10 Steps to Get Ready for Retirement in 10 Years or Less


Man thinking about retirement in 10 years with his oldest grandchild.

While retirement might as well have existed on another planet when you were in your 20s and 30s, being 10 years or less away from retirement can be as daunting as it is exciting. As this new reality comes to the front of your mind, the things you need to consider – from health insurance to income streams – are harder to ignore. With careful planning and strategic steps, you can turn this milestone into a chapter of financial freedom and fulfillment. Here are 10 essential steps to set you on the right course.

If you need help organizing your finances before retirement, a financial advisor can develop a customized retirement plan for your needs.

1. Diversify for Growth

Diversification is a risk management technique that involves spreading investments across various assets. Arranging your portfolio this way reduces the impact of a decline in any single investment or asset class.

Diversifying means investing in a mix of stocks, bonds, real estate and alternative investments like commodities or peer-to-peer lending. Each of these classes has different risk and return characteristics. Exposure to numerous industries and economic sectors will stabilize your returns and shield you from market volatility.

2. Eliminate Debt

Debt erodes your savings and hinders your retirement saving efforts because of the compounding interest working against you. Paying it off is a way to invest for a more financially stable future. Therefore, it’s recommended to first focus on paying off debts with the highest interest rates, such as credit cards. Knocking down these balances will save you the most money in the long run.

If this task seems daunting, the first step is creating a budget with an achievable monthly debt payment. If possible, cut unnecessary expenses and direct that money towards paying off your debt. In addition, consider consolidating if you have multiple debts or refinancing to lower interest rates.

3. Maximize Your Retirement Contributions

Contributing as much as possible to your retirement accounts will set you up for living well in your golden years. To this end, it’s best to max out your deposit amounts. For example, the individual retirement account (IRA) maximum annual contribution for 2023 is $6,500. If you have more to invest, you can allocate it toward another investment vehicle, such as a brokerage account.

Remember, investors age 50 or older can utilize catch-up contributions for their retirement accounts. Specifically, you can contribute $1,000 more to your IRA and $7,500 to your 401(k) or 403(b) for 2023.

Not every investor can spare $30,000 per year for their 401(k). In these cases, it’s best to contribute enough to take advantage of your employer match (if they offer one). For example, they might match contributions up to 5% of your salary. The match is free money that can double your investing power.

4. Estimate Your Retirement Income

A retiree spending quality time with his grandson.

Knowing your expected sources of income in retirement is crucial for planning. You can calculate this figure by taking every income stream into account, including the following:

  • Social Security: You can start taking Social Security when you’re 62. However, delaying your benefits allows you to receive larger contributions. For example, waiting until you’re 65 will boost your Social Security income by about 24%, and you can max out your Social Security by waiting until 70. Therefore, timing your first Social Security check depends on your budgetary needs and retirement age.

  • Annuities: An annuity is a contract you purchase with a guaranteed payout during retirement. Payout periods can last a specific number of years or for life. The monthly installment you receive from the annuity depends on the initial purchase price.

  • Investments and Savings: Consider the income generated from your investments. Assets in this category include IRAs, 401(k),s 403(b)s, brokerage accounts, CDs, high-yield savings accounts and rental properties. Remember, you can leave your retirement accounts untouched if your other income sources are sufficient. However, you must take the required minimum distributions (RMDs) when you turn 73.

5. Plan for Your Retirement Expenses

Creating a detailed budget for retirement expenses ensures that you’re adequately prepared. Include housing costs, utilities, groceries, transportation and insurance. Remember, you can drastically cut housing costs and save thousands on interest by paying off your mortgage when you retire.

Next, consider healthcare costs. You’ll receive Medicare coverage when you’re 65, so you’ll pay for premiums, out-of-pocket expenses and supplemental insurance. While Medicare premiums scale with your annual income, it doesn’t cover dental, vision, prescription drugs, or hearing aids.

Lastly, your lifestyle will impact your monthly expenses. For example, your hobbies, travel preferences, and eating habits will affect your bottom line. A rule of thumb is to plan for 80% of your costs before retirement. In addition, inflation will raise these costs by 3% every year on average.

6. Prepare for Medical Costs

If you retire before 65, you’ll face a gap in healthcare coverage before aging into Medicare. Here are some healthcare options for individuals retiring before age 65, and how to transition to Medicare once you become eligible:

Healthcare Options Before Age 65

  • COBRA: If your employer has 20 or more employees, they’re typically required to offer you the option to continue your group health insurance. As a result, you can purchase up to 18 months after retirement through the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA). COBRA coverage costs are higher because you pay for both your portion and the employer’s share of premiums.

  • Individual Health Insurance Plans: Marketplace plans are available through the Health Insurance Marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act. They provide coverage for individuals and families. These plans have specific enrollment periods, but you can bypass the Open Enrollment restrictions because the government considers retirement a qualifying life event. As a result, you can apply for health coverage through the Marketplace regardless of when you retire or lose COBRA coverage.

  • Spouse’s Employer Coverage: If you have a spouse who is still employed and has access to an employer-sponsored health plan, you can join their plan as a dependent. Check with your spouse’s employer about the process and any associated costs. This option is typically less expensive than COBRA or Marketplace plans.

