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Live Long and Prosper

Preparing for retirement takes as long as, well, getting old: No matter what your wealth level, it is a lifelong work in progress

Getting on the right track begins in the first decade of adulthood; staying on target means adjusting your plan to suit changing circumstances, whether they are your income needs, earning power, health or market swings. Following are guidelines for planning smart each decade of your life.

Whether you’re living off your paycheck or have supplemental income from a family trust, this is the decade to establish two habits critical to your furture wealth. They sound simple, but they’re not.

The first: Control spending. “This is relevant even to the extremely rich,” says William St. Clair, an advisor at St. Clair and Associates in Conshohocken, Pa. “If you live beyond your means, credit card debt will gobble every available penny you might otherwise use to save.”

The second: Begin investing now, and invest regularly. “Figuring your money doubles every 10 years if you’re earning an average annual 7 percent, you’ll have fewer decades of doubling if you don’t get started right away—you’ll miss seeing that $500,000 turn to $1 million or that $1 million turn to $3 million,” says Scott Thoma, a principal and advisor at Edward Jones.

Jump into the Roth 401(k) if your employer offers one. (You invest after-tax dollars, but in retirement withdrawals are tax-free.) Your second choice? A regular 401(k), which allows pre-tax contributions but withdrawals are subject to income tax rates. With either, take advantage of your employer’s matching contribution; the average match is 4.5 percent of pay. “That’s like a guaranteed 100 percent return,” Thoma says.

If you don’t have a 401(k) option, contribute to a tax-free Roth IRA, or as a second choice, a tax-deferred IRA, SEP IRA or a Keogh.

Tend to macro issues of family finances. If your parents or grandparents have a family business, a family limited partnership or a foundation, your future role could contribute to your retirement security. If you want to be involved, initiate the conversation with senior generation leaders, says Whitney Kenter, a partner at Matter Family Office in St. Louis, Mo. Ask to be invited to board of director meetings or sessions with financial advisors, or to take on a philanthropic project. “Take little bites early on to begin the process,” Kenter says.

Finally, work with a financial advisor as early as it makes financial sense. Young people who are building wealth may find that an online “robo advisor” can help create a low-cost, passively managed diversified portfolio. But as soon as your savings start to accumulate into the, say, mid six-figures, it’s time to turn to a human advisor.

Thanks to children, property and competing savings goals, these are the years when life gets more complicated. But as your salary grows, it’s critical to not only increase your savings rate and invest for growth, but also—with so much at stake—to consider the risks and protect against them.

Provide ballast for your long-term investment portfolio. First, guard against tapping long-term assets for unexpected short-term expenses by keeping enough cash and liquidity on hand to meet at least six months’ of expenses, says Matt McGrath, an advisor at Evensky & Katz in Coral Gables, Fla.

Next, to guard against permanent portfolio losses and ensure growth, make sure you are broadly diversified across sectors, with the vast majority of your portfolio in stocks, using low-cost mutual funds and ETFs.

Add another tax-deferred retirement account if you’ve maximized contributions to your 401(k). If your employer allows after-tax contributions to a 401(k), consider plowing more in.

Button up your affairs with insurance. Regardless of how much you’ve saved, “if you’re not properly insured and you get disabled or die prematurely, your family may spend every nickel you’ve saved just trying to get by,” says Eric Godes, chief wealth advisory officer at Federal Street Advisors in Boston.

Buy life and disability insurance. Employers provide some coverage, but it’s typically a fraction of what you’ll need. The cheapest life coverage is term insurance, which expires after a specified period. A 35-year-old man can buy $1 million of coverage for under $500 a year.

Permanent cash-value life insurance has a death benefit and an investment component that you can access tax-free during your lifetime. The choice often comes down to affordability: premiums are more than 10 times higher than term life premiums. This isn’t a good choice if it means not being able to maximize contributions to your retirement accounts, Godes says.

Begin thinking of your investments in terms of three buckets: one for liquidity, one for longevity and one for legacy, says Andrea Fisher, a senior strategist at UBS Wealth Management.The liquidity bucket should include cash and cash equivalents such as certificates of deposit and short-term fixed income securities, enough to cover big expenses you expect over the next two to five years—perhaps college tuition bills or a second home or healthcare costs for an elderly parent.

Within the longevity bucket, which contains your retirement investments, invest like a pension plan. “This means that, rather than focusing on volatility risk, focus on the more relevant risk, which is that you won’t be able to fund your income needs in retirement,” Fisher says.

Position your investments with a balance of stocks, fixed income, hedging strategies and other alternative investments that have a high probability of providing your targeted income. Over the years, have your advisor run an analysis periodically to make sure there is a continued high chance of success. If you don’t like the prognosis, you may have to take on more volatility risk, increase your savings or revise your goals.

