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7 resolutions for retirees in 2012

By Dave Carpenter
AP Personal Finance Writer / January 5, 2012
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Retirees may be past the days of resolving to work out more or buy fewer $4 coffees. Yet when it comes to money in particular, resolutions may be even more important for those living on fixed income.

From financial nuts and bolts to more holistic aims, here's a look at seven worthy resolutions for retirees to commit to in 2012:

1. Get disciplined about money matters.

Retirees should set up a formal budget and stick to it. Being thrifty without a plan only goes so far when unexpected expenses arise, especially at an age when health care costs can start to mount.

It's also wise to record your financial goals and plans, such as how much money you expect to withdraw from savings every month.

"The more detailed the information about your spending requirements and investment goals, the greater your chances of success," says Bob Stammers, director of investor education for the nonprofit CFA Institute for financial analysts.

2. Attack your debt.

Along with putting on pounds, new retirees are prone to running up debt with their newfound freedom. Paying off credit card debt should be a top priority.

After the card debt is zeroed out, use only one card and pay off the balance monthly. If an emergency expense leads to a balance, don't let it linger or it will erode retirement savings.

If your savings are languishing in a money market account or certificate of deposit earning practically nothing, you can put a chunk of it to greater use by paying off a credit card with an interest rate of 15 or 20 percent. Having savings yields at rock-bottom lows presents a rare opportunity to instantly improve your finances.

"There may never be a better time than now to clear up all of your credit card debt," says Michael Kresh, a certified financial planner in Islandia, N.Y.

3. Invest in dividend-paying stocks.

It's tough for retirees to get meaningful income on their money from the traditional sources. The best-paying money market and savings accounts yield just 1 percent, five-year CDs no better than 1.95 percent, according to Bankrate.com. Even the U.S. government's 10-year Treasury note has been hovering around 2 percent.

For a bit more risk in the short term, blue chip stocks that pay dividends offer a combination of reliable income and good odds for share price appreciation over the long haul.

Income investors have few alternatives to dividend stocks in this environment, says Howard Silverblatt, senior analyst for Standard & Poor's.

The average dividend stock yielded 2.8 percent in 2011, and investors can better that with such blue chips as General Electric Co., 3.8 percent, or Pfizer Inc., 4.7 percent. Other good options include dividend-heavy mutual fund T. Rowe Price Equity Income (PRFDX), which gets a gold-medal rating from Morningstar, and exchange-traded fund Vanguard Dividend Appreciation (VIG), which carries a five-star rating.

4. Get your estate plan in order.

Make sure your estate plan and financial documents are updated. Tax laws change and documents may be out of date. Beneficiaries may need to be revised.

Set up a review with an attorney and investment adviser to make sure all of your plans are current. If you need help finding a financial planner near you, check the website of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, http://findanadvisor.napfa.org/Home.aspx.

A basic estate plan includes a will, living will, durable power of attorney and health-care proxy or living will.

5. Be more generous.

Resolve to be more charitable, giving to worthy causes for others as well as your loved ones. It's rewarding and makes tax and financial sense too.

Remember that you can give gifts of up to $13,000 annually without triggering taxes. Helping a younger family member can also set an admirable precedent that reinforces the importance of charitable giving.

You may want to consider a charitable gift annuity, in which you donate to a large charity and receive regular lifetime payments in return.

"In times of very low interest rates and declining returns on assets, this is a good way for retirees to increase their cash flow and get an income tax deduction while helping a charity," says Michael Dribin, a trusts and estates attorney for Harper Meyer in Miami.

6. Check into long-term care insurance possibilities.

Consider getting a long-term care policy. It may already be too expensive if you have health issues or are well into retirement. But note that roughly a fifth of those who sign up for coverage do so at age 65 or older, according to the American Association for Long-Term Care Insurance.

About 70 percent of people over 65 will require long-term care services at some point. And neither private health insurance nor Medicare pay for the majority of the services people need -- help with personal care such as dressing or using the bathroom independently. That can be a devastating financial burden without coverage. An assisted living facility costs an average of $38,280 per year, a semi-private room in a nursing room runs $73,000 and home health aides charge $19 to $21 an hour, according to the insurance association.

A typical long-term care policy costs upwards of $4,000 per year for a 65-year-old couple. By 70, for those still able to qualify, that more than doubles. So don't delay on this one.

7. Stretch your body and mind.

Choose daily pursuits that keep you physically, mentally and socially engaged.

There's abundant evidence that continued physical activity helps people live longer, feel better, avoid depression and keep their mental skills sharp.

"Functional disabilities shouldn't keep you from exercising," says Dr. Amy Ehrlich, a geriatrician with Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y,

She puts frail elderly patients on a walking program. If they can't walk, she puts them on a swimming program. And if they can't swim, she has them take a water aerobics class.

Studies show that people benefit from efforts to stay cognitively sharp -- from doing a daily crossword to playing games to reading. Maintaining social ties also is critical. Older people who volunteer in schools, for example, feel happier, more useful and more satisfied with their lives.

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Personal Finance Writer Dave Carpenter can be reached at http://twitter.com/scribblerdave.

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