You may think you're woefully underprepared for retirement. But compared with Lesley Wootton, your sob story is probably pretty tame.
For more than 20 years, this Irish immigrant, her American husband, and their five kids scrambled to avoid financial disaster. At one point, their family income was just $5,200 a year -- less than $15,000 in today's money. Lesley worked odd jobs -- factory night shifts, waitressing, anything she could do to bring in extra money while avoiding having to pay for day care.
Then, two years ago, it looked like it was game over. Lesley was 53 and recovering from a divorce. She had a negative net worth and just $83 officially earmarked for retirement.
The end? Not so fast. Today she is debt-free and sitting on a nest egg of more than $150,000. If Lesley sticks to her plan, she'll be a millionaire by age 67.
Reality retirement drama
Lesley Wootton's path from rags to riches doesn't follow a TV miniseries storyboard -- there's no unlikely Prince Charming or pit stop on reality TV, no sweet divorce settlement or scratch-off lottery ticket. Thank heavens, too. If it did, financial security would be a one-in-a-million shot for most of us.
No, Lesley got where she was the old-fashioned way: Denial, terror, confusion, and, finally, action out of sheer necessity.
She buckled down, got a handle on her expenses, made cuts (some of which were difficult -- like telling her grown children that she could provide for them only after her financial needs were met), and reconceived what retirement would be for her.
So do we just chalk up Lesley's dramatic money transformation to the financial equivalent of stomach-stapling and marathon training?
No way. Lesley's extreme retirement makeover was made possible by baby-carrot steps that anyone can follow to the same dramatic results.
Step on the scale
For most, the transformation from ugly duckling to swan begins with a moment in front of the 360-degree mirror. In your bathing suit. Under the harsh glare of fluorescent lighting. On a bad hair day.
Fear (or horror) gets people started on the righteous path of saving. Goals keep them motivated. Results inspire others to tiptoe toward the scale and see what they can do to get into bikini-season shape. (Lesley explains in more detail how she got in shape in "10 Tips for Late Starters" in the September 2005 issue of Motley Fool Rule Your Retirement -- a free trial is required for non-subscribers.)
Lesley had to take some extreme steps. She went back to school to earn a higher degree, put her financial needs before those of her grown children, and sold her home in favor of renting at a much cheaper rate.
Maybe the reflection you see isn't that bad. You save regularly, keep an eye on your investments, take advantage of all the tax breaks you can, and live within your means. Even if your finances are attractive, you might be surprised at what a few small tweaks can do to your bottom line. That's what the Rule Your Retirement service is all about.
To begin your money transformation, take these four critical steps:
Lighten your load. In the world of money, the number to beat is the stock market's average returns. If you haven't put your investments on the scale in a while, now's the perfect time to do so. As those year-end statements start filling your mailbox, this is the moment of truth -- the final weigh-in. This is where your personal trainers (your financial advisors and/or your mutual fund managers) are held accountable. After fees, they should be delivering market-beating returns.
Same goes for you, if you're picking your own stocks. For large caps, use an index-tracking ETF like SPDRs,or a mutual fund like Vanguard 500 Index (FUND: VFINX ) as a proxy for the S&P 500. If you've got a small-cap fund, make sure you're getting your money's worth by measuring it against the performance of the Russell 2000. Or if you run your own diverse portfolio, the Vanguard Total Stock VIPER might be how you want to measure yourself. No matter how you do it, make sure you compare apples to apples and adjust for taxes and fees. If your investments aren't beating the appropriate indexes, then it's time to make adjustments.
Purge the hidden carbs. Paperwork may seem like an unimportant detail in retirement planning. But you'd be surprised how much you can miss when you ignore this part of your regimen. We all know when to clean out the fridge -- when we reach for the milk for our morning coffee and the funky smell knocks us over. The cues are less obvious when it comes to financial files. Accounts multiply as old 401(k) balances get rolled over into new IRAs. Fees pile up when we fail to notice the new pricing structure at our brokerage firm. All these things whittle away at not just the bottom line, but at the time we could spend on things that are more fun than dealing with paperwork. Do you have a plan for handling paperwork as it comes into your home? Securing irreplaceable documents? An appointment with the circular file may be in order.
Make sure you're getting all the right nutrients. Like the food pyramid, the investing pyramid includes a healthy mix of staples designed to sustain you over the short, medium, and long term. In January, RYR sat down with David Swensen, the chief investment officer at Yale, for an enlightening one-one-one about achieving market-beating returns over the long haul. Swensen should know: He has perfected the investment mix of the university's $15 billion endowment by achieving compound average annual returns of 16% over the past 20 years. Swensen has been in everything from tech start-ups like WebMDHealth (Nasdaq: WBMD ) and medical waste management company Stericycle (Nasdaq: SRCL ) to stalwarts like ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) and AT&T (NYSE: T ) .
He has good bets in private investments (unavailable to individual investors) in industries such as timber, real estate, and gas. Today, Yale's portfolio pyramid is 14% in U.S. domestic stocks, 14% in foreign stocks, 5% in U.S. Treasury bonds, 25% in real assets (real estate, timber, oil, gas), 17% in private equities, and 25% in hedge fund-like instruments.
Elevate your game. Athletes know that even the smallest adjustment to their swing, stance, or management team can result in dramatic differences in performance. Same goes for investors. Smart tax planning, it turns out, can completely turn around your retirement. Asset allocation gets a lot of ink, but asset location -- where your investments are kept -- can have an equally dramatic effect on your overall portfolio returns. A study by authors Robert Dammon, Chester Spatt, and Harold Zhang showed that smart account allocation can add as much as 15% to your after-tax wealth. We've got three steps to help you pick the best basket -- tax-wise -- for each of your nest eggs.
Become a lean, mean money machine
Retirement makeovers come in all forms. Some people -- like Russ MacDonald (profiled in October) -- are mentored early on and later discover how much a small gift can make over the long term. Others find matrimonial and money soulmates and achieve the dream life together, like Bill and Akaisha Kaderli, who left their fast-track lives at age 38 and began an early retirement by traveling the world in luxury on $24,000 a year. Others, like Lesley Wootton, wake up later in life and have the courage to make real changes to achieve a more promising future.
Tax time is the perfect excuse to evaluate what's working and what's not in your financial life. (You've had to dig up all the statements anyway, right?) Every month, Rule Your Retirement offers hints and tips to help guide you toward a secure and comfortable financial future. Click here to take a no-obligation 30-day free trial and get started building the future you deserve.
Dayana Yochim does not own shares of any company mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.