Retiree Benefits: Tale of 2 Cities (States)

Some of the workers and retirees around the country who count on having a government pension surely get nervous when they see headlines about the most troubled state and local plans – in places like Illinois, New Jersey, Connecticut, Chicago, and Detroit.

A broader perspective on retirement benefits, however, shows that the results are more mixed.  A study by the Center for Retirement Research, which sponsors this blog, estimated long-term costs for pensions, retiree health benefits, and general debt service as a share of revenues for the 50 states, 178 counties, and 173 cities.

The findings are summarized below:

States:

  • Many states’ combined costs – pensions, other post-employment benefits (OPEBS) such as health insurance, and payments on all government bonds – appear manageable.
  • More worrisome are the eight states with the highest combined costs: Illinois, New Jersey, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Delaware. [States with high pension burdens also tend to have high costs for retiree health benefits].

               Figure 5

Counties:Learn More

Man caught in web

Wrong People Seek Financial Info, Help

Most of the 1,000 people who took the financial well-being quiz posted here last year felt content with their situations. Their well-being score averaged 16.4 out of 20 points possible on the quiz.

This happy response completely conflicts with a statistically more reliable survey showing that three out of four Americans report feeling “financially stressed.” Our quiz makes no claim of representing the adult U.S. population and was taken by a hodgepodge of regular readers, Twitter followers and Facebook friends.

So why are Squared Away loyalists so content with their finances?

The blog is “attracting people who are in the action phase. I’m guessing they’re motivated and ready to move,” said Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist in Hawaii – he is both a certified financial planner and trained psychologist.

But the flip side of this is that those who do not seek out financial information and advice – and don’t take blog quizzes – are often “in total denial, and you’re probably not going to catch them,” he said.

Indeed, Klontz’s research has identified avoiding dealing with difficult money issues as among the unconscious behaviors that ensnare people who are in poor financial health, measured by being overloaded with debt or not saving for retirement.

For the avoiders, the psychology is that they know their behavior hurts them but feel it’s due to a character defect – “lazy, crazy, or stupid” – he said. “Shame keeps you stuck. If I’m such a terrible person, why should I try?  I’m not going to ask anyone for help.”

When people with money problems recognize the psychological underpinnings, he said, it can lead to changes that can end the pain.

The question for personal finance bloggers and financial advisers remains: how do we reach the people who can’t be reached? …Learn More

Woman at computer

Managing Money with Cognitive Decline

Despite the normal cognitive challenges that people in their 70s and 80s inevitably face, most are sharp enough to be in charge of their financial affairs or oversee them.

But the significant minority of seniors who do have trouble is explored in a new summary of the research by Anek Belbase and Geoffrey Sanzenbacher at the Center for Retirement Research, which supports this blog.

One such group is people learning for the first time how to carry out financial tasks. Widows, not surprisingly, are often required to negotiate this financial learning curve, which gets steeper as a senior’s ability to process new information erodes. With guidance from a family member or professional, however, the novices can usually figure things out.

Seniors with mild cognitive impairment might also develop problems. Mild impairment becomes fairly common by the time people reach their 70s, affecting their financial judgment and potentially their ability to manage their affairs in ways that promote their best interests.  Among those with mild impairment, 82 percent can independently handle the various financial tasks they face, such as paying bills, managing bank accounts, and maintaining good credit.  This compares with 95 percent of unimpaired seniors.

Another danger facing seniors with mild cognitive impairment is their vulnerability to fraud.  They are usually aware they’re slipping, yet they may remain confident about their ability to handle their financial affairs. …Learn More

hands holding a picture of a family

Good Health Insurance is What Counts

Having health insurance is no guarantee that medical care is affordable.

Some families, despite being covered by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or employer policies, say that high premiums and deductibles mean they can’t afford to see a doctor. This distinction – between having insurance and receiving care – will be crucial as Congress considers proposals for ACA’s replacement.

