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Opportunity Knocks for the Latest Sweeps Winner

Linda Tramel won big — and learned a bunch about retirement planning

So here's the hard truth about retirement planning (and our sweepstakes):

1. Retirement is eventually going to happen to you, whether you welcome it or not.

The Tramels plan to work as long as possible, in part to let their Social Security benefits grow. "It's wearing on my husband to work — standing on his feet 10 hours a day, his shoulders and elbows — but we're healthy and can still go," she says. "A lot of our friends, we don't talk about retirement because we don't want to admit we're that old!" But half of people who are retired today say they left the workforce early and unexpectedly, usually because of health problems or major workplace changes, like downsizing, according to a survey by the Employee Benefits Research Institute.

See also: Think you're saving enough to retire? 

2. Not nearly enough people are planning for retirement.

More than half of people surveyed by EBRI have not even tried to figure out how much money they'll need to save to live comfortably in retirement. Tramel says they can now put some money away for retirement, but until now, she says "Our retirement plans were 'Well, hopefully I'll win a contest.' "

3. Lotteries are not retirement plans.

Tramel doesn't play any lottery that requires a fee to collect your winnings (hint: they're scams), but she does enter sweepstakes frequently. Before she won the AARP sweeps, her winnings consisted of a $25 gift card and a bag of Skittles. (Fine, she also won a 42-inch TV one time, but that wouldn't fund her retirement, either.)

4. Even when you do plan, reality has a way of intervening.

The mother of a friend of mine thought it made sense to retire to an inexpensive island in the Third World. It did make sense — until corrupt officials threw her husband in jail on made-up charges, just to try to extort a little money out of them. Have a contingency plan!

5. It's never too late to start saving.

Most people don't get serious about saving and planning until the kids are out of the house — usually in their 50s. But one of the benefits of turning 50 is that the government makes it easier for you to close the savings gap by allowing you to divert extra money to a retirement account at work, or an IRA, or both. With two sets of aging parents and two sons to raise, "We haven't had time to think about ourselves at all," Tramel says. "But this prize will cut our credit card payments out completely, and our medical and college debt down to nothing practically, so we'll be able to put away some money for the future."

This is your opportunity. This is your life, your retirement and your money. Play the sweeps and learn more about how to build the very best retirement you can. Who knows — maybe you'll even win a bag of Skittles.

Jean C. Setzfand is vice president of the Financial Security issues team in the Education and Outreach group at AARP. She leads AARP's educational and outreach efforts aimed at helping Americans achieve financial peace of mind in retirement. She can be reached at jsetzfand@aarp.org and you can follow her on Twitter @JSetz.

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VIDEO EXTRA

RETIREMENT PLAN AHEAD: Kiplinger's David Muhlbaum shares the best ways to calculate how much you'll need for retirement. 

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