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Extreme Retirement Makeover

If you feel woefully underprepared for retirement, you'll find inspiration in Lesley Wootton's turnaround tale.

For more than 20 years, this Irish immigrant, her American husband, and their five kids scrambled to avoid financial disaster. At one point the family income was just $5,200 a year -- that's less than $15,000 in today's dollars. Lesley tried 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, she hit financial rock bottom. Lesley was 53 and recovering from a divorce. She had a negative net worth and just $83 officially earmarked for retirement.

Was it the end for Lesley? Nope. 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 transformation from ugly duckling to financial swan doesn't follow a TV miniseries storyboard -- there's no plastic surgeon of the stars; there's no workout drill sergeant on call. Her turnaround wasn't due to a 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 to 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 only provide for them after her financial needs were met), sold her biggest asset (her home) to live more cheaply as a renter, and reconceived what retirement would mean for her.

Her dramatic money transformation is a makeover story filled with financial moves that just about anyone can follow.

Step on the scale
For most, the moment of truth happens when they catch a glimpse of themselves in a full-length mirror. The shock then drives them to closer inspection of their true financial shape -- the credit cards, the bills, the assets, the liabilities. It's the financial equivalent of standing in your bathing suit under the harsh glare of fluorescent lighting. On a bad hair day.

Fear (or horror!) is what gets people started on the righteous path of saving. Goals are what keep you motivated. Results are what 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" from the September 2005 issue of Motley Fool Rule Your Retirement -- a free trial is required for non-subscribers.)

Maybe the reflection you see isn't that bad. You save regularly, keep an eye on your investments, take advantage of all tax breaks you can, and live within your means. Even if your finances are beaming, 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.

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. Pull your account statements. (You know, the ones you've let pile up, unopened, until you could muster the energy to face them.) This is the moment of truth -- the first 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 SPDRs (AMEX: SPY  ) 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 Russell 2000 (AMEX: IWM  ) . Or if you run your own diverse portfolio, Vanguard Total Stock Market (AMEX: VTI  ) 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 some adjustments.

Purge the hidden carbs. Paperwork may seem like an unimportant detail in retirement planning. But you'd be surprised how much is overlooked 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 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 documents that are irreplaceable? Tackling this mind-numbing task one file at a time will give you a better sense of what changes you might need to make.

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 guru Robert Brokamp interviewed David Swensen, the chief investment officer at Yale. Talk about supermodel investing results: Swensen 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 Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO  ) (back when it was a mere start-up) to timber, real estate, and gas.

Elevate your game. Athletes know that even the smallest adjustment to their swing, stance, or management team can result in dramatic differences in performance. So, too, 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. RYR offers guidance to help you pick the smartest 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 and later discover how much a small gift can make over the long term. Others find matrimonial (and money) soulmates who together achieve the dream life. Just look at Billy 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.

So go ahead, tiptoe up to the money scale and take a snapshot of your "before" look. Then vow to make one healthy change to your finances today. Then do it again tomorrow, and the next day, and so on. An extreme retirement makeover happens one step at a time. Just ask Lesley.

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 start your extreme retirement makeover today.

This article was originally published Dec. 1, 2005. It has been updated.

Dayana Yochim is the co-advisor of Motley Fool GreenLight. Dayana does not own shares of any company mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.


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