Retirement, or at least the promise of it, is as American as apple pie. But for years, the financial ground under retirees’ feet has been shifting, sometimes making it difficult to enjoy their later years in comfort.

Since 1991, retirees have become nearly twice as likely to rely on a job in retirement for income, according to a survey last year from the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Student loan debts are mounting, often meaning bigger financial burdens for recent graduates and their parents.

Brian Emerson, a financial adviser with Edward Jones, spoke directly to the sudden changes coronavirus has forced on countless people, who are either looking at big financial shifts or even a sudden, early retirement.

“It’s a matter of, for one, making sure you’re prepared, but two, (people) might run into job losses, or they might see their businesses in a downturn or shut down, like we’ve seen off and on,” Emerson said. “People are concerned and nervous. They might be reassessing where their plan is.”

Here’s advice, from some of Grand Forks’ financial professionals, on how to trim your financial sails and ride out today’s rough waters.

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Early Career

There is one cardinal rule here, echoed by financial advisers everywhere: save, save, save.

This is especially true for the youngest members of the workforce. Saving just $100 each month at 6% interest means nearly $95,000 after 30 years. But cut that time by 10 years, and there’s only only about $44,000. That’s less than half the amount, and drives home the importance of an early start.

And most young professionals — especially with 401(k) accounts, health savings accounts, Roth IRAs and the like — can probably save a lot, and should take advantage of every opportunity they can. But if they’re confused about where to start, Paul Hensrud, a Grand Forks financial adviser with Ameriprise, suggests young people set aside about 10% of their budget for savings.

“It’s easier to start your budget that way, rather than be mid career with two or three kids and then decide, ‘Oh, I need to carve up my budget. But I have a mortgage and three kids,’” Hensrud said.

Emerson points out that beyond savings, this is also the time when it’s good to set solid financial habits — especially as recent grads have to balance the challenge of a regular monthly budget, student debt or even a family.

"There's going to be a lot of competition for your dollars, for your income,” he said. “But just make sure you're taking care of your future, as well.”

Mid-career

But even if someone has made it to middle age, or mid-career, without much of a savings plan, there’s still plenty they can do to start putting away money for retirement.

“Every year, time is still on your side,” Hensrud said. “And so, while it would have been better when you’re if you started when you’re 25, 40 is better than 45. Taking one step in the right direction is oftentimes the hardest thing, and it can be overwhelming. But just take that first step, and that’ll help.”

Hensrud suggested paying attention to “tax diversification.” That means making sure, as you near retirement, that the money you’re earning and saving is getting stored and moved into the right places — so that when you need it, you don’t have to pay too many taxes and fees on it.

Hensrud offers the example of a car purchase. If the money comes from a savings account, it’s a simple affair. But if someone wants to use money from their 401(k), they’re probably paying a tax penalty. In cases where people want to use $10,000, they might end up spending an additional $4,000 on taxes and fees, he said.

Emerson also points out that this is the time that a lot of people can start getting a clear idea of what their retirement will actually look like. Responsibilities will have grown and matured — like kids’ expenses growing into college savings — but income will probably have grown across the course of a career, too. Come middle age or mid-career, it’s time to start looking at what kind of budget fits best for retirement.

“Retirement may still seem like a long ways off,” he said. “But this is kind of the time when they should start thinking about what that’s going to look like, and what’s important to them.”

Nearing retirement

Anyone who finds themselves almost at the finish line — nearing or at retirement — has a unique set of challenges. Not only do they need to think hard about what their finances will look like, but there’s a host of other, related, challenges, too. If someone retires at age 62 — just shy of Medicare eligibility — what’s their plan for health care? When will they start Social Security payments? What about planning for long-term care or for disabilities?

Emerson points out that people on the cusp of retirement are probably earning the most they’ll ever make. If those people have access to a 401(k) — especially one where an employer will match contributions — it’s time to make sure as much as possible is being saved there. And, he said, for folks who haven’t thought very much about retirement, it’s definitely time to save.

Hensrud brings up a complicated point. If someone retires at age 65, they’ll need some money right away. But they could live for decades — so making sure that their money is well-invested for that challenge is important. Some money should be invested safely; but other savings that won’t be needed for years can still stand higher-risk investments.

And Emerson added that it’s probably time to start taking steps toward estate planning. If some retirement money will likely be left over, where will it go?

No matter how challenging things get — and especially in the midst of COVID — Emerson points out that financial advisers like him are there to help.

"If (people) need some help, if they have concerns, there’s always somebody they can talk to,” he said.