Recs

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Mission: Retirement

The tenets of healthy living are almost cliché by now: Eat your leafy greens, increase your "core strength" with some weight-bearing exercise, and get in a cardio workout every day for at least 30 minutes.

Managing your financial life is about as rote: Spend less than you make, regularly sock away some money for the future, and when you're 65 or so, pack up your desk, slap on some sunscreen, and head to milder climes.

In other words, save your leafy greens and lift your golf bag with your legs, not your back.

Oh, and one more little thing: The rules are going to change along the way. What? No one told you that?

Building, providing, and protecting
As we age, our financial priorities change. In our 20s and 30s, we focus on building a decent future. From age 40 to mid 50s, it's about making wise finance decisions and living a little. Those ages 55 through 69 are concerned about protection -- both of assets and their family's well-being.

And how do I know so much about what's on your mind? I don't. But the folks at the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards have provided a blueprint of financial concerns for all ages. The "average" concerns of the 1,000 survey respondents aren't representative of "average" Americans. Each is the upper-quartile of income in their age group. The average net worth of those surveyed was $562,000, with an average household income of $106,000.

See if you identify with any of these labels that the CFP Board came up with in its consumer survey:

  • In your 20s and 30s, you're an "Up & Comer" -- saving for retirement (as an investor, you are pretty risk-tolerant), managing your debt, and building a college fund are high on your list of financial priorities.
  • From age 40 to your mid-50s, "Mid-Lifers" are more likely to pursue the help of a professional financial planner. They are living a little (focused more on funding vacations and travel) and trying to empty the nest and finance their kids' college educations. These are the peak earning years. At the same time, you're showing your age and have less of a tolerance for risk as you invest.
  • At age 55 (until you're 69), you get your key pass to the "Retirement Cusp" club. Your financial concerns tend to buzz around shelter -- having a cushy emergency fund, getting adequate insurance protection, and sheltering your income from taxes. "Live and make it last" is your motto.

Easy-does-it investing
So, how do upper-income folks invest for their needs? We certainly applaud their savings resolve. On average, participants said they saved or invested 12% of their total income (median) in 2001. Here's how they allocate their assets:

  • Real estate equity (31%)
  • Retirement savings plans (26%)
  • Stock mutual funds (10%)
  • CDs, money market, and savings accounts (10%)
  • Individual stocks (7%)
  • Pensions (6%)
  • Misc. assets (bond funds, bonds, annuities) (10%)

Excluding bill-paying and balancing their checkbooks, they spend an average of five hours a month on financial matters.

But spending time managing your finances is quite different than having a road map in place -- one that you check on a regular basis and reprogram the GPS to find the best path to your destination.

Plan, shman
Surprisingly, less than half of upper-income consumers surveyed by the CFP Board have a formal financial plan in place. Not surprisingly, though, the more money folks have and the older they get, the more likely they are to get their financial affairs down on paper and map their way. More than half of "Retirement Cusp" individuals, and nearly half of those with a net worth of more than $500,000, have a formal plan.

Young whippersnappers could learn a thing or two from their elders. According to the survey, those who don't have a formal plan in place are less likely to feel satisfied with the management of their financial affairs. They worry about being financially prepared for retirement and tend to doubt the money decisions they make.

A financial plan -- a good one, at least -- should give you a very specific snapshot of your current financial picture, an accurate accounting of your future money needs, and a well-mapped guide on how to get from point A to point B. It helps you project future costs, see how your current savings match up with them, pinpoint current and future financial issues, identify weak spots, and provide a much-needed wake-up call regarding savings, spending, and orthodontia costs.

A side note for those filled with the New Year's resolve to get their financial plan in tip-top shape: For hand's-on help, we've revamped our "Rule Your Retirement" online seminar, which will begin with great fanfare on Jan. 20. (TMF Money Advisor subscribers can enroll for free. I encourage non-subscribers to take up our Marketing Fools on their offer for a free one-month trial to TMF Money Advisor. You'll have access to the seminar, and get to keep all the lessons and seminar workbook even if you decide not to continue with the overall service.)

Take a cue from the Scouts
It's often a life-changing event that lights a fire under our behinds so that we pay attention to the important stuff. Receiving an inheritance or financial windfall prompts 72% of folks to seek help, according to the CFP Board survey. Complex investments and making asset distribution decisions follow closely behind.

Don't wait for a major life event to drive you to scramble to come up with a financial plan. With some preparation and forward-thinking you can dampen the effect of things like a midlife crisis, the car going on the fritz as you're on the first leg of a long-awaited road trip, or even a major market downturn.

Having a financial plan -- one that you consult on a regular basis -- can take the guesswork and stress out of managing your finances at every turn and with every new gray hair.

Dayana Yochim likes to be prepared. In her purse, she carries tissues, Band-Aids, tweezers, flares, rope, dog treats, and flotation devices. A version of this column originally ran in July. The Motley Fool has a full disclosure policy.


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