Retirement Checklist: 5 Steps to Prepare

Plan for Medicare coverage, retirement account and Social Security income, and your estate.
Alex Rosenberg
By Alex Rosenberg 
Edited by Tina Orem

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By the time you're ready to retire, you may have been saving and planning for decades. When the time comes to retire, you'll also need to plan for how to best use your savings and meet your post-retirement needs.

Here's a retirement checklist of five essential tasks to help ensure your income, health care and estate plans are squared away.

1. Sign up for Medicare

You can sign up for Medicare a few months before your 65th birthday. However, getting ready for Medicare involves a few decisions. 

First, you'll need to decide whether to get benefits through Original Medicare or a private Medicare Advantage plan.

Then, if you choose Original Medicare (Part A and Part B):

Or, if you choose Medicare Advantage:

Medicare doesn't cover everything, so you might also want to look into separate coverage for such expenses as nursing home care and dental care.

2. Plan for income from your retirement accounts 

Check NerdWallet's retirement calculator to see whether you're on track to retire with enough saved in your 401(k), IRA or other retirement accounts. Also, check to see if you have any old 401(k) accounts from previous employers.

Consider how long your money will last in retirement. Then, you'll need to plan on how to withdraw money from your accounts. 

  • When deciding what to do with our 401(k) when you retire, consider whether your plan's distribution rules meet your needs. If not, you might want to look into 401(k) rollovers to an IRA.

  • If you have an IRA or plan to do a 401(k) rollover into one, keep the IRA rules and/or Roth IRA rules in mind. For example, keep in mind that you may need to start taking money out annually at age 72, depending on your IRA type.

If you need help, a financial advisor could help you check your readiness for retirement and plan for the future. 

» Looking for an advisor? View our list of the best financial advisors

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3. Decide when to start receiving Social Security

You'll need to decide when to apply for Social Security benefits. The full retirement age for Social Security is 67 for people born after 1960, but you can choose to start getting benefits either sooner or later than that.

You can start taking Social Security benefits as early as age 62, but if you do, your checks will be permanently reduced by as much as 30%. Or, you can defer taking Social Security until age 70 to increase your social security benefits.

Your decision might depend on such factors as life expectancy, family situation and how your Social Security checks would compare to income from other sources such as your 401(k).

4. Update your estate planning

Your employment, insurance, income and expenses can change significantly as you enter retirement, so it's a good time to review your estate planning. Here are a few things you might want to check or update:

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5. Prepare for surprises

Costly home repairs, health issues, family emergencies or changes to your tax bill can pop up without warning. You might not be able to predict what will happen, but you can prepare your finances to deal with it.

An emergency fund can help you cover unexpected expenses. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, your emergency fund should be "safe, accessible, and in a place where you're not tempted to spend it on non-emergencies." A dedicated bank account could be a good option.

A good goal for an emergency fund is to cover three to six months' worth of expenses — but starting a fund with any amount is better than nothing. You can use NerdWallet's emergency fund calculator for more guidance based on your expenses.

You can also act early to prevent potential surprises, especially regarding health care. For example, a person turning 65 has about a 70% chance of needing long-term care, but Medicare doesn't cover most long-term care. 

You could prepare for potential expenses by buying long-term care insurance; the sooner, the better. Buying coverage when you're younger can get you much lower rates, and it may be difficult or impossible to buy in after age 75. You could also consider alternatives to long-term care insurance, such as certain life insurance policies, annuities or short-term care policies.

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