Retirement countdown

Five key questions to ask yourself—and answer—about five years before retirement.

  • Getting Ready to Retire
  • 401(k)
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Chances are you've thought about retirement quite a bit over the years, whether you've fantasized about how you'll spend your time or fretted about your 401(k) balance. If you’re like most, though, you may be a little fuzzy about what your retirement will really look like.

At some point, however, you'll need to bring your retirement into focus. Ideally, that’s about five—or more—years before you hope to retire, when retirement is close enough to know what you want it to look like, and yet far enough away that there’s still time to hone your strategy to help meet those goals or alter your plans.

"There are still lots of big decisions to think about five years out,” says Ken Hevert, senior vice president of retirement at Fidelity. “Take a look at this five year countdown to help you more clearly define how you want to spend your time, money, and energy during the next chapter in your life. And try to enjoy the process.”

Begin by asking yourself these five key questions.

1. What are your expectations?

It seems like a simple question. But a 2015 Fidelity survey of 1051 couples showed that 52% of couples have “no idea” how much they expect to receive in monthly retirement income and 60% either “don’t know” or “are unsure” of what their Social Security payments may be in retirement.

Such differences may affect more than your marital happiness; they may affect when and how you’ll be able to retire. Five years before you plan to retire may be a good time to start thinking through the details and prioritizing your goals. “You need to do as accurate and realistic a projection as you can,” says Hevert.

Where do you plan to live?
If you plan to move, make sure you also consider how that will impact your cost of living, access to health care, and, if you have your eyes on another state, your tax obligations. If you plan to stay put, you'll want to consider how your home equity factors into your plans.

What do you want to do?
The early stages of retirement can be a costly time in one’s life. Many people overestimate how much they’ll be able to work in retirement, and underestimate how much they’ll spend. Take a hard look at both fronts.

How will you pay for health care?
After food, health care is likely to be your second largest expense in retirement. According to the latest retiree health care costs estimate calculated by Fidelity Benefits Consulting, a 65-year-old couple retiring this year is estimated to need $260,0001 to cover medical expenses throughout retirement.

A Fidelity health study2 suggested that many consumers greatly underestimate the amount of savings they may need to cover health care costs in retirement. The poll of preretirees (aged 55–64) found that nearly half (48%) of respondents believe they will need only $50,000.

If you've relied on your employer to pick up most of this tab, retirement could be a rude awakening: Only 23% of large companies offer health care benefits to retirees, according to a 2015 employer survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Although Medicare kicks in at age 65, you may need to buy supplemental insurance or, at the very least, budget for the expense.

2. Will you have enough?

This question nags many preretirees. According to Fidelity Investments’ latest Retirement Savings Assessment (RSA),3 the median baby boomer is on track to meet 81% of estimated retirement expenses, enough to cover the basics but not sufficient to cover discretionary expenses like travel.

With five years to go, you'll want to run some real numbers, either with help from an adviser or our Fidelity Planning & Retirement Guidance Center (login required).4 If the numbers aren’t encouraging, you may need to rethink your plans, step up your savings, or both. The good news: If you're age 50 or older, you may be able to make up for a savings shortfall with additional catch-up contributions to your 401(k) or IRA. Read ViewpointsWhere will my retirement income come from?

“Consider an annual savings goal of at least 15% or more (including any employer match) including 401(k) and other workplace plans, IRAs, and other savings,” says Steven Feinschreiber, senior vice president, financial solutions, at Fidelity Strategic Advisers. “But that’s only a rough guideline, and assumes continuous savings for 40 years of work and an age-appropriate asset mix.”

For baby boomers who are nearing retirement, saving more and adjusting their asset mix has less impact for the simple reason that they have less time for those changes to impact accumulated wealth—though it may still help. For them, postponing retirement is generally the most effective step. Delaying retirement from 65—the average age people planned to retire, according to the RSA study—to their full Social Security retirement age, between 66 and 67 depending on their birth year, boosted baby boomers’ median retirement readiness.

3. Are you invested properly?

As you round the bend toward retirement, you may not want to take on any more investment risk than necessary. But the consequences of being too conservative can be just as worrisome when you account for inflation and the possibility that you could outlive your savings. That is why it is important to think about an appropriate asset allocation.

Although you can’t control market behavior, you can help minimize its long-term effect on your portfolio through investment choices and by modifying portfolios so they have an age-appropriate mix, if they are presently either too conservative or too aggressive. According to the RSA survey, in 2015, 62% of respondents had allocated their assets in a manner Fidelity considers age appropriate4, compared to 56% in 2013.

An ideal investment mix will depend on a number of factors, including your age, time horizon, financial situation, and risk tolerance. “Retirement is often the time to take some risk off the table,” notes Hevert, “but some people are tempted to become too conservative when they have a 30-plus-year retirement time horizon in front of them.” A financial advisor can help you rebalance your portfolio to get the appropriate asset mix to help you meet your needs. Together, you can formulate a plan for gradually shifting your assets toward more conservative investments as you age.

4. Where will your retirement income come from?

At the same time you think about shoring up your nest egg, you need to begin thinking about how you'll convert some of your savings into income. For many people, it's helpful to start by grouping potential sources of income into three or four categories, such as income from a part-time job, current investment income, pension income (from a defined benefit plan or Social Security), annuity income, and income from any other assets, such as rental real estate. It’s important to understand the nature of one’s expenses (discretionary/non-discretionary) and income sources (guaranteed/non-guaranteed).

