Retirement Budget 101: 9 Steps to Stretch Your Retirement Savings

A retired couple ride a carnival ride at the fair.
Getty Images
Advertising disclosure: Some of the links in this post are from our sponsors. We provide you with accurate, reliable information. Learn more about how we make money and select our advertising partners.

You’ve spent decades in the workforce earning a living, your schedule dictated by the demands of the job. All the while, you’ve been steadily adding to your savings so that one day you could get to this point: Retirement.

You finally have time to cross items off your bucket list — or simply catch a midweek matinee movie.

The possibilities are endless.

Life may feel more relaxed and carefree, but financial responsibilities remain front and center. In fact, now’s the time you might need to be even more diligent about budgeting your money.

4 Tips for Living on Your Retirement Savings

When you say goodbye to your 9-to-5, you also say goodbye to your regular paycheck.

You’ll rely on Social Security benefits, funds in your retirement accounts and any additional income, like pensions, to cover your expenses.

Sticking to a budget is vital so your retirement savings last. That money you’ve squirreled away in your working years has to stretch for decades. Remember, life on a fixed income means there are no bonuses, overtime or promotions to increase your cash flow.

Struggling to cope with financial stress? You’re not alone. See the steps experts recommend to deal with anxiety surrounding money.

1. Make Sure You’ve Saved Enough for Retirement Expenses

If you’re already retired or nearing retirement age, hopefully you’ve done the math to determine whether you’ll have enough money to keep you afloat.

One popular rule of thumb is to have 25 times your average annual expenses saved up.

But how much money you need in retirement depends on the following factors.

Age of Retirement

If you intend to retire early at 60, you’ll need considerably more money than a retiree who leaves the workforce at 70. Labor statistics indicate the average age of retirement is 65, although more people 75 and older are expected to stay in or rejoin the labor market in the coming decade.

Lifestyle Costs

Where you want to retire and how you’ll spend your retirement years significantly affect how much money you should squirrel away. For example, retirees who plan to travel the world will need to pad their essential monthly expenses compared to the average budget.

Pro Tip

Here are 11 of the best places to retire on a budget.

Medical Expenses

There are also a lot of unknowns in retirement — like what medical conditions you could develop and exactly how many years you’ll need your funds to stretch. Medicare won’t cover everything, so consider other backup plans like long-term care insurance.

Because you won’t be able to rely on employer-sponsored health insurance, it’s important to have robust retirement savings and be cognizant of your spending in your golden years.

Other Retirement Goals

Perhaps one of your retirement priorities is allocating more for charitable giving or charitable donations. Or maybe you intend to contribute significantly to the education of your grandchildren.

To get a clear picture of what that means to your budget, estimate what paying into those priorities looks like and make it part of your savings plan.

2. Make the Most of Your Nest Egg

Follow these do’s and don’ts to ensure your retirement income doesn’t slow to a trickle in your later years.

Do be prudent about how much you withdraw.

To make your savings last, you’ve got to be prudent about how much you withdraw each year.

“The gold standard has always been 4%, but new research has revealed a different number,” said Chuck Czajka, a certified estate planner and owner of Macro Money Concepts in Stuart, Florida.

He said withdrawing 3% a year instead gives you a 90% success rate to last through a 25-year retirement.

Do withdraw monthly instead of annually.

Keep in mind, once you’ve determined how much you can withdraw from your retirement plans each year, you’ll want to divide that amount by 12 to come up with how much to withdraw each month.

Czajka recommends withdrawing money from your retirement accounts on a monthly basis rather than taking out a year’s worth of expenses.

Don’t skimp on professional personal finance advice.

Meeting with a certified financial planner can help you develop a personalized plan to fit your situation and financial goals.

“As people approach retirement, they should work with a retirement professional to determine their expected retirement income,” said Lisa Bamburg, a registered investment adviser and owner of Insurance Advantage in Jacksonville, Arkansas.

Need some investment advice? Learn how to choose a financial adviser.

3. Factor in Social Security Benefits

In addition to the money you’ve saved in your 401(k), individual retirement account (IRA) or other investment accounts, a portion of your retirement finances will come from Social Security benefits.

You can start collecting Social Security benefits as early as age 62, but you’ll receive less money per month than if you waited until full retirement age — 66 or 67, depending on when you were born.

If you delay claiming benefits past your full retirement age, you’ll receive even more money each month. However, there’s no additional increase once you hit age 70.

Pro Tip

This calculator from the Social Security Administration gives you a rough idea of your retirement benefits. This retirement estimator is more accurate but requires plugging in your personal info.

4. Consider Other Sources of Retirement Income

In addition to Social Security payments, you might have other sources of retirement income, like a pension plan funded by corporate finance sources or an annuity.

A report from the National Institute on Retirement Security found that many retirees don’t have a great diversity in their retirement income, though additional income sources provide for a more secure retirement.

The report found less than 7% of older Americans have retirement income that’s made up of a combination of Social Security, a pension plan and a retirement contribution plan like a 401(k). About 40% rely on Social Security alone.

“Social Security benefits typically are not the equivalent of what it takes for most people to maintain their standard of living,” Bamburg said.

