Retirement is something most of us look forward to. But if we think about retirement planning at all, we may be afraid we’ll make mistakes.

Looking forward to retirement isn’t the same as planning for it. The younger we are the more likely we are to put off thinking about it. And yet the younger we start planning (or at least saving) for retirement the more likely we are to achieve our goals. Whatever age we’re at, retirement should be an integral part of our financial planning.

Here are what I consider the top five retirement planning mistakes people commonly make.

1. Opting out of a workplace pension

In the UK every employer has to automatically enrol their employees into a workplace pension, unless they opt out. The employer contributes a minimum of 3% on top of the employee’s salary; but the employee has to contribute a minimum of 5% of their salary.

Some employees take the view that by opting out they’ll be 5% better off, because they’ll have 5% more money to spend now. This is a huge mistake; it’s top of my list of retirement planning mistakes. They’re actually turning away free money, both from their employer and from the taxman. True, they wouldn’t be able to access this free money till they’re 55, but it’s still real money. Assuming an employer contributes just 3%, the added tax relief means a basic rate taxpayer would be 5% better off by opting in. A higher rate taxpayer would be 8.3% better off.

2. Not planning at all

If you don’t know where you’re heading, you’re unlikely to get there. This may sound obvious. But many people save an arbitrary percentage of their earnings without knowing if it’s enough; or perhaps even too much.

The first step is to set a target date for when you want to retire. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re committed to retiring on that date. Rather it should be the date by which you want to be able to afford to retire if you want to. Think of it as your target date for financial independence. But it has to be realistic. If you start saving at 30, planning to be able retire at 40 might be a bit of a stretch. On the other hand planning to retire at 70 ignores the possibility of being forced out of the workforce early against your will; this might be caused by redundancy or health problems.

Once you have a sensible target retirement date, you’re in a position to start planning for it.

3. Not budgeting

One of the other mistakes many people make is to assume that retirement planning is all about saving and investing. The financial services industry is geared up to encourage investments that generate fees. But far more important to a successful retirement plan is control over spending. You need to understand these three critically important things:

  1. Your current spending habits.
  2. How much you need to spend on essentials.
  3. How much you can afford to spend on luxuries.

Budgeting might sound a bore, but without it you can’t possibly know how much you need to save. Very modest monthly spending savings can be worth more than a pay rise. For example, saving £100 a month on spending equates to £1,200 a year. A basic rate taxpayer would need to earn an extra £1,500 to match it; a higher rate taxpayer would need to earn £2,000.

Some spending is likely to last beyond retirement. If you manage to trim these costs then the comparison to a pay rise is even more favourable.

4. Underestimating longevity

According to the Actuarial Post, three in four Britons worry that they’ll run out of money in retirement, and two in three underestimate their life expectancy by 5 years. So the three out of four who worry would presumably be even more worried if they understood their life expectancy!

I’m not trying to make you worry. But being realistic about life expectancy is essential. Even if you know your average life expectancy, you have a 50-50 chance of living longer than it, perhaps much longer. Your retirement plan needs to take into account both your average longevity and the uncertainty.

5. Not diversifying investments

If you’re highly risk-averse you might be tempted to follow the ‘cash is king’ maxim, and invest only in cash. But the returns on cash are very unlikely to keep pace with inflation, and won’t provide long-term growth.

At the other end of the scale, an all-stock portfolio might be unsuitable for all but the most risk-tolerant, particularly for those close to or at retirement. Almost certainly a suitably diversified mix of investments will be more appropriate. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach for this. The Money Advice Service has a good introduction to this important topic.

Diversification is important whether you’re saving for retirement or you’re already retired, though the best strategy may be different. The consequences of poor diversification can be magnified after retirement, which is why many people advocate a so-called bucket strategy.

Unless you’re already an expert investor, you should seek independent financial advice before making or changing your investments.

Getting on track

If you manage to avoid our top five mistakes, you’ll already be ahead of the pack. Getting your retirement plan right involves a lot of work. Our Intelligent Retirement Planning Calculator can point you in the right direction. It will give you an overview of your finances and will optimise your choice of next steps.

The Five Worst Retirement Planning Mistakes

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