Guy in front of chalkboard with equations

Field Work

Your Social Security: 35 Years of Work

This blog is for a part-time Macy’s saleswoman and immigrant whom I met in a hospital waiting room – she’d never heard of Social Security.

It is also for a 22-year-old contingent worker I know who lacks steady employment and isn’t regularly accruing credit toward the Social Security pension he will probably need when he retires.

And it is for a 62-year-old eager to claim his benefit right away, possibly short-changing his retirement.

A substantial share of retirees would fall into poverty were it not for the Social Security program passed during the Great Depression.  It’s especially important for two groups of people to understand how Social Security calculates their pension benefits: young adults making employment decisions that will impact them decades from now and older people figuring out when to retire.

Yet research shows that many people do not know the basic workings of a program that is crucial to their financial security.

Steve Richardson, a Social Security official in Boston, holds regular seminars to explain the pension program to the public. “The first thing I ask is – before I say my name – ‘How many people in this room know how many years Social Security looks at to determine your pension payment?’

“Not many of them know it’s your high 35 years of earnings.”

To qualify for a pension benefit at all, a person must work full- or part-time for 40 quarters – a total of 10 years. That’s not a difficult hurdle for most to clear during decades in the labor force. What’s central is the size of your future benefit check, which is determined by your highest 35 years of indexed earnings, Richardson said – and that brings us to the math thing. …Learn More

Flaming numbers

Behavior

Older Savers Inch Ahead: $135,000 in 401k

The typical baby boomer couple had $135,000 in retirement savings last year, up from $111,000 in 2013 amid a rising stock market and a strong job market that has kept them employed, according to a report on the new Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) by the Federal Reserve.

Yet $135,000 – the balance for working couples who have a 401(k) – won’t go very far. This amount, held in both their 401(k)s and IRAs, will generate about $600 per month, said the SCF analysis by the Center for Retirement Research, which supports this blog.  That’s obviously not enough to supplement most retirees’ primary source of income: their Social Security benefits, which are slowly eroding for various reasons.  The purchasing power of the $600 will also be eroded by inflation over time.

Another way to assess retirement preparedness for 60-year-olds couples hoping to retire in five years is that they need assets equal to 8.5 times their household income at age 60.  They actually have around 2.5 times income, on average, the researchers found. This assumes a replacement rate of 75 percent, a reasonable target for how much of a working couple’s income they will need to maintain their standard of living into retirement.

It’s Halloween today, and here is more evidence of just how scary Americans’ retirement prospects are: the $135,000 applies only to older people with retirement savings – about half don’t have a retirement plan at all at work. …
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Research

Women Get a Bigger Social Security Bump

The magic number is 35.

That’s how many years of earnings the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) uses to calculate every worker’s pension benefit.  But 35 years can be a tall order for the many boomer women who took time off or cut back on their hours to raise their children.  Nearly half of 62-year-old working women today didn’t make any money for at least one year in their earnings history on record with SSA.

But this also means they have more to gain financially than men from working longer, because each additional year of work substitutes for a zero- or low-earning year during motherhood in the benefit calculation, according to research by Matt Rutledge and John Lindner at the Center for Retirement Research, which sponsors this blog.

Beefing up one’s earnings record is actually one of the two ways that working longer raises monthly benefits.  The other, more familiar way is a benefit increase from delaying collecting Social Security.

Delaying claiming compresses the time period over which workers will receive benefits.  The resulting increase when they finally do start is known as Social Security’s “actuarial adjustment.”  Take the most extreme example: both men and women who begin their Social Security at age 70 receive 76 percent more per month from this adjustment than they would’ve gotten had they started at 62.

But it is women who generally gain much more from additional years in the labor force.

By working to 70, rather than retiring at 62, the average woman can increase her monthly Social Security check by 12 percent, the researchers found.  Adding this to the standard actuarial adjustment produces an 88-percent increase, from roughly $1,112 per month at 62 to $2,090 at age 70.

The earnings bump that 62-year-old men get from working to 70 is half as big – about 6 percent – because men typically already have had more years of higher earnings during their working lives.

A woman doesn’t have to work all the way to 70 either to benefit. Any period of delay will increase monthly benefits – and that will help. …Learn More

Photo of an older couple

Behavior

Wives Pay Price to Retire with Husbands

Wives like to retire around the same time as their older husbands – so they can play. But what a difference the baby boom generation has made.

For boomer wives, as members of the first generation of women to enter the U.S. labor force en masse, there can be a steep cost to leaving the labor force at a relatively young age to retire with an older husband. New research by Nicole Maestas of the Harvard Medical School bears out this logic.

It’s obvious that working wives can increase their earnings from work by resisting the urge to retire at a relatively young age. And married women generally earn much more, relative to their husbands, than in the past.

But, more often than their mothers and grandmothers, boomer wives can increase their own Social Security benefits by continuing to work.

To understand how this works, compare boomers with their grandmothers. Their grandmothers were probably housewives for most of their lives and worked sporadically or part-time. As a result, their husbands’ earnings determined the size of the spousal retirement benefits they received from Social Security.

The situation is very different for boomer wives, who often have worked enough to earn their own benefits and wouldn’t qualify for a spousal benefit. Social Security calculates their benefits, as they do for all workers, using the average of her highest 35 years of earnings. But here’s the rub: many boomer mothers still haven’t accumulated 35 years of substantial earnings, because they took some time off or worked part-time to raise children. …
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Middle class illustration

Money Culture

More Americans Are Upper Middle Class

Yes, income inequality has risen dramatically over the past 35 years. But something else has happened that might surprise you.

