Retirement investing is a difficult topic for many of us, and not just because of complexity.

Rather, our emotions tend to get the better of us. Like starting up a huge mountain, the work of creating a retirement nest egg seems impossible.

So we tend to shut down and think about other things instead. Kids, debts, home improvements — anything but planning to succeed at retirement.

The other reaction, also common but equally useless, is to pick a number. “I will retire when I have $1 million in savings,” or some other big-number goal.

Most people then stop thinking about retirement and just hope their savings grows into that number. They feel like setting the goal is enough, or at least enough to unburden their mind of the overwhelming prospect of retirement.

It all feels so out of our hands that many of us abandon the process. It’s nearly a “fight or flight” survival reaction. I’ll never make $1 million, so why worry about any number at all?

Yet it’s important to set goals, to say them out loud. It’s also important to decide how you will achieve those goals, what actions you must take to get there.

Take a step back. Where does this $1 million idea come from? Probably from growing up playing the board game Monopoly or paying attention to lottery drawings and game show prizes.

It’s just a number, and not even an important number. And yes, you can retire with less than $1 million.

Reality check

Here are the real numbers you should study and understand when it comes to retirement:

Cost of living: What does it cost you to live right now, month to month, with no financial pressure? Do you know that number? You should. Count up your bills, monthly and annual, over 12 months. Subtract whatever you currently save into retirement plans. Divide by 12 and you will have a good idea what you really need.

Existing savings: Look at your 401(k), 403(b) or IRA balances. What’s the total number? How much are you adding each year? It’s not hard from there to calculate the eventual size of these balances and what you can expect in retirement income.

Social Security: Do you know what your projected Social Security payments will be at retirement age? What if you wait a few years and take it later? Have you added your spouse’s payments to the total?

Tax burden: Yes, you will pay taxes on your retirement withdrawals and on Social Security. You might pay less if you move to a different state, but you might also pay more to live in that state. Take your time and consider all the costs of a move.

Longevity: Decades ago, retirement lasted about five years or so. Now we’re living many years in retirement. That’s a great thing, but you should plan your investments accordingly.

Expected return: This is the big problem for many folks. Bred on the bull markets of the 1980s and 1990s, some investors expect miracles. Others, thanks to subsequent market crashes, have come to fear investing. The real answer lies somewhere the middle.

A risk-adjusted portfolio goes a along way toward smoothing out your retirement investing experience. You can retire on less than $1 million — perhaps far less — if you judiciously manage all the pieces of a total retirement plan.

Keeping investment costs low and getting solid, unconflicted advice is the first step toward truly addressing your own retirement and, of course, feeling good about it too.

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