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Divide investment objectives into short, medium, and long-term segments whenever possible, matching the natural life stages of youth, middle age, and seniors. It also makes sense to align bank and brokerage accounts to short and intermediate terms, while retirement accounts focus exclusively on the long term (heavy penalties are incurred when those funds are accessed prematurely). In fact, there is no good reason to take advantage of IRAs, SEPs, and other retirement accounts unless dire circumstances offer no viable alternatives.
Short- and medium-term goals also aid SMART planning, allowing a quick review to gauge progress on savings for home, car, vacation, or family obligations. Intermediate-term planning can also include a more general description, denoting the capital set aside for the inevitable "rainy day." This allocation of emergency funds can also serve as a firewall between life's surprises and the much larger retirement account, allowing that capital to remain intact, configured to serve its intended purpose.
Don't despair if you've reached middle age without investment planning because the significant benefits add up quickly when work begins. Of course, you'll need to catch up if your finances are flashing red, which requires lifestyle changes until your income matches or exceeds expenses. Debt management will be necessary to get on the right track because it makes no sense to earn 5% or 10% per year on an investment account when several credit cards have reached their limits with interest rates of 18%, 20% or 25 %.
Learning to invest in midlife has the benefit of experience - that is, you can more accurately gauge your future earning power by examining your family's current career paths. It's often possible for higher-earners to catch up, building investment wealth quickly under these circumstances, but still it will likely require sacrifices. Sadly, incomes often stagnate into middle age, with dead-end jobs and locked careers that keep family finances afloat but prevent the creation of more substantial savings.
It is critical that retirement accounts are fully funded through middle age and through the end of employment, even when this forces other lifestyle changes. Financial burdens are likely to increase over time, due to rising health care and parenting costs (which may include college tuition). Going into retirement with little more than government checks in hand can produce well-founded anxiety, especially when one spouse has depended on the other for decades, and should be avoided at all costs.
There are more people working past retirement age today than at any time in the last century. However, government rules require investors to begin withdrawing funds from retirement accounts (other than Roth IRAs) at age 70½. Along with a longer life expectancy, this requirement adds new importance to investment planning in the retirement years. It makes perfect sense for older people to continue to accumulate wealth through work or investment until death whenever possible, especially if one of the spouses will depend on the funds as a widower or widower.