Help Me Retire: I’m 49, have $1.2 million in savings and just lost my job — can I trust the retirement calculators that tell me it’s OK to retire?

Dear MarketWatch, 

I have $1.2 million in savings and am almost 49 years old. For the first time ever, I lost my job. I am searching, but am concerned about my prospects and my disability being aggravated even more. I am also burnt out with my profession. 

Many retirement calculators report that I am insufficiently prepared to retire (semi) now, but others show it is very doable. My expenses are a little under $5,000 per month with 20% of that budgeted for travel which, of course, could be saved and not spent. How do I know to what degree I can trust some of these models, generally, and especially with such large variances in outcome potentials? I am single and have, and can, only count on myself.


Anxious, burned out, and uncertain

See: I’m 50 and divorced with no kids. I have an MBA but am afraid I’ll still be working when I’m 70.

Dear reader, 

I’m sorry you’re anxious, burned out and uncertain. Losing a job is such a devastating experience, but I hope you can find a little relief in knowing you’ve already accumulated a wonderful nest egg and you still have plenty of time to figure everything out. 

I’m going to be blunt: You really can’t trust retirement calculators all that much. They’re fantastic for running estimates, and I often suggest people punch in some numbers to see what they find, but as far as relying on them to make a decision about whether you can retire right now — I wouldn’t put all my faith in that. 

There are so, so many factors that go into determining if you can retire, or semi-retire if you so choose: taxes, emergency expenses, eventual Social Security income, inflation impacting the cost of living, housing problems (be it renting or buying). All of this can and will fluctuate with time, and you don’t want to be in a situation where you’re highly focused on the figures you calculated years before. 

See: The real story of next year’s Social Security COLA

Perhaps the biggest, however, is health insurance. You mentioned having a disability, so I’m not sure what your health coverage was like before, but getting private insurance can be expensive — and you have more than a decade and a half to go until you’re eligible for Medicare. That, coupled with any health expenses you may have, could easily result in a dwindling of that $1.2 million you have saved up, especially if you don’t have any other sources of income. 

At the same time, staying in a profession that’s upsetting you isn’t healthy, either. Even if it’s a bit of a pay cut in the beginning, is there another career you would be interested in pursuing, or an extension of your current field in which you could apply your skills and experience without feeling stressed and unhappy? 

If you were to work, even part-time or freelance, you could use that income to offset health-insurance costs should you not get on a less expensive group plan. And if you were able to find a job with employer coverage, or your income exceeded private insurance premiums, you could use that money to live so that you keep your nest egg intact. The longer you hold off on touching your retirement savings, the more time they’ll have to work to your benefit. 

Also see: My 57-year-old husband works three shifts and is ‘burned out’ — can he retire?

Maybe hold off on the travel while you are in this place of limbo, and instead, if you need the time to clear your head and start fresh, use extra money you have on hand (ideally outside of retirement portfolios) to live while you figure everything out.

Some people use layoffs as a time to restart — they may take a couple of months off to try and find what they’ll really love next. You could use this opportunity to take classes in a field you’re interested in, and build up your résumé for when you’re back on the hunt for a job. Bonus points if those classes are inexpensive or even free!

I’m not sure which calculators you’ve tried, but if you’re going to keep using them, find one that takes numerous factors into consideration — even ones you may not have thought of. Take MarketWatch’s tool, for example. It is called a “visualization tool,” and has inputs for your current assets, your future income, your retirement spending and your tax rates pre- and post-retirement. It also lets you calculate the inflation rate for various categories, including housing, medical costs and transportation. 

That’s great and all, but still — I would highly encourage you to seek out a qualified financial planner who will work in your best interest (they’re called fiduciaries), even if it’s just for a one-off meeting to review your assets. Of course, you could work with one more frequently, and that person can keep tabs on your investments and help you when unexpected twists and turns happen (as is common in life), but, if you didn’t want an ongoing relationship, at the very least a professional could provide you a checkup. They’ll also be doing a sweep of calculations, but they’re far more reliable than an online retirement calculator will be.  

Readers: Do you have suggestions for this reader? Add them in the comments below.

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