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“Dying at your desk is not a retirement plan”

While he was in his twenties, Fritz Gilbert knew that he didn’t want to die at his desk.

Earlier this year, Gilbert retired at 55. He has started saving decades ago and now made himself available to answer one of the trickiest decisions: When should a worker retire?

The question is deeply personal. It requires an honest look at your life.

Many of us get queasy when we think of no longer getting that monthly paycheck, or drawing down on the nest egg we built up over the course of decades. Others worry they’ll end up bored without the stimulation of a workplace, or simply feel useless to their families or society.

For the majority, retirement will be far from carefree. Whatever stresses they endure now will be replaced by a new set of worries: health, end-of-life concerns, and finances.

Timing, of course, is everything: if you retire too soon, you may outlive your savings. But stay in the office too long, and you end up missing out on the golden years of your life.

“Every one of us is making a decision on retirement every day, in the way we live and spend our money,” Gilbert said. “Not making a decision is still making a decision. Spend the money to buy that ‘thing,’ and you’ve made a decision to work longer.”

But whether or not they are ready to retire, most Americans have not planned to stop working. Baby boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — have a median nest egg of $165,000. (Gen Xers and millennials have even less savings, but more time to catch up.)

Many boomers go into their advanced years with little more than a few bucks saved, and whatever they’ll draw from Social Security. But whether they’ve saved a lot or nearly nothing, many are “too nervous” to go all in and retire, says Washington financial adviser Lori Atwood said.

But it’s a nut we need to crack, she says. Otherwise, “you could be chained to your desk forever.”

The habit of saving

Gilbert is the gold standard for how to prepare yourself for retirement. He saved aggressively, maximized tax-deferred retirement accounts, and maintained a balanced and diversified portfolio of low-cost mutual funds. He lived well, but conservatively.

When he started working in the aluminum business earning $21,500 a year in 1985, Gilbert was hell-bent on creating financial independence for himself. He and his wife stashed away every penny she earned as an administrative assistant until their daughter was born in 1994 and she became a stay-at-home mom.

The vacations they took were modest — nothing over-the-top. Gilbert put his bi-weeklys paychecks on autopilot, putting money into his 401(k) before he spent a single cent.

“I probably saved 20 to 25 percent of my income,” said Gilbert, who earned six figures by the time he retired.

Saving early is everything — but financial advisors remind their clients that it’s never too late to start. In fact, Atwood urges clients 55 and older who aren’t quite prepared for retirement to “start cutting some expenses and save like crazy.”

Put those savings to work

Gilbert said 33 years of putting the maximum allowed into his 401(k) have paid off. He put most of the money in the stock market and then sat back and watched it grow over decades.

“I am a 401(k) millionaire,” he said.

He keeps three years of living expenses in cash. The rest of his investments are split between 60 percent stocks and 40 percent bonds, consistent with the playbook that most financial experts recommend for someone in his 50s and 60s.

“Somewhere between 40 percent to 60 percent equities is a great place for most folks entering retirement age,” said David Blanchett, head of retirement research at Morningstar Investment Management. But you can even get riskier. “Assuming retirement is going to last 30 years, I think 70/30 stocks to bonds could be more aggressive.”

Most boomers are banking on Social Security, but not all of them.

With his trifecta of having a pension, healthy investments and a corporate board seat that pays a fee, Gilbert is in the enviable position of delaying Social Security until age 70.

If he takes it at 62, his monthly Social Security check would be $2,060. By waiting until he is 70, it would grow to $3,643.

Many experts think that’s wise, especially if you are in good health and stand to live into your 80s and beyond.

Every year a person puts off collecting her Social Security benefits, her monthly check could increase by up to 8 percent, which is an equity-like return.

“People are living longer, and the benefits are guaranteed, tied to inflation, and they are taxed favorably,” Blanchett said.

Not everyone has the luxury of waiting.

Take Steve Fischer, 66, a bed builder and 20-plus-year employee at Gat Creek Furniture, a factory in Berkeley Springs, W.Va.

Fischer already collects Social Security to augment the $30,000 a year he earns at the factory. His wife and son also work at Gat Creek.

Fischer said he must work to provide for his family and to help support four grandchildren. He regrets that he didn’t save more for retirement.

“I didn’t look at the future,” Fischer said. He bought a home. “We lived from day to day.”

“I don’t mind working,” he said. “Probably work another year or so. I have a lot of projects around the house.”

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