This article was published in the New Haven Register on April 2, 2016

The prospect of retiring early is enticing for many people. After three or four decades of working every day, it sounds nice to be able to follow your own schedule, travel, spend more time with family, pursue a hobby or launch a new vocation.

Whether you hope to retire at 52 or 62, the key to successfully retiring early is planning ahead, otherwise known as “retirement planning.” Here are a few thoughts for those who have this dream:

• Envision your future. Let’s say you retire at age 58. The average man will live another 23 years, the average woman another 26 years, according to the Social Security Administration. That’s a long time to spend making putts. How will you spend your time? Start a new business? Travel? Volunteer? Knowing what you plan to do will help you understand how much money you will need, a vital part of the financial planning process.

• Retire your debt. Unless you are a multi-millionaire, going into retirement in debt is like jumping in the ocean with an anchor tied around your waist. Few people can afford to pay off debt from the money they earn in retirement through savings withdrawals, Social Security checks and other income sources such as rental property or part-time work. Set a goal to pay off all your debt before you retire.

• Cut your expenses now. Don’t wait until retirement is in sight to start living below your means. Do it now, for two reasons. First, every dollar you save means your retirement savings will stretch over more years, and second, you’ll get used to living more frugally, something you may need to do once you retire.

• Understand your Social Security benefits. If you take your Social Security benefits before your official retirement age, you’ll receive significantly less money over your retirement years. If a person whose normal retirement age is 67 retires at the earliest possible age, 62, they will receive 30 percent less. That’s a huge penalty that will add up over the years. Of course, you don’t have to start withdrawing from Social Security if you retire, and you’ll receive more if you delay withdrawals to age 70.

• Make a trial run. Figure out the budget you’ll need to be on after you retire and spend a few months living within that budget. That means no credit cards or savings withdrawals. Can you do it?

Consider health care carefully. You won’t be eligible for Medicare until age 65, and even then it doesn’t pay all your medical expenses. You must have a viable plan for health care coverage after you retire. That could mean coverage through a spouse or through Obamacare. Just remember, a major illness can torpedo the best-laid plans, so make sure your financial planning takes that possibility into account.