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Whether you’ve decided to quit the rat race early or keep working into your 80s, you have to plan to make sure you understand the pros and cons of either decision.

If you’re looking forward to retiring early, you need to make sure you have enough money to hold you over until other income streams become available such as a pension or Social Security.

Then there are folks who have saved for retirement but as they get close to retiring they are asking, “now what?”

Here’s a question I received from a reader during my online chat last week: “We have focused so much on saving enough and reducing debt that we never thought when to retire. Now that it is closer, I am more bewildered since I was always in a save mode. Our retirement health insurance costs will be staggering since I was planning on retiring before 65. I haven’t wrapped my head around working longer for health insurance until Medicare kicks in. Any advice?”

I’m going to suggest some reading in three areas: when to retire, health care options for early retirees and how to spend what you’ve saved once you stop working.

When it comes to the decision of when to retire, there’s no one rule of thumb for everyone. In fact, depending on your health care options and savings, you might not be able to retire.

[A record number of folks age 85 and older are working. Here’s what they’re doing.]

“Overall, 255,000 Americans, 85 years old and over, were working over the past 12 months,” The Washington Post’s Andrew Van Dam reported. “That’s 4.4 percent of Americans that age, up from 2.6 percent in 2006, before the recession. It’s the highest number on record.”

As Van Dam writes, “America’s aging workforce has defined the post-Great Recession labor market. Baby boomers and their parents are working longer as life expectancies grow, retirement plans shrink, education levels rise and work becomes less physically demanding.”

So when is the right time to call it quits?

“All retirees need to work through calculations to determine how long their money may last — but someone who wants to retire at 50 has a different set of underlying assumptions they will need to use when compared to someone who wants to retire at 70,” writes Dana Anspach for the Balance.

Also, check this out: Are you financially ready to retire?

If you’re going to retire before you are eligible for Medicare, you had better figure your health insurance options. Next to housing, health care will probably be one of your top expenses in retirement.

[Here’s what health care will cost you in retirement]

“Voluntarily walking away from a productive career presents early retirees with a number of weighty considerations,” writes Thom Tracy for Investopedia. “One of the first: health insurance. Individuals who retire before age 65, when Medicare eligibility begins, need to find alternate options to cover medical, hospitalization and prescription drug costs. And that is no small issue.”

So you’ve done what the experts said. You’ve saved. Now you have to have a plan to stretch the money throughout your retirement.

But it can be hard going from a retirement saver to spending what you saved. A lot of folks are scared to spend. The 9-to-5 paycheck is now gone and they have to budget just right to live on retirement income, which could include a pension, Social Security and investments. And if you retire you’ve got to make your savings and investments last.

“Once you’re in the home stretch to retirement, say, within 10 years of exiting your job — chances are you’ll have a better handle on how your retirement spending might shape up. At that point, it’s a good idea to do an actual retirement budget,” writes Walter Updegrave for CNNMoney.

Updegrave recommends trying the free BlackRock Retirement Expense Worksheet. For an interactive online work sheet try the one by Vanguard.

Based on a survey of 22,000 people from 30 countries, investment company Schroders found people expected to spend an average of 34 percent of their retirement income on basic living expenses, but the reality for retirees is that they require nearly 50 percent.

[Out-of-pocket health-care costs likely to take half of Social Security income by 2030, analysis shows]

Did you know, under certain circumstances you can take money out of your workplace retirement plan at 55 without incurring a 10 percent penalty for early withdrawal?

“In order to qualify, you have to leave your job with the employer holding your 401(k) plan account, and you have to wait until the year in which you turn 55 to leave employment,” says Dan Caplinger for The Motley Fool.

By the way, if you want a penalty-free withdrawal from a 401(k) account or similar account, don’t roll it into an IRA even if you quit after turning 55. If you roll over the money you are subject to the early withdrawal penalty until you hit 59 1/2.

Whatever decision you make about retirement, make sure you’ve done your homework. Vanguard, Bankrate and CNNMoney also have some advice on retirement planning.

Your thoughts
What specific steps did you take to prepare for retirement? What one piece of advice would you give for people in their preplanning retirement years. Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name, city and state. Put “Reverse Mortgage” in the subject line.

Retirement rants and raves
I’m interested in your experiences or concerns about retirement or aging. What do you like about retirement? What came as a surprise.

If you haven’t retired, what concerns you financially? You can rant or rave. This space is yours. It’s a chance for you to express what’s on your mind. Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name, city and state. In the subject line put “Retirement Rants and Raves.”

In the previous retirement newsletter I asked: Have you used a reverse mortgage to get by in retirement? If so, how did it work out for you? I heard from some reverse mortgage loan specialists who took issue with one expert’s opinion that the product should be a last resort for retirees.

“This product is being used as an addition to a comprehensive [retirement] approach,” wrote Britt Dawson from Chino, Calif.

“My wife and I closed a reverse mortgage one week after she turned 62,” wrote John Fink from Texas. “We have no more payment, a nice line of credit and more disposable income. We only had $65,000 left on paying off our house. I am a loan officer and understand the benefits of this product. I believe every person of 62 years and older should look at a reverse mortgage as part of their retirement strategy.”

That’s what John Leer of Eden Prairie, Minn., did.

“My wife and I did a reverse mortgage a year ago,” he wrote. “We are both 64. We had a little too much credit card debt for my comfort zone. We were paying 12 percent to 22 percent interest to credit card companies and a $1,500 principal and interest mortgage payment. Doing the reverse mortgage allowed us to take that $1,500 and pay off our credit card debt in a year — zero credit card debt and zero mortgage payments. We have sizable funds in IRAs, and when we choose to take Social Security this also will be substantial. Last resort? I don’t think so.”

Sandy Bollenbach of East Lyme, Conn., wrote, “I was able to totally pay off my existing mortgage, and do quite a few repairs and am so pleased that I could finally afford to do it plus take a few vacations. I am very happy at 67 to be able to relax knowing my home is in good shape and it is my hidden savings account.”

A reverse mortgage can help unlock cash tied up in the equity of a home. But, again, for some seniors, it’s not the right choice. As with any product, do your homework so that you know what you’re getting into.

[More seniors are taking loans against their homes — and it’s costing them]

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