Elderly woman with cat

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

Bored man sleeping in chair

Retirement Just Might Be Boring

Over the long Christmas holiday, I got a sneak preview of what retirement could be like. Frankly, it was a little boring.

I fully appreciate that most workers don’t have the perk provided by my employer, Boston College, which gives us generous time off between Christmas and New Year’s. By cashing in a few unused vacation days prior to Christmas, I was able to string together 16 glorious days off.

It felt like a lifetime.

After cleaning off my desk, running long-neglected errands, reading a book about the sinking of the Lusitania, wrapping gifts, stocking the pantry, going to a holiday party, exercising at the gym, seeing most of the 2015 Oscar contenders at local cinemas, and getting together with friends, I still struggled to fill my days. It’s even more challenging when the winter cold descends.

I’m developing a better understanding of why some people continue working well into their 60s, even 70s. Research covered in our prior blog posts shows that older workers are more likely to delay their retirement if they have more education. That’s because their jobs are often interesting. I’m a good example – blogging usually doesn’t feel like work. This is much different than trying to continue in increasingly difficult physical work, such as waitressing or working on an assembly line.

At age 58, my growing anxiety about retirement is in stark contrast to my husband’s anticipation that his rapidly approaching retirement – he’s 62 – will be nirvana. After three decades pouring his heart and soul into teaching high school biology in inner-city Boston, he relishes the prospect of a stress-free retirement collecting his pension. I’ve encouraged him to think about how he will be spending his winter days in retirement when activity becomes more important than the relaxation he craves in his time off now. …Learn More

Financial Fallout from ‘Gray Divorce’

In the 1960s and 1970s, the baby boom generation had a reputation for breaking down societal norms for behavior – and they’re at it again.

Chart: divorce ratesBetween 1990 and 2010, the rate of individuals over age 50 who become newly divorced in a year doubled to more than 10 people affected per 1,000 married people, according to Susan Brown, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University. Studies by Brown and others are emerging that show this important trend of “gray divorce” is having negative consequences for baby boomers’ financial security in old age.

“Individuals who go through gray divorce are considerably economically disadvantaged, and they are a growing demographic group,” Brown said. She estimates nearly 650,000 people over 50 were involved in divorces in 2010 alone. …Learn More

Fish jumping into a different bowl

Few Put Finances First When Retiring

Will you retire when you want to, when you have to, or when you can afford it?

This is crucial, because when Americans retire is more important than it’s ever been to our financial well-being in old age. Yet the research indicates this doesn’t carry enough weight in people’s decisions.

This doesn’t make any sense. The typical combined 401(k)/IRA balance is a slim $111,000 for working households between 55 and 64 years old that have a 401(k). And fewer and fewer retirees have defined benefit pensions, which provide reliable income. More than half of us are at risk of experiencing a decline in our standard of living after we retire, estimate economists at the Center for Retirement Research, which supports this blog.

Yet a recent survey by Fidelity indicated that the majority don’t think about the financial impact of their retirement timing. Retirees and pre-retirees said leisure was a major reason they have retired or would retire – even if they were falling short of their financial goals.

The most powerful route to improving workers’ prospects is to delay retirement, which dramatically increases monthly Social Security benefits and the income that can be withdrawn from a 401(k).

But Mark Zoril, a Minnesota financial planner, said pre-retirees typically do not drill down into their finances, though they have a vague idea of where they’re at. What he often sees is that an important change precipitates the timing of a retirement, whether a friend’s retirement or deteriorating health. …Learn More

Year-end Thank You to Our Readers

Holiday thank you

To stay current on Squared Away blog posts in 2016, we invite you to join our free email list. You’ll receive just one email each week – with links to the two new posts for that week – when you sign up here.

Readers can also follow the blog on Twitter @SquaredAwayBC or on Facebook.Learn More

top 10 Illustration

Readers’ Picks in 2015

Squared Away readers should know this ritual by now. We consult Google Analytics to determine the articles with the most reader traffic over the past year.

This blog covers everything from student loans to helping low-income people improve their lot. But this year’s Top 10 was dominated by one topic: retirement.

Readers’ favorites are listed in order of their popularity, with links to each individual blog:

  • Navigating Retirement Taxes
  • Medicare Primer: Advantage or Medigap?
  • Why I Dropped My Financial Adviser
  • The Future of Retirement is Now
  • Annuities: Useful but Little Understood
  • Winging it in Retirement?
  • Fewer Need Long-Term Care
  • Misconceptions about Social Security
  • Late Career Job Changes Reduce Stress
  • Mortgage Payoff: Freedom versus the Math

To stay current on our Squared Away blog in 2016, we invite you to join our free email list. You’ll receive just one email each week – with links to the two new posts for that week – when you sign up here.      Learn More

Social Status in the Age of Vermeer

A Lady Writing

A Lady Writing

By the 17th century, the Netherlands had developed a major financial industry and thriving maritime commerce in goods produced by the country’s textile mills, dairy farms, herring fisheries, and sugar refineries. The resulting large and diverse middle class supplies the rich subject matter for a portrait exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

The paintings in “Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer” are grouped into one of the three classes: the upper crust, the middle classes, and the laborers and indigent.

The Dutch elite – nobility, textile merchants, and wealthy landowners – commissioned portraits “to express and affirm their status,” according to exhibit materials. These paintings are replete with class symbols, such as the gleaming armor worn by princes to highlight their privilege as well as military prowess. The status symbols in the exhibit’s signature 1665 painting above by Johannes Vermeer, “A Lady Writing,” go beyond the silver inkwell and pearls on the woman’s writing table. Status is also implied in what she is doing: “The very act of writing tells us she is educated and literate and has the leisure time to write letters,” the exhibit states.

But in the Golden Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer, the true sign of prosperity was the Dutch middle-class, which was the largest and most highly stratified class. This big tent took in everything from trained professionals and skilled artisans to modest shopkeepers. Middle class people might be extremely wealthy shipbuilders, successful goldsmiths, respected barbers (who performed minor medical procedures), or modest tailors and bakers. They were also often defined by “the [investment] capital at their disposal,” which distinguished them from the rich who inherited their wealth and the poor who earned low wages by selling their unskilled labor.

The Shipbuilder and his Wife

The Shipbuilder and his Wife

“The very top of the middle class” can be seen in the above 1663 masterpiece, “The Shipbuilder and his Wife.” The shipbuilder, Jan Rijcksen, an investor in the Dutch East India Company, was so well-off that he could afford to commission a portrait by the most fashionable painter in Amsterdam: Rembrandt van Rijn. In the painting, Rijcksen is receiving an urgent letter from his wife, Griet Jans.Learn More

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