5 Mistakes That Can Ruin Your Retirement

The recent bankruptcy filing by the city of Detroit has caused million of U.S. workers—both public and private—to worry about the stability of their pensions and retirement plans. Regardless of whether you plan to get by in retirement with an employer pension, money from a 401(k) or Individual Retirement Account, or with the help of Social Security, it’s smart to plan ahead for financial security during your Golden Years.

With that in mind, here are five mistakes that can ruin your retirement—unless you sidestep these common pitfalls.

Mistake #1: Putting Off Saving Until the Last Minute

Are you one of those people whose retirement planning amounts to little more than crossing your fingers, and simply hoping for the best?

If so, you may be in for a rude financial awakening once you hit retirement.

Just ask the millions of Americans living on Social Security as their sole income source. The average Social Security check is only about $1,200 a month. That’s like getting paid the equivalent of today’s federal minimum wage rate of $7.25 an hour.

Instead of sticking your head in the sand, it’s time to get serious about saving money today—in preparation for the future. Setting aside some funds in a retirement account such as a 401(k) or an IRA not only gives you a tax break on your current income taxes, it also helps you establish that all-important nest egg you’ll need once you leave the workforce.

After all, you don’t want to wake up at age 50 or 60 and realize you have absolutely no savings whatsoever. Under such a scenario, you’d likely have to work well into your 70s—or maybe longer.

Mistake #2: Paying excessive or hidden fees 

Let’s assume that you are socking away funds into an employer-sponsored retirement account, like a 401(k) or a 403(b). Do you know exactly how much you’re paying for those funds, in terms of fees?

High investment fees are an unnecessary evil in today’s competitive marketplace, and those fees can erode your investment returns in a big way—even when you don’t realize it. For instance, the typical fees associated with mutual funds can range from a very slim 0.2% to as high as 5%.

It might not sound like a lot if your fund company is charging you, say, 1.5%. Under that scenario, however, you could actually lose about $100,000 or more over a 30 to 40-year investing period, compared with a person paying 0.5% in fees, according to a GAO report, and research by Demos.

You don’t want to wake up at age 50 or 60 and realize you have absolutely no savings whatsoever. Under such a scenario, you’d likely have to work well into your 70s—or maybe longer.

So whenever possible, seek out low-cost mutual funds, such as index funds, as opposed to higher cost, actively-managed mutual funds.

Don’t forget too about other fees that eat into your finances over time. This includes bank fees on checking accounts, student loan interest or annual credit-card fees. Do what you can to diminish each of these fees and you’ll be better off in the long run.

Mistake #3: Following the Herd 

Remember when everyone and their brother on Wall Street wanted to get in on buying shares of Facebook when the social media giant went public in 2012? Well unfortunately, a lot of investors in Facebook learned the hard way that it doesn’t pay to chase the “hottest” stock of the moment.

If you want to invest successfully for retirement, you have to pick the right investments and develop an overall investment strategy that’s suitable for you and your particular circumstances.

Forget about what your Uncle, cousin, or your best friends are doing. Focus instead on your personal needs, your risk tolerance, and your specific long-term investing goals.

Mistake #4: Acting As the Family Piggy Bank

If family and friends are constantly coming to you to “borrow” money, you could be setting yourself up for financial disaster once you hit retirement.

By repeatedly “loaning” money or giving it indiscriminately whenever relatives and friends ask, not only are you going to have less cash available once you stop working, you’re also going to find yourself in a cycle that’s hard to break.

Even when you leave the workforce, realize that if you’ve been serving as your family’s human ATM machine, that pattern isn’t going to change.

Your loved ones are still going to come to you for money once you hit old age. And if you’re the type of person that just can’t say “no,” you could wind up with a whole group of relatives—sons or daughters, nieces and nephews, siblings and so on—that rely on you for financial support and help.

Instead of jeopardizing your financial health in retirement, muster up the courage to start saying “no” to people who keep coming, time after time, to ask you for money.

Mistake #5: Focusing Solely on Money

Lastly, everyone wants to be financially comfortable in retirement. And that’s fine. Just recognize that money is only one aspect of the equation.

Based on my work as a money expert for AARP, I know that happy, successful