How to win at retirement, even if there's a second wave

To win at retirement, you have to focus on the stuff you can control

Imagine that your retirement lifestyle was determined by the spin of the roulette wheel. That would stink, right? You'd watch helplessly, waiting for a little ball to put in you in poverty or to bring you enormous wealth. Fortunately, retirement is not a game of chance. It's a game in which the players -- retirement savers like you and me -- control the outcome.

Continue Reading Below

You win at this game when your savings are sufficient to support the retirement lifestyle you want. And the big levers you pull to make that happen are your choices about how much you save, and for how long. You'll face headwinds in the form of market volatility, but you can power through those with discipline and patience. Follow these four strategies to keep yourself on track for a successful retirement, even if there's a second wave of COVID-19.

1. Set financial goals

Hopefully, you already have a retirement savings target you're working toward. You can support that long-term savings plan by shoring up other aspects of your finances. Reducing high-rate debts and increasing your cash stores, for example, are two actions that will help you survive market volatility or even job loss -- with minimal disruption to your retirement plan.

Take a look at your finances today, and choose one high-priority goal that will improve your financial stability. Make a plan to achieve that goal within the next 12 months. Check that goal off your list and move on to the next one.

2. Invest consistently

The most reliable way to build wealth is to invest every month, over a long period of time. That includes contributing to and investing in your retirement account when the market is down.

Don't let volatile conditions scare you off your retirement plan. Volatility actually creates opportunity for you, and you benefit on both sides of it. When share prices go down, you can add to your share count with a lesser investment -- it's like buying mutual funds on sale. And when share prices go up, your portfolio balance rises, too. Keep your head up in all market climates by focusing on those positives.

Eight years from now, when COVID-19 is a distant memory, it won't really matter if you purchased fund shares the day before a market crash or the day after. What will matter is how many shares you have and what type of growth those shares can produce for you going forward.

3. Work your tax angles

Your 401(k) contributions are tax-free and grow on a tax-deferred basis. Those tax perks expedite your investment growth, but there is a trade-off. Once you retire, your 401(k) distributions are taxed as regular income, which puts a big dent in your retirement budget.

A supplemental source of tax-free retirement income will give you some flexibility to manage that future tax bill. But you can't pull that income out of the air post-retirement; you have to start the work now. If you can afford it along with your 401(k) contributions, put some extra cash in a Roth IRA or taxable brokerage account.

The Roth is a good choice if you meet the income requirements. Otherwise, save and invest in a taxable brokerage account, with the same long-term focus you apply to your retirement account. Buy and hold tax-efficient funds and exchange-traded funds, which tend to have lesser tax implications.

4. Don't tap your retirement funds

The CARES Act, passed in March, does make it easier and cheaper for you to pull money out of your 401(k). But that doesn't mean you should. In practice, it's very hard to recover from a sizable 401(k) withdrawal. You might be able to repay the funds, but you'll likely have lost earnings on the amount you pulled from the account. And if the market starts to build momentum before you pay the money back, those lost earnings could be substantial.

Taking money out of your 401(k) also exposes that cash to creditors. Your 401(k) balance is normally protected in a bankruptcy proceeding, but you lose those protections on any funds you withdraw.

As a rule, don't pull money from your retirement account. Look to other sources of cash first. Borrow from relatives or refinance your house instead.

You're (mostly) in control

There are aspects of retirement savings you can't control, like COVID-19 and its effect on your portfolio balance. To win at retirement, you have to overlook those factors and focus on the stuff you can control. Streamline your finances, continue investing in your tax-advantaged and taxable accounts, and don't turn to your retirement savings when you need to raise cash. That's how you win at retirement.