5 ways to improve your retirement savings

It's really hard to believe. Has it really been 2½ years since I started writing this retirement column?

I've talked to hundreds of retirement planners, financial advisers and authors from just about every part of the country. I made sure I got the view from the heartland — in an effort to not focus on the so-called high net-worth clients.

It's been a wonderful ride. And I'm sorry to say, the ride is coming to an end. (More on that later.)

But first, I'm going to give you some of the best retirement tips I've heard and written about over the last 2½ years.

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1. Wait for Social Security (If you can). Only one topic generated more email than my columns on Social Security, and that was my columns on taxes. The big question: When should you take benefits? There's no easy answer, but here's my best shot: If you can afford to, wait until you're 70.

I'm not naive. I realize most people take benefits early because they have to. In fact, according to Voya Financial, 75% of workers take Social Security before 70, and more than half start receiving benefits between the ages of 60 and 64.

But if you can, you should wait. For every year you wait after age 62, your benefits increase by about 8%. Even if you wait only till 67, there's a big difference — you increase benefits by about 30% from what you would have received at 62.

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2. Do a budget, hire a financial planner and get a retirement plan. Wow, that's a mouthful. But they are all interrelated. Find a financial adviser you can trust. They will help you determine what your needs will be in retirement, and hopefully keep you from running out of money.

The first thing any financial planner will tell you is you have to do a budget. If you don't know how much you're spending, there's no way to figure out what you need in retirement.

But the planner will get you and your spouse to sit down together and make sure you both have the same vision for retirement. A good planner will help you figure out if you want to stay in your house, how much it will take to travel (if that's your goal) and when is the best time to take Social Security. But they also might tell you that you can't afford to retire because you haven't saved enough money. In any event, you'll know where you stand.

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3. Do not retire without a plan. Sometimes that means, delaying retirement for as long as you can. As I've written many times, it's not your father's retirement. You can't retire without knowing what you will be doing for the rest of your life. Think about it. If you retire at 60, with longer life spans, you could live another 30 years.

And do you really think you can sit in that easy chair and watch movies for 30 years? Even those who thought they would love to play golf every day for the rest of their lives are in for a rude awakening. Most get bored within six months.

I talked with one 90-year-old college lecturer and author recently who retired from his teaching jobs, but he still continues to work on his other business ventures. He has absolutely no intention of retiring. And every day his friends tell him they retired way too early.

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4. It's never too late to start saving. I did a radio show not too long ago. A woman called in for some retirement advice. She was very proud to have put her daughter though an Ivy League college. But she was 60 years old and had saved nothing for retirement.

Sure, it sounds grim. But I talk to people every day who are in their 50s and 60s who have not saved a dime. In fact, most of us have not saved nearly enough for retirement. That's one of the reasons many have to take Social Security early.

I'm not saying that everything is going to be fine. People who haven't saved must adjust their way of thinking about what retirement is. They will most likely have to work longer, if they can. Even a part-time job will help. And they will likely have to reduce their standard of living in retirement. But they must start saving now, especially if they have a company-sponsored 401(k) with a company match. The power of compounding will make a big difference even over 10 years. And keep in mind that the longer you work, not only does it help you save, but it keeps you from having to draw down the little retirement savings that you do have. And you can delay Social Security for a little while longer.

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5. Don't be afraid of the stock market. When you have watched the daily travails of the market on television, it's not hard to see why so many people are afraid of investing in stocks. And the big market crash of 2008 is still fresh on our minds. But any any financial planner will tell you that besides people not saving for retirement, one of their biggest gripes is people being too conservative with their investments. That can be huge over a lifetime of saving for retirement.

Consider this: $10,000 invested in stocks 20 years ago would have been worth $65,484 at the end 2014. The same amount invested in government bonds would have brought you $31,058. And Treasury bills would have returned a measly $16,905. Enough said.

And that brings me to my last column. Though I have been a columnist for the last two years, I have worked at USA TODAY for 30 years. They have been some of the best years of my life. I've watched the newspaper come a long way. My company has offered a buyout package for us veteran editors and reporters. I accepted.

I've made some great friends and worked with some of the best journalists in the world. Some of the best are leaving with me, but some of the smartest people I know will stay at USA TODAY. And most of all I want to thank our readers, especially the ones who have taken the time to call or email me to either compliment me or complain. I appreciated the engagement either way.

And I am taking my own advice. I am not really retiring. I will be writing a retirement column for The Washington Post, among others. You may find me elsewhere on the Web as well. And you can email me at rbrooks@srbcommunications.com.

Thank you. It has been an honor and a privilege.