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by Barbara Hadden

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Retirement planning is no walk in the park. It’s complicated. No surprise that many of us make mistakes that can turn retirement dreams into last-minute panic.

As retirement nears, there are tons of things to think about, like when to take Social Security, how much to take out of your 401(k), creating a spending plan you can stick to and investing your retirement savings. And like the butterfly effect, tiny decisions now can lead to huge, life-altering consequences down the road.

That’s why it’s crazy to go it alone.

A Northwestern Mutual study found that 71% of U.S. adults admit their financial planning needs improvement. However, only 29% of Americans work with a financial adviser.

The value of working with a financial adviser varies by person, but according to an independent study, people who work with a financial adviser feel more at ease about their finances and could end up with about 15% more money to spend in retirement.

But who can you trust for guidance? In the past, you’d have to turn to a stranger and take your chances. But that was then.

These days there are no-cost online services that make discovering your ideal financial adviser a snap. You fill out a short questionnaire, then get matched with up to three local fiduciary financial advisers, each legally bound to work in your best interests. The process only takes a few minutes, and in many cases you can be connected instantly with an expert for a free retirement consultation.

Definitely something you should do. Meanwhile, here are five of the biggest retirement mistakes — and how to avoid them.

1. Failing to plan is planning to fail

A happy retirement is one that’s stress-free. And how do you eliminate stress? Simple: by having a plan.

When you want to go somewhere you’ve never been, do you get in your car, drive around aimlessly and hope to eventually arrive? No. First, you decide where you want to go. Then you use a map to plot the shortest path to get there.

A financial plan is a map plotting the shortest path to reach your retirement goals. Deciding what you’re going to do, where you’re going to do it, how much it’s going to cost and where the money will come from: all parts of your plan. But what if your plans change as you approach retirement? That’s OK. It’s your plan; you’re welcome to change it.

Does making a plan sound complicated? It is. The investments you choose, income taxes, and your target retirement dates are just a few of the tons of variables you’ll have to consider. That’s why if there’s one time in your life you could use professional advice, this is it. Hiring an experienced, expert guide in the form of a qualified financial planner will keep you from getting lost and get you to your destination.

Use this free matching service to connect with three qualified financial advisers in your area in five minutes.

2. Putting off till tomorrow what you should have started yesterday

According to a recent survey by Bankrate.com, the biggest financial regret is not saving enough for retirement. And why don’t Americans save enough? Because they put it off, saying some variation of, “I’ll wait till I have more money”, or “I’ll start when I get closer to retirement.”

The thing is, the longer you wait, the harder it will be. In other words, starting small but sooner is better than starting large but later.

If you’re behind on retirement savings, a financial adviser may be able to help you catch up and figure out how much you’ll need to invest to meet your goals. In addition to investing for your future, a financial adviser can offer guidance on budgeting and paying off debt.

And while there’s obviously no guarantee, if an adviser can increase your returns, it could make a big difference. Consider this: if you save $500 a month for 40 years and earn an average annual return of 5%, you’ll end up with nearly $725,000. Double that return to 10%, and you’ll retire with almost $2.7 million. That’s a life-changing difference.

Again, there’s no guarantee a pro is going to do better than you could on your own. But the point is that, over time, tiny things can make a huge difference in your life.

3. Retiring too soon or not soon enough

If you are thinking about retiring soon, you may dream of quitting your job and traveling the world. However, before you call it quits, there are a number of reasons you may want to think things over. First, you may live longer than you expect, you may run into unforeseen health issues or face tough financial times that force you to cut back.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t retire early, but if that’s your plan, run various scenarios to make sure your savings are going to cover your expenses during retirement and offer a lifetime of income.

Same with not retiring soon enough. If you’re unsure your savings will be adequate, you’ll worry and as a result, perhaps work longer than you have to. You’re much better off knowing what you have and what you’ll need. Replace doubt with certainty and only work as long as you want to.

If you’re nearing retirement, meet with a financial planner to determine the optimal time to retire based on your personal situation.

4. Hiring the wrong financial adviser

Whether it’s building wealth or securing a comfortable retirement, hiring a financial adviser is a major life decision. Unfortunately, not all are created equal. Hire the wrong adviser and you could end up worse off than when you started.

When it’s time to find someone to assist you, always meet with several planners. Talk to them, ask a similar list of questions and assess their qualifications and advice before making a decision. Ask how they get paid and how long they’ve been in the business. Take your time. And always deal with a fiduciary: a planner who’s legally bound to put your interests above their own.

These days, finding a financial adviser you can trust doesn’t have to be frustrating or difficult. Start your search with this free financial adviser matching tool, which matches you with up to three qualified financial advisers in under five minutes. Every adviser is vetted and is a fiduciary.

If you’d like to be matched with local advisers who will help you reach your financial goals, get started now.

5. Not staying informed

While you don’t have to obsess over the news, it pays to visit expert sources to make sure you’re up to date on the latest techniques to make more, spend less and invest wisely.

Solution? Subscribe to the totally free Money Talks Newsletter. More than a million Americans have, and they’ve reported saving an average of $991.20 each just from following our news and advice.

It takes less than 5 seconds to subscribe and, if you don’t like it, less than 5 seconds to unsubscribe. Sign up for our free newsletter right now and see what you’ve been missing.

6. Taking too much risk, or not enough

Risk is a funny thing. Take too much and you can lose your savings. But take too little and you can lose purchasing power to inflation.

The money you retire with is money that can’t be replaced. That’s why we lean toward low-risk, low-return investments as we age. But as inflation erodes the value of money, that seemingly safe nest-egg drops in value in terms of what it can buy. Bottom line? Often, taking no risk presents risks of its own.

Investing, both before and after retirement, is about balance: harnessing investments designed to keep your income flowing, inflation hedged and risks manageable. Your strategy will require safe, guaranteed-income investments, as well as some exposure to stocks and other inflation-protection investments.

You can learn to do it yourself, or hire an investment professional for some advice and guidance, both pre and post-retirement.

Quiz: Find out if you are ready to retire

Figuring out the right time to retire doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset's free quiz matches you with three fiduciary financial advisers in your area in five minutes. Each adviser has been vetted by SmartAsset and is legally bound to act in your best interests. If you’re ready to be matched with local advisers that will help you achieve your financial goals, take this quiz now.

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