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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

Field Work

Conference Will Guide Financial Advisors

At a dinner next Monday night, finance professor Zvi Bodie at Boston University and his co-hosts will kick off their third conference geared toward educating financial professionals about cutting-edge thinking in the field. “The Future of Life Cycle Saving and Investing” will focus on serving low-income individuals. However, Bodie said in this recent interview that the conference lessons apply to all financial consumers.

Zvi BodieSQUARED AWAY: Is this an annual conference?
BODIE: No. The first one was in 2006, the second in 2008. Truthfully, what inspired me to have these conferences, among other things, was the strong support of MIT economics professor Paul Samuelson. I decided I was sick of the baloney about personal investing that is served up on websites, brochures, etc. – all of which is designed for the benefit of the service providers rather than the customers. So much of it flatly contradicts what I teach. We’re dedicating the dinner to the memory of Paul Samuelson, who died last year.

SQUARED AWAY: What baloney?
BODIE: Say you’re a beginning investor. You go to any website – go to investor.gov. It’s a really nice looking website. This is the Securities and Exchange Commission, so you’d think, ‘Wow, I can trust this.’ But, actually, all this material was fed to the government by the investment industry. …
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Abstract financial concept illustration

Behavior

Work v. Save Options Quantified

One of Americans’ biggest financial challenges is proper planning to ensure that their standard of living doesn’t drop after they retire and the regular paychecks stop.

A new study has practical implications for baby boomers in urgent need of improving their retirement finances: working a few additional years carries a lot more financial punch than a last-ditch effort to save some extra money in a 401(k).

This point is made dramatically in a simple example in the study: if a head of household who is 10 years away from retiring increases his 401(k) contributions from 6 percent to 7 percent of pay (with a 3 percent employer match) for the next decade, he would get no more benefit than if he instead had decided to work just one additional month before retiring.

Table showing how long to delay retirement in order to match a 1% increase in savings rate by age

Of course, this estimate should be taken only as illustrative.  To get their retirement finances into shape, many people should plan to work several more years than is typical today. Baby boomers tend to leave the labor force in their early- to mid-60s, even though more than four out of 10 boomers are on a path to a lower retirement standard of living. …Learn More

Field Work

Health in Old Age: the Great Unknown

cartoonThis cartoon, by Vancouver Sun cartoonist Graham Harrop, hits on one of retirees’ biggest mysteries: their future health.

The elderly live with the anxiety of getting a grave illness that isn’t easy to fix, such as cancer or a stroke.  And despite having Medicare insurance, they also have to worry how much it would cost them and whether they would run through all of their savings.

They’re right to worry. Health care costs increase as people age from their 50s into their 60s and 70s. About one in five baby boomers between 55 and 64 pays extraordinary out-of-pocket medical expenses in any given year. But by 75, the odds increase to one in four, according to a report summarizing the reasons that some seniors’ finances become fragile.

Large, unexpected medical expenses are one of two major financial shocks that threaten their security – widowhood is the other. A small and unlucky share of retirees will find it difficult to absorb a spike in their medical costs, forcing them to cut back on food or medications, the report said.

Harrop’s cartoon is the product of his cousin’s inspired suggestion that he fill a book with cartoons about the humorous accommodations made between couples who’ve lived together for decades. The book – “Living Together after Retirement: or, There’s a Spouse in the House” – reveals his personal knowledge of the subject. Harrop, who is 73, has lived with his partner, Annie, for more than 20 years.Learn More

Field Work

Social Security Mistakes Can be Costly

Karen Dobson

Kay Dobson is 68, and it’s time to retire from her job as the jack of all trades at the Augusta Circle Elementary School in Greenville, South Carolina.

But she isn’t quite as ready for her June retirement as she could’ve been. She recently learned that an admitted unfamiliarity with Social Security’s arcane rules cost her about $31,000 for two years of foregone spousal benefits based on her husband’s earnings.

“I had not the vaguest idea that I would be eligible for that,” she said.

Dobson is hardly the first person to make a painful mistake like this. People have all kinds of misconceptions about Social Security, or they lack a basic understanding of how it works – that the government calculates benefits using their 35 highest years of earnings, that the size of the monthly checks depends on the age the benefits start, and that working women, like Dobson, are often entitled to a spousal benefit based on their husband’s work record and earnings.

Two years ago, Dobson could have applied for this benefit, because she’d reached her full retirement age – 66.  But since she didn’t know this at the time, Social Security recently sent her a check for $7,800 for only six months retroactively – typically the maximum period for retroactive spousal benefits.

