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Published: Oct 15, 2015 16 min read
Businesswoman standing at desk in office
Businesswoman standing at desk in office
Thomas Barwick—Getty Images

We’ve got bad news and good news. Which do you want first?

OK, the bad news: Remember Gen X? That’s you. Gen Xers are the ones who are poised to turn 50, and they are not only lagging behind in their retirement prep like so many other Americans; they are pretty apathetic about it. How Gen X of you.

A really depressing study found that 45% of Gen Xers don’t even want to think about investing for retirement—compared to 35% in 2011. That would be the needle moving in the wrong direction.

Now for the good news: You’ve still got time to course correct your financial plan, get those proverbial ducks in a row (whatever that means), and maybe even have enough coffee left to map out your second act.

Here’s what you need to know before you hit the big 5-0.

1) This could be the midpoint of your life.

Remember when turning 50 seemed…old? Not anymore. That’s not to say that 50 is the new 30, but with more people living to the century mark, 50 is looking more like a middle decade than ever before.

In fact, if you live until age 50, you’re likely to live into your 80s, according to actuarial data. And by the logic of how life expectancies are calculated, that means you have a 50% chance of living well beyond that.

What that means: Don’t enter this decade as if you’re on the downward slope toward 65. Instead, reimagine your 50s as the financial fulcrum of your life: a pivot point which, if you seize it now, can help you leverage the decades to come.

Essentially that means a shift from inertia to action, from apathy to optimism. Time is on your side—more time than you thought. Now is the chance to carpe your diem, your 401(k), your career and anything else you need in order to get more from the next half of the game. For example:

2) You have time to plan a second act.

It’s not just a new movie starring Robert De Niro: More Americans are embarking on second careers later in life. (Yes, De Niro plays 70-year-old interning at a start-up. But that’s because he didn’t read this article before he was 50.)

In fact, people in their 50s and 60s are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs, according to the Kauffman Foundation. With that exciting news in hand, you have time to strategize and plan your Plan B.

Research by psychologist Ken Dychtwald found that “working retirees” tended to fall into four distinct buckets: Earnest Earners (28%); Driven Achievers (15%); Caring Contributors (33%) and Life Balancers (24%).

Do any of those sound like you—or would you make your own bucket?

Do you want to switch jobs, change careers? Do you need additional training, and what might that cost? Would you rather work part-time or volunteer?

Although 80% retirees who work say they don’t do it solely for the money, the additional income is nothing to cry over. The extra working years may even increase your Social Security benefit. And as you’ll see next, that could be a good thing.

3) Your money needs to last longer.

Living longer could be a blessing, but you don’t want it to turn into a curse. So now is the time to ask: If you retired at 65 and lived until age 95, would your money last?

In order to combat “longevity risk” as they call it, you may want to save more (some ideas in #4, below). But you should also revisit your asset allocation strategy.

Conventional wisdom suggests dialing back on stocks and ramping up on bonds and cash as you age—the better to protect your assets and minimize risk. (Some investments, like target date funds, make those adjustments for you automatically). But lately there has been a backlash against that traditional ‘glide path’, in part because people are living longer, and also because bonds aren’t delivering the kind of yields most people can live on (unless you’ve got a pretty big nest egg).

This new research suggests adding stocks to your portfolio as you get older, which gives your money greater potential for growth. Is that wise? More stocks also expose you to more risk. Before you change your allocation strategy, run the numbers, perhaps with a professional advisor, and do a deep gut check.

And then, think about Mrs. Buffett.

A couple of years ago, Warren Buffett announced that he would put 90% of his wife’s trust into “a very low cost S&P 500 index fund.” If an aggressive strategy is good enough for Mrs. Buffett, who is about 70, it might be worth considering.

4) There’s more room in your 401(k) now.

Turning 50 means that you can save a whole lot more, thanks to the so-called catch-up provisions for your 401(k) and IRA.

Let’s assume you’re saving the annual max in your 401(k) plan now (e.g. $18,000 in 2015), your IRA ($5,500), or, if your income doesn't exceed the limit, potentially both (for a total of $23,500 per year). When you turn 50, you can save an additional $1,000 in your IRA and up to $6,000 more in your company plan according to 2015 rules; the catch-up amounts may change in years to come.

Taking full advantage of these contributions now would mean saving $7,000 more per year, for a total of $30,500 in tax-deferred savings. Now, socking away that much extra cash each year might seem like a stretch. An extra $7,000 is about $583, pre-tax, per month. But that’s why we’re giving you a heads up today.

If you plan head, you might be able to enjoy the ability to catch up, even a little, as those supplemental dollars can add up enormously over time.

5) Gender matters—a lot.

By now you’ve heard that women save less for retirement than men do, nearly 40% less.

Women typically earn less than men do, and are more likely to take time out from full-time work to care for kids or aging relatives, thus they save less.

You may have witnessed these dynamics in your own life, or your partner’s. But now consider the implications for the long-term—because women also live longer than men. Statistically, women live about three years longer than men do. But that doesn’t paint the whole picture: The number of women 65 and older is nearly 30% higher than the number of men (23.4 million vs. 17.9 million).

How to close the savings gap? Consider a more aggressive allocation to stocks in your portfolio or hers (to add the potential for growth); strategize about how to extract the maximum from Social Security and pension plans by understanding spousal and survivor benefits.

Or take advantage of some of the benefits of getting older: Your kids are more independent, you’re at the peak of your career—and this could be a time to push for bigger promotions or raises.

6) You can make life easier after you die.

