3 Simple Retirement Questions Most People Can't Answer

Not having the answers could spell disaster.

Katie Brockman
Katie Brockman
Jun 29, 2019 at 2:30PM
Investment Planning

Retirement is complicated, and there are dozens of factors to consider before you start this new journey in life. Some of the more exciting topics to think about include how you're going to spend all your free time in retirement and all the new vacation spots you're going to experience.

But before you can think about relaxing, you need to consider how you're going to pay for all these retirement luxuries. If you don't account for the financial side, it won't be nearly as enjoyable as you'd hoped when you end up pinching pennies just to make ends meet.

To ensure your later years are as enjoyable as possible, here are three questions you should ask yourself before you retire.

Man with question marks above his head

Image source: Getty Images.

1. How much should I save for retirement?

More than 80% of people don't know what they should be saving for retirement, a survey from Merrill Lynch and Age Wave found. It's not an easy question to answer, but knowing how much money you need to last the rest of your life is the foundation of a happy retirement.

Retirement can cost more than you think, too, making it even more important to have a good grasp on what you should be saving. A third of today's 65-year-olds can expect to live until at least age 90, according to the Social Security Administration, so if you retire at 65, you could live another 25 years or more. Spending even a modest $30,000 per year will amount to around $750,000 over that time period, and that's not accounting for inflation.

Because retirement spending can be unpredictable, it can be tempting to throw your plans out the window, save what you can, and hope for the best. However, calculating your retirement costs as precisely as you can and getting a rough idea of what you should save will at least get you in the ballpark. You may still get hit with unexpected costs. But the more prepared you are, the better you'll be able to recover and still enjoy retirement. 

2. How much am I paying in 401(k) fees?

A full 73% of Americans either don't know what they're paying in fees or mistakenly believe they aren't paying any 401(k) fees at all, according to a survey from TD Ameritrade.

All retirement accounts charge fees (the people who manage these accounts expect to get paid somehow). The average 401(k) charges around 1% of total assets managed, according to a report from the Center for American Progress. That may not sound like much, but that same report also noted that a worker earning a median salary of around $30,000 at age 25 can expect to spend roughly $138,000 in fees alone over a lifetime, assuming they're paying annual fees of 1%. But if that worker were paying slightly higher fees of 1.30% per year, the lifetime fees would jump to around $166,000.

So paying more than you need to in fees can cost tens of thousands of dollars in savings over a lifetime. By understanding how much you're paying, you can determine whether to stick with your current retirement account or switch to one with lower fees. You can find out what you're paying by asking your plan administrator or checking your account statements -- which should offer information about the fees you pay and what percentage of your funds are going toward them. The expense ratio is the most important figure to look for, and if it's much higher than the 1% average, you may want to consider switching to a plan with lower fees.

The one caveat is if your 401(k) offers matching contributions from your employer. If so, it's a good idea to contribute enough to earn the full match, even if your 401(k) charges high fees. Once you've earned as much free money as you can, then park the rest of your cash in an account with lower fees.

3. Will Medicare cover all my healthcare needs?

Nearly three-quarters (72%) of Americans say they don't fully understand how Medicare works, according to a survey from the Nationwide Retirement Institute, and 53% mistakenly believe coverage is free.

With Original Medicare, Part A typically is free as long as you've worked and paid Medicare taxes for at least 10 years. Part B, though, comes with a monthly premium of around $135, and if you want Part D coverage for prescription drugs, that's another charge. Even with Medicare coverage, you're still responsible for all deductibles, co-insurance, and co-payments.

Furthermore, Original Medicare typically doesn't cover routine care (including most dental and vision care), so you'll either need to pay those costs out of pocket or enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan -- which will likely be more expensive, but will offer wider coverage. Healthcare isn't free in retirement, regardless of what type of plan you have. So the more you understand about how much Medicare will cover and how much will come out of your own pocket, the more prepared you'll be for these costs.

Asking yourself the tough questions about retirement isn't as fun as planning which beach you'll visit first on vacation. But if you don't ask, you may not be able to afford the life of leisure you planned. A little extra legwork now to ensure you have all your financial issues covered will pay off in a much more comfortable retirement.