The size of the upper middle class is expanding, as Americans migrate up from the ranks of the middle class and poor, according to a new analysis from the Urban Institute.

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Economist Stephen J. Rose uncovered this finding by defining how much income families needed in 1979, just before inequality really took off, to be counted as rich, upper middle class, middle class, lower middle class, or poor. He anchored his class divisions largely around incomes relative to the federal poverty level. For example, he set the income floor for the upper middle class at five times the poverty level. He then used U.S. Census Bureau survey data to estimate the share of American families falling into each income tier in 1979 and in 2014, with incomes adjusted for inflation. …Learn More

On the Web

Planning for a Centenarian’s Life

Americans have been labeled everything from the Greatest Generation to Generations X, Y, and Z. Are you ready for the Centenarian Generation?

The number of 100-years-olds has roughly doubled over the past two decades to more than 67,000 – mostly women – and the U.S. Census Bureau predicts it will double again by 2030. Just think about the implication of living for a century: retirement at, say, 65 means 35 years of leisure.

This is unappealing to some, unaffordable to many, and it impacts us all.

“We’ve added these extra years of life so fast that culture hasn’t had a chance to catch up,” Laura Carstensen, director of Stanford University’s Center on Longevity, said during a panel discussion at a recent Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles. The best use for a additional 20 or 30 years of life isn’t, she said, “just to make old age longer.”

Granted, the Milken panelists – all privileged and accomplished baby boomers – are removed from the financial and other challenges facing most older Americans. But they have thought deeply about longevity and its consequences.

The following is a summary of their musings on how we might adjust to the coming cultural tilt toward aging:

  • Young people need to be more engaged in the issue of increasing U.S. life expectancy, because it will affect Generation Z far more than it has today’s older population. To engage his son’s interest in the topic, Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute’s Center for the Future of Aging, said he introduced the concept of 80-year marriages. “That started a conversation,” he said. …Learn More
Dark tunnel

Behavior

In the Dark about Retirement?

There’s new evidence to remind us that nothing much changes: we are still baffled by our DIY retirement system.

And no wonder!

First, saving must start at a young age, when retirement is an abstraction. Saving is further stymied by two big questions: how much to save and how to invest it?  It’s also smart to anticipate how one’s compensation arc might affect Social Security – taking into account, for example, that women withdraw temporarily from the labor force to have children and that earnings can decline when workers hit their 50s.  As we fly past middle age and retirement appears on the horizon, it’s a little late to figure this retirement thing out.  And there’s no plan for long-term care when we’re very old.

The evidence: Start with Merrill Lynch’s new survey in which 81 percent of Americans do not know how much money they’ll need in retirement.  This makes it very difficult to know how much to deduct from one’s paycheck for retirement savings. Employers, frankly, could do more to help us figure this out. (Some answers appear at the end of this blog.)

Being in the dark now about how much to save is a cousin of being afraid of running out of money later, in retirement. More than 70 percent of accountants say this fear of running out is their clients’ top concern – followed by whether they can maintain their current lifestyle and afford medical care in retirement – according to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

Our inclination to avoid difficult issues does not go away with age.  Yes, we’ve gotten wiser, but advanced old age means death, and who wants to think about that?

The upshot: seven in 10 adults have not planned for their own long-term care needs in the future, Northwestern Mutual reports.  Even among a smaller group who anticipate having to take care of an elderly parent, one in three of them “have taken no steps to plan” for their own care.

“You would think that would prompt them to action,” said Kamilah Williams-Kemp, Northwestern’s vice president of long-term care. And while the constant barrage of news and statistics is making Americans more aware of their rising longevity, Williams-Kemp said, caregivers are often more interested in talking about their emotional and physical challenges and the rewards of caregiving than about its substantial financial toll.

There is a “disconnect between general awareness and prompting people to take action,” she said.

The potential for dementia or diminished capacity late in life isn’t on our radar either, the survey of CPAs found: the vast majority of people either choose to ignore the issue, wait and react to it, or are confused.

Squared Away exists in part to educate people about retirement essentials, based on facts and high-quality research. The following blogs might help you:

How Much for the 401(k)? Depends. …Learn More

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Research

Social Security Credits for Moms?

Dramatic changes in the U.S. family structure over several decades – more divorce, single motherhood, and unmarried couples – could have a big impact on the financial security of baby boomer women as they march into retirement – and on future retirees.

A review of studies on Social Security spousal and survivor benefits by the Center for Retirement Research, which sponsors this blog, examines the difficulty of providing retirement security for the growing ranks of women and mothers who do not fit the traditional family mold.

Social Security’s benefits were designed for the typical family when the pension program was enacted in the 1930s, a family portrayed at the time by Henry Barbour and his wife, Fanny, in the popular radio soap opera, “One Man’s Family.” A spouse, usually the wife, is guaranteed half of her husband’s full retirement age benefit under the program when she reaches her full retirement age – whether she works or not.  When her husband dies, her survivor benefit equals his pension benefit.

Figure: Rise of the Single Mother

But women who marry and become divorced within 10 years are not eligible for these benefits.  Nor, of course, are single working women, who receive benefits based solely on their own work histories.  Increasing numbers of women reaching retirement age today either were in short-term marriages or never married and won’t receive a spousal or survivor benefit. The problem is that most of these women are mothers. …Learn More

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