This is the first in a series of articles on preparing for retirement.  The next few will deal with what retirement looks like – what I will do as I enter another stage of my life, Social Security planning, cash flow expectations, investments, planning for health care, eventual downsizing and/or re-locating, and other topics I am finding important.

In my 36 years of helping clients plan for their retirements, there have been a number of things I now refer to as truisms that ring consistently for most of those clients.  These are not retirement planning items, but they will smooth the path toward retirement. Readers of my commentary know most of them by heart, but I am personally more aware of them as I prepare for my own retirement later this year.  Here they are in no particular order.

  1. Pay yourself first. Put money aside from every paycheck into some kind of retirement or savings plan.  First establish an emergency fund that will cover 3-6 months of cash flow needs.  Then, if you have a company 401k plan with an employer matching feature, strive to at least put enough of your own dollars in the plan every year to take advantage of the match.  Otherwise you are leaving money on the table, and that is a mistake.


  1. Live within your means. This can be difficult, given our society’s penchant for having the fastest, newest, most beautiful (and often expensive) possessions now.  The concept of starter home has unfortunately been cast aside, as young people living in nice apartments want those same upscale amenities in the homes they buy.  Our first home, bought the winter after we were married in 1979, cost $40,000, equivalent to $132,000 in 2016 factoring inflation, and it was about the same monthly payment as our rent had been.  We were thrilled to lock in a 30-year rate of 10.25%.  Yes, we refinanced several times as rates dropped.  It is easy to see why fewer millennials are buying.  Those who do are often mortgage poor in their search for their “dream home”.  The same goes for cars and other big-ticket items, where immediate prestige is short-lived.
  1. Pay off credit cards each month. This is another one that may be hard for young families, people struggling with employment problems, and those with medical issues.  I can tell you that very few people start a successful retirement laden with credit card debt.  From a financial planning perspective, there is only one solution to consumer debt: quit spending.  Do you really need a 24th pair of shoes, new furniture, a birthday cruise, or any of those things you are unable to pay off at the end of the month? Learn to say no.
  1. Complete the basic estate planning documents you need. For everyone, this includes the following:
    • Durable Power of Attorney should you be unable to handle financial decisions and pay bills.
    • Health Care Power of Attorney (some states call this a Health Care Surrogate) to make decisions should you become incapacitated and unable to make the decisions yourself. Only trusted relatives or friends should be named for these two POA documents, and preferably they should reside in the same area of the state as you.
    • Advance Care Directive or Living Will is optional. It is a written statement of the kind of medical care you wish to receive should you be in a terminal condition, an end-stage condition, or in a persistent vegetative state.
    • Last Will and Testament that designates how you want your personal property divided at your death, who will act as the executor, who will act as a guardian for your minor child, who will have control of your digital property, among many items.
  1. Purchase life insurance to replace income needed in the event of your death. If you are single, you probably do not need life insurance.  If you are married, consider what your death would mean to your spouse financially.  If you have children, think about what will be needed to handle all the expenses, including day care and education for the long term.  Buy the amount of insurance you need, and purchase an inexpensive, 15 or 20-year level-term policy.  Keep the insurance only as long as it is needed.
  1. Strive to have your mortgage paid before you retire.
  1. Understand the importance of your credit score, and monitor it at least once a year.

I wish I had followed all of these truisms when I was young, but alas I did not.  The sooner folks take them to heart, the quicker their financial success can happen.  I readily admit that not everyone can accomplish all seven of them quickly.  Some may take a long time, but they should be goals.  Numbers 1 and 4 are absolutely crucial and are both easily accomplished.  If you are just getting started on your own, are newly married, or changing relationships, understand how vital it is that you have current wills and POAs.  And remember to change the beneficiaries of your financial accounts, unless you want your ex, and not your current spouse or partner, to get your 401k when you die.

There may be other things that individuals believe are vital to a successful financial life and retirement.  This list and future comments are not meant to be exclusive.