10 Resolutions for Retirement Readiness

Get your retirement finances in order in 2010 with these tips.


Slide Show: 10 Resolutions for Retirement Readiness

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The new year will move us one year closer to retirement. But few Americans are more prepared than last year. We may be tracking the stock market more closely than ever, but we still need better saving and investment strategies to get ready to retire. Here are 10 New Year's resolutions for retirement.

[Slide Show: 10 Resolutions for Retirement Readiness.]

Set manageable savings goals. Amassing $1 million or more for retirement—or any other number you have calculated—is certainly a worthy goal. But accumulating a large chunk of cash takes time and diligence, with few milestones along the way. Setting intermediate savings goals, such as contributing enough to get your annual 401(k) match from your employer or saving 10 percent of your pay, can make saving easier. Punam Anand Keller, a management professor at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business, says making a list of what you will use your retirement stash for makes saving less of a sacrifice. "I am saving now so that when I have time when I am older and retired, I am going to go on exotic international trips with my friends," she says. "You can actually see it going towards something concrete rather than just aiming for $1 million."

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Maximize retirement savings tax breaks. Utilize tax-deferred retirement accounts as much as possible in the years leading up to retirement. Workers ages 50 and older can contribute up to $22,000 to a 401(k) in 2010. Only 10 percent of retirement plan participants saved the maximum amount in 2008, according to an analysis of 3 million Vanguard account holders. At a minimum, contribute enough to get your employer's full 401(k) match. Those over age 50 with an adjusted gross income of $66,000 or less ($109,000 for couples) can save another $6,000, tax-deferred, in an IRA. If neither you nor your spouse has a retirement plan at work, the IRA income limits don't apply.

Save your sick days for retirement. Some companies give workers cash payouts for unused sick and vacation days, typically when they leave a job—but sometimes while still employed. Employees can now deposit that cash windfall directly into their retirement account, according to a new IRS ruling. Ask your human resources department if your leftover annual leave can be tucked away in your 401(k), especially if you can't roll over unused time to next year.

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Make a long-term investment plan. Stop adjusting your investments every time the stock market appears to hit a peak or trough. "The biggest mistake people make is bailing out when the market is doing badly and then buying back in when things pick up," says William Droms, a Georgetown University finance professor. "It's best not to make a precipitous change in your portfolio because of the crash of 2008." Traditionally, workers have gradually reduced their stock exposure as their desired retirement date approaches. "If you're really nervous about the market and you want to transition your portfolio to be more conservative, don't do it all at once," Droms advises. "Do it over a two-year period until you get where you want to go." Keep in mind that you also need to beat inflation and prevent outliving your money.

[See Sticking With Stocks, Even in Retirement.]

Minimize investment fees and penalties. Familiarize yourself with 401(k) and IRA rules to avoid penalties. Withdrawals from retirement accounts before age 59½ (and 401[k]'s at a former employer before age 55) typically come with an early withdrawal penalty of 10 percent plus income tax on the amount withdrawn. After age 70½, annual distributions from retirement accounts are required. Seniors who fail to take the withdrawal face a tax penalty of 50 percent of the amount that should have been withdrawn plus income tax. Also, pay close attention to investment, administrative, and transaction fees, which can cut into your returns over time. Note the expense ratio when choosing among funds in the same asset class. Consider lower-cost investments such as index funds.