6 Blunders That Ruin Retirement Plans

Slip-ups and surprise expenses can jeopardize a comfortable lifestyle.

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Regular contributions to an IRA or 401(k) are a good start, but accumulating money is only part of the retirement-planning equation. Securing a comfortable retirement is a tricky process that requires careful planning; a few bad moves can cost you dearly in the long run. Here are six common missteps:

1. Not having a plan: A third of adults have no financial plan for retirement, according to a recent survey conducted for TD Ameritrade. Of the remainder of those surveyed, 46 percent said they have a written retirement plan, and 20 percent said they have a plan in their head. "So many people who have undersaved choose to ignore the issue rather than sit down and create a plan," says Joe Heider, president of Dawson Wealth Management in Cleveland. "It's almost like a fear of going to the doctor."

Retirement calculators are a start. Free counsel might be available through your employer's investment-advice program; otherwise, an investment adviser can help you plot your financial moves. Services range from a one-time financial checkup to a comprehensive plan that includes asset allocation and estate planning.

2. Underestimating life expectancy: Retirees are living longer these days, thanks to more healthful lifestyles, medical breakthroughs, and healthcare reforms. In 1955, Americans lived to be an average of 69.6 years old. The average life expectancy rose to 75.8 years by 1995 and to 77.9 years by 2005, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Keep in mind that life expectancies are averages; many of today's retirees will live well into their 80s and beyond. Rosanne Grande of R. W. Rogé & Co. on New York's Long Island says her firm's plans run to age 100. "We invest for the long term, not the short term, now that people are living 30 and 40 years into retirement," Grande says.

One side note: As retirees' expectations about longevity increase, so does the role of the financial adviser. Grande is one of a growing number of registered financial gerontologists, who specialize in serving older clients.

3. Low-balling your spending: Would-be retirees tend to be too conservative when projecting their annual expenses in retirement, Heider says. "Chances are, a couple retiring in their early to mid-60s is going to spend almost as much in retirement as they did during their working career," he says. Spending in some categories, like travel, may increase. "For most people, spending on discretionary items and travel actually goes up in the early years of retirement," Heider adds.

4. Failing to plan for unexpected extras: Many people have a basic retirement plan in their head, with a general idea of their assets, monthly expenses, pension income, or Social Security income, Grande says. "But what they fail to factor in is extraordinary cash-flow needs, such as boomerang children living at home or extended care for aging parents," she says. A leaky roof or termite infestation could also put a dent in your budget. For such surprise expenses, Grande recommends building a little extra padding into your plan. Think of it as an extended emergency fund.

5. Overlooking rising healthcare costs: A 65-year-old couple retiring this year will need about $225,000 just to cover medical costs in retirement, according to Fidelity Investments. This figure, which assumes retirees don't have employer-sponsored healthcare coverage, represents a 5 percent increase over 2007 and a whopping 41 percent jump from 2002. Meanwhile, the number of large employers offering retiree health benefits is falling.

Employers are also increasingly shifting more costs to retirees through higher premium contributions and cost-sharing requirements. "It's scary, and it's very hard for most people to realize that the cost of the medical plan is going to go up 8 to 12 percent each year," says Ellen Jordan, senior vice president with Bryn Mawr Trust Wealth Management in Bryn Mawr, Pa.

6. Ignoring inflation: Don't underestimate the impact inflation will have on your retirement plan. If you're 65 today, an expense that currently costs $100 will cost $180 by the time you're 80, assuming an inflation rate of 4 percent. Plan your retirement with the assumption that the cost of living in your later years will considerably outpace that of your earlier years. Grande uses a 4 percent inflation estimate in her clients' plans.