Guy in front of chalkboard with equations

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

college kids

Starting the College Conversation Early

Parents have finished the summer college tours with their teenagers.  Now comes the hard part: figuring out how to pay for college. But Judith Ward, a senior financial planner for T. Rowe Price in Baltimore, urges parents to prepare for this moment well before their child’s high school graduation to help minimize college costs when the time comes.

Squared Away interviewed Ward, whose advice comes from a combination of her professional experience and putting her own two kids through college. They are now 23 and 27, employed, and paying back modest student loan balances.  

Your company’s 2016 survey of parents and children between ages 8 and 14 about paying for college points to a disconnect between what young kids are expecting in terms of paying for college and what their parents are planning on.

Yes, we found in our survey that 62 percent of kids expect their parents to cover most of whatever college they want, but 65 percent of parents say they’ll only be able to contribute some to their college. There’s definitely a disconnect. But it’s easy to rectify – just start talking to your kids about college.

Question: Can parents really talk to their kids about college at 8, 9 or 10? And what do they talk about?

In fairness to the kids who answer these survey questions, they have no idea what the cost of college is. It’s not the enormous number it is to their parents. But start when they’re young by having conversations that are not necessarily about the cost of college. Just start making college part of the conversation and sharing your own stories. That will have them thinking about college and thinking, “I’m going to be expected to go to college.” …Learn More


Is There a Senior Housing “Crisis”?

Headlines about how much senior housing the aging baby boom generation is going to require often include the word “crisis.”

But it might be time to rethink our dire assumption that there won’t be enough housing for seniors, since boomers are living longer and are healthier than past generations and are changing what it means to grow old in this country.

One example is the U.S. nursing home population, which has remained fairly stable even though the elderly population is growing, according to a 2010 report by the Stanford Center on Longevity. The center cited better health as a key contributing factor.

Taking trends like these into account, a California real estate services firm has raised the age assumptions it uses to project increases in demand for senior housing, defined as facilities that include some level of care. The firm, Rockwood Pacific, still expects demand to increase over the next decade but at a slower rate. After that, when the oldest boomers are starting to turn 80, demand will continue to rise but also more slowly.

“When I started in this business in the 1990s, everyone talked about the 65-plus population” and its need for senior housing, said co-founder Frank Rockwood. “Now when you go to a senior housing conference, we talk about 75-plus. I’m saying now the time’s come we need to discuss 80-plus, rather than 75-plus.”

Doing so leads to big drops in the number of potential candidates for nursing homes, memory care units, and assisted living and independent living facilities, according to Rockwood’s estimates. (Residents in independent living communities share a central dining room and tend to be healthier than people the same age who reside in assisted living facilities, he said.)

Assuming people largely won’t need senior housing until at least 80, the firm lowered its forecast of demand growth over the next decade to about 2-3 percent annually, down from 3-4 percent under the 75-plus assumption. …Learn More

Seniors Find an Affordable Haven

Mary Roby

The stress of living with her son and daughter-in-law made Mary Roby’s blood sugar spike. But when she began her search for an independent senior housing community, affordable and nice never seemed to come in the same package.

Roby, who is 80, said she looked around quite a bit. A one-room place in the Boston area for $4,500 a month had no senior services, a limited kitchen, and was housed in a poorly maintained building. She also knew, through her son’s in-laws, about a high-end assisted living community with extensive services, but it charged more than $6,000.

Then she found Shillman House, which was both affordable and nice. “I love it here,” Roby said about the independent senior housing community in Framingham, Mass. …Learn More

Two Shillman residents talking

Senior Housing a Remedy for Loneliness

After his wife of 36 years died from cancer, Dick St. Lawrence experienced something new: loneliness.

“Worst feeling in the world,” St. Lawrence, 81, said about Linda St. Lawrence’s death in the winter of 2014.

Like many widows and widowers before him, he had to build a new life for himself, despite having the comfort of a large family of four living children, six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. His first small step was accepting an invitation to play poker at Shillman House, an independent housing community for seniors owned and operated by Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly. The man who called to invite St. Lawrence knew a woman who used to play Mahjongg with Linda.

