When it comes to retirement planning, one size does not fit all.
Consider the basics when drafting a retirement plan — housing, transportation, routine living expenses and health care — but there are so many variables that putting together a plan cookbook-style is almost certain to create future financial problems.
"Retirement planning is highly personal," says Joseph Weiss, an actuarial adviser for Ernst & Young in Hartford, Conn. "There aren't many rules of thumb."
That means reading widely and working closely with a financial adviser to develop a detailed plan that fits your needs.
It's also possible to make unplanned trade-offs during retirement to hold on to what's important. For example, if you planned to live on caviar and champagne in retirement, you can easily cut back to hamburgers and beer, if that means holding on to the vacation home.
Remember that you can't plan precisely for a potentially catastrophic medical problem, which may change everything. Health care is the wild card, and planning based on current expenses may not cover future costs.
"If you don't understand the risks, you can't mitigate them and that means you won't have a comprehensive retirement plan," Weiss says.
For many, failure to plan for retirement stems from inertia. If you've come down with a chronic case of the do-nothings, time will soon kick you in the butt. However, following the pack can be worse than doing nothing. Don't buy mutual funds, insurance or annuities simply because a friend or acquaintance bought the product or recommended it.
But cheer up. If you've done nothing, at least you have the chance to get it right now.
Take a look at a Roth IRA, a variation on the retirement savings theme. It's built with aftertax dollars and, in general, makes it easier to save and withdraw money when needed.
But the advantages of a Roth IRA come at a price: Contributions aren't deductible. For many, this minor sticking point is more than offset by a Roth IRA's tax-deferred growth and tax-free distributions at retirement.
Remember Weiss' basic point: Retirement planning is highly personal and a good plan is one that is tailored to your needs and goals.
There are many Internet sites offering financial retirement information, including A.G. Edwards & Sons, T. Rowe Price, Merrill Lynch,, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Major banks also offer solid information, including Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Citigroup.
There are a lot of moving parts to a good retirement plan, but the goal is simple: You want a comfortable and secure retirement.
"Finding out if you can get what you want in retirement is a good start," Weiss says. "Good planning involves understanding the risk, mitigating it and making trade-offs as needed."