The Social Security Administration states its retirement benefits replace only about 40% of pre-retirement income for people with average wages — more for low-income workers and less for those in higher income brackets.

Looking for a side hustle to pay for variable expenses during retirement? See our rankings of the most popular part-time gigs that make solid profits.

How to Create a Retirement Budget in 9 Steps

Once you determine what your retirement income will be, it’s time to make your retirement budget.

If you’ve already been budgeting, you’re off to a great start, though your new retirement budget will likely differ from that of your working days.

Step 1: Take Stock of Your Retirement Expenses

First, you’ve got to get an overall look at your current spending.

If you don’t already have a budget or track your spending, pull out the past several months of bank or credit card statements. Dig up old receipts if you tend to pay in cash.

Reviewing the past three months will help you figure out your average monthly expenses on things like the electric bill, but an even deeper dive — looking at the last six to 12 months — will give you a more accurate picture and will reveal things like your annual car insurance bill, seasonal fluctuations in your electric bill and holiday spending.

Group your spending into different categories to see where your money’s going. You’ll have fixed monthly expenses, like your mortgage, where the cost stays the same each month.

Other must-have expenses, like groceries and utilities, will vary. For those, you should estimate your average monthly spend.

See if your provider offers options to spread out utility spending evenly with our guide to budget billing or leveled billing.

Step 2: Don’t Forget to Plan for Emergencies

One-time expenses like car repairs or unexpected medical bills can leave a big hole in your retirement budget that’s hard to fill.

While many of your other expenses can probably be managed by using Social Security payments to fill the gaps, most retirees find it helpful to have an emergency fund.

Pro Tip

Start planning with our step-by-step guide to starting an emergency fund or sinking fund to pay off a big expense.

Step 3: Account for Changes in Your Retirement Budget

After leaving the workforce, you’ll notice some differences in your spending plan and budgeting process.

You’ll no longer have to pay commuting costs for downtown parking near the office, gas to and from work or pricy lunches with co-workers. Your monthly retirement contributions will be a thing of the past.

Step 4: Allot More for Health Care Expenses

However, not everything will be budget cuts. You’ll have to account for new retirement expenses, like health insurance premiums your employer probably covered.

If you’re 65, you can get health insurance through Medicare, but it’s likely you’ll face increased out-of-pocket costs for health care as you age.

After all, Medicare doesn’t cover all your health care needs. You’ll likely need to pay for dental, vision and hearing health care costs. You’ll also need to consider monthly premiums for Medicare Part B and prescription drug coverage, also known as Medicare Part D.

Step 5: Don’t Forget About Taxes

You should also factor both income and property taxes into your retirement budget. Aside from paying yearly property taxes if you own a home, you’ll also owe income tax on withdrawals from traditional IRAs and 401(k)s.

Your income taxes will vary based on your retirement income. Research the tax rates in your area and compare them to your income level so you won’t be surprised when tax bills arrive. Getting tax advice from a financial professional is another smart move.

Step 6: Factor in Home Repairs

Housing costs are also important. Your mortgage might be paid off, but budgeting for ongoing home repairs and the cost of home insurance is a good idea. Even without a mortgage payment, those unexpected expenses add up quickly.

And of course, now that you have an influx in free time, you can pursue the things you’ve always wanted to do — which means additional expenses in retirement.

Step 7: Make Room for Fun Things in Your Retirement Budget

A big part of retirement planning is determining what type of lifestyle you want to have when you’re no longer working 40 hours a week.

Do you want to travel? Spend more time with your grandkids? Explore a new hobby? After you’ve covered your essential expenses, how you spend what’s left in your retirement budget is totally up to you.

Don’t forget to include run-of-the-mill discretionary expenses in your retirement plan, like cable, gym memberships, magazine subscriptions and dining out. It won’t all be cruise ships and Broadway plays.

If you’re married, be sure to share your retirement budget with your partner, so you’re both on the same page about how you’ll spend your time and money.

Finally have time to see the world but your budget has you grounded? Check out our tips for saving big on international travel.

Step 8: Adjust Expectations to Reality

As you create your monthly budget, you may discover you have less income than you thought you’d have in retirement. That doesn’t mean you have to live out the rest of your life kicking yourself for not saving more. You have a few options to get by.

Take another look at your living expenses. Are there any ways you can cut costs? Slash your food spending with these tips to save money on eating in and dining out. Consider downsizing to a smaller home or getting a roommate to save money on housing.

Pro Tip

If you’re struggling to meet basic needs, programs like the Affordable Connectivity Program, Meals on Wheels and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program can help.

Step 9: Lean Into Senior Discounts

When it comes to your discretionary spending, look for ways to enjoy a more frugal retirement. Take advantage of senior discounts. Check out free activities at your local community center. Find ways to save money on traveling.

Although retirement means leaving your working days behind, you may find it necessary to pick up a side gig or part-time job to supplement your income. Seek out opportunities that match your interests so it doesn’t feel like work.

Don’t forget to enjoy this new stage of life. You worked hard to retire — you deserve it.

Nicole Dow is a former senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.

Rachel Christian, a Certified Educator in Personal Finance and a senior writer for The Penny Hoarder, and senior writer Kaz Weida also contributed.