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Can You Afford Your Dream Life?

Don't quit your day job until you've taken these steps to safeguard your financial future

If you're like a lot of boomers, you probably have big dreams for the next stage of your life. Maybe you fantasize about quitting your job and buying a quaint little inn in a charming country town. Or perhaps you want to devote yourself to pursuing your passion for painting, tennis or making quilts. Or it could be that you feel a spiritual calling and would like to to explore that. But whatever your aspirations, it's more important than ever to be practical about your future.

Join the discussion: Are you on track to your dream retirement?

What is your dream- a man stands on top of a mountain holding architectural plans

Financial freedom starts with smart money management. — Photo by Philip and Karen Smith/Getty Images

Sadly, the troubled economy has cast a dark cloud over the retirement expectations of many baby boomers. And financial experts agree that these are not the years when you can afford to take big risks.

"People who haven't saved enough money are simply not going to have the choices they expected to have," says Jane Bryant Quinn, author of Making the Most of Your Money NOW.

Past generations were largely finished raising a family and paying college tuition by the time they even thought about the so-called "golden years." Today, many in their early 60s are still paying those bills, while others have lost their jobs or been forced to stop working long before they had planned.

"You can't redo your life, no matter how much you wished you'd spent less and saved more," says Quinn. "So if you're still working or on the cusp of retirement, you need to realistically assess how much money you are likely to have." Here, Quinn suggests 8 steps to make sure you're on solid financial footing:

Hire a financial planner who can run the numbers and help you project how long your money will last and what you can afford to spend. If you aren't financially savvy, be sure to work with a fee-only planner instead of someone who sells investment products and takes a commission on what you buy.

"Working with a planner is the most important step everyone over 50 can take," says Quinn. The sooner you know how much money you're going to need, the sooner you can dial back if necessary. "In this economy, very few retirees can continue to live the same life they were living when they had a regular paycheck," she adds. "Most downshift their lifestyle so they can live comfortably with the incomes they have during the early retirement years."

Next: Cut living expenses by getting rid of debt. »

Pay off all debt. "Ideally, you enter retirement with zero consumer debt," says Quinn. "If you're still paying interest on credit cards or paying off your mortgage, it's a red flag that you need to start conserving your resources." When you own your home outright, you protect yourself against inflation. Not only do you cut your living expenses by not having a mortgage payment, but you also have the option to sell your home and rent or downsize to a smaller house. Be sure to pay off your mortgage out of income, though, not with cash from your IRA or 401(k). Retirement accounts provide liquidity and are protected from creditors so you keep them intact if at all possible.

Hammer out a budget. The classic rule of thumb still holds: You can afford to spend 4 percent of your total savings the first year you retire. For simplicity, take it in a lump sum, deposit it in the bank or in a money market mutual fund and budget it for paying 12 months' worth of bills. Each subsequent year, you can spend the same amount of money you did the previous year, plus an adjustment for inflation. (Already taking out more than that? Cut back now! The sooner you rearrange your life, the better.)

Consider a reverse mortgage — very carefully. It's not right for everyone, but for older people with significant equity in their home, this can be a good option. A reverse mortgage allows you to borrow against your home equity without having to repay until the home is sold. You can take the tax-free money in a lump sum or in gradual withdrawals from a credit line. Bryant says it's best to wait until you're 75 to exercise this option, even though you can legally do so after age 62. If you apply too early, your monthly payments will be lower, but you will also eat into your savings, which you may need later on. Talk to a financial planner to find out if this type of mortgage makes sense for you.

Treat your retirement fund as if it were principal. Assuming you have other assets, you should think about using those funds when you retire instead of immediately tapping into your traditional IRA or 401(k). This allows you to continue to accrue savings in a tax-deferred retirement account.

"I think people feel more secure emotionally if they keep retirement funds intact until they really need them — and that's not a bad idea financially either," says Quinn. Once you reach 70 1/2, however, you are legally bound to start making withdrawals. (If you have a Roth IRA, there are no tax consequences to using the money whenever you want.)

Hold off taking Social Security as long as possible. "If you need the money to live on, you don't have a choice," says Quinn. "But if you can, hold off as long as possible." Your payments will be significantly larger the longer you wait. [To check exact figures log on to]

Keep investing. Even after you retire, it's a good idea to keep a portion of your savings in stock-based mutual funds that pay dividends. If you put everything into fixed-income bonds, your savings will be chewed up rapidly as inflation rises. Talk to a financial planner for guidelines on how to allocate your assets.

Week 5: Live the Life You Love. »

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