Beyond the Retirement Calculator: How to See If You’re On Track

Most long-term investors have plugged their investments into one of those online retirement calculators to see if they’re on track. What's the next step?

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https://tickertapecdn.tdameritrade.com/assets/images/pages/md/Calculator: Retirement goal-planning sessions go deeper than any online calculator.
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All right. Everyone in the room who’s ever used a free online retirement calculator, please raise your hand.

What? No one wants to admit it? Bashful? OK, now some hands are going up. Looks as if it’s everyone.

Like most investors, you’ve probably spent a few minutes (or more) at some point with one of those ubiquitous online retirement calculators, plugging in numbers, adjusting time frames and potential investment returns, all in the hope of getting a better handle on just when and with how much you can retire.

And some retirement calculators can actually be pretty helpful. TD Ameritrade, for instance, has a retirement calculator that walks investors through a number of thoughtful questions to help them understand, among other things, what sort of spending plans and market returns they might need to meet their retirement goals.

But relying on an online calculator is only the start of a planning journey.

Building a Financial Goal Plan

Online calculators can tell you a lot, but they certainly don’t represent a deep dive. For that, it can help to work with a financial professional who can really help you and your spouse, if you have one, spread all the paperwork on the table and go over things step by step. It’s a process that can take an hour or more, and often requires additional meetings over time.

“The retirement calculator is just the first step,” said Keith Denerstein, director of guidance product management for TD Ameritrade. “It goes a lot deeper than that. You might use the one online and then find you have a need or desire to go a level deeper. And we can go a lot deeper. We call it financial goal planning.”

Meeting with a financial professional and sorting out current financial status, savings plans, future objectives, risk tolerance, and potential market performance delivers investors a score showing their ultimate chance of meeting objectives. An online tool may tell the investor they’re in danger of not meeting a goal. But the in-depth financial goal plan is often more exact, and can help point investors toward things they may need to change in order to reach their retirement objectives, whether it’s as high-level as not outliving funds or a specific goal such as a dream vacation or a second home.

“That’s the value we add,” Denerstein said. “Anyone can offer an online tool. We have one, and so do a number of other outlets. But we can take it a step further and work with you to optimize your plan and get that score a little higher. Or maybe the score is too high. It’s a chance to optimize your chances of success.”

Spend More or Spend Less?

Having a retirement goal score that’s high may be a comforting thought, meaning the investor has an excellent chance of successfully making funds last through retirement. But it can also serve as a signal that the strategy may be too conservative and it’s time to think about loosening up and spending more. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean taking an extra trip to Bermuda, but it could mean planning to devote more money to charitable ventures, or helping adult children or grandchildren pay for college. Many people wouldn’t necessarily want to leave the world with $2 million in unspent money after pinching and scraping through retirement, unless, perhaps, they plan on handing down a large bequest to their descendants. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s good to get a sense of how much could be available for other projects, if desired.

On the other hand, the financial goal-planning session may show that an investor is behind the curve and unlikely to meet retirement goals. That’s when a financial professional can help pinpoint ways to change current habits or investing strategies to help make goals easier to achieve.

“We have people who may go every year to Florida, and we can budget all of that in their plan,” Denerstein said. “But if someone has a lower probability of success and say they want to go to Florida every year, we may talk to them and say, ‘How about every two years?’ There are things like extended health care and residential health care. Some of these end-of-life expenses start to balloon as you get older, and people don’t calculate for that. You don’t want to get hit out of the blue.”

Assessing Risk Tolerance

A goal-planning session can also help pinpoint risk tolerance. Identifying this is especially important for younger investors with more time ahead to grow their money. Some investors, because they have a higher risk tolerance, may be taking on more risk than necessary to meet their retirement goals, said Robert Siuty, senior financial consultant for TD Ameritrade. They may find, through meeting with a financial professional, that they can trim some risk and still have an excellent chance of meeting goals.

Conversely, other investors may be risk averse and perhaps not on track to meet goals without getting a little more aggressive. Again, a financial goal-planning session can help identify what their risk tolerance is and how they might need to adjust their plans so they don’t become bogged down by their natural caution.

Turning Up the Stress

Siuty also uses a software tool to put clients through a “stress test,” helping them better understand how various market scenarios, including bull markets, bear markets, and in-between markets, might affect their portfolios and successful retirement odds.

“The nice thing about the tool is that it can show you based on your risk profile and how certain portfolios aligned to that risk profile would have performed in the ‘Great Recession’ (November 2007 through February 2009) and the ‘Bond Bear Market’ (July 1979 to February 1980), and including how much of a dollar loss you would have seen if invested in those portfolios during that time (tool will show whichever is lower),” Siuty said.

He can then adjust the tool to show investors how different portfolio allocations would have performed through that cycle.

“We can say, ‘Here’s the difference,’ have an open conversation, and figure out together what’s the appropriate allocation based on their risk tolerance,” Siuty said.

Hands-On Retirement Planning

Retirement planning isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it proposition. Your plans take thoughtful care and the help of professionals.

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