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Time for a reality check: Are you still on track to meet your goals?

The pandemic turned our daily routines upside down. These questions can help you see whether your finances held up — and whether you might need to adjust them.


IT’S HARD TO COUNT ALL THE WAYS life changed as a result of the pandemic: Many of us continue to work remotely, help our kids with virtual learning, reschedule canceled vacations and finally resume our interactions with friends, all in an effort to return to some sort of new normal.


As a result, financial questions loom large: How are our investments holding up — and should we be adjusting them as well? Will we still be able to live the life we want in retirement?


Like many others, Terese and David Zingg were concerned in spring of 2020 when the virus spread and the stock market began to wobble. The couple, from Gloucester, Massachusetts, were especially nervous because David, 66, had already retired as a sales manager at a local boatyard, leaving them to live on Terese’s salary alone.


But after long conversations with Mary Mullin, their Merrill Wealth Management Advisor, they emerged more confident in their financial strategy. “We talked through cash-flow models and tactical shifts, such as selling some investments to raise enough cash for the short term so that they wouldn't have to worry,” Mullin says. The Zinggs also revised travel expenses downward (not too hard, with much of the world shut down at the time). “Even in the darkest days, we felt our plan was solid,” Terese says. “We knew we had planned the best we could.”


Whether you’re still working or already retired, you probably share some of the same concerns the Zinggs had. To see how your financial plans have weathered the economic effects of the pandemic, start by asking your advisor the following questions. Then discuss what steps you might want to consider to keep your plans on track as the economy — and your daily life — gradually rebounds.


Still working

Do I need to save more to be able to retire at the age I want?

The first step in figuring out how the pandemic may have affected your retirement readiness is to do a reality check: “Ask yourself: Are you on track or off track and to what degree?” says Joe Curtin, head of portfolio management for the Chief Investment Office, Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank.


“Staying invested helps to ensure that you can take advantage of any market bounce that may occur.”

— Joe Curtin, head of portfolio management for the Chief Investment Office, Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank

Many people have experienced some form of financial pressure, whether due to layoffs, reductions in pay or small businesses suffering in the disrupted economy. Your advisor can help you assess where you stand to help you manage immediate financial challenges.


Next, look at your investments — but don’t make any sudden moves. “Staying invested helps to ensure that you can take advantage of any market bounce that may occur,” Curtin points out. If you find you’ve fallen behind in your progress toward saving for retirement, think about increasing contributions to your retirement plans as soon as you can afford to do so.


Ideally, you should be taking full advantage of a company match, notes the Zinggs’ advisor, Mary Mullin. The federal Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act, passed in 2019, made a number of changes to encourage retirement saving. 

If you want to reduce your expenses, you could look for ways to refinance any debt you hold at a lower interest rate.


Another option is to consider delaying your retirement by a couple of years to extend the amount of time you have to save, says Mullin. “Postponing retirement by two or three years can create extra cash flow, delay withdrawals, change the retirement math and give you a lot more confidence.” 


What about my other financial goals?

To stay on track to meet your other financial goals, work with your advisor to make sure you’ve prioritized them correctly, says Curtin. Organize them in three different spending buckets — essentials (things like maintaining a minimum lifestyle, an emergency fund and covering medical costs), important goals (like helping grandchildren pay for education or maintaining your philanthropic giving) and aspirational goals (true luxuries like art collecting or buying a second home). Particularly within the last two categories, you may find places to cut back. “This is a great time to talk with your advisor and re-evaluate your priorities,” Curtin notes. Together you can look for trade-offs and creative ways to temporarily restructure your assets, saving strategies and expenses to help meet your needs.

Already retired

How can I maintain a consistent stream of income?

A solid retirement plan focuses on cash flow, says Mullin: “It’s not necessarily about when you have X dollars in the bank — it’s about do you have the cash flow each month to live the life you want to live?” Ask your advisor to review all your sources of cash, which can include Social Security, pensions, part-time work and dividends and interest from your portfolio. “If you’re worried that  volatility may have reduced the value of the funds you can draw on for your income needs, you may want to consider increasing your holdings of dividend-paying stocks,” says Mullin. Though some companies suspended dividends during the pandemic, generally dividend stocks have the potential to provide a reliable source of income.


Are there ways to reduce my income needs in retirement?

If you’re worried about outliving your retirement savings and want to reduce your expenses, you could look for ways to refinance any debt you hold at a lower interest rate. Consolidating your credit card balances at a lower rate, for instance, could help you pay them off faster. Or if you qualify, you might look into refinancing your mortgage if your rate is higher than the current rates. A lower monthly mortgage payment could help you pay off other higher-interest debt and give you more cash to put toward other expenses. “You might also consider downsizing to a smaller home, potentially moving to a lower-cost locale and pocketing the difference to help cover monthly expenses,” suggests Mullin.


A question everyone should ask

Are there investment opportunities I can take advantage of now?

“There’s no question that the pandemic, supply chain constraints, inflation and geopolitical events have all been significant challenges to the economy and markets,” says David Koh, senior investment strategist with the Chief Investment Office, Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank. That being said, investors who have stayed in the markets and diversified have been rewarded.


“As we work through the easing of supply chains, getting inflation under control and tightening by the Fed, we hope to see more favorable market conditions re-emerge. In the interim, particularly with market volatility likely to remain for the foreseeable future, we suggest taking advantage of tax-loss harvesting and rebalancing opportunities, in addition to staying invested and diversified,” Koh notes.


Whatever the new normal brings, adds Curtin, there’s one clear takeaway from the events of 2020 — the value of regularly reviewing your strategies with your advisor. As the economy and the markets continue to recover, volatility likely will continue — and investment opportunities may emerge. Having someone to guide you through the ups and downs can help you keep your plans on track.


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Information is as of10/1/2022.


Opinions are those of the author(s), as of the date of this document and are subject to change.


Investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.


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