Money Culture

401k Saving Harder at Lower Incomes

Sales assistant working in a supermarketOur 401(k) retirement system doesn’t work as well for lower- and middle-income workers as it does for those at the top.

That’s because they face more severe headwinds in pursuit of their retirement goals, concludes a new study.

Consider what happens when a worker’s earnings drop 10 percent or he experiences a bout of unemployment. These episodes are more common among lower-paid workers, and when they hit, they hit their 401(k)s harder than the 401(k)s of people who earn more, according to the study, “Defined Contribution Wealth Inequality.”

In theory, 401(k)s could work for everyone – if everyone had access to an employer savings plan (which they don’t).  And while people who earn more money obviously have more to sock away in their retirement plans at work, smaller paychecks aren’t necessarily a problem either.

The key to retirement for any worker is whether he or she has saved enough, along with Social Security, to cover about 75 percent of what they earned at work during the years leading up to their retirement. It’s true that lower-paid workers can’t save as much, but less could still be enough to reach their more modest retirement goals.

But earnings declines, unemployment, smaller employer contributions, and unwise investment choices – these “barely affect earners in the top 10 percent of the earnings distribution but are associated with less DC [defined contribution] wealth accumulation for those at the bottom,” concluded the researchers, Joelle Saad-Lessler at the Stevens Institute of Technology and Teresa Ghilarducci and Gayle Reznik at the New School for Social Research.

This disparity, they argue, has increased the retirement wealth gap in this country.  In the post-recession period 2009-2011, for example, more high-income workers saw their DC account balances increase than did workers in the bottom half.

The researchers tracked the same people over time in two groups – the bottom 55 percent of the earnings ladder and the top 10 percent. They were able to more precisely compare each group’s ability to save for retirement by using the actual earnings and employer contributions to individual workers’ retirement plans. Here are their other findings: …Learn More

singing

Behavior

A Day at the Golden Age Senior Center

Chung-Au Loi Tai

Boston – Four mornings a week, a van scoops up Chung-Au Loi Tai and delivers her to the senior center for a full schedule of activities. The 1:30 bingo game is her favorite.

She giggles when she explains why: she likes the Chinese Rice Biscuits that are handed out as prizes.

She is one of 350 mostly low-income clients of the Greater Boston Golden Age Center’s three locations around Boston. Most came to this country from China decades ago and raised families while working in Chinatown or the suburbs. Chung-Au, for example, worked in a shoe factory for nine years, and her late husband cooked in restaurants all over the city.

Now in old age, the Golden Age Center’s community of like-minded people spend their days learning English, new songs, and calligraphy, eating $2 lunches – a “suggested” donation – and getting help with their medical and other needs from the nurse and social workers on staff.

Finding things to do all day might seem trivial to working people – there are barely enough hours in a day. But the center’s carefully planned activities are critical to seniors’ physical and mental health and to their families, who are still out working. One big reason for these daily visits is to prevent the frail or cognitively impaired from becoming too isolated.

The Golden Age Center and similar centers around the country make up a patchwork of often poorly funded non-profit and local-government agencies that quietly fill a big need in the safety net for seniors. These agencies provide an array of services, including transportation, meals, exercise, medical supervision, and cognitive stimulation.  The federal Medicaid program pays the Golden Age Center a per-day fee for its low-income clients.

Ruth Moy, the executive director who founded the center in 1972, raises additional money from donations and other federal and local government programs.  “There is never enough money,” Moy said. “You just keep plugging away.” …Learn More

Prudential billboard

Behavior

Our Stubborn State of Financial Illiteracy

The U.S. retirement system is built on people having a working knowledge of finance.  Yet financial literacy among a big chunk of Americans ranges from unimpressive to abysmal.

This revelation was again confirmed in a survey that recently debuted by financial literacy guru Annamaria Lusardi, head of the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center at George Washington University. In a 2011 survey, Lusardi had found that too many Americans were unable to answer three very simple financial questions.

This new survey is more ambitious, though the results are no more promising. It asks 28 questions in eight areas: earning money, budgeting, saving, investing, borrowing, insuring, understanding risk, and information sources.  In the nationally representative survey, about one in four people got no more than seven answers (25%) correct.

One telling finding is that the highest scores were for knowledge about borrowing, with nearly two out of three answering these questions correctly. I suspect this knowledge has been gained from experience – experience with high-interest credit card bills and onerous student loan payments, as well as mortgages.

Understanding risk questionIn every other financial topic surveyed, about half or less answered the questions correctly.  Questions about risk, which is at the heart of many financial decisions, fared worst – only 39 percent answered these correctly.

An important connection is made in the report regarding 18- to 44-year olds, who answered only 41 percent of the questions correctly (versus 55 percent for people over 45). Younger adults also answered “I do not know” most often. 

When it comes to retirement, those who would gain more from financial knowledge are the least knowledgeable.  Saving that starts in early adulthood can go a long way toward achieving retirement security, thanks to compound investment returns over the many years remaining prior to leaving the work force. It’s unfortunate that those who could benefit from compounding often don’t comprehend its effect. …Learn More

On the Web

Students Get Curious About Retiring

“I thought I was going to live forever.”

