Retirement

Does Your Retirement Plan Pass the 3-Point Check-Up?

Consider these factors to bolster tour financial self-sufficiency.
Does Your Retirement Plan Pass the 3-Point Check-Up?
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Guest Writer
Financial security expert
5 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Retirement plan fees, taxes and healthcare costs are among the biggest threats to Americans’ financial security. Many workers aren’t just financially unprepared for retirement -- they haven’t done the basic calculations to determine how much money they will need.

Related: This Innocuous Sounding Phrase Is Actually a Mortal Threat to Your Retirement Planning

That’s one of the findings of the 28th annual Retirement Confidence Survey just released by the nonprofit Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) and the research firm Greenwald & Associates.

The annual survey, conducted in January among 1,002 workers and 1,040 retirees, found that only about half of workers 55 and older had calculated their cost of living and how much money they would need to have saved to pay their bills.

And despite healthcare costs in retirement that Fidelity now estimates to be $280,000 per couple (not including long-term care costs), only 1 in 5 workers and 4 in 10 retirees have calculated how much money they will need to cover these expenses in particular in retirement.

That's why EBRI’s survey is full of warning signs about how unprepared Americans really are for retirement. For instance, the survey found that (applying its scientific findings broadly):

  • 43 percent of workers 55 and older have less than $100,000 in savings and investments; only 38 percent have $250,000 or more.
  • Most workers expect to work until age 65, but the actual median age of retirement is 62.
  • While only 1 in 10 workers think they will retire before age 60, 35 percent actually do -- often because of layoffs or health problems.
  • Eight in 10 workers expect to rely on defined contribution plans such as 401(k)s for retirement income, but only about half of retirees report such workplace savings plans are a source of income.
  • The shift from company-sponsored pension plans to 401(k) plans, IRAs and other government-sponsored retirement plans has been disastrous for Americans’ financial security.
  • Not surprisingly, EBRI finds that 8 in 10 workers are interested in redirecting their money to “a financial product that would guarantee them monthly income for life.”

Related: Just Listen: The IRS Is Telling You How to Have a Tax-Free Retirement

Most workers started retirement accounts such as 401(k)s or IRAs years ago because their employers offered them, and it was considered the wise thing to do. But despite balances that may have swollen with recent gains in the stock market, people are uneasy about their long-term financial security ... and they should be!

Retirees and pre-retirees who have a big portion of their assets in stocks face the risk that the market will tank as they are withdrawing money from their accounts -- with a devastating impact on their retirement lifestyle. A market crash at that stage of your life can force you to either draw down your retirement savings much faster, or to live on much less money.

This is why conventional retirement plans such as 401(k)s and IRAs are sometimes referred to as “hope and pray” plans. They offer no guarantees, so you cannot possibly know what your account value will be at any given point in time. That may have been acceptable to you early in your career when you had plenty of time to accumulate retirement assets, but does it make sense for you today?

Your financial goals and objectives, as well as your tolerance for risk and surprises, have likely changed dramatically since you started your career. And that fact makes this is a good time to put your retirement plan through a three-point checkup to see if it still makes sense for you at this stage of your life.

Here are the three key issues to examine: 

1. The predictability of the growth in your plan. How important is it to you to know the minimum value of your plan and how much income will it provide when you want to tap into it? If the market tanks by 50 percent or more (as it has twice since the year 2000) and that occurs just before or after you retire, will the loss significantly affect your retirement lifestyle?

2. Liquidity and access to your money. 401(k)s and IRAs have many restrictions on how and when you can access your savings. You'll have to pay taxes plus a 10 percent penalty if you withdraw money before 59½. And, to do that, you'll have to sell investments that you were counting on for growth. If it's a bad time to sell, you're out of luck.

If your 401(k) plan permits borrowing (IRAs do not), there are strict limits on how much you can borrow, how long you can borrow it for and how you must pay it back. Because of this, you really have to consider the money in your retirement account as a non-liquid asset you won't touch until age 59½.

3. Taxation of the income you take from your plan. People like the idea that they can contribute to a 401(k) or IRA with before-tax dollars. Over the years, they tend to forget that they have only deferred their tax liability and are sitting on a tax time bomb, which they'll discover once the IRS starts taking 25 to 50 percent of the value of their retirement savings.

It's a little-known fact that, if tax rates stay the same, it doesn't make any difference if you pay your taxes before you put money aside, or when you take withdrawals. Ask yourself this very important question: What direction do you think tax rates are going over the long term?

Related: The Retirement Plan Strategy Small-Business Owners Need to Know About

Does your retirement account pass the three-point test? If not, this is the time to look into alternatives that can help you best meet your current financial goals and objectives.

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