Mid-sized Employer Meets Big 401(k) Goal

Thomas Automotive Family’s service department in Bedford, Pennsylvania.

When Peggy Zembower became the human resources director for Thomas Automotive Family about four years ago, she was dismayed that some long-time employees had never increased their retirement saving above the measly 1 percent of pay they’d started at.

One big issue was that the lowest-paid workers at the auto dealership – like low-wage workers everywhere – felt they couldn’t afford to save in the 401(k). A lack of knowledge about investing and a reluctance to give up control of their money seemed to frighten others out of saving, which meant forfeiting their employer’s matching contribution.

“It bothered me when I saw employees who’d been here five years and up and saw what small amounts they were investing,” she said. “Many lower-paid employees saved little or nothing.”

With her boss’ blessing, Zembower got to work.

Thomas Automotive is a mid-sized company with 280 full-time and part-time workers. Their earnings run the gamut, from employees in the service department earning $11 per hour (or about $23,000 per year) to car salespeople earning as much as $100,000, and Thomas Automotive’s owner, who has four dealerships in Pennsylvania and one in Maryland.

By doing the things retirement experts recommend, Zembower increased participation to 87 percent of employees, up from 53 percent. She did this by instituting automatic enrollment in the 401(k) at 4 percent of workers’ pay and auto-escalation, over time, of the amount saved. (Employees have the right to pull out or to maintain past contribution levels.) These techniques are far more common at large companies.

She goes further, re-enrolling all non-participating employees each April 1st, which requires them to revisit their decision before opting out of the retirement savings plan again.  “We have a few employees who feel we don’t have the right to do this,” she said, “but we do.”

One gets the impression when interviewing Zembower that it is not what she’s done to make the 401(k) plan work better.  It’s how she’s done it, with her gentle insistence that saving for retirement is best for the workers.  Sometimes this means she’ll ask a worker to wipe off his greasy hands and look with her at the retirement calculator placed front and center on the employee page of the company website. …Learn More

needle in haystack

Mutual Fund Fees: Here’s What Matters

Investors will probably see good news in Morningstar Inc.’s annual report showing that the fees charged by actively managed mutual funds continue to come down.

The truth is that focusing on fees alone misses the point. What matters is a fund’s after-fee return. There are always fund managers who excel at picking stocks and can deliver strong after-fee returns to investors year after year, justifying the high fees required to pay them. The early years of Fidelity’s Magellan fund is the classic example.

The trick is finding that clever manager, which requires a combination of luck and the skill and inclination to compare numerous investment options. One thing making this task a little easier is the mutual fund industry practice of reporting returns, net of fees. But the research shows that stock funds that consistently outperform their benchmarks are few and far between – and finding them would be particularly challenging for 401(k) investors who already struggle with basic decisions.

Morningstar’s fee report indicates investors might be getting the message.  In 2015 and 2016, they pulled a total of $627 billion out of the group of actively managed funds charging the highest fees. During the same two years, they funneled $429 billion of new money into lower-fee index funds.

Yes, active funds’ average fee (called the expense ratio, in a prospectus) declined last year to 0.75 percent – or three-quarters of 1 percent – from 0.78 percent in 2015. This continued a downward trend: fees averaged 1 percent in the early 2000s.

But compare this with 0.17 percent for index funds. In contrast to actively managed funds, passive index funds aren’t set up to beat a market benchmark: their goal is to simply mimic the performance of a specific market index, whether it’s the Standard & Poor’s 500 or a Bloomberg Barclay’s bond index. …Learn More

Pre-Retirement Financial Review is a Must

My husband has taught high school biology for 30 years in Boston and works hard for his students. But he’s nearly 64 and it’s time to think about retiring.

Can we afford it? When we retire, will we eventually run through our savings? Is retirement scary – or what?

Questions like these are also probably haunting millions of baby boomers in the middle of the night. One out of three boomers in a recent Transamerica survey said they are not confident they will have enough income to retire “comfortably” and another third concede that they are only “somewhat confident.”

To find the answer for ourselves, my husband and I hired a financial adviser. It was the best thing we could’ve done. The point of this blog is to encourage other boomers to take stock of their imminent retirement, whether it’s around the corner or still a decade away.

We’d been kicking around retirement scenarios inside our marriage bubble. My husband has not fixed a retirement date in his head but is talking about the next one to three years. To be conservative, we posed this simple question to our adviser: can Garret retire in 2018?

Garret Virchick and Kim Blanton

Her answer was in the half-inch packet, which she delivered to our front door. We sat around our dining room table as she walked us through her quantitative analysis of our financial profile.

Many financial advisers like to talk about how they’ll manage a baby boomer client’s investments. In truth, simple index funds do the trick for us. Our adviser, Wendy Weiss of Weiss Financial Advisors in Cambridge, Mass., used to be an investment adviser for large financial firms, but spent very little time on our investments. The most important thing for baby boomers who, like us, are not wealthy is knowing how much income will come in the door every single month to pay the bills in retirement.