The legacy bucket is for spillover assets you don’t think you’ll need and can be passed on to heirs. For many, this bucket remains empty until future decades. When you begin to add assets here, this should be your most aggressively invested bucket, because there is plenty of time to make up for any periodic declines in value.

This is the last-chance decade for saving for retirement. Step it up. Take advantage of higher contribution limits in 401(k)s, IRAs and other retirement accounts that go into effect at age 50. Plow more savings into after-tax accounts.

You’re most likely in the highest income tax bracket, so pay close attention to asset location: Make sure tax-inefficient investments such as high-turnover funds or alternative investments are in tax-sheltered accounts, Matt McGrath says. Municipal bonds, buy-and-hold stocks and other tax-efficient investments should be in taxable accounts.

As your portfolio grows, consider private placement variable life insurance as a spot to park your most tax-inefficient investments. These are customized insurance policies with a death benefit and an insurance component. You can invest in highly tax-inefficient hedge funds or other alternatives in a policy, with zero tax impact, yet have access to the assets by borrowing against the policy. The loans are ultimately deducted from the death benefit.

It likely won’t be a critical piece of your income, but understand what you’ll have coming in from Social Security or if you have a company pension. Keep in mind you can maximize your Social Security income for yourself and your spouse by waiting to tap it.

Looking ahead, consider your family history and general health to predict your future healthcare needs. Nursing home costs, which have been rising by 4 percent a year, have hit a nationwide median cost of $91,250 per year, according to Genworth Financial. Long-term care insurance isn’t for everyone, but make the decision early. Depending on policy details, premiums can be more than 50 percent higher at age 65 versus 55.

If your retirement depends on you being able to pass on a family business or transfer governance over a family business, limited partnership or foundation, you should be working closely with the next generation of leaders to ensure a smooth transition.

Even though many Americans are choosing to work longer—whether out of need or for the satisfaction of it—this is the decade when the retirement spigot almost always gets turned on. Perhaps more than ever, plan with care. While some decisions—such as how to allocate retirement assets and how much to withdraw per year to live on—can be revised, others are irreversible and can cost you dearly.

Consider the milestone most people reach around this time: rolling assets out of a 401(k) upon retiring. There are two big—yet little known—tax savings moves that you only get one chance to take advantage of.

The first: While most people roll 401(k) assets into traditional IRAs, starting last year the IRS allows investors to roll after-tax contributions in 401(k)s to tax-free Roth IRAs when they retire. Many wealthy Americans with decades-old 401(k)s are likely to have made after-tax contributions in the 1980s and 1990s when pre-tax contribution limits were low. By stashing these assets in Roths, they can withdraw them, and their gains, tax-free in retirement. When taken from an IRA, they are subject to income-tax rates.

“The Roth can be the most powerful component of a retirement plan,” says Michael Rubin, director of client tax services at Bessemer Trust.

Before this ruling, conversions to a Roth had to come from a regular IRA and income taxes were owed on converted assets. But when assets are converted from a 401(k), Rubin says, no taxes are due.

Another potentially massive tax-savings move: Investors with big 401(k) holdings in their company stock typically roll it, along with the rest of their 401(k) assets, into an IRA. When withdrawn later, it is subject to income-tax rates.

But if you instead roll the company stock into a taxable brokerage account, you will pay income taxes on the average value of the cost basis, but the gains would be subject to long-term capital gains taxes when withdrawn from the brokerage. “You get one chance to get this right,” says Mark Cortazzo, a financial advisor in Parsippany, N.J. If you roll the company stock into an IRA, it’s too late to take advantage of this little-used tax rule.

Maintain your three-bucket view, with your liquidity bucket invested in conservative cash-equivalent instruments. Replenish it as needed with income from your longevity bucket, which should be investing in a balanced portfolio of stocks and fixed income. Your legacy bucket should contain a growth-oriented portfolio.

After turning 70 1/2, you’ll have to begin withdrawing minimum distributions from your IRAs. If you want to increase your income guarantees—either to ease concerns about running out of money or simply to make things easier should you live well past your life expectancy—consider using some IRA assets to buy a deferred income annuity, which is an insurance-sold guarantee of a specified income every year, no matter how long you live. Under a 2014 IRS ruling, IRA assets used for an income annuity aren’t subject to the required minimum distribution rules.

You may have already passed governance of a family business or foundation on to next generation leaders in your family. Be sure to also inform your spouse and heirs about the legacy you plan to leave behind. Get specific: Create a list of accounts, contacts, advisors, attorneys. A financial roadmap for your family can be the path to relaxation for yourself.

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