A 4-Step Checklist for People About to Retire

Are you getting ready to leave the working world for good? Before you walk out the door for the last time, it's important to get a few financial priorities completed so you can live out your golden years with the minimum of money worries -- and so you can actually enjoy your years of retirement.

Before you hand in your notice, make sure to check each of these four tasks off your list if you can.

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1. Pay off debt

When you're on a fixed income, the last thing you need to worry about is spending your Social Security benefits or investment account distributions on interest. Wasting money on interest means you'll have less income to live on or will need to draw your investment balance down too quickly, so ideally you should try to be debt-free before you retire.

While many seniors do go into retirement with mortgage debt, and even student loan debt, it can be especially important to pay off high-interest debt such as credit cards and payday loans. Otherwise, you may not be able to afford to pay much more than the minimums once you no longer have your salary -- and you could end up spending decades of your retirement devoting income to debt repayment.

To make sure this doesn't happen to you, figure out your retirement date and determine how much you need to pay each month so your debt is paid down to $0 before you leave work. Then, do whatever you can to hit that monthly target, even if this means working a little overtime or cutting your budget to the bone. When you're a carefree senior without debt bills to pay, you'll be very glad you worked hard to get rid of it. Ideally, you'll be able to hit this target for all your debt, including that mortgage and any outstanding student loans, but if you can't, eliminating your credit card debt will still go a long way toward making your money last longer.

2. Figure out what your income will be

You need to know how much money you'll have to live on during retirement so you don't end up spending too much and going into debt or drawing down your savings too quickly.

Your income will likely come from several different sources after leaving work. These include:

  • Social Security: You can find out your monthly benefit amount by visiting the Social Security Administration website. You'll have to provide your Social Security number and answer some identifying questions to create an account if you don't already have one. Once you've signed in, you'll see your benefits if you retire at 62, at full retirement age, or at 70. If you plan to retire at a different age, you'll have to calculate your benefit amount yourself. The Social Security Administration provides a quick calculator to make this process easy.
  • Employer-provided pensions: Most of us don't have pensions provided by employers anymore. If you're lucky enough to have a pension, you can talk with HR to find out what amount of money you'll receive in retirement. This will probably depend on your age when you retire and how long you've worked for your company.
  • Investment income: Most retirees need to rely on some income from a 401(k), IRA, or other investment account. However, you need to be careful not to take too much from this account at once. One rule of thumb is that you should withdraw no more than 4% of your invested funds in the first year of retirement and then increase withdrawals based on inflation each year. However, many experts believe the 4% rule is outdated and recommend withdrawing a different percentage of funds. (You can see recommendations from the Center for Retirement Research [CRR] in this article.) If you opt to follow the CRR's recommendations and retire at 65, you could withdraw 3.13% of your account balance -- so if you had $1 million saved, your investments could comfortably provide you with up to $31,300 in income.

You may also have other sources of money from real estate investments, alimony, or additional assets you own. The key is to look at all your different sources of money and figure out the maximum you can spend.

3. Make a budget

Once you know the maximum income available to you, it's time to set a detailed budget. When setting your budget, you should take all of your expenses into account, including fixed expenses for housing as well as expenditures on things like entertainment and travel. And don't forget to consider healthcare costs.

Hopefully when you make your budget, you'll find the income that you have available is enough to support all the spending that you want and need to do during retirement. If you discover you can afford to live on less than the maximum income available to you, that's great news -- you can leave your money invested in case you need more cash later.

But if you find that you just can't make the numbers work because your income doesn't stretch far enough, you'll have to consider working longer or changing your lifestyle. Don't retire until you've figured out a budget that works with the income available.

4. Plan what to do with your time

Finally, you need to figure out how you'll spend your days in retirement. Many people rely on work to provide structure and social connections. If you don't have a plan for what to do during retirement, you could find yourself at loose ends -- which could lead to depression and other health issues. The good news is, this part of retirement planning should be fun, especially if you've found plenty of room in your budget to do the things you love.

Don't retire until you're ready

It's important that you don't retire until you've done the four steps on this pre-retirement checklist. You don't want to leave work only to find you have too little money to live on or that your debt is eating up your entire Social Security check. If you go through each of these steps, you can ensure you're really ready to leave work and then hand in your notice without any worries.

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