Boomers: 6 steps to get your retirement on track in 2013

Retirement comes up faster than you think - Carmen Wong Ulrich has tips to help you prepare CBS News

(MoneyWatch) While you're making resolutions for 2013, why not add a few that will help you improve the odds that you'll live long and prosper in your retirement years? Below are six suggestions that will put you on the right track. Get started by choosing just one of these steps right now. Then, each month, implement another step. Continue through the list, and by mid-year you'll be well on your way to significantly improving your retirement years.

1. Improve your health. For people who want to get the most out of their retirement years, this step actually has a higher priority than saving more money. Why? Because you can significantly improve your physical health by reducing the odds of expensive and debilitating illnesses at any age. And because most baby boomers will need to work some in their retirement years to make ends meet, these steps will help you be physically able to work.

The best part is that improving your health doesn't need to cost you anything -- all it takes is determination. Most boomers would benefit by increasing the amount of exercise they get every day. If you're just getting started, take a brisk walk around your neighborhood after dinner for 30 to 45 minutes (Take your spouse or partner, too, if you have one.) If you're already exercising, good for you! But I bet you can find ways to improve your routine by making sure you get all the kinds of exercises (stretching, cardio, strength training and balance) that are necessary to keep you fit in your later years.

Also think about reducing the amount of fatty foods -- including most meats -- and increasing the amount of fruit, vegetables and grains you eat. The bonus? Cutting out meat and consuming more fresh fruits and vegetables should save you money at the grocery store, since fruits and vegetables usually cost less than meat. This will allow you to save more for retirement, so you'll be achieving two goals for the price of one!

Many readers may also have access to wellness programs at work, which make it easy and rewarding to improve your health. If you're eligible for such a program, check it out!

2. Spend less money. In numerous surveys, retirees often reportthat the way they make ends meet in retirement is to spend less money. That's not necessarily a bad thing: Many people find that buying more stuff doesn't make them happier; what does make their life better is spending time with friends and family and pursuing their interests and hobbies, and those things don't need to cost much money.

If you're approaching retirement, you can help prepare by focusing right now on spending "just enough" to meet your needs and be happy. You'll also save more for your retirement years, making this a win-win step.

3. Increase your retirement savings. You know a list like this wouldn't be complete unless I mention saving more money for when you eventually retire. If you participate in a 401(k) at work, bump up your savings by just 1-2 percent of your pay. It won't ruin your life -- most likely you won't even miss the money. And you'll learn how to get by on a lower income (see step 2 above).

Better yet, calculate how much money you'll actually need to retire comfortably using an online calculator. Many 401(k) plans give you access to such tools, and that's a good place to start. If you don't have such a calculator available, try using one that's available to anybody; the links below contain suggestions.

4. Reduce debt. Studies show that people who can reduce or eliminate their credit card debt and even their mortgage debt fare much better in retirement than people who still carry a lot of debt. To help you reduce your monthly credit card bills, start adding a bit more each month to your monthly payment. Your goal should be to pay off as many of your cards as possible. And if you do that before you retire, you'll save money by eliminating the interest you've been paying on that credit card debt.

If you haven't refinanced your house lately, investigate a 15-year fixed mortgage. Rates are at all-time lows, and most likely you'll live well beyond the time you pay off the mortgage.

5. Investigate how you might continue working. Most boomers don't have the financial resources for a traditional retirement where you don't work at all. But that doesn't mean retirement needs to feel like a prison sentence. Instead of working at a job that feels like a daily grind, find the kind of work you might enjoy, and reduce your work hours to provide more time to do what you enjoy in life. You don't necessarily need to make the same amount of money during your retirement years that you're making today; you might need to make just enough to cover your living expenses. And by earning enough to cover daily expenses, you can leave your savings untouched so they continue to grow until you're fully retired and need to start drawing from those funds.

6. Nurture your network. The most obvious benefit of having a range of friends and relatives is that you're more likely to enjoy life in your later years. But you'll also have a social safety net that can help when you're ill or otherwise need help. With my recent surgery, I can testify personally that having many people willing to pitch in can help greatly with recovery from major illnesses.

And if you really run with this idea, you might even consider living with friends or relatives when you're older, which will significantly reduce your living expenses and address the issue of loneliness, another significant retirement risk.

How do you nurture your network? There are lots of simple ways. Reach out and call a friend or relative for the New Year, or invite them over for dinner or coffee.

If you're really inspired to plan for a better retirement, check out my online retirement planning website, Money for Life. It's a collection of more than 150 blog posts and articles on a variety of retirement planning topics. One of the best features? It's free!

You'll feel much better about your future if you take charge now. And there's no better way to get started than by implementing these steps during the first half of 2013.

  • Steve Vernon On Twitter»

    View all articles by Steve Vernon on CBS MoneyWatch»
    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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