We are mere weeks away from kissing 2012 goodbye and saying hello to bigger and better things in the new year.
Smart moves between now and December 31 can make all the difference in reaching your retirement goals, whether you're starting out in your career or just a few years from retirement.
With some wondering not when but if they'll ever retire -- indeed, even some well-heeled folks are losing sleep about whether the golden years will be golden -- here's what to put on the top of your to-do list.
Managing Your 401(k)
For those starting out in their careers, the advice is simple: Invest as much as you can afford. Although the markets have been volatile, over the long haul a 401(k) is still about the best investment any younger person can make, said Steve Wallman, CEO and founder of Folio Investing. If your employer matches your 401(k), make the most of that free money. If not, jump in and make the appropriate adjustments to your paycheck in November and December. Then review your investments.
"Being too conservative when you have a long time to save/invest for the future is not a good strategy," Wallman said. "Instead, take on as much risk, as high a percentage of investments tilted toward equities as you can stand, but be well diversified."
On the other hand, those near retirement should consider lower-risk investments. With retirement near, it's not a time for taking big losses.
"Remember 2008-2009 where many investors close to or at retirement lost over 50% of their retirement savings in just under 18 months," Wallman said. "Although some have argued that you may want to stay in risky assets even at this time, we believe now is the time to preserve what you've accumulated, not risk it for a little more return."
If you're nearing retirement, closely review your assets. How do they fit together? Are you heavily invested in one kind of asset class?
Consider someone who has a heavy investment in residential real estate through a residential REIT, while also owning a home and a vacation home.
"If so, you're basically pinning all your hopes on residential real estate," Wallman said. "Make sure you diversify."
The end of the year is also a good time to assess savings. How have you done in reaching the goals you set at the beginning of the year? With retirement just a couple of years away, tally up where you are in saving enough to meet your retirement income needs.
"Determine whether retirement income products like annuities and protection products such as long-term care insurance are right for you," said Catherine Collinson, president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.
If you're 50 or older, you still have time to make a catch-up contribution of up to $5,500 to your 401(k) or IRA to save more on a tax-deferred basis.
A 401(k) is just one method of saving and investing. Read on for more advice on ways you can maximize your retirement savings before the end of the year.
If you're early in your career
Create A Budget For Retirement Savings
Maybe you don't see how to find the money to save for a retirement that seems a lifetime away. The key to being able to sock money away is budgeting. And what better way to end the year than to set yourself up with a budget for next year?
"A reasonable budget includes an allowance for savings and emergencies," said Deana Arnett, a certified financial planner with Rosenthal Wealth Management Group. "The goal here is two-fold: Get in the habit of spending less than you make, and establish a six-month emergency fund so that you don't depend on credit cards to pay for emergencies."
Invest In Yourself
Most people think about financial capital, but what about "human capital?"
"The best investment you can make in your 20s and 30s is in yourself," said Bill Meyer, president and founder of Social Security Solutions.
Seek classes and programs that begin in January or in the spring that will enhance your skills. For those with an entrepreneurial streak, plot a strategy for building a side business that can generate cash for retirement.
Expand Your Retirement Savings
Regardless of whether you have a 401(k), you should also invest in an IRA or Roth IRA to ensure you are investing as much as you can tax-free or with tax-free build-up.
"Let the government help you save and invest for the long-term," Wallman said. "These programs are designed to encourage you to do that, so take advantage of as many of them as you can and ask for assistance if you are not sure what is available to you."
If you're nearing retirement...
Commit to reducing debt
The less debt you have going into retirement, the better. Do a year-end review of where you stand on your credit card and other debts. Make a plan for how you will pay it down or pay it off entirely in 2013. Paying off credit card and other debt will improve cash flow that you can use to bolster retirement savings.
Check the diversity of your portfolio
Be mindful of company stock you may own. Make sure company stock does not comprise more than 10% of your portfolio to avoid being over-weighted in a single stock. Employees who have worked for a company for a long time may have far more than 10% in stock options as part of their retirement. Remember that diversification is key.
Think about getting help
Perhaps you've handled your financial affairs primarily on your own until now. But with retirement in the not-too-distant future, now might be the best time to hire a financial advisor. A certified financial planner can help you with all aspects of retirement, including goal-setting, budgeting, insurance planning, asset allocation and estate planning. This is no time to go it alone.
"They can help you anticipate roadblocks, assess risk and develop a plan for a successful retirement," Arnett said.
Action to Take --> No matter where you are in your career, now is a good time to evaluate your retirement savings plans. With a reasonable budget in place, you can start the new year off feeling confident and more secure about your future.
This article originally appeared on InvestingAnswers.com:
Make These Smart Moves By Dec. 31 For A More Secure Retirement