Dark tunnel

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

Man caught in web

Wrong People Seek Financial Info, Help

Most of the 1,000 people who took the financial well-being quiz posted here last year felt content with their situations. Their well-being score averaged 16.4 out of 20 points possible on the quiz.

This happy response completely conflicts with a statistically more reliable survey showing that three out of four Americans report feeling “financially stressed.” Our quiz makes no claim of representing the adult U.S. population and was taken by a hodgepodge of regular readers, Twitter followers and Facebook friends.

So why are Squared Away loyalists so content with their finances?

The blog is “attracting people who are in the action phase. I’m guessing they’re motivated and ready to move,” said Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist in Hawaii – he is both a certified financial planner and trained psychologist.

But the flip side of this is that those who do not seek out financial information and advice – and don’t take blog quizzes – are often “in total denial, and you’re probably not going to catch them,” he said.

Indeed, Klontz’s research has identified avoiding dealing with difficult money issues as among the unconscious behaviors that ensnare people who are in poor financial health, measured by being overloaded with debt or not saving for retirement.

For the avoiders, the psychology is that they know their behavior hurts them but feel it’s due to a character defect – “lazy, crazy, or stupid” – he said. “Shame keeps you stuck. If I’m such a terrible person, why should I try?  I’m not going to ask anyone for help.”

When people with money problems recognize the psychological underpinnings, he said, it can lead to changes that can end the pain.

The question for personal finance bloggers and financial advisers remains: how do we reach the people who can’t be reached? …Learn More

People Lack Emergency Funds, Tap 401ks

Emergency Uses of retirement savings chartWhen between 45 percent and 60 percent of Americans don’t have enough money for retirement, encouraging saving is a national priority.

A related issue is preserving the funds once they’re set aside.

A survey released last month by Transamerica indicates that workers frequently resort to hardship withdrawals and loans from their 401(k)s, because they lack the cash required in emergencies. The survey bolsters the argument made by some retirement experts and employers that until workers’ cash-flow problems are addressed, many will continue to view retirement funds as their best option in an emergency.

More than one in four U.S. workers in the survey said they have taken premature withdrawals from their 401(k) or IRA retirement funds.  Catherine Collinson, president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, connected this “alarmingly high share” to a shortage of cash: 21 percent of workers reported having less than $1,000 saved for emergencies and another 14 percent have saved just $1,000 to $5,000. …Learn More

piggy bank

2.8 Million Seniors Have College Debt

The number of Americans over age 60 who are paying back federal or private student loans has reached a critical mass, quadrupling to 2.8 million over the past decade, a new report finds.

These older borrowers owe $23,500, on average, and two-thirds of them also have mortgages and credit card bills at a time their medical expenses are typically increasing, according to the report issued this month by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Separately, nearly 40 percent of those with federal loans have defaulted on their payments.

The response of many older student loan borrowers, the CFPB said, is to “skip necessary health care needs such as prescription medicines, doctor’s visits, and dental care because they could not afford it.”

Suzanne Martindale, a staff attorney at Consumer Reports, said CFPB’s report illuminates the link between the country’s college debt crisis and the retirement crisis. …Learn More

Rewriting Retirement Header Illustration

Caring for Her Elderly Parents 24/7

Vivian Gibson

Taking care of her elderly parents is Vivian Gibson’s full-time job.

The last two weeks in October weren’t so unusual.  She tended to her 86-year-old father for several days in the hospital – another episode in his unending battle with ankle sores stemming from service in the Korean War. Gibson also helped her mother, age 81, get through a medical procedure and chauffeured both parents to more than a dozen doctor’s appointments and to their dentist. Her mother has been dealing with a pulled tooth, along with abnormal cells in her bladder and an abnormal EKG.

In addition to their medical needs, Gibson helps them with everything else, from cleaning and dressing her father’s wound daily to buying their groceries and cleaning up the yard.  Her parents live in Bartow in central Florida, about 20 minutes from Gibson’s home in the country, and she’s always on call in case her father falls again.

Yet she remains surprisingly upbeat, unfazed by a non-existent social life and a caregiving burden made heavier by the fact she is an only child. “There is never any respite,” she said. “I have to work my doctor’s appointments in around theirs. My mother keeps telling me, ‘Don’t get sick. You can’t get sick!’ ”

To help her parents, Gibson retired from a local hospital just shy of her 59th birthday.  She’s now 61 and premature retirement has strained, though not broken her financially.  She drained most of her $17,000 emergency fund to meet regular expenses and reluctantly dipped into her IRAs and past employers’ retirement savings plans. Her combined balance is down to $300,000 – or about $12,000 lighter than when she retired, despite a rising stock market. Her lifeline has been a $24,000 pension from her work in state government.

“I wanted to travel,” she said – Australia, New Zealand, Canada – “but I don’t have the money – or the time – for that.” …Learn More

Two-faced woman

Financial Distress is Set Early in Life

Young adulthood is the staging ground for financial success later in life, and today the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been.  Young adults are managing the burden of paying back student loans or feeling an urgency to save – and many are trying to do both.

According to a study linking economics and psychology, what most strongly separates young adults who start out on the right foot from those already experiencing financial distress is whether they are conscientious or neurotic individuals.

University of Illinois researchers followed more than 13,000 teenagers and young adults between 1994 and 2008 in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health.  The survey asked questions about both their psychology and finances.  The six measures of financial distress in this study were determined by survey questions such as whether the respondents were keeping up with their rent and utility bills, whether they were worried about having enough food, and whether their net worth was positive or negative.

The personality measures were based on the Big Five traits widely used in psychology research: conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness to new experiences, and extroversion (known collectively as CANOE).  The survey respondents were grouped in this way based on the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with various statements. Examples included “I get chores done right away (conscientious),” and “I get upset easily (neurotic).”

The researchers found clear links between two of the Big Five traits and financial distress.  Being conscientious – following through, controlling one’s impulses, and being organized – strongly reduced the likelihood of having all six of the study’s financial distress outcomes. …Learn More

Housing Bust Still Plagues Pre-Retirees

NRRI Housing figuresIn 2013, almost 40 percent of all households ages 55 and over had not paid off their mortgages, up from 32 percent in 2001. These borrowers were also carrying a lot more housing debt by 2013.

During that time span, the housing boom first encouraged homeowners to borrow against their newfound home equity.  Then the 2008 bust hammered house prices from Miami to Seattle, reducing home equity and leaving many people holding relatively large mortgages.

By 2013, these two factors had combined to exacerbate Americans’ poor preparation for retirement, according to a study by the Center for Retirement Research, which supports this blog.

The researchers analyzed the impact of the bursting of the housing bubble on the National Retirement Risk Index (NRRI) through its effect on home equity, the largest store of non-pension wealth for most retirees.  The baseline NRRI estimate, using 2013 data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, was that 51.6 percent of working-age households were at risk of having a lower standard of living in retirement. Housing is part of the index, because retirees are assumed to convert their home equity into income by taking out a reverse mortgage.

The 2013 NRRI baseline was adjusted to see what would’ve happened if households had not run up their housing debt during the bubble and if house prices, rather than jump up and then plunge in 2008, had kept up their historic pace of increases since the 1980s. In that case, the researchers found, the share of households at risk would have been 44.2 percent – not 51.6 percent.

In other words, had the housing bubble and subsequent crash not occurred, fewer households would be at risk of having insufficient retirement income.

The middle-class was hardest hit by the crisis, probably because they’re more likely to own homes than people with low incomes and because housing wealth is more important to them than it is to wealthy people. …Learn More

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