Keeping Your Financial Plans Afloat

Although the recession may force a change in your timeline, you do have lots of options

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Many Americans are forlornly examining their battered and bruised retirement accounts. To most, it probably looks as if years of diligent saving have gone to waste, and they are wondering what to do next. Retirement savers certainly need more growth in their portfolios to build up shrunken nest eggs. But at the same time, investors are seeking assurance that the stock market won't swallow what's left of their 401(k)'s and IRAs. The choices to repair your retirement prospects are difficult: work longer, reduce expenses, invest smarter, and, yes, try to tuck even more money away for retirement. Here is how you can take back control of your retirement, at any age.

10 or More Years From Retirement

Youth is the perfect time to take a few chances in your retirement accounts. "Be as aggressive as your stomach can handle," says Hal Guy, who is a certified financial planner with StoneCastle Consulting in Windsor, Conn. Daring investors may even be able to scoop up a few bargains now. Young people have an opportunity to buy into the market at rock-bottom prices, with the assumption that the market will go up—eventually. The only investing risk you shouldn't take while you're in your 20s and 30s is failing to start saving for retirement. The long-term payout for you if you start and cultivate a retirement account beginning in your 20s can be dramatic. An investor who contributes $5,000 to an IRA every year beginning at age 25 could potentially accumulate $1.6 million by age 70, according to Fidelity calculations that assume an annual rate of return of 7 percent. Avoiding fees and expenses as much as possible will help get you to your retirement goal faster. And any company contributions from your employer are, of course, a bonus.

Within 10 Years of Retirement

Baby boomers rapidly approaching age 65 have earned the right to be skeptical about their retirement prospects. Alex Mathieson, 59, a regional manager in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., saw his 401(k) lose 40 percent of its value last year. "I haven't locked in the loss. I am still 100 percent in stocks," he says. "But I don't have any more of the faith in the markets that I once had." Many financial advisers recommend moving at least some of your nest egg out of equities as you age. A quarter of people between 56 and 65 have over 90 percent of their overall 401(k) portfolio in equities, says Jack Vanderhei, research director of the Employee Benefit Research Institute. It should be 50 percent.

Other investors choose the opposite extreme and pull all of their money out of the stock market at retirement. But both too much and too little risk in your portfolio can derail retirement plans. You need to find a level of risk in your portfolio that you can live with that also helps you build wealth for retirement. Investors seeking a conservative bond that offers inflation protection may want to consider treasury inflation-protected securities, TIPS, which carry a low, fixed rate of interest but adjust your principal every six months based on the consumer price index. More aggressive investors might prefer municipal bonds, which have a slightly higher yield while still providing a measure of safety. "Going 100 percent into CDs will guarantee failure," says Michael Kresh, a certified financial planner in Islandia, N.Y., and the author of You Can Afford to Retire.

As painful as it sounds, working longer will help restore your nest egg faster than almost any other strategy. "The typical person in their 50s needs to work about a year and a half longer to recover," says Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. "Then there is enough time to save more and for the markets to bounce back." Employees ages 50 and older are eligible to contribute up to $22,000 to their traditional tax-deferred 401(k) in 2009, $5,500 more than younger workers. Delaying retirement also allows you to put off claiming Social Security. Payouts increase by about 7 to 8 percent for each year you delay claiming between ages 62 and 70.