The COVID-19 pandemic has caused plenty of economic uncertainty: Tens of millions of people are unemployed or furloughed, and many small businesses have closed their doors. It can therefore be difficult to focus on how to plan for retirement.
This might be why 81% of respondents in a Center for Secure Retirement study said that the pandemic has them worried about their retirement. In the same survey, 54% of respondents also said that COVID-19 had affected their retirement planning, 36% said that they were worried about losing money in the stock market, and another 36% reported being forced to prioritize short-term savings.
If you're approaching retirement, or saving for it, you need to make sure that you're prepared for the future. Here are five strategies for planning for retirement in the era of COVID-19 — and beyond.
Consider the Financial Impact of an Early Withdrawal
Keeping a level head during emergencies is easier said than done. In times of stress, our flight-or-fight response activates, which can lead to hasty decisions — like withdrawing all your money from the stock market when prices are plummeting.
Many people may be considering withdrawing money from their retirement accounts during the pandemic. If you've lost your source of income, you might have to dip into your retirement funds to cover hardships or basic expenses. But if you're still employed, taking money from retirement savings might not be the best strategy.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act has temporarily changed the rules around early withdrawals from retirement accounts. Before the coronavirus relief package was enacted, you would have paid a 10% penalty on any money you withdrew from these accounts if you were under 59 1/2, and you would have paid income tax on those funds on top of the penalty. In 2020, however, you can withdraw up to $100,000 per person without incurring the 10% penalty, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) notes.
With the penalty waived, it might be tempting to dip into your retirement account, but doing so still comes with consequences. First, as the CFPB notes, you'll still have to pay income tax on any withdrawals. The money will be included as income on your tax return over the next three years, so you could face a larger tax bill when you file those tax returns. Withdrawing any money, too, means that it can't accrue any more value, as it's no longer in an investment account.
Before taking from your retirement, consider other sources of income. Dip into your emergency fund, or look into claiming Social Security benefits early. The Social Security Administration says that you can claim Social Security benefits as early as age 62, but doing so early will reduce your monthly benefit over the long term.
Review Your Asset Allocation
Your asset allocation is the amount you have invested in stocks, bonds or other investment classes. For example, your 401(k) might have 70% of its assets allocated to stocks and the other 30% allocated to bonds.
Your asset allocation also reflects how much risk you're willing to take. Stocks tend to come with more risk, but the potential of high returns means the possibility of great rewards. Bonds, on the other hand, aren't considered to be as risky, but they tend to generate lower returns. Given the swings in the market, now is a good time to make sure that your allocations are in line with the level of risk you're comfortable with and that your retirement savings are built to last.
Build Your Emergency Fund
Having cash on hand is crucial during a crisis. If you can find ways to cut back on expenses so that you can build your savings, take advantage of them. If you're still working and you have income stability, having cash in reserve can help you avoid costly early withdrawal penalties.
Some people set aside one to two years' worth of expenses in an emergency fund as they approach retirement. If you're looking to retire in a few years, starting an emergency fund can keep you from selling investments and withdrawing money when the market is down.
Consider Delaying Retirement
While it isn't the most attractive option if you're looking to retire soon, delaying your retirement by a year or more could give your assets time to recover if they've been adversely affected by recent market turmoil.
Delaying your retirement will also give you time to earn more income, which you could reinvest to build up your retirement savings. If you're 50 or older, the IRS says, you can contribute an extra $1,000 to your individual retirement accounts (IRAs) each year, bringing your maximum contribution limit to $7,000.
Seek Professional Advice
If you're overwhelmed, you're not alone, and expert advice can put your mind at ease. Lean on your financial advisor, if you have one, to help you navigate the current uncertainty and to rebalance your portfolio so that you're in a better position as you approach retirement. If you don't have a financial advisor, meeting virtually with a financial professional has become more common during the pandemic, and you can easily find and vet advisors online and pay them either by the hour or the month for their advice.
It's a little tougher to know how to plan for retirement during the COVID-19 pandemic, but if you develop a plan, seek expert advice and keep a level head about your financial decisions, you'll come out on the other side prepared for a secure and rewarding retirement.