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Five Financial Planning Mistakes You Can't Afford (and How to Avoid Them)

people reviewing paperwork

How sound is your financial ship?

According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute's 2022 Retirement Confidence Survey, 69% of American workers say they're confident that they're doing a good job with retirement prep. But that means roughly a third of workers may be less prepared than they need to be to retire comfortably.

"Everybody needs to have a plan," says Brian S. Kuefler, Vice President, Senior Planner with First Horizon Advisors.

Financial planning is essential to your economic well-being, especially when something like a global pandemic adds a new wrinkle to your ability to save, invest or pay down debt. A survey conducted by the National Endowment for Financial Education found that 9 in 10 Americans reported feeling financial stress in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Keeping your financial plan on track means doing the right things and avoiding the wrong ones. As you shape your strategy for creating long-term financial health, here are five key mistakes you don't want to make.

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Mistake number 1: waiting to start planning

Procrastination can be enemy number one to your financial planning success.

Timothy Wiedman, a retired former associate professor of management and human resources at Doane University in Crete, Nebraska, waited until his 30s to begin saving for retirement. When he finally opened an individual retirement account, he didn't maximize his annual contributions right away.

"I justified my poor money management by telling myself that I could catch up on retirement after my career had blossomed and I was making a better salary," Wiedman says. In the meantime, he missed out on years of compounding interest potential.

It may be tempting to wait to start contributing to a 401(k) or IRA if you're just starting your career or you're worried about the possibility of a job loss because the economy's in a slump. But that can be costly, as can waiting to get a grip on your spending habits.

"Developing a budget and tracking it over time is step one in getting into a longer range plan," Kuefler says. Regardless of where you are in terms of your age, "you need to know what's going in and out" to understand how much you can afford to save.

That may be especially important if your income has been affected by COVID-19. You may need to retool your budget to ensure that you're still living within your means if your income drops temporarily to avoid taking on debt.

Mistake number 2: not setting realistic expectations 

How much money do you think you'll need to retire?

According to the EBRI survey, 4 in 10 workers expect to need $1 million or more to retire. But only half of workers surveyed had actually attempted to create an accurate calculation of their retirement needs.

infographic about people saving for retirement

Wiedman always assumed he'd retire with $1 million saved in his 403(b) and individual retirement accounts. He also planned to work until age 70 to maximize his Social Security benefits. Health issues, however, forced him to retire a few months shy of his 63rd birthday.

"If I'd been able to carry out my plan and continued to max out my retirement contributions, I'd have gotten close to my million-dollar goal," he says.

As it was, he retired with approximately $650,000 in savings. He downsized to a smaller home and now lives comfortably on a combination of retirement savings, a small state pension, and Social Security. But, his retirement planning didn't account for the possibility of a health issue shrinking his future income.

Being downsized into early retirement, living longer than expected or changes to Social Security are all possibilities that your financial plan needs to account for. So setting realistic goals from day one, then testing those goals using a retirement savings calculator, can help you determine how closely you're staying on track.

Mistake number 3: failing to create additional safety nets 

Saving for retirement may be a priority, but it's not the only thing you need to plan for, as the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated.

A CNBC survey found that 14% of Americans wiped out their emergency savings as a result of the pandemic, while 23% of those polled in a Bankrate survey said their biggest financial regret was not saving enough before the economic downturn began.

infographic about people saving money before the 2020 pandemic 

And even when a global emergency isn't afoot, it's still important to be prepared for the occasional curve ball. Lack of an emergency fund led Wiedman, when he was in his mid 30s, to withdraw $3,300 from his IRA to buy a used car after the one he'd been driving broke down and was deemed too expensive to fix. He had to pay income tax on the withdrawal, along with a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty.

Yet the bigger loss was to his future account balance: Wiedman calculated — based on his age at the time, his planned retirement age, and the average annual return (since inception) of the fund in which the money was invested — that, over the 30+ years that the investment's return could have compounded, the $3,300 withdrawal cost him at least $60,000 in retirement savings growth.

Having six to 12 months' worth of expenses saved in a liquid account can keep you from having to tap your retirement savings prematurely. But don't stop there when growing your cash cushion. Kuefler says annuities, long-term care insurance, and life insurance can also be helpful additions to your financial plan.

Life insurance provides a death benefit to your loved ones, and cash value policies can be a tax-free source of cash loans or withdrawals during your lifetime. Annuities can provide you with an income stream in retirement, which is guaranteed by the insurance company. Long-term care insurance can help pay for nursing care so you don't have to spend down your retirement assets.

"Long-term care, out-of-pocket healthcare expenses that Medicare doesn't pay, inflation, and taxes are the biggest things that take retirees by surprise," Kuefler says.

Expanding your financial plan to include an annuity, long-term care insurance, or life insurance can help mitigate potentially negative impacts on your retirement security.

Mistake number 4: thinking you can go it alone 

Working with a financial advisor can yield numerous benefits, starting with helping you curb emotional decision-making tendencies. Kuefler says when volatility hits, as it did in the early part of 2020, an advisor can keep you from panicking and making moves in your portfolio that could cost you long-term growth.

"You have to be right twice — you have to know when to get out of the market and when to get back in," Kuefler says, and that's difficult for the average investor to do successfully.

An advisor can help you ride out the ups and downs of the market over time.

Kuefler says, when you're looking for an advisor, to consider their investing philosophy, fee structure, and what their typical client looks like. This can give you an idea of how well suited they are to providing advice specific to your situation, and the degree of attention they'll be able to provide.

Mistake number 5: not reviewing your plan regularly 

Financial planning isn't a set it and forget it proposition. As the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates, periodic reviews are necessary to help ensure that you're staying on track while making adjustments as needed.

For instance, some of the things you should be reviewing regularly include:

  • Your savings rate compared to your overall goals
  • The size of your emergency fund
  • Contribution rates to tax-advantaged and taxable accounts
  • Asset allocation in your investment portfolio
  • Tax implications of your decisions
  • Adequacy of your insurance coverage

But how often should you be checking in?

"I generally recommend reviewing things once a year if there are no major changes," Kuefler says.

On the other hand, if you experience a job loss, get married or divorced, are planning to send a child off to college, or receive an inheritance, you'll want to revisit your plan immediately to gauge the impact of those events. The more hands-on you are in your approach to your financial planning, the better your chances of avoiding any major missteps.

The need for financial education is clear. While each of these mistakes can do harm to your savings and future goals, it's the waiting to get going that can do tremendous damage. Generally speaking, the people who step into retirement financially prepared have established good habits over a long period of time.

To be more specific, "If more young folks received better financial educations during high school or college, maybe their spending priorities would change," says Wiedman. "I certainly believe that having the information provided above might have convinced me to get an earlier start on my own retirement plans."

If you're concerned about the state of your finances and whether you're making the right moves, talking to your Financial Advisor at First Horizon Advisors, Inc.can help. And if you don't have an advisor yet, schedule an appointment today to get the assistance you need to get your financial plan in shape.

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