Her $1,300 monthly checks are starting to come in now too.  When she turns 70, she’ll start collecting a larger benefit based on her own earnings from a long-time career in the school system.

This particular strategy – file for spousal benefits and delay your own – is now available only to people who turned 62 prior to Jan 2, 2016.  The unintended loophole was eliminated, because it subverted the original intent of the spousal benefit, which was designed with an eye to retired households with a low-earning or non-working spouse. (The spousal benefit, in and of itself, remains intact and can be a big help to older households in which a working wife earned less than her husband. If that’s the case, her Social Security benefit would be increased until it is equal to half of his full retirement benefit if she claims at or above her own full retirement age.)

The central point here is that ignorance of program rules can mean substantial losses for retirees.  For low- or middle-income retirees, the consequences can be especially dire since they’re already scraping by. …
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ATM machine

Field Work

Retirees Get a 401k Withdrawal Headache

Different people, different strategies.

Myra Hindus and Jewell Jackson

Myra Hindus of Boston, semi-retired at 68, had her financial adviser estimate the 401(k) withdrawals necessary to support her $4,500 monthly budget, which the adviser also prescribed. But Hindus isn’t fully at ease about her finances, despite the professional advice, a paid-off mortgage, and a good bit more savings than most people have.

“It’s a bunch of guesswork,” said the former diversity administrator and consultant to major universities who hedges her bets by teaching college social work courses.

What overwhelms her are the many unknowns that will determine whether her money lasts as long as she does. What if her adviser is wrong? Or what if she lives well into her 90s – like her mother did? She’s also uncertain of the impact of her younger partner’s coming retirement, which isn’t sorted out yet.

“No one knows when you’re going to die so you can’t base it on that. We’re all in the stock market, and we don’t know what will happen to that,” she said.

Brian Jarvis and Connie O’Brien of Beavercreek, Ohio, also have advantages most baby boomers don’t: small pensions from their former employer, Northrop Grumman, and a mortgage paid off with their private-sector salaries. But they got lucky too. The odds that their withdrawal strategy would succeed improved a few months after they retired, in 2010, when President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act.  The couple, who are too young for Medicare, no longer had to buy expensive private health insurance – access to the government health exchange drastically reduced the expense. …Learn More

older workers

Behavior

Future ‘Retirees’ Plan to Work

Most people used to sign up for Social Security when they were fairly young – around 62, which is the earliest age allowed. Not today: fewer than 40 percent are filing for benefits at that age.

text box calloutSo what else are we doing differently?  Well, working in retirement is high on the list.

About one in three Americans calling themselves retired in a new AARP survey have worked or now work in part-time, seasonal and sporadic jobs or sometimes full-time.

Keeping in mind that people don’t always do what they’d planned, boomers’ expectations for work exceed what current retirees are doing. Well over half of workers over 50 plan to find some kind of work after they retire.

The seeming oxymoron – working “retirees” – plays out in various ways.  State and local government workers retire as early as their 50s if they’ve worked enough years to max out their pensions. Some of these civil servants find other jobs while collecting a pension. Boomers who’ve left career jobs but lack a pension cut back to part-time work in their field or find a full- or part-time job in a new field.

Money is a major reason, with a notable exception. Some people work into their late 60s or 70s because they just enjoy it. They’re usually the most educated and frequently see their jobs as a labor of love that sustains their personal growth, professional identities, or relationships. …Learn More

Money Culture

Federal Taxes Have a Good Side Too

This Donald Duck cartoon, funded by the U.S. government in 1943, urged Americans to pay their income taxes to support the war effort. Paying taxes was a patriotic act, to build up the inventory of war planes and battleships to defeat the Nazis – “sink the Axis!” the narrator bellows.

Nobody liked paying taxes then, and they still don’t. Yet there was a growing awareness as the war played out in the 1940s that taxes – like saving your scrap metal – were necessary to advance the greater good.

Things are different today. There doesn’t seem to be as much room in the public conversation for the benefits that federal taxes bestow, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid (nursing home funding) and the Part D prescription drug benefit for retirees, or for government investments in education, roads, and research – or about who would suffer more if deprived of these benefits.

“Most people who do in fact receive significant forms of economic security from the federal government don’t know it,” argued Molly Michelmore, an economic historian at Washington and Lee University, in a recent interview on New York public radio. …Learn More

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