We Did It! Money Tips From Retirees

Readers offer their spin on our financial advice and recount personal experiences that will help future retirees.

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“I retired! Thanks to Kiplinger’s help!” So exclaims an e-mail from Jim Rowland of Vernon Hills, Ill. Rowland, an actuary, retired recently just shy of age 58. “I wouldn’t have made it out this early without the help gleaned from over 15 years of reading your magazine,” he writes. He followed a “pretty vanilla” strategy, investing in low-cost index funds and maximizing his 401(k) and health savings accounts. “I’ve been dollar-cost averaging since 1998,” he adds.

That’s a good summary of our retirement advice, and it’s gratifying to hear that it worked for Rowland—and for so many others, judging by the mail I receive in response to this column. Most interesting to me, however, is that readers often offer their own spin on our financial advice and recount experiences that will help future retirees.

Even though many of you had a traditional pension or other employer plan to help pave the way, you are virtually unanimous in concluding that it was your savings that made the difference. Typical is Jay Joyce, who writes, “My retirement plan provided a solid base, but it was our additional savings in IRAs and 401(k) and 403(b) plans that allowed us to focus on our retirement goals.”

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Although the emphasis is often on tax-favored retirement accounts, don’t minimize the value of taxable investments. “I had no idea how important taxable funds would become,” says Rob Jennings, who retired earlier this year at age 62. Jennings intends to wait until age 70 to collect Social Security and is planning to make partial conversions to Roth IRAs to minimize future taxes and required minimum distributions. He has converted mutual funds in his taxable accounts into cash to pay for living expenses and tax bills on the Roth conversions. “I don’t think there is enough emphasis on tax diversification,” says Jennings. “If someone had said to aim for equal amounts in taxable, tax-deferred and Roth accounts, that would have been very helpful.”

Personal decisions. Kiplinger’s generally advises waiting until age 70 to claim Social Security to maximize benefits. But the timing is a personal decision based on individual circumstances. Frank Caputo plans to collect Social Security when he retires at 62. Having lost a wife to cancer at age 31, he writes, “I am not waiting. I will jump when I can.”

On the other hand, “the major mistake we made was in not waiting to start Social Security,” write Charles and Eileen Haugh, ages 78 and 80. “With our regular exercise regime and the wonderful health care at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where we live, we’ve outlived our expectations.”

The Affordable Care Act apparently hasn’t solved the problem of affordable health insurance for many early retirees. “It used to be that COBRA coverage was a last resort,” writes William Reich. “Now it seems to be the best option. When I shopped for Obamacare coverage, I was shocked to find that it cost more than twice as much as my COBRA.” (Under COBRA, you may be able to continue your employer-provided health insurance for 18 months after you retire if you pay the employer’s and employee’s share of the premiums.)

Key to a successful retirement is matching income with expenses. When Dwight Robarts and his wife retire, he figures their income will drop to about 55% of what they earn now. He’s not worried: “We’ve been living on our retirement budget for the past three years, which has been an extremely useful exercise.”

But you don’t have to deprive yourself. “We live way below our means, as we have throughout our entire marriage,” write L. Charles Westervelt and Cynthia Gdula, “and we reward ourselves with wonderful vacations.”

Janet Bodnar

Janet Bodnar is editor-at-large of Kiplinger's Personal Finance, a position she assumed after retiring as editor of the magazine after eight years at the helm. She is a nationally recognized expert on the subjects of women and money, children's and family finances, and financial literacy. She is the author of two books, Money Smart Women and Raising Money Smart Kids. As editor-at-large, she writes two popular columns for Kiplinger, "Money Smart Women" and "Living in Retirement." Bodnar is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University and is a member of its Board of Trustees. She received her master's degree from Columbia University, where she was also a Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Business and Economics Journalism.