Next, think about ways to meet essential expenses with guaranteed income sources. If you plan to work a bit during retirement, that may provide your “first” income, but be conservative: You might not work as long as you expect. Remember to account for any pension income and Social Security. Before you rush out to file for your Social Security benefits at age 62, however, consider the big picture: Generally, the longer you wait, the higher the potential lifetime benefits.

If these sources aren't sufficient to cover your needs, you may want to consider liquidating assets. Or you could look at ways to shift a portion of your investment portfolio into income-producing assets, such as bonds or dividend-paying stocks.

A guaranteed income annuity5 is another option to consider if you're interested in converting your assets to income. Generally, the older you are when you buy an annuity, the better the benefits, but there may be advantages to thinking about an annuity before you reach retirement age.

5. How does your home factor into your retirement?

Don’t neglect what is likely one of your largest assets: your home.

If either downsizing or relocating is in your plans, you may want to start plotting the move. There are steps you can take to get your current house ready for sale when the time is right.

If moving isn't in the cards, you may still want to think through whether it makes sense to pay down your mortgage faster—thereby saving on interest payments and improving cash flow in retirement.

Alternatively, consider how to use some of your home equity to help finance your retirement. If tapping home equity is only a temporary solution (e.g., you don't want to sell an investment prematurely), consider applying for a home equity line of credit while you're still employed and more likely to qualify for the best rates. If home equity factors into your long-term planning, you may consider a reverse mortgage. Before considering any of these ideas, however, make sure you consult a tax professional or attorney.

Get started

Between your investment portfolio, your home, and your lifestyle, there’s a lot to cover between now and your retirement. Moreover, you'll likely revisit these topics several times over the next several years, as you well should. The point isn't to have all the answers right away but to start asking the kinds of questions that will shape some of the big-picture decisions you'll soon face.

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1. 2016 Fidelity analysis performed by its Benefits Consulting group. Estimate based on a hypothetical couple retiring in 2016, at 65 years old, with average life expectancies of 85 for a male and 87 for a female. Estimates are calculated for “average” retirees but may be more or less depending on actual health status, area of residence, and longevity. The Fidelity Retiree Health Care Costs Estimate assumes that individuals do not have employer-provided retiree health care coverage but do qualify for the federal government’s insurance program, Original Medicare. The calculation takes into account cost-sharing provisions (such as deductibles and coinsurance) associated with Medicare Part A and Part B (inpatient and outpatient medical insurance). It also considers Medicare Part D (prescription drug coverage) premiums and out-of-pocket costs, as well as certain services excluded by Original Medicare. The estimate does not include other health-related expenses, such as over-the-counter medications, most dental services, and long-term care. Life expectancies are based on research and analysis by Fidelity’s Benefits Consulting group and data from the Society of Actuaries, 2014.
2. Fidelity survey conducted by GfK Public Affairs and Corporate Communications from Feb. 4 to Feb. 20, 2013. The study was conducted among a nationally representative sample of 1,836 U.S. adults aged 25–64, with a household income of $25,000 or more. Respondents also have primary or shared responsibility for household financial decisions and receive health care benefits through their own or their spouse’s employer.
3. About the Fidelity Retirement Savings Assessment
The findings in this study are the culmination of a year-long research project with Strategic Advisers, Inc.—a registered investment advisor and a Fidelity Investments company—that analyzed the overall retirement preparedness of American households based on data such as workplace and individual savings accounts, Social Security benefits, pension benefits, inheritances, home equity and business ownership. The analysis for working Americans projects the retirement income for the average household, compared to projected income need, and models the estimated effect of specific steps to help improve preparedness based on the anticipated length of retirement.
Data for the Fidelity Investments Retirement Savings Assessment were collected through a national online survey of 4,650 working households earning at least $20,000 annually with respondents age 25 to 75 throughout August 2015. All respondents expect to retire at some point and have already started saving for retirement. Data collection was completed by GfK Public Affairs and Corporate Communication using GfK's KnowledgePanel®, a nationally-representative online panel. The responses were benchmarked and weighted against the 2014 Current Population Survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. GfK Public Affairs and Corporate Communication is an independent research firm not affiliated with Fidelity Investments. Fidelity Investments was not identified as the survey sponsor.
4. "Appropriate" refers to what Fidelity considers to be an appropriate mix, based on data reported in the Retirement Savings Assessment about anindividual's equity allocation distribution that is placed into four categories, based on that person's age. Those categories are "On track": within 25 percent on target date equity allocation; "Aggressive": an equity percentage more than 25 percent above the age-appropriate target equity; "Conservative": an equity percentage less than 25 percent below the age-appropriate equity target; as well as a category for assets held in a Target Date Fund.
5. Guarantees are subject to the claims-paying ability of the issuing insurance company.
The tax information contained herein is general in nature, is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal or tax advice. Fidelity does not provide legal or tax advice. Fidelity cannot guarantee that such information is accurate, complete, or timely. Laws of a particular state or laws that may be applicable to a particular situation may have an impact on the applicability, accuracy, or completeness of such information. Federal and state laws and regulations are complex and are subject to change. Changes in such laws and regulations may have a material impact on pre- and/or after-tax investment results. Fidelity makes no warranties with regard to such information or results obtained by its use. Fidelity disclaims any liability arising out of your use of, or any tax position taken in reliance on, such information. Always consult an attorney or tax professional regarding your specific legal or tax situation.
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