Yes, you’re probably going to live for a while, but that’s all the more reason to plan ahead and make your death easier for your loved ones. Common sense? Not common enough. An AARP survey found that a solid 40% of Americans over 45 haven’t even drafted a will.

If you’ve been following the advice in our handy series, you know that a will and a health care directive are essential. Now it’s time to flesh out your estate plan and set up a durable power of attorney. This is a document that designates the person who will manage your business and financial affairs if you cannot.

For example, if you’re incapacitated, you need someone you trust who can pay your bills, manage insurance claims, make deposits, and so on.

Without it, your finances will fall into the hands of a judge. Not the outcome you’d probably want.

7) You can pay off your mortgage—or not

It’s one of those apple-pie-and-baseball dreams: By the time you retire, you’re going to pay off that 30-year fixed so you can live free and easy (property taxes notwithstanding). But is that the best move, financially speaking? You have to weigh the pros and cons.

Let’s say you bought a home or refinanced your mortgage in these last few low-interest-rate years, and you’ve got a super low-rate loan of 3.75%. Does it make sense to divert extra cash to paying down your mortgage early, when you could invest that cash for the long-term and (potentially) get a much higher return than 3.75%?

Also, keeping your mortgage entitles you to take the mortgage interest deduction on your taxes, assuming you itemize.

Then again, the amount of interest you pay declines over the years; so how much interest are you able to deduct each year, really?

Then there’s the emotional side of things. You may not care about interest rates and tax deductions when you think about the soul-satisfying goal of “owning your home free and clear.” It’s hard to disagree with that.

Whichever way you’re leaning, you should do the math now. Because if you decide you do want to live mortgage-free in retirement, you’ll want to get a jump on it. Conversely, if you decide that it’s not worth pre-paying your loan, voila! You can take the cash you’d planned to put toward mortgage freedom and use it to beef up your portfolio.

8) A health savings account is your friend

One thing about wrapping up your 40s: You’ve got a front row seat to all the health care woes of your parents’ generation. Now the predictions that medical expenses for most couples likely to exceed $220,000 in retirement seems possible.

Luckily there’s a solution you can set in motion right now (if your health plan qualifies): open a health savings account, stat.

These accounts offer a tax-deferred way to pay for qualified medical expenses now—which is likely how you’ve been using your HSA, if you have one. But an HSA is also a smart move for your long-term financial plan, because it acts as a stealth health care IRA. Here’s how it works:

  1. You set aside money pre-tax (up to $3,350 for individuals, $6,650 for families in 2015).
  2. The money grows tax free; some HSA plans allow you to choose where your funds are invested, too.
  3. HSA funds aren’t “use it or lose it”; the money rolls over year after year, so you can spend it now or in the future to pay for qualified health expenses—also tax free.

Yes, you have to be careful—as you would with any retirement account. Check the account fees, inquire about investing costs, make sure you understand the fine print. But even if the account is sponsored by your employer, the money is yours—the same as with a 401(k)—and if you leave your job, or just want a better HSA plan, you can move it. This is what they call a win-win, win.

9) There are ways to make college more affordable

With the average cost of tuition and fees topping $30,000 per year at a private school, and even in-state public options creeping up to $10,000, the race to fill up your 529 can feel futile.

But there are ways to cut the costs of college—even if you make too much money to expect much financial aid.

One way to help close the gap between your savings and the sticker price of a college education: Set your sights on merit aid awarded by colleges based on grades, test scores, or other accomplishments. The percentage of undergraduates getting merit aid has more than tripled in the past 20 years, the government reports, and it’s not just “A” students who qualify. Make sure to apply to colleges that offer a sizable amount of merit aid. Here's a list of 99 colleges that give every freshman a scholarship, and another of the 10 best private colleges where everybody gets a scholarship.

Another way to cut costs: Ask your kid to stay home. Really. Here's a list of 10 world-class schools in urban areas where a college degree can be had for $100,000 or less by avoiding the room and board of going leaving home. That may sound like a lot of togetherness, but consider that it may later be easier for your kids to strike out on their own if they aren't saddled with student debt.

And here's one more outside-the-box idea for cutting college costs: Think outside the country. The Institute for International Education reports that more than 46,000 American students were pursuing full degrees abroad in 2013 (both undergrad and post-grad). Meanwhile, average yearly tuition and fees in the EU, England, and Canada may well be low enough to absorb the extra traveling costs—and still beat your in-state options here at home.

10) Surprise—you’re almost eligible for AARP!

It sounds too good to be true: At the tender age of 50 you can join the American Association of Retired Persons. Don’t worry, it doesn’t come with a rocking chair. In fact, there’s a lot to like about this perk—even if you’d never admit it to your friends.

First, joining is as easy as blowing out your birthday candles and paying a $16 annual fee. Your spouse can tag along at no extra charge. Once you’re in, there are almost too many products and benefits to sort through. But dust off your bifocals and you can find plenty to entice you:

  • A 10% discount on monthly service charges for AT&T customers.
  • Insurance coverage, including dental, medical and vision (and even pets).
  • Vision and prescription discounts
  • Health and financial planning services.

Surprisingly, you also get access to a variety of travel deals and discounts (although, it goes without saying that you need to comparison shop).

Not sold? Here’s the freebie that’s going to close the deal: Buy a large beverage at any Dunkin’ Donuts, flash that AARP card…and you get a free cruller. Life at 50. It doesn’t get better than this.

Read More of Money's What You Need to Know Series:

10 Things to Know About Money Before You’re 40

10 Things to Know About Money Before You’re 30

10 Things to Know About Money Before You’re 20