“It’s more important for my clients to find out how to use that 401(k) in retirement than it is for me to try to manage the investments for you,” she said. …Learn More

Social Security’s Legacy to Ex-Wives, Kids

Social Security Administration poster, 1956

Many women are fuzzy on how Social Security benefits for widows work and even more unclear about the program’s spousal benefits.

I know two of these women. Their situations nicely illustrate how this federal program promotes the well-being of older women and families.

One is my divorced aunt. She was surprised to learn, after my uncle died a few years ago, that her widow’s – or survivor’s – benefit, based on his decades of work as a housing developer, would be double the spousal benefit she’d received while he was alive. Divorced spouses are eligible for the same spousal and survivor’s benefits as still-married spouses, though only if the marriage lasted more than 10 years.

For a more complex experience involving Social Security’s child, spousal and survivor benefits, consider a friend of mine, who married an older man with whom she adopted two baby girls from China.

The couple divorced after 12 years, but John remained a loving older father. He showered his little girls with attention and, as they grew up, spoiled them with shopping excursions to the mall. But one of his best gifts came after he retired: Social Security benefits that provided financial security to his daughters and their mother.

John, like many older men, had difficulty finding steady work, but earlier in his career, he’d been a well-paid executive. On the strength of this earnings history, John signed up for his Social Security pension when he reached his full retirement age. His initial benefit was $2,209. In addition to this benefit, $828 per month went to each of his daughters, who were in elementary and middle school at the time.

Under Social Security’s rules, benefits go to children under age 16 when a parent is collecting a Social Security pension. This continues until the child reaches age 18 (or 19, if they’re still in high school). Each child’s benefit is precisely half of the parent’s pension, but John’s daughters received less than half because they bumped up against Social Security’s family maximum.

When John died a year ago, at age 73, his Social Security legacy continued. …Learn More

Young Workers’ Hopes Confront Reality

Part time vs full time chartAs the post-recession job market continues to improve, so has young adults’ optimism about their future opportunities, a Federal Reserve Board survey shows.

What’s poignant about this youthful optimism is that a changing labor market is making it increasingly difficult for young adults to get their careers off to the right start.

Surely, they sense this. Nearly two-thirds of adults between ages 18 and 30 told the Federal Reserve in a 2015 survey featured in a recent webinar that their schedules in “permanent” jobs were changing daily, weekly, or monthly. They strongly prefer future job stability over higher pay, despite the trendy flexibility of the “gig” economy, Uber driving, and freelancing.

“Permanent employment is not the same as stable employment,” Amy Blair, the Aspen Institute research director for the economic opportunities program, said during the webinar.   “Without a stable floor, it’s difficult for a person to invest in himself or herself to build a career.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has identified 30 jobs it predicts will have the fastest growth, generating 5 million jobs by 2024.  Most of the top 10 are characterized by part-time, low-paying, or seasonal work that can make it difficult to put together a full-time schedule, Blair said. Many are the types of jobs that also lack health benefits, 401(k)s, and paid-time off.

The BLS’ top 10 are: …Learn More

illustration of guy parachuting

A Modest Victory in Financial Education

With so many Americans in the dark about how to prepare for retirement, educating them about why it’s critical to save seems an obvious way to tackle this problem. But very few solid studies prove that financial education actually works.

This field research should be counted as a positive result for a modest, low-cost financial education program.

Carly Urban at Montana State found that tellers and other low-level employees working at 45 randomly selected credit unions around the country clearly made progress after spending just 10 hours in an online financial education program. The information-based program required the workers to do some reading and walked them through specific examples and scenarios they might face.

Their improvements weren’t limited to increasing their knowledge of finances and retirement saving either. They also saved more, Urban said while presenting her findings at a webinar sponsored by the Center for Financial Security at the University of Wisconsin.

In the fall of 2009, the credit union employees completed the online education on the basics of everything from financial planning and investment risk to saving for college and working with a financial adviser. They were allowed to choose how much time to spend on each of 10 modules, and their employers let them take the courses at work – rather than use up valuable free time. …Learn More

Tax documents

Retirement, Saving and Your Taxes

Just one in four of the low-income workers eligible for the federal tax credit for retirement saving are even aware that it exists.

The IRS, as I said in a previous blog, practically “gives money away” through its Saver’s Tax Credit, which returns as much as half of the amount saved to the tax filer. The credit was designed to encourage the nation’s lowest-paid workers, who largely don’t save.

Yet a survey last year by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies found that people who are not eligible for the credit know more about it than people who are eligible. There was a pervasive lack of awareness in three groups in particular: workers earning under $50,000, women, and people with no more than a high school education.

We’re getting into the thick of the tax season, so we’ve assembled a list of our previous tax-oriented blogs – the first article explains the saver’s credit. The blogs, listed below, explore a variety of issues to consider when you’re doing your taxes: …Learn More

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