Fifty-five-year-old Linda Kamp, a second-grade teacher in Higley Unified School District in Gilbert, Arizona, hopes to retire within the next decade. Buoyed by her business selling teaching materials online—and the eventual prospect of her pension and Social Security checks—Kamp is optimistic she’ll meet her goal.

Still, she wishes she’d started setting aside extra cash for retirement at an early age.

“We started with that late in the game,” Kamp says of setting up a retirement account separate from her pension, which she did when she and her husband were in their forties. “Looking back, I wish we had considered retirement as a monthly bill. It would have been less stressful. We would have been building something sooner, but we just weren’t in a position to do it.”

Finding that extra money to set aside every month can be difficult. And most teachers are too busy thinking about lesson planning to focus on compound interest and portfolio diversification in their scant free time.

But personal finance experts say that teachers can get on track for a comfortable retirement by arming themselves with a little knowledge and taking a few simple steps.

Here’s what you need to know about four financial tools that can help put your mind at ease—no matter how close you are to your own personal career finish line.

Savings

First things first. It’s nearly impossible to save for retirement unless you also have an emergency fund for unexpected expenses. Otherwise, you may have to raid your retirement account for minor disasters like sudden car repairs, decimating your account and potentially accruing penalties.

“If you’re saving for your long-term goals and your water heater breaks, those long-term goals don’t matter,” says Dave Grant, a financial adviser in Illinois who runs the website FinanceForTeachers.com. “You need to have that money in the bank.”

Maria Manore, a kindergarten teacher at a Catholic school outside Detroit, puts money into a joint savings account she shares with her husband. The two of them use a spreadsheet to keep track of the money. “When we look at it, we don’t see one lump sum,” Manore says. “We see all of the things we’ve set aside for our goals. If we manage to save $1,000, we’ll say $200 is for the house, $100 is for car repairs, $50 is for medical expenses, et cetera.”

Many experts recommend having at least six months of living expenses set aside in an emergency savings fund, but Grant says that tenured teachers (due to their job stability, in most states) should feel comfortable with three months’ expenses in savings.

Pensions

Pension plans vary widely from state to state, from the age at which you’re eligible to draw from them to how benefits are calculated to how generous the payments are. Knowing this information can help you decide how much supplemental savings you’ll need to meet your retirement goals.

Depending on the state, there are a couple of ways you can maximize your pension payments. Because pensions are typically calculated using a teacher’s average salary during their highest-earning years, some teachers take on as many overtime duties as possible near the end of their career to boost that number.

Scott Dauenhauer, a financial adviser in California whose wife teaches middle school science, says some states allow teachers to “buy back” teaching years that they missed for reasons like maternity leave, thus artificially bumping up their years of service (and, therefore, pension payments). In many cases, if you are retired, you can continue to work part time while drawing a pension, or teach full time in another state (or work in the private sector) while still collecting your pension.

Last year, Patty Rutenbar retired from teaching second grade in Sturgis, Michigan. She draws a full pension, but returned to her school to work part time—half days, four days a week—as an interventionist. Her husband, a retired high school teacher, also continues to teach part time.

“We didn’t want to be working full time in education, but the part-time work is something we really enjoy,” Rutenbar says. She estimates that between their pensions and part-time earnings, she and her husband make 75 to 80 percent of what they made when they were working full time.

Social Security

In a number of states, teachers don’t pay into Social Security. If they haven’t paid into the system while working other jobs, they may not be eligible to collect benefits.

For teachers eligible to collect full benefits, delaying those benefits can be a powerful tool for increasing retirement income, Dauenhauer says. Currently, workers can begin drawing benefits as early as age 62, but the benefit goes up each year until you reach age 70. According to Dauenhauer, people who wait until they’ve turned 70 to collect could bump up their monthly check by 40 percent more than if they began collecting at age 66.

“It’s a good deal,” he says, “but almost nobody delays taking it.”

Investments

Many teachers are familiar with tax-advantaged 403(b) accounts, but Dan Otter, a former teacher who now runs 403bwise.com, cautions that some of these plans have exorbitant fee structures. “If I can emphasize anything to someone looking to invest, it’s fees, fees, fees.” Otter suggests looking for plans through companies that offer retirement funds with very low fees. If a district doesn’t offer low-cost 403(b) plans, Otter suggests looking into a 457 plan or an Individual Retirement Account (IRA).

Anthony Isola, a former middle school teacher who runs a financial consulting practice on Long Island, says many teachers are getting “ripped off” by high-fee 403(b) plans sold by people working on commission. Isola recommends asking advisers very clearly how they’re compensated to understand whether they have a financial incentive to recommend certain funds. Fee-only advisers such as Isola usually work for hourly or project-based rates and are duty-bound to offer unbiased advice. If you don’t want to pay an hourly fee, Isola also recommends going with low-cost providers. “If those aren’t on the list [of a district’s 403(b) providers], something’s wrong with the plan,” he says.

Sara Unroe, a third-grade teacher in Mobile, Alabama, tries to put 10 percent of her take-home pay into a Roth IRA. Unroe is only 25 but she says she and her husband will continue to prioritize retirement planning even if money gets tight. “We’ll cut going to the movies or eating out.

If you retire at 55 and live until 95,” Unroe notes, “that’s half a lifetime."

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Illustration:Robert Neubecker