While people may disagree about the appropriate amount of retirement savings or the ideal spending rate in retirement, there's one fact everyone can agree on: Retirement is expensive. Getting an early start on savings can help to ease the pain, but there are also strategies that reduce the amount of money you'll need in retirement. Here are four smart ways to cut costs to prepare for your golden years.
1. Downsize or move to a more affordable area.
If your area has a high cost of living, you're automatically going to need a larger sum in your retirement accounts than someone who lives in a more affordable location. If you can stomach the change, you may be better off moving to a more affordable state, town or neighborhood, where living expenses are lower. Consider your potential new location's taxes and remember to factor in real estate costs, or expenses associated with selling your old home and buying a new one. If you're going to go this route, make sure the move is actually going to reduce your living expenses over the long term first. You may also want to consider selling off some of your unused possessions so you don't have to pay as much to move.
If you own a home that has become too large for you, downsizing to a smaller, more affordable home could do wonders for your budget. This is especially a good idea if you still have a mortgage on the home. Having a mortgage in retirement adds a certain element of risk: If you end up drawing down your retirement accounts faster than you anticipated, you could find yourself unable to pay the mortgage, and then lose the roof over your head. Even if you don't have a mortgage, downsizing may still be a good idea because you could reduce your property taxes and homeowners insurance.
2. Plan for your required minimum distributions.
When you reach age 70 1/2, you must begin taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) from all of your retirement accounts except Roth IRAs. It's the government's way of getting tax revenue from your earnings. Traditional IRAs and 401(k)s are tax-deferred, so you don't pay taxes when you make contributions, but you have to when you make these mandatory withdrawals.
There is danger when taking these RMDs force a person to withdraw an amount of funds that push the income into a higher income tax bracket, meaning money goes back to the government. But not taking your RMDs is not a viable option because failing to do so results in a 50% penalty on the amount you should have withdrawn.
RMDs are calculated based on the total value of your accounts and your age. You can figure out yours using a worksheet from the Internal Revenue Service. If you want to reduce your RMDs, you can draw more upon your tax-deferred accounts early in retirement to reduce their balance. However, this strategy could raise your taxes during the early years of your retirement, so be mindful of how much you're withdrawing. Alternatively, you can convert those balances to Roth IRAs so you don't need to take RMDs. However, if you go this route, the converted amount will be added to your taxable income this year.
3. Delay Social Security as close to 70 as you can.
While 62 is still the most popular age to begin taking Social Security, this isn't always the smartest move. The Social Security Administration considers your full retirement age to be 66 or 67, depending on the year you were born. If you begin taking benefits at 62, you'll only receive 70% to 75% of your scheduled benefit per check.
You receive 100% of your scheduled benefit if you wait until your full retirement age -- or you could keep waiting even longer. For every month you wait after your full retirement age, your Social Security checks increase. This benefit maxes out at age 70, when you'd receive 124% of your scheduled benefits if your full retirement age was 67, or 132% if it was 66. If you can afford to wait, these larger checks will help to cover more of your living expenses in retirement, so you don't need to draw on your own savings quite as much.
4. Travel during the off-season.
Many retirees look forward to being able to travel around the world, but if you go during the peak season, you could end up spending more than you need to. Hotels and flights are almost always more affordable in the off-season, so this is the best time to go if you're trying to stick to a budget. The off-season will vary depending on where you want to go, so do some research -- find out when the peak season is and do your best to avoid these times. For example, if you're traveling somewhere warm, avoid going in the middle of winter or during spring break season when travel costs will likely be higher.
It's also a good idea to be flexible with your travel dates. Airfare costs can be quite different from one day to the next, and you may be able to save even more by waiting until an off day to travel. Choose a potential range of travel dates and then shop around to see which ones offer the most affordable prices. You could also try the Hopper app. It tracks the cheapest flights to your destination and alert you when prices drop so you can get the best deal.
You don't have to try all four of the suggestions above, but even one of them can help to cut your costs in retirement. Consider which ones work for your lifestyle and give them a try. You may be surprised by how much you'll save.