Transitioning to Medicare at Age 65

When you turn 65, you have a seven-month initial enrollment period that begins three months before the month you turn 65 (Take note: This includes the month you turn 65 and ends three months after you turn 65). Failing to enroll will incur financial penalties.

However, if you have credible coverage from an employer or union, you can delay enrollment in Medicare without penalty. Once that coverage ends, you have an eight-month Special Enrollment Period to sign up for Medicare. That being said, if you don’t sign up for Medicare during either enrollment period, you can enroll during the General Enrollment Period from January 1 to March 31 each year. Coverage will start on July 1.

Here are the parts of Medicare you’ll pay for:

  • Part A (Hospital Insurance): This covers inpatient hospital stays, skilled nursing facility care, hospice care, and some home health care.

  • Part B (Medical Insurance): This covers outpatient care, doctor visits, preventive services, and some home health care.

  • Part D (Prescription Drug Coverage): This provides prescription drug coverage through private insurance companies approved by Medicare.

You can also choose between Original Medicare and Medicare Advantage. Original Medicare is the traditional fee-for-service program where you can see any doctor or specialist who accepts Medicare. You may also need a separate Part D plan for prescription drug coverage. On the other hand, Medicare Advantage includes coverage from private insurance companies. It often includes Part D coverage and may offer additional benefits like dental or vision.

7. Review Your Social Security Benefits

Understanding how Social Security works and when to start taking benefits is crucial. As stated above, you can begin your benefits when you turn 62, and waiting will increase your help by about 8% per year until you hit 70. Remember, Social Security uses your top 35 earning years when calculating your annual benefit. Therefore, working an extra year or two when you’re earning more than you were in your 20s can boost your payout.

In addition, if you’re married, consider strategies for maximizing spousal benefits. The lower-earning spouse can’t receive more than 50% of the higher-earning spouse’s benefit. As a result, the higher-earning spouse can work longer to maximize their benefit, while early retirement won’t affect the lower-earning spouse’s benefit.

8. Make a Plan for Long Term Care

Long-term care is a term for various essential services for people suffering from debilitating health conditions or disabilities. Instead of doctor visits or hospital stays, long-term care helps people who can no longer care for themselves. It may involve nursing homes and in-home assistance with eating and bathing.

Long-term care is expensive and can cost upwards of $100,000 per year. Fortunately, asset-based long-term care insurance is available. This coverage is a life insurance policy, but the death benefit can pay for care expenses. Remember, insurance is just one option for long-term care. Sufficient income-producing assets, such as retirement accounts and rental properties, can also provide the necessary resources.

9. Minimize Your Tax Liability

Tax efficiency is crucial to maximize the longevity of your retirement savings. Here are four common strategies to help you preserve your wealth instead of handing it over to Uncle Sam:

  • Understand Your Tax Bracket: Knowing your tax bracket lets you make informed decisions about when and how much to withdraw from your retirement accounts. Tax brackets determine the percentage of your income that goes toward federal taxes. The more income you draw from your assets each year (other than Roth IRAs), the more taxes you’ll owe. As a result, it’s vital to strategize how much you tap each income source each year.

  • Make Withdrawals Before RMDs: Although you can wait for RMD legislation to force you to make withdrawals, doing so will result in higher monthly payments. This scenario leads to potentially higher income taxes than if you had taken distributions in previous years. It’s not always necessary to wait until you’re required to take Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from tax-deferred accounts like Traditional IRAs and 401(k)s.

  • Consider a Tax-Free State: Some states don’t have income taxes, which can significantly benefit retirees. States like Florida, Texas and Nevada have no state income tax. If you establish residency in one of these states, you could reduce your overall tax burden. However, be aware that there are other factors to consider, such as cost of living, healthcare and climate.

  • Choose Long-Term Capital Gains: Long-term capital gains are typically taxed at a lower rate than short-term capital gains, which receive regular income tax rates. For example, a couple filing jointly with an income of $89,250 or less in 2023 will owe 0% in long-term capital gains taxes. On the other hand, the short-term capital gains tax bracket for the couple is 12%.

10. Check in With Your Financial Advisor

Regular consultations with a financial advisor provide valuable insights and ensure you’re on track to meet your retirement goals. A financial advisor can also provide investment guidance and rebalance your portfolio as you near retirement. They’ll update you on changing tax laws, estate plan options and stock market trends. The right advice in your corner can make a huge difference in making the right long-term financial decisions.

Bottom Line

A retiree enjoys the benefits of her retirement plan with her grandchild.

Successful retirement planning within a decade demands a multi-faceted approach. Diversification can help hedge against market fluctuations, while debt management and maximizing contributions are important retirement planning steps. Understanding expected income sources, taxes and annual expenses (especially healthcare) will also help you avoid surprises. These steps can pave the way for a secure and fulfilling retirement.

Tips Getting Ready for Retirement in 10 Years or Less

  • A financial advisor can help optimize your portfolio as you near retirement and work with you to minimize your tax burden. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

  • If you’re 65 and have yet to retire, you can take advantage of your situation with some expert knowledge about which retirement funds are best.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/Tom Merton, ©iStock.com/mixetto, ©iStock.com/MesquitaFMS

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