How to gather the key information and advice you need to prepare for retirement.
As hundreds of thousands of federal employees confront the prospect of retirement, they face a series of critical questions, including:
- Can I afford to retire?
- How much should I be saving in my Thrift Savings Plan, and where should I invest it?
- What should I do with my TSP investments after I retire?
- How do I lower my taxable income?
- Should I purchase long-term care insurance?
- Can I get cheaper or better life insurance than Federal Employee's Group Life Insurance?
- Should I choose a survivor annuity?
- Should I stay longer in the federal government, or should I retire and begin a second career?
The first step to answering these questions is to have a good understanding of where you stand now. This involves getting information from your agency, such as:
- An accurate retirement estimate from a retirement specialist in the human resources office.
- Survivor benefit options (which can be included in the retirement estimate).
- Documentation and an accounting of your federal service, along with any service that might be subject to a service credit deposit.
- Participant statement from the TSP (available at the TSP website).
- A summary of current life insurance coverage and options, which can be found by comparing the payroll code on your leave and earnings statement with the list of codes on the Office of Personnel Management website.
- Information about insurance benefits, such as health savings accounts and long-term care insurance.
- A personal benefits statement from the Social Security Administration.
After you've gathered such information, you need to begin to analyze it. Don't forget that first and foremost, you are your own financial planner. You know how much money you have coming in each month and how much you spend. You manage your finances by making sure your income covers your outflow of cash. In retirement, you'll have to do the same thing. But figuring out how to adequately replace your pre-retirement income so that you can maintain a comfortable lifestyle will require some technical planning. For that, you might need professional help.
Where can you find such help? Don't look to your employer. Federal agencies do not offer financial planning advice to their employees. They generally do, however, work with experts to provide pre-retirement seminars to thoroughly explain federal benefits and give some financial and tax planning advice. As a presenter in such seminars, I can't tell you how many times I've heard variations of the following comment: "I thought I knew everything I needed to know, but I learned several things today that will help me plan for a more successful retirement."
Let's explore a question that many employees have as they plan for retirement: "Should I choose to have a survivor benefit for my spouse?" If you were to ask this of your agency retirement benefits specialist, the appropriate response would be: "It's up to you." The specialist could provide some valuable information to help you decide, such as a computation of the reduction to your retirement such a benefit would entail and an explanation of the tax implications.
Then you'd have to analyze the cost and value of the benefit. That's the point at which you're no longer in the benefits area, but have crossed into the financial planning arena. Many federal employees are not sure how to evaluate the financial impact of some of the important decisions that have to be made in order to prepare for retirement. But they're also not sure how to hire a professional to help them.
The first step is to be clear on what kind of help you're seeking. You won't need someone to manage your retirement benefit since this is determined (and paid out) by OPM. But you might need help transferring your TSP funds to an individual retirement account after you retire. Or maybe you'll want to purchase a private investment product, such as life insurance or long-term care insurance, instead of using the benefits the federal government offers.
How do you find an adviser whom you can trust to help you with such decisions? Federal employees have not been immune to the actions of charlatans who take advantage of their trust.
As you consider whether a particular financial planner is right for you, here are 10 questions to ask, courtesy of the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards:
- What experience do you have?
- What are your qualifications?
- What services do you offer?
- What is your approach to financial planning?
- Will you be the only person working with me?
- How will I pay for your services?
- How much do you typically charge?
- Could anyone besides me benefit from your recommendations?
- Have you ever been publicly disciplined for any unlawful or unethical actions in your professional career?
- Can I have it in writing?
Tammy Flanagan is the senior benefits director for the National Institute of Transition Planning Inc., which conducts federal retirement planning workshops and seminars. She has spent 25 years helping federal employees take charge of their retirement by understanding their benefits.
For more retirement planning help, tune in to "For Your Benefit," presented by the National Institute of Transition Planning Inc. live on Monday mornings at 10 a.m. ET on federalnewsradio.com or on WFED AM 1500 in the Washington metro area.
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