Real Simple's Retire on Your Own Terms Event: Your Biggest Financial Questions, Answered

watering can watering an ink drawing of a money tree
watering can watering an ink drawing of a money tree

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Where are you on the path to retirement? According to the Fidelity 2021 State of Retirement Survey, more than a third of us are just getting started putting our plans together for retirement.

If that's you, the Retire on Your Own Terms virtual event might be the perfect kickstart to help you envision what your ideal retirement looks like—and get started on the path toward achieving it.

Featuring financial experts, including Real Simple's Brandi Broxson, Get Good with Money author Tiffany Aliche, and Money Confidential podcast host Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez, along with Lorna Kapusta, head of women and customer engagement at Fidelity Investments, the hour-long event helps you determine what matters to you in retirement—and how to take the steps you need now to make it happen. Tune in here to watch a recording of the full event. Then read on for answers to some of the most commonly asked questions—and remember, nothing beats getting personalized advice for your unique situation from a financial professional.

Q: How do you know if you have enough to retire?

That's the (literal) million dollar question! A lot of factors come into play, including how much you expect to spend in your retirement, any pensions, 401Ks, and other retirement accounts you have, and whether you plan to downsize or adjust your living situation to minimize expenses.

According to the Fidelity 2021 State of Retirement Survey, only 25 percent of us answered correctly that financial experts recommend having 10 to 12 times your final year's working income saved in your retirement accounts before you're ready to retire.

Talking with a financial advisor about your needs and situation will help you pinpoint the most accurate goal amount for your retirement accounts.

Q: Does home equity count as money for retirement?

Any assets you have could potentially be used to fund your retirement, but your home equity would only count toward your retirement goals if you're able to access it, either by downsizing to a smaller, less expensive home, or with a home equity loan or reverse mortgage.

Q: Where can I find the best side hustles to stay active post corporate America?

Your vision of retirement may still include some work—many retirees do decide to stay active in the workforce in some capacity. Side hustles that bring in income but allow flexibility—such as freelancing, starting a business as a virtual assistant, or consulting in your field—can be great options to allow you to make money and stay challenged after you leave the corporate lifestyle behind.

Q: When you start withdrawing from 401Ks and IRAs, how do you minimize the taxes you pay?

Retirement accounts like 401Ks and IRAs are great for saving for retirement because they allow your money to grow for you, tax-free—you only get taxed when you withdraw the money in retirement.

For some, it makes sense to convert their retirement accounts to Roth accounts and pay taxes early on—as investments can be cashed out, tax-free, from Roth accounts. For others, it might even make sense to relocate to a lower-tax state, where they can reduce their tax burden in retirement.

Your best bet? Check in with a financial advisor who can help you strategize the best money moves you can make to minimize taxes in retirement.

Q: About withdrawals from retirement accounts: I want to know how to figure out how much is OK to withdraw annually to balance having enough until death vs. having too much left over and not enjoying my money?

In general, most financial experts recommend withdrawing 4 percent of your retirement savings per year, to make sure your money lasts throughout your retirement. (That's an answer more than a quarter of people in the Fidelity survey got wrong—they thought you could take out 10 to 15 percent.)

But that also depends on other factors, like the kind of retirement you plan to have (i.e., will you be happy puttering around at home, or are you planning extravagant bucket list vacations?), and if you'll have extensive health care costs in retirement—something none of us can predict.

Q: As a retiree, I am wondering how to navigate the medical insurance market since I am currently 61. My husband will be retiring soon, so neither of us will have health coverage.

Taking advantage of the medical insurance marketplace will likely be your best bet until you can tap Medicare coverage at age 65.

If you're reading this and still a few years out from an early retirement, consider starting to save in a Health Savings Account (HSA), which allows you to save and invest pre-tax dollars for future health care costs, and can help you fund your insurance and medical costs in retirement.

Q: What type of account would you suggest for emergency savings? I am assuming it's not a typical savings account.

You definitely want to keep some of your emergency savings liquid and in safer accounts—so you're not forced to withdraw the funds from riskier investments, potentially at a loss. Put at least three months' worth of your fund into a high-interest savings account, and the rest can be invested. Though for an emergency fund, it's best to look at safer investments, like certificates of deposit, bonds, and other low-risk vehicles.

Q: Do you need a living trust as well as a will?

Part of your retirement planning should also be estate planning, and preparing for a future where you might be incapacitated. Both a living trust and a will will be helpful to ensure your wishes for yourself and your estate are met.

Q: I'm 51 and only have $3,500 saved in my Roth IRA and about $2,500 in a 401(k) from an old job. Is it too late for me to save for retirement? What can I do?

It's never too late to start putting more money away—and as someone over 50, you can put in what's known as "catch-up" contributions: You can put an extra $1,000 in your IRA, and an extra $6,500 in your 401K. (That's on top of the $6,000 you can put in an IRA and the $19,500 you can put in a 401K each year.)

But first, you have to find the money in your budget to stash away. Look for items you can cut from your budget, or side hustles you can use to earn extra income—and put all that money in your retirement accounts.

It may not be enough to fund an early retirement, but every penny you put away now will help make your retired life more comfortable.

Q: When I apply for financial aid for college for my kids, will my 401k count against me when they assess what I can afford to pay for college?

Your retirement accounts are not factored in on financial aid forms—rest easy that your retirement savings aren't going to impact your child's financial aid package.

Remember, there's plenty you can do to make college more affordable, including saving in 529 plans.