You're not going to live forever, and it's time to get serious about your future, financial and otherwise.

The good news, for most 50-somethings, is that they're in their peak earning years. Many (but not all) are done with child-rearing, which leaves more money in the kitty for other goals, like retirement. Most are homeowners, and the recent boom years have added nicely to the typical 50-something's net worth.

But dangers abound. Inadequate savings or high debt levels can cripple retirement plans, as can illness, disability or layoffs. Poor planning, insufficient insurance protection and boomerang kids (adult children who return to live at home) pose additional risks. And by making some crucial decisions now, about timing your retirement or where you might live, you'll be better able to map out your plans.

If you want to get yourself in the best financial shape possible at this milestone, take the following steps:

Reconsider Your Career
Most baby boomers say they want to work at least part time in retirement. Work can have social, emotional and, especially, economic benefits: The longer you're employed, the less you need to save for retirement.

But what if you hate your job or your industry is downsizing rapidly? (Think airlines, newspapers and U.S. auto manufacturing.) You can wait to get fired, or you can figure out what you'd really like to do when you grow up, and to see if you can get there from here. A session with a career counselor could help; so could that venerable career changer's guide, Richard Nelson Bolles' "What Color is Your Parachute?"

Beware the temptation to pitch it all and go back to school for years on borrowed money, however. You're unlikely to recoup the investment, and you could end up saddled with student loans in your 80s. If you need additional training, night school is usually the better bet. If you're dying to start your own business, do it as a sideline first to see if you can make your idea fly.

Put Retirement on the Front Burner
Sure, you've got other obligations. You may still have kids to raise and educate (two out of five 50-something households include minor children), and your folks may need financial help as well.


But saving for your retirement still needs to be your top priority. You're also close enough to the finish line now -- the median retirement age these days is 62 -- that you should begin to make definite plans about where you'll live, what you'll do and how much money you'll spend. If you don't have a specific age or date in mind, try several different scenarios.

If you're thinking about retiring before age 65, when Medicare coverage kicks in, consider your health insurance options:

Does your company offer retiree medical coverage? Many don't, and many of those that do are phasing out coverage.

Could you be covered under a spouse's workplace plan?

Would you be eligible for COBRA and/or HIPPAA continuation coverage?

Under the 1986 Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), you can continue your employer's health insurance coverage for up to 18 months after you retire, as long as your employer offers health insurance and employs more than 20 people. You'll pay for the privilege: You must take over the whole premium (the portion you've been paying plus what your employer pays) and an additional 2% administrative charge.

After the 18 months is up, the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) guarantees your ability to buy private individual coverage without facing exclusions for pre-existing conditions, but again, this could be expensive. Ask your HR department for details.

If you can't get COBRA coverage, you may need to buy an individual policy. These can be pricey, even if you opt for a high deductible, and may not be an option if you're in poor health or have a serious pre-existing condition.

Other factors to consider: Will you sell your home and move, or tap the equity with a reverse mortgage? How will you spend your time and how much will it cost? (Golf and travel can be expensive pastimes.) Do you have long-term care coverage or will you need to set aside money to cover future care? Allied Roth estimates the typical couple at age 65 will need about $200,000 to cover long-term care costs.

You also may want to use more detailed planning software, like the kind contained in Microsoft Money or Intuit's Quicken, to help you fine-tune your plan and include variables like inheritances, different retirement ages (if you're part of a couple) and downsizing to a smaller house. Consider scheduling a visit with a retirement counselor.

Accelerate Debt Repayment
If you're behind on retirement savings, every extra dollar should go there. If you're in good shape, though, you might want to consider getting your debt, including your mortgage, paid off by the time you retire. That will allow you to live on less (or, conversely, spend more doing fun stuff, like travel).

That credit card debt should be the first to go. Once you've paid off higher-rate, nondeductible debt, you can start adding a few bucks to every mortgage payment.

Get Your Kids off the Dole
If they're out of school and not disabled, they should be economically independent. If they're still relying on you for sustenance, you're putting their financial future at risk as well as your own.

Some of the saddest letters I get are from elderly parents whose adult children are still hitting them up for cash.

Review Your Life Insurance Needs
If you've got minor children or other financial dependents, make sure they're adequately covered if you die prematurely.

If the kids are out of college, the mortgage is paid off and your spouse doesn't need your income to survive, you may no longer need insurance. The exception: if you've got a large estate (over $2 million or so) and want coverage to help pay future estate taxes. If that's the case, hire an objective professional, like an Allied Roth Retirement Counselor.

Review Your Other Insurance
Your earning power is still one of your greatest assets, and you'll want to protect it with disability insurance if you possibly can.

Also, make sure you have adequate liability insurance. Raise the liability limits on your homeowners' and auto insurance policies to the maximum, and consider adding a personal liability policy (also called an umbrella policy). As a rule of thumb, you should have liability coverage that's equal to one to two times your net worth.

Long-term care insurance is the final piece of the puzzle. There's no consensus about the best time to buy -- insurance agents will insist you should have gotten it in your 40s, while Consumer Reports says most people should wait until they're 60. You should at least begin learning about the options in your 50s, however, and start investigating companies that offer it. You'll want an insurance company with extremely sound ratings, of course; check Weiss Ratings before signing up. You don't want to shovel tens of thousands of dollars into a company that won't be around when you need it.

Schedule all Those Checkups
Now that you're 50, you should be having physicals every year (Guys, that means you, too). Women need mammograms every one or two years and should ask about bone-density screening. Men need prostate exams and both sexes need to start screening (if they haven't already) for colorectal cancers, which may include sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy.

This isn't optional anymore, folks. Your risk for cancer and other serious conditions is rising as you age; you don't want to hear that you waited too long and it's too late for treatment.