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Invest Wisely and Safely

Are you fiscally fit for retirement?

Karen Hoffman, 63, began 20 years ago to save for retirement, when she will split her time between New York and Florida. The AARP website offers a wide range of retirement-planning tools and calculators.

Karen Hoffman, 63, began 20 years ago to save for retirement, when she will split her time between New York and Florida. The AARP website offers a wide range of retirement-planning tools and calculators. — Photo by Kate Melton

Years before she began enjoying warm winter vacation afternoons on a green Florida golf course, Karen Hoffman started lining up her retirement with what any financial counselor will tell you is the most important club in the bag: a plan.

See also: 3 big retirement questions.

Hoffman, who'll be 64 when she retires later this year, put her plan in motion about 20 years ago, steadily adding money to her retirement investments while working with advisers she trusted. Now she's ready to leave frigid New York winters on Lake Ontario and spend about half her time in Dunedin.

"I had to look at how would I want to live," she said. "I think that if I live within my means, I'll be OK."

Lisa Leslie, who teaches personal financial management as a faculty member of the University of Florida Extension office in Hillsborough County, tries to instill Hoffman's kind of foresight into her students.

"There's a lot of uncertainty," Leslie said, "and uncertainty breeds a lot of worry about the future. … People want to know if they're on the right track."

Statistics back her up. While 30 percent of those 55 and older polled last year by the Employee Benefit Research Institute were "very confident" they'd have enough money for basic expenses during retirement, only 15 percent expected to have enough to live comfortably.

Retirement planning resources

The good news? There's an abundance of help available. A bonus is that the information can be just as valuable for those who have already retired.

With the economic downturn, there have been changes in the advice people want, said Victoria Funes, AARP Florida associate state director for community outreach.

Before, she said, questions often concerned how to get on the fast track for early retirement. Now she's more apt to hear, "I want to be able to protect what I have and make sure that I'm safe and that I make safe decisions."

A good place to start looking for advice is close to home. Libraries, community colleges and extension services often offer classes with vetted instructors. Churches, synagogues, service clubs and other groups may also have sessions.

AARP provides a wealth of articles and tools in the Money/ Investing section of its website including calculators for retirement needs, Social Security benefits, 401(k) savings and traditional IRAs. You'd also do well to read the site's Scams & Fraud section, filled with practical advice.

One topic that gets a thorough examination on the AARP website is "free lunch" investment seminars. While some are legitimate, others are high-pressure sales pitches for inappropriate or even fraudulent investment products.

Investor fraud targeting older people is rampant. A 2010 survey by the Investor Protection Trust found that 7.3 million Americans 65 and over — one in five — felt they had been taken advantage of financially. Funes found similar results when she recently conducted financial town hall meetings.

"Every town that we went to, almost without fail, we found out about a big case that had just been discovered of a senior being ripped off," she said.

AARP Florida has worked closely with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority to teach investors how to avoid common investment scams and how to protect their identity.

Crime isn't the only problem. Being sold legal products that aren't right for you can lead to big problems. Some annuities, for example, tie up money for years. "And if you buy that in your 80s, that's clearly not going to benefit you," Funes said.

Financial fraud expert Ronald Worst said consumers must be wary and seek advice.

"When you have opportunities in front of you to invest for your retirement plan … there's always someone with knowledge for you to help self-police yourself," he advised.

Hoffman faced that issue two years ago when she lost her longtime adviser and was forced to find a replacement. She interviewed financial advisers at several firms before choosing one. The decision, she knew, was another vital step in reaching her goals.

"The snowblower's getting bigger, I'm getting older, and I would just as soon be in Dunedin," she said.

George Edmonson is a freelance writer in Tarpon Springs, Fla.

Also of interest: Maximize your Social Security check.

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