The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on Americans' health, way of life, and personal finances. Thanks to its effects on the economy, some 21 million Americans currently remain out of work, while millions of others are on furlough, have taken pay cuts, or are working fewer hours. At the end of May, the national unemployment rate hit 13.3% -- the highest since the Great Depression. Investors have been on a roller coaster, trying to navigate the ups and downs while determining which investments will be solid in the long run.
The hardships and uncertainties were confirmed in a recent survey by Allianz Life Insurance, which found that 58% of Americans say the pandemic has had a negative effect on their retirement savings. "There was definitely angst about market swings before COVID-19, but the economic impacts of the pandemic are having a devastating effect on retirement saving," said Kelly LaVigne, vice president of consumer insights at Allianz Life. To that point, the survey revealed that during the pandemic, 45% of Americans have either cut back on or stopped saving for retirement entirely.
The angst many are feeling about their finances is captured in a key statistic that reveals 57% of Americans wish they had a better financial plan before the pandemic hit.
"The events of the past few months put a spotlight on the need for building risk management and protection into a portfolio," LaVigne said. "While these types of black swan events are few and far between, people should start to think about how [they] can protect their retirement savings from unanticipated events because unfortunately, they do happen."
Here's how to build a financial plan that protects your retirement assets.
A solid financial plan starts with setting goals. Now, your goals will differ depending on a variety of factors, including your age. If you're 20, your goals may include paying off student loans, buying a house, supporting a family, and saving for retirement. If you are older, your goals will likely be vastly different. You may not have student loans to pay off, but you may have to save for your kids' college educations, as well as retirement. Remember to include both short-term and long-term goals.
The one constant for all age groups should be saving for retirement -- the earlier the better. There are many different formulas people use to determine how much they'll need, but one broad guideline is 10 times the salary you expect to make in your final years before retirement. You may find it helpful to work with an advisor to set your goals, or you can work through them yourself. Either way, document them, as those goals will serve as the foundation on which to build.
Establish a framework
Once your goals are set, you need to develop a framework to achieve them. Many financial advisors recommend a 50/30/20 framework. This means you should spend 50% of your income on needs -- like mortgage, rent, utilities, student loans, food, transportation, and insurance. Use 30% on wants -- nonessential expenses like movies, restaurants, entertainment, and vacations. And reserve 20% for financial expenses -- like paying off credit card debt, adding to an emergency fund or college fund, and saving for retirement.
These percentages could fluctuate, based on your situation and stage of life. But the key is to establish some kind of framework that allows you to control spending, lower debt, and build savings.
Investment vehicles and strategies
While this may require the guidance of an investment advisor, it basically comes down to looking at the vehicles you need to reach your goals. For retirement, if you have a 401(k) or other employer-sponsored plan, you should take full advantage of the employer match because that's free money. For college, you should set up a separate savings account, or invest in a 529 plan or some other college savings vehicle. An emergency fund -- important for times like these when people are unexpectedly losing their incomes -- should ideally have three to six months' worth of expenses. Whatever your goal, you should have a vehicle to reach it.
How to invest your money is something you (and your advisor, if you have one) should determine. If you are in your 20s or 30s, you have a longer time to weather the short-term fluctuations of the market, so you can take more risks. If you're closer to retirement, it may make sense, depending on your risk tolerance, to invest more conservatively.
The age you retire may be out of your hands, as roughly 34% of retirees are forced into early retirement because of an unexpected job loss. If that's the case, you may have to work part-time in retirement to stay on track. If not, to maximize your retirement income, you should wait to retire until your full retirement age (FRA), which is 66 to 67, depending on your birth year. If you wait until your FRA, you'll get the full benefits you're owed; if not, the distributions decrease for every year before your FRA that you retire -- up to 30% if you claim at age 62. Waiting longer to retire will also allow you to hold off on dipping into your retirement savings.
These are some basic guidelines to building a financial plan. There are other elements as well, including healthcare and long-term care. Medicare will cover healthcare expenses at 65, but you may need to consider long-term care insurance.
It's important to review your plan regularly to account for life's changes -- like job loss, or a parent moving in. A good financial plan can keep you grounded and on track for retirement, no matter the circumstances.