“I would’ve probably put more money away for later years.”

“I was a stay-at-home mom for 17 years, and I didn’t realize that during those years I wasn’t working I wasn’t accruing Social Security.”

Millennials asked what it’s like to be retired, and seniors answered in this video produced by The New York Times.

The video’s point, it seems, is that it’s not natural for 20-somethings to think about old age at all. “Retirement wasn’t in my vocabulary,” as one senior recalled about being young.

That’s why young adults, as soon as they enter the work world, should force themselves to make friends with a concept far in their futures – and then act on it. And here’s why: saving is more important than it has ever been, because they will carry much more of the burden of financing their retirement than their parents and grandparents ever did.

Even young adults who are paying off student loans should, at minimum, contribute enough to their savings plan at work to qualify for their employer’s matching contribution. Those who don’t plan ahead face a reliance on Social Security’s eroding benefits when they’re in old age, benefits that are the absolute bedrock of our retirement system but not enough for most retirees to continue the standard of living they had while they were working.

If you need convincing, listen to these retirees talk about how difficult it is to live solely on Social Security in the video below produced by Squared Away in 2012: …Learn More

False teeth

Money Culture

Get Dental Work Before You Retire

Caps, gum surgeries, implants, dental exotica – all kinds of things can and do go wrong in retirees’ mouths.

But dental coverage also drops sharply for older Americans, because when people retire, they give up their employer’s dental insurance. Without it, retirees needing dental work can face an unexpected, mini financial crisis.

Medicare does not cover routine dental procedures, a fact that a majority of working baby boomers are unaware of. But most seniors also aren’t covered through a spouse or under, say, a union dental insurance plan for retirees. The private dental insurance market is their only option for care, and very few purchase it.

Uninsured older Americans shell out $1,126 annually, on average, for dental work, which is $400 more than people with coverage spend. Out-of-pocket costs can be much higher in a year when extensive work is required. …Learn More

On the Web

Wyoming Retirement Education on Point

Wyoming government has brought some 535 employees of the state’s executive, legislative and judicial branches into its retirement savings plan since July 2015 under a new policy of automatically enrolling each new hire.

They are free to withdraw from the plan at any time, but only 15 of the 535 have done so – “and not a complaint from anybody,” said Polly Scott, who manages the savings plan and heads employee retirement education.

This technique, borrowed from behavioral economics, addresses the inertia that prevents many people from ever signing up to save in their employer’s plan.  So why wait for them to join? Instead, Wyoming uses inertia to benefit state workers: when people are automatically enrolled, research shows, they tend to stay put and save.

This is one piece of a larger effort to educate government workers about what’s required to properly prepare for retirement – and nudge them to do it.  The 457 retirement savings plan is crucial. Wyoming’s retired state workers receive Social Security, but the inflation adjustment in their traditional defined benefit pension has virtually been eliminated for the near future.  The 457 plan “is voluntary, but it’s not optional if you want a secure retirement,” Scott said.

The heart of the state’s education efforts is a website titled “Your Whole Story” that is on point and explains in clear language likely to benefit employees. Employees are encouraged to increase how much they’re already saving, resist the temptation to withdraw their savings prematurely, and prepare themselves for a long time in retirement in an era of increasing life expectancy.

This initiative is based on a campaign sponsored by the National Association of Government Defined Contribution Administrators (NAGDA) – Scott was NAGDA’s president last year – and designed by the National Association of Retirement Plan Participants.  Other states use some version of “Your Whole Story,” including the Missouri State Employees’ Retirement System and Montana Public Employee Retirement Administration.

One problem Wyoming is tackling is young adults who hurt their retirement prospects by withdrawing money from their 457 plans when they leave their state jobs, which “means they’re spending it,” Scott said. Another issue is that more older workers are rolling 457 savings over to private IRAs, which can have higher fees. …Learn More

Prescription pills

Money Culture

Fewer, Clearer Medicare Part D Choices

medicare part d chartA decade ago, the nation’s Medicare enrollees had more than 1,800 different prescription drug plans to choose from. In the 2017 open enrollment that started on Oct. 15, that number dropped to just 746.

News of higher Part D drug plan premiums and out-of-pocket costs in 2017, estimated in a new report by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, will not be welcome by the nation’s older population.  But Squared Away also wanted to know whether fewer plan options are good or bad for consumers.

“It’s good in the sense [federal] efforts are bearing fruit in giving people options that are more distinct from each other than in the past,” said Juliette Cubanski, Kaiser’s associate director of Medicare policy. At the same, she said, retirees “still have a lot of choice in this marketplace.”

The number of plans has shrunk steadily for a variety of reasons since the 2006 inception of the prescription component of Medicare, known as Part D. In the early years of the program, plans started disappearing amid consolidation among insurers and pharmacy benefits managers, she said. More recently, a few Part D plan providers have pulled out of the market.

But Cubanski said recent reductions in the number of plans were primarily by federal design. In 2011, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) stepped in and began requiring insurers that offered more than one Part D plan in a region to make sure the differences among their plans were clear and distinct to Medicare beneficiaries. …Learn More

Two Shillman residents talking

Field Work

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

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