When I reached my mid-20s, I knew I needed some financial help. By that time, I had already learned the basics of personal finance, like paying off my credit card each month and saving up as much money as I could, but the one thing I couldn’t wrap my head around was planning for retirement.
I knew I should be saving, but I had no clue how to go about actually doing it. As a self-employed writer, I didn’t have the traditional, employer-sponsored retirement scheme to fall back on. Creating my retirement plan was up to me, and at that point, all I had managed to do was invest a small amount of money in stocks that weren’t growing.
Obviously, that strategy wasn’t going to work in the long term, so I set out to find a financial adviser. I was fortunate enough to find a great match. In my first few meetings with her, we talked about my financial goals and drew up a comprehensive plan for my finances — including retirement — and she gave me one of the best pieces of financial advice I’ve ever received.
To this day, her advice has totally changed the way I look at my finances, and hopefully it will change how you look at yours too.
My financial adviser told me to never touch my retirement savings.
In the middle of setting up my new retirement accounts, my financial adviser suddenly got more serious.
“Listen to me,” she said. “The one thing you don’t want to do is treat your retirement accounts like an emergency fund. Once you put the money in there, pretend it doesn’t exist until you’re ready to stop working.”
She then told me a story about a man she knew years ago. By her account, he was diligent about contributing to his retirement funds. However, every few years, he would also pull from them.
Each time, he had a good reason for doing so. One time, his home needed extensive repairs; another, he and his wife badly needed a new vehicle.
Unfortunately, though, the amount of money he was contributing to his accounts each year wasn’t enough to cover the semi-regular withdrawals, and when it was almost time for retirement, he found that his account balances were much lower than he had expected.
By that time, it was too late for him to do much of anything to rectify the situation.
According to my financial adviser, it would have been better if he had found another method for covering those expenses — or even gone without — instead of turning to his retirement accounts.
She wrapped up the story by telling me that if my retirement accounts are going to be my main source of income, my goal should be to make sure I have as big a cushion as possible. After all, I have no way of knowing how long I’ll be retired.
With that cautionary tale fresh in my mind, I resolved never to touch my retirement accounts unless I’m adding to them. In my mind, they’re on lockdown, unable to be accessed for the next 35 or so years.
However, I’ve also been putting measures in place to make it easier to leave my retirement accounts alone. For one, I’ve started an emergency fund I can turn to when unexpected expenses inevitably crop up.
While I’m still working on building it up to cover the requisite three to six months’ worth of expenses most experts suggest having, it’s getting there, and it gives me a sense of comfort to know that I’m covered in the event of an emergency.
The last thing you want to happen as you head into retirement is to be unpleasantly surprised by how much you’ve saved.