed. This is not money saved for that great vacation or luxury purchase, but rather for unforeseen repairs that come out of nowhere — home repairs, car repairs and emergency health situations, to name a few. This will help you avoid borrowing money — and accruing more debt — should an emergency ever take place.

Ideally, this fund should cover three months of expenses; if it costs you $3,000 a month to live, then in the best of all worlds the fund should have $9,000 in it. Understandably, this is not possible for everyone to create right away, so if it's not, a good place to start is with $1,000 put aside, and then build it from there. It will amaze you how helpful this account will be if treated correctly.

Step 3: Maximize retirement savings — Now that your debt has been managed and an emergency fund is up and running, you're ready to start saving towards retirement. Open a retirement account, such as a 401(k) or a 403(b), and immediately start maximizing it — meaning putting 10 percent to 15 percent of every paycheck into it.

If your employer will match it, you'll have even more going in and working for you, but even without a match, this will add up very nicely before too long.

People usually discover that within six months of this money coming out of every paycheck, they tend not to miss it. If you're starting from behind at age 50 or so and are a little behind the 8-ball at first, those first six months could prove to be a little uncomfortable. But stick with it and you will see how easy it becomes.

The choice is clear: You can be a little uncomfortable now for a short period, or a lot uncomfortable once you retire. Think about it: 15 percent saved for 15 years is 225 percent of your salary, with interest. That's hundreds of thousands of dollars waiting for you when you retire.

If you are a member of Generation X (roughly those born between 1965 to 1981) who has not yet started retirement planning, please don't panic or be overwhelmed. The worst thing to do is give up; the key is doing something consistently for a long period of time.

If you haven't started yet, it's not too late, nor is it uncommon. And with careful planning and adherence to these three very simple steps, you're setting yourself up for a happy and fulfilling retirement 15 to 20 years down the road.

Joel Johnson is the managing partner at Wethersfield-based retirement planning firm Johnson Brunetti.

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