May 2018

Public Pension Cuts Hit Recruitment

West Virginia teachers started the wave of strikes over pay.
Photo courtesy of Janet Bass, American Federation of Teachers

Teachers’ strikes and walkouts over inadequate pay – in Arizona, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia – are making news this spring. In Oklahoma, half the people who’ve left teaching recently said pay was their top reason for moving on.

A wave of reductions in another significant form of compensation – pensions – also appear to be making state and local governments a less appealing place to work, according to researchers Laura Quinby, Geoffrey Sanzenbacher, and Jean-Pierre Aubry at the Center for Retirement Research, which publishes this blog.

Pensions have traditionally been the great equalizer for governments trying to recruit people from the higher-paying private sector. But benefit cuts, which had been fairly uncommon, gained momentum after the 2008 stock market crash that battered pension funds’ already declining finances.

The pace of cost-cutting reforms peaked in 2011, when 134 state and local government plans made some type of cuts that year. They run the gamut from increasing the tenure requirement or retirement age applied to new employees’ future pensions to trimming the cost-of-living adjustment on all pensions. …Learn More

slot machine

Squared Away at Year 7

Seven years ago this month, this personal finance and retirement blog debuted. How things have changed.

For one thing, back in 2011, a lot more people were reading blogs and newspapers on their clunky desktop computers. In recognition of the now-ubiquitous smart phone – more accurately, a computer that happens to have a phone – we just redesigned how Squared Away looks on phones to enlarge the type and make the articles easier to read.  Our older readers will appreciate this update.

Year 7 is also an opportunity to restate the blog’s mission, which, frankly, was not fully refined in the early years.  In some ways, our mission has not changed: we continue to emphasize retirement security and personal finance, with a bent toward the evidence-based research that provides a clearer understanding of the financial, economic, and behavioral issues that are critical to a high quality of life.

We regularly report on research by scholars around the country, including studies produced by members of the U.S. Social Security Administration’s Retirement Research Consortium: the NBER Retirement Research Center in Cambridge, Mass., the University of Michigan Retirement Research Center, and the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, which also is the blog’s home.

But it’s natural for a new publication to find its sweet spot over time, and Squared Away is no different. One theme that has emerged very clearly is that the threads of retirement saving are shot through the fabric of our financial lives.

The predicament of Millennials is an obvious example. Immediately after beginning their careers, 20- and 30-somethings – so much more than their parents and grandparents – are under the gun to save for retirements that no longer are likely to include a pension. …Learn More

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Target Date Funds are on a Roll

For the sheer simplicity they bring to 401(k) investment decisions, retirement experts have been big fans of target date funds for years.

Now, their popularity is soaring with the people who really count: employees.

Last year, 401(k) participants poured a record $70 billion into target date funds (TDFs), an investment option that automatically shifts the asset allocation in the portfolio to reduce risk as employees approach a designated retirement date. TDFs have become the first choice for people who, rather than go it alone and pick their own mutual funds, like having their employer’s mutual fund manager do it.

According to a new report by Morningstar, the Chicago research firm, the new money flowing in has averaged $66 billion annually over the past three years, a 28 percent increase over the prior three-year period. The inflows exclude new money from investment returns.

The surge in new invested money has been more about the intensity of baby boomers’ efforts to save for an impending retirement, Morningstar said, than the fact that strong returns usually pull investors into the stock and bond markets.

In another major development, TDFs invested in passive index funds are now investors’ predominate choice. This is a full reversal from a decade ago, when most TDFs were invested by stock pickers.  (Although more money is now flowing into passively invested TDFs, actively managed TDFs still hold more in total assets.) …
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inequality

Why Retirement Inequality is Rising

Just as the wealth and income gap between the well-to-do and working people is growing, so, too is retirement inequality.

tableResearchers increasingly want to know what’s behind this phenomenon. They’ve uncovered reasons ranging from low-income workers’ greater difficulty saving to the well-to-do’s longer life spans – which means they’ll get more out of their Social Security benefits.

Having a low income doesn’t necessarily mean a retiree can’t live comfortably. What matters is how much of their earnings they will be able to replace with Social Security and any savings.

Even by this standard, lower-income workers come up short: 56 percent are at risk of having a lower standard of living when they retire. The decline is slightly less for middle-income workers – 54 percent – but the risks fall sharply, to 41 percent, for the people at the top.

The roots of this inequality span Americans’ lives from cradle to grave:

  • In our 401(k) system, financial security in retirement increasingly hinges on how much people can save in their 401(k)s as they work. But it’s harder for low-income workers to save, mainly because their employers are less likely to offer a savings plan, according to a 2017 study by The New School for Social Research. The study also found that basic living expenses gobble up more of their paychecks, and they experience more financial disruptions from layoffs and divorce, leaving less for savings.
  • Some research assesses inequality trends for specific groups of people.  Incomes tend to rise over time, even after being adjusted for inflation, but they rise more slowly for people near the bottom of the earnings scale. Lower earnings translate later to lower retirement incomes.  For example, the future retirement income of well-heeled members of Generation X, relative to today’s retirees in the high-income bracket, is estimated to be two times more than it will be for low-income Gen-X retirees, according to an Urban Institute study. …
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Tiny House Fixes Millennial’s Money Woes

Sky-high city rent, college loan payments, and the low-paying days of an early career are a bad combination for today’s Millennial.

