Skip to main content

Things You Can (and Can’t) Control in your Retirement Plan

Save the stress—things you can (and can’t) control in several areas of your retirement plan.

By Steve Cruice, CPA

You read the headlines every day just like I do - headlines about what the markets might do. Will they rise? Will they crash? Will we have another lost decade? Headlines about inflation, tax changes, the U.S. debt, global supply chain shortages, rising energy prices, and stories about the latest political battle du jour also bombard us on a daily basis. As a result, we tend to focus on (and worry about) many things that we actually have no control over.

Steve Cruice

Steve Cruice

Worrying a lot, according to health professionals, is not good for us. Fatigue, muscle aches, irritability, shortness of breath, and muscle tension are a few side effects of worry. And, that’s not my idea of a great retirement.

One of my favorite pieces of wisdom related to worrying about the uncontrollable comes from Matthew 6:27; “which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?” (New King James Version). This piece of wisdom basically says there’s no point in worrying about how to make yourself taller because you can’t control that!

In his book, Why Smart People Do Stupid Things with Money, Bert Whitehead spends some time talking about endogenous risk factors, or risk factors that we have some control over, versus exogenous factors, things we cannot control. He urges his readers to focus on what they can control rather than what most people do, focus on things that they cannot control.

 Here are a few examples that he has his readers think through. Which of the following do you think will most impact your financial future?

  • Interest rate movements or how much you pay in taxes 
  • Inflation or your purchasing habits
  • The political climate or your personal relationships
  • The rate of return on your investments or how much you save towards retirement
  • Globalization or the home you purchase and neighborhood you purchase in

The point of this exercise is to point out that there are many actions we can take in areas we have some control over that will significantly impact the success of our financial future.

Over my next several articles, I’m going to go in-depth on things you can (and can’t) control in several areas of your retirement plan.

Recently, I’ve noticed some of my clients and others starting to voice some worries about three primary financial areas.

The first is inflation. In October 2021, the annual inflation rate in the US rose to 6.2%, the highest annual rate in over four decades. The Federal Reserve’s balance sheet has grown from $4 trillion to over $8 trillion since 2020. For retirees or those that are close to retirement on more fixed incomes, rising prices and high inflation present a challenge, particularly in a low-interest environment. Is this higher inflation short-term? Will it rise higher? Is higher inflation a long-term prospect? The fact is nobody knows. For every expert predicting the short-lived nature of this recent increase in inflation, there is another that believes higher inflation will stick around for a while. How will inflation impact interest rates? Housing prices? The stock market? You can’t control inflation and you can’t predict which way prices are going to go, so don’t feel the pressure to control or know these things. In my next article, I’m going to discuss things that you control that will prepare you financially for higher inflation, deflation, and everything in between.

The second concern I hear is “the markets seem pretty high – I’m worried the market’s going to crash.” Markets rise and markets fall. If your retirement plan is based on the markets always going up, you are going to be disappointed. But it is a valid concern based on market valuations. However, you or I have no control over whether and when the markets will decline. What about the experts? Again, for every expert that thinks the markets will continue going up in the short-term, there are experts that believe the markets will decline in the short-term. Good news, though! There are several things you DO control when it comes to the success of your long-term investing plan. As part of this article series, we’re going to look at an investment plan to weather the ups and downs of the market and practical things you can do to increase your chances of retirement investing success.

The final big area that many are concerned about is taxes. There is much draft legislation addressing changes to our tax code. Much of the current legislation is focused on raising the taxes on households with taxable incomes over $400,000 or high net worth individuals with millions of dollars. It remains to be seen what passes and what doesn’t. But, even if nothing changes, many people’s taxes will increase in 2025 with the expiration of many of the provisions of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

Between the potential for increased taxes on high-income households and the scheduled expiration of numerous personal tax cuts for incomes of all levels in 2025, taxes are an area that people should be thinking about. Tax legislation is also another area that we have little control over individually (although, you can also make your voice known through the ballot box). However, for individuals in retirement, particularly the earlier retirement years before required minimum distributions start (currently age 72), there are many tax-planning opportunities they can take advantage of. If you are retired, you probably have more control over your taxable income than you think. I’ll be covering some of these strategies in an article coming soon.

What about you? Are there other financial areas that worry you? Are there other external factors that could impact your retirement plan that you are worried about? Let me know – if I think there are more people out there with the same concern, addressing your topic could be one of my next articles.

About the author: Steve Cruice, CPA, CFP®

Steve Cruice, CPA, CFP® is the co-founder of Three Points Financial, Inc., a fee-only wealth management firm that specializes in helping people retire well. He may be reached at www.threepointsfinancial.com