Next thing he knew, he’d sold their family home in Framingham, Mass., around the corner from Shillman House, and settled into one of its 150 apartments. Now he plays two poker games a week, works out at his old gym, and socializes with Shillman’s residents every evening in the dining room. At night, his Cairn terrier, Rusty, keeps him company during Red Sox games on television.

“I want to visit as long as I can,” Dick St. Lawrence jokes about his plan to spend his final days there.

The vast majority of baby boomers in an AARP survey said they want to age in their homes “as long as possible.”  But when the rubber meets the road – in old age – the elderly often learn that isolation is bad for their psyche and their health.

There are downsides even to living in a community for independent seniors, with the constant reminders of the vulnerabilities that come with aging. When a Shillman resident suddenly becomes ill and is driven away in an ambulance, dread quickly spreads among the residents that he or she might not be coming back.

Still, they say, the positives far outweigh the negatives. All in their 80s, the seniors interviewed have visibly slowed down but are still enjoying vigorous social lives. …Learn More

Summer Suggestions

Some suggestions for late-summer fun include an independent movie about a woman earning a very good living on a not-so-friendly Wall Street. But first, here are two practical financial guides, one for grown-ups and one for kids.

  • Harris (Hershey) Rosen, who is 83, put serious thought into how to leave household financial information in good order for his wife should he die – and put his thoughts together in his homegrown “My Family Record Book.” This book “is not a money-making proposition,” he said. Rosen suggests husbands and wives make this important task a joint project.

    As the former owner of a candy company that made those lollipops packaged in strips of cellophane, Rosen learned to sweat details. His “Family Record Book” records the nuts and bolts of things like mapping where files are located in the house, planning the logistics of downsizing to a smaller home, and making lists for everything that’s important to you – doctors, the home-maintenance schedule, birth dates of friends and loved ones.

    “The purpose of the book is to motivate people to commit all the information in his or her head to writing,” he said.

  • Susan and Michael Beacham are pros when giving financial information and advice to children and young people. I just came across their award-winning “O.M.G. Official Money Guide for Teenagers,” published in 2014, which merges personal finance and colorful graphics, while finding ways to get inside teens’ heads.

    For example, it points out that “when you deposit a check, it may take several days” to clear and advises on how to handle “awkward money moments” with friends. A credit card is like a snowball, which “starts out fairly small” but “can get out of control.” If only they’d listen!

  • Movies about money – “The Big Short,” “The Wolf on Wall Street,” “The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “American Psycho,” “Bonfire of the Vanities,” “Trading Places,” and, of course, “Wall Street” – are about men. Until now. …Learn More

Medicare Advantage: Know the Pitfalls

Baby boomers on Medicare are streaming into Medicare Advantage plans, with nearly 18 million people currently enrolled in them.

But a new study identifies pitfalls that might not be obvious to those signing up.

Advantage plans are HMOs or PPOs that provide both basic Medicare Part B coverage and many of the benefits offered by supplementary Medigap insurance policies.  But Medicare beneficiaries’ premiums for an Advantage plan plus Medicare Part B coverage are roughly half, on average, of the premiums for a Medigap policy plus Part B.

One reason is that Medigap policies typically cover more out-of-pocket costs. Another is that insurers offering Advantage plans assemble networks of hospitals and physicians to control their costs and reduce customers’ premiums.

But, the researchers point out, Advantage plans frequently limit “access to certain providers and increase the cost for care obtained out-of-network.”

Medicare chart

In nearly half of the 20 U.S. counties examined in a new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Advantage plans had limited networks of hospitals, potentially increasing consumers’ costs. Further, a large majority of Advantage plans did not include their county’s top-quality, high-cost cancer treatment center in the networks of approved health care providers.

And it can be very difficult to compare access to care and the future out-of-pocket medical costs that will result from a decision to go with an Advantage plan. Costs vary greatly among Advantage plan networks, with coverage often described in complex, incomplete, or confusing insurance plan documents, Kaiser said.

Consumers also face a dizzying array of choices.  One example: In Cook County, which includes Chicago, eight difference insurance companies are selling 19 Advantage plans with 10 different provider networks.

Many retirees learn the ins and outs of the network only after they try to access medical care under the plan.  The Kaiser report’s key findings provide a roadmap of things consumer should watch for: …
Learn More