Man planning his retirement

Be careful what you wish for. This is one of my favorite sayings and is particularly apropos when it comes to retirement planning. For most people, once they retire, there's no going back. Retirement is one of, if not the biggest, life-changing events.

A plethora of changes awaits you, some good, others not so good. Unless you spend time with yourself, significant others, and seasoned professionals understanding and preparing for them, it could prove to be a very challenging time of your life.

Retiring on your terms isn't just about having sufficient financial resources to sustain you and your family throughout retirement. While financial security is critical, the ability to enjoy a fulfilling life is essential to a successful retirement. The following are 10 keys to retiring on your terms:

No. 1: Acknowledge that 65 doesn't have to be your retirement age

Don't fall into the trap of choosing age 65 as your retirement age unless this is when you really want to retire.

Most people revolve the timing of their retirement around government health and retirement plans. In particular, availability of Medicare at 65 drives many retirement decisions. Social Security, which can kick in with a reduced benefit as early as 62, with a full benefit offered between age 66 and 67 depending upon when you were born, is another factor for many people.

While availability of Medicare and Social Security are important financial considerations, with proper planning and alternative resources, they don't need to be, and furthermore shouldn't be, the driving forces for determining when you will retire.

No. 2: Visualize your retirement

If you want to achieve any goal, you need to visualize yourself doing it. Whether it's becoming a professional opera singer or a high school math teacher, or retiring, you need to picture yourself in your desired role.

Visualization requires asking important questions. What dreams do you want to achieve when you're no longer working? What will motivate you and help you continue to grow as a person? Will you pursue travel, hobbies, or other activities that you currently don't have time for? Will you start a part-time business? Does volunteering interest you? How will you occupy your time on a typical day? Answering these and other important questions will help you imagine what retirement will look and feel like to you.

No. 3: Start early

The most important recommendation I can give for retiring on your terms is to start planning well in advance of when you want to retire. There are many ducks that need to be lined up, both financial and nonfinancial, before you can successfully retire.

How early should you start? Given the fact that you could be spending one-third of your life in retirement, you can never start planning too early. Retirement asset planning should ideally begin 30 years in advance of your planned retirement with a gradual transition to retirement income planning beginning 20 years before your retirement date.

The ability to live retirement on your terms is directly related to the amount of time and thought you spend preparing for it.

No. 4: Commit your plan to writing

Any successful plan needs to be in writing. A major undertaking like retirement planning is no exception.

Since you're going to retire on your terms, your plan will reflect your financial and nonfinancial goals, including your vision of retirement. Once this is defined, short- and long-term strategies for achieving your goals will need to be developed and included in your written plan. These strategies need to include specific steps for planning, managing, and protecting your retirement income.

Your plan is your blueprint for retiring on your terms.

No. 5: Build flexibility into your plan

While a written plan is essential for retiring on your terms, it needs to be flexible. Several planning variables, such as the timing and duration of specific inflation and income-tax rates are beyond our control, and, as such, require flexibility.

Another example of the need to build flexibility into your plan revolves around your choice of a retirement age. Rather than planning on retiring at a specific age, plan for different scenarios, e.g., 60, 64, and 68. Do this even if you don't think there's any chance that you will retire at one of these ages. This will help you visualize financial and other changes you would need to make under each scenario that will help you decide which scenario best suits you and your family.

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