Our Blind Spots Cut Retirement Savings

Our personal biases can play havoc with how we handle our finances.

Two such biases have long been suspected as obstacles to saving for retirement. The first is a tendency to procrastinate on decisions that may benefit an individual in the long run, but also involve short-term costs, like saving for retirement – economists call this “present bias.”

The second bias is a failure to perceive the power of compounding investment returns and how this can build wealth over decades of saving.

But the impact of these biases on how much people actually save wasn’t really understood – until now.  A new study by a team of economists from Stanford University, the University of Minnesota, the London School of Economics, and Claremont Graduate University finds that people who are not blinded by these two biases in particular have saved significantly more for retirement, largely because they start putting money away earlier in life.

The researchers based their findings on a big sample of nearly 2,500 people in online surveys in 2014 and 2015; the average age was about 49. To determine the consistency with which they value the present over the future, the survey asked the participants a series of questions about whether they would, for example, rather have $100 now or a larger amount on some future date – people who want their money now are a bit like Wimpy from the Popeye cartoons, who became famous for wanting a hamburger now but offering to pay for it later. The survey questions about compounding revolved around estimating an account’s future value, using a variety of different interest rates and time periods. … Learn More

Study: College Debt Hurts Retirement

College graduates learn very quickly that paying hundreds of dollars toward student loans each month makes it difficult to afford things like a nice apartment or a car.

But they might not appreciate the long-term consequences of their record levels of borrowing: college debt is an added threat to their retirement security, according to a new study by the Center for Retirement Research.

Chart: More Young Adults Today are in DebtThe researchers gauged the debt’s impact by looking down the road to retirement and projecting what would happen if working people of all ages had started out with the same profile as young adults: 55 percent of today’s 20-something households have student debt, and they owe $31,000, on average.

College debt has a bearing on retirement security through two avenues. First, money going into loan payments is not available for a retirement savings plan. Second, lenders place limits on how much total debt a homebuyer can have, forcing many borrowers to delay home purchases; and getting a home loan would be very hard for the 17 percent of student loan borrowers delinquent on their debt.

Based on these assumptions and using 2013 data, the Center’s National Retirement Risk Index shows that those at risk of a lower standard of living when they retire would increase sharply to about 56 percent of working U.S. households – compared with 52 percent at risk when the student loan projection isn’t figured into the NRRI calculation.

This “represents a substantial increase in the already alarming rate of households at risk,” said the Center, which supports this blog. …Learn More

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Loneliest Seniors Vulnerable to Fraud

“Lost my husband to 9/11 terror attack” – using heartbreaking stories like these, a U.K. scam that became public last month persuaded some lonely older men to turn their money over to widows.

This report is a dramatic illustration of a relationship between loneliness and fraud that has been uncovered in recent research. That study found that people over 50 have been vulnerable to being victimized by fraud in recent years – but the prevalence of fraud was three times higher among people who are extremely depressed or lonely.

The 2013 study in the journal Clinical Gerontologist might be the first to examine financial exploitation from the point of view of psychological vulnerability. It was based on a general survey of older Americans that asks each participant if they’ve “been the victim of financial fraud in the past five years.”

The psychological survey questions pin down whether they suffer from depressive symptoms and whether their social needs are fulfilled. The social needs questions address loneliness and a lack of social affirmation, asking the survey’s respondents whether they “have people to turn to, people to talk to, people to feel close to” and are “part of a group” and “appreciated.” …Learn More

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More Parents Split Bequests Unequally

As the American family becomes increasingly complex, so do parents’ wills.

The result has been a dramatic increase over the past two decades in the share of wills in which parents distribute their estate’s assets unequally among their genetic offspring and stepchildren.

Chart: Complex FamiliesNew research, based on surveys of older Americans, finds that about one-third of parents today do not distribute their assets equally. The reasons range from the greater incidence of divorce and the inherent disadvantage of being a stepchild to the fact that some children naturally take on the role of caring for their aging parents. With parents now living longer and needing more care, children may receive compensation in the will for providing that care.

About 42 percent of older parents have not written a will, though it’s unclear why, according to the study. But when there is a will, here is how complexity affects the distribution of bequests, based on the research findings: …Learn More

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Empty-Nesters Aren’t Saving Enough

Day care, sneakers, cell phones, maybe college – kids are expensive. When they grow up, empty-nesters face a decision about what to do with their extra money.

What they choose is crucial to their retirement security for two reasons – one obvious, and one subtle but very important.

The Center for Retirement Research estimates that about half of U.S. workers might not have enough savings to maintain their standard of living after they retire. So, the obvious thing to do after being freed from child-rearing obligations is to put more money into an employer retirement plan. But 401(k) saving increases only modestly after the kids leave home, according a study by the Center comparing empty-nesters with parents whose kids are still living at home.

The Center’s researchers confirmed this finding using two separate sources of data on married households’ finances. One was a University of Michigan survey of nearly 2,500 households in which the man was over age 50, with financially independent offspring defined as those who are no longer living at home and, if they are college students, have not attended school continuously. The other was U.S. Census data on more than 40,000 adult households of all ages, with independence defined simply as over age 23. …Learn More

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Policy Reduces Elderly Women’s Incomes

Poverty is the scourge of women in old age.

This problem was aggravated, according to a new study, when older workers started claiming their Social Security benefits sooner after the earnings test was lifted in 2000 for those who reach the program’s full retirement age.

The earnings test withholds benefits from older workers earning more than a specified amount – the withheld benefits are returned later, in the form of an increase in monthly Social Security checks. But the earnings test is, nevertheless, often viewed as a tax in the mistaken belief that these benefits are never restored.

Researchers at the U.S. Treasury Department and the University of California at Irvine found that people reacted in one of two ways to lifting the earnings test, both based on the misperception it’s a tax. One response was to work longer – as Congress intended – under the logic that benefits would no longer be unduly “taxed” after workers entered their late 60s. The second and more common response was to claim benefits earlier than one would have prior to the policy change, when workers perceived that delayed claiming was the way to avoid this “tax.”

The earnings test remains in place for beneficiaries younger than the full retirement age – 66 for most boomers. However, the researchers analyzed a broader age range of workers – 62 to 70; even those who haven’t yet reached their full retirement age might change their behavior in anticipation they will soon reach it, and the test will no longer apply to them.

Earlier claiming by men and women, which results in smaller monthly Social Security checks, has fallen especially hard on elderly widows. After a husband dies, the two benefit checks coming into the house are reduced to one. Although widows receive the larger of the couple’s two checks – typically the husband’s – it may not be sufficient to maintain her standard of living. …Learn More

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How Couples Deplete Retirement Savings

Americans who save for retirement throughout their working lives often hold tight to that savings after they retire. A new study shows they eventually do spend much of this money and sheds light on where it goes.

The study focuses on the retirement spending patterns of couples, adding to similar past studies on single retirees. While both spouses are alive, the researchers found that a couple’s wealth remains relatively stable over time – until they start paying for medical care, nursing homes, and other major end-of-life expenses.

The researchers examined spending patterns for more than 4,600 households over a 15-year period using a subset of the Health and Retirement Study that collects data on the health and wealth of people over age 70. Wealth included savings and retirement accounts, investments, and home equity.

Couples in two different income groups were compared: the average couple at the 20th percentile has about $14,000 in post-retirement income and $70,000 in wealth at age 74; the 80th percentile couple has more than $30,000 in income and $330,000 in wealth.

Here are the study’s main findings:

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