Liz Patterson

Liz Patterson has solved all that.  The carpenter built herself a 96-square-foot house on top of a flatbed truck for less than $7,000 in Manitou Springs, Colorado, a hip neighborhood near Colorado Springs.

The house “represents my monetary freedom – it’s the whole reason I did it,” the 27-year-old said.

Tiny houses, which average 500 square feet, are only about 1 percent of U.S. home sales. But builders say that sales continue to grow as Generation-X buys them as Airbnb rental properties, and baby boomers park their “granny pods” in an adult child’s backyard.

Patterson’s house before

Tiny houses actually make the most sense for 20-somethings in rebellion, given their financial constraints and a distaste for all the junk their parents accumulated over a lifetime, said Shawna Lytle, a spokeswoman for Tumbleweed Tiny Homes Company in Colorado Springs, which built its first tiny house in 1999. The national tiny house price is $23,000.

Five years earlier, the tiny house movement had started in Tokyo. Recently, a handful of U.S. communities, including Spur, Texas, and Berkeley, California, have modified their zoning rules or building codes to accommodate them. The laws are a patchwork: houses on wheels must sometimes be classified as RVs, and some cities set size minimums for houses with foundations. …Learn More

Social Security Mistakes Can be Costly

Karen Dobson

Kay Dobson is 68, and it’s time to retire from her job as the jack of all trades at the Augusta Circle Elementary School in Greenville, South Carolina.

But she isn’t quite as ready for her June retirement as she could’ve been. She recently learned that an admitted unfamiliarity with Social Security’s arcane rules cost her about $31,000 for two years of foregone spousal benefits based on her husband’s earnings.

“I had not the vaguest idea that I would be eligible for that,” she said.

Dobson is hardly the first person to make a painful mistake like this. People have all kinds of misconceptions about Social Security, or they lack a basic understanding of how it works – that the government calculates benefits using their 35 highest years of earnings, that the size of the monthly checks depends on the age the benefits start, and that working women, like Dobson, are often entitled to a spousal benefit based on their husband’s work record and earnings.

Two years ago, Dobson could have applied for this benefit, because she’d reached her full retirement age – 66.  But since she didn’t know this at the time, Social Security recently sent her a check for $7,800 for only six months retroactively – typically the maximum period for retroactive spousal benefits.

Her $1,300 monthly checks are starting to come in now too.  When she turns 70, she’ll start collecting a larger benefit based on her own earnings from a long-time career in the school system.

This particular strategy – file for spousal benefits and delay your own – is now available only to people who turned 62 prior to Jan 2, 2016.  The unintended loophole was eliminated, because it subverted the original intent of the spousal benefit, which was designed with an eye to retired households with a low-earning or non-working spouse. (The spousal benefit, in and of itself, remains intact and can be a big help to older households in which a working wife earned less than her husband. If that’s the case, her Social Security benefit would be increased until it is equal to half of his full retirement benefit if she claims at or above her own full retirement age.)

The central point here is that ignorance of program rules can mean substantial losses for retirees.  For low- or middle-income retirees, the consequences can be especially dire since they’re already scraping by. …
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detective

‘Do I Have a Pension?’ Sleuths Can Find it

Diane Taylor

Betty Taylor is 74 and retired from a job she held for more than a decade filling Spiegel catalog orders and packing them up for shipping – she left in 1984. Diane Taylor, 70, was a packer and then a keypunch operator there between 1982 and 1995.

But the sisters, who live together in their late mother’s house on Chicago’s Southwest Side, couldn’t track down anyone who could confirm that their low-paying jobs entitled them to Spiegel pensions.

This is more common than one might think.

When a single employer or union has continued to maintain its pension plan over several decades, retiring workers know where to go to sign up for their benefits. But the sisters’ pensions got lost amid the confusion and paperwork shuffle around a series of mergers, bankruptcies, and name changes at Spiegel.

Betty Taylor

The confusion dates back to 1988, when the catalog company, which was founded by Joseph Spiegel after the Civil War, purchased Eddie Bauer. By 2003, Spiegel, loaded down with debt, was filing for bankruptcy protection and was subsequently acquired by the investors in Spiegel’s sole remaining asset, Eddie Bauer. The investors later transferred Spiegel’s pensions to Eddie Bauer’s corporate entity. In 2009, Eddie Bauer also went into bankruptcy, sending the pension funds to their final resting place: the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), which insures the pensions of failing companies.

Diane felt that a pension, if it existed, could really help out with her precarious finances. And she was pretty certain she remembered a pension from her years at Spiegel. So she started calling around.

“I got the runaround for four years,” she said. “I was persistent, and I was going to keep on until I had one foot in the grave,” Diane said. …Learn More

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