One comprehensive 2003 study demonstrates how individual medical decisions change when they receive one longstanding, and what the researchers called “generous,” type of insurance: Medicare. Their study focused on changes in the use of the health care system – more so than improved health – by comparing people who’ve recently gone on Medicare with people a couple years away from turning 65 and becoming eligible. The analysis adjusts for the fact that some, though not all, people under 65 have employer coverage and that many people also retire around this age, sometimes receiving special retiree health benefits.

Once people turn 65 and are on Medicare, the researchers found that:

  • The probability of seeing a doctor at least once a year increased, based on data from the National Health Interview Surveys, which track the frequency of routine medical care.
  • Medicare eligibility led to a “surprisingly large” 5-10 percent increase in hospitalizations in California and Florida, particularly among white Americans. The increase was driven by elective surgeries such as joint replacements and heart bypass surgeries.
  • There were large increases in preventive care for less-educated whites, such as getting flu shots and cholesterol tests, based on analyses of the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which tracks preventive care use.
  • Minorities, who are at much higher risk of untreated high blood pressure, were more likely to receive this diagnosis after going on Medicare. …
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The Late-1950s Boomers: Hit by Divorce

Middle Boomers chartIt’s old news that the many baby boomers who did not get married and stay married are worse off financially than those who did. Unfortunately, the financial damage to one segment of this generation has broken new ground.

Only 44 percent of “middle boomers” – those born in the late 1950s – have remained married to their original spouses, down from 52 percent of their parents’ generation. Middle boomers are also far more likely to have lived with partners without marrying, remained single all their lives, or even to have divorced twice.

The heart of a study is determining which of middle boomers’ choices were most likely to have led to financial distress when they reached their pre-retirement years.

About 11 percent of middle boomers had negative net worth by the time they were in their early 50s – more than double the share for the generation born during the Great Depression when they reached this age. Negative net worth means that middle boomers’ mortgages and other debts exceed the value of their assets; in this study, assets included everything from retirement plans and taxable bank accounts to primary and vacation homes.

To understand why, the researchers culled marital histories from a survey of older Americans. They found that four lifestyles are most strongly linked to middle boomers’ negative net worth: never marrying, going through one divorce and becoming single again, separating from a second marriage, and divorcing from a second marriage.

In all of these situations, the individuals were about three times more likely to have negative net worth than were the continually married middle boomers. The study controlled for age, gender, race, education, health, household income, and the number of offspring.

Middle boomers are the “least prepared for retirement” out of four groups studied, the researchers concluded, and their choices around marriage have been important contributing factors.Learn More

web of connections

Can Work Enhance Seniors’ Social Lives?

Callout boxMaintaining a network of family, friends, or even golfing buddies is critical to cognitive and physical health in old age, research has shown.

What wasn’t known is how work affects the social lives of older people. Does work foster social ties or limit the time one has to socialize?

A new study by Eleonora Patacchini at Cornell University and Gary Engelhardt at Syracuse University finds that those who continue to work have larger social networks.

They analyzed responses to the following question by more than 1,300 survey participants in the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project. The participants were ages 57 to 85 in 2005 and answered the following question then and again in 2010:

“Most people discuss things that are important to them with others. For example, these may include good or bad things that happen to you, problems you are having, or important concerns you may have. Looking back over the last 12 months, who are the people with whom you most often discussed things that were important to you?” …Learn More

People Lack Emergency Funds, Tap 401ks

Emergency Uses of retirement savings chartWhen between 45 percent and 60 percent of Americans don’t have enough money for retirement, encouraging saving is a national priority.

A related issue is preserving the funds once they’re set aside.

A survey released last month by Transamerica indicates that workers frequently resort to hardship withdrawals and loans from their 401(k)s, because they lack the cash required in emergencies. The survey bolsters the argument made by some retirement experts and employers that until workers’ cash-flow problems are addressed, many will continue to view retirement funds as their best option in an emergency.

More than one in four U.S. workers in the survey said they have taken premature withdrawals from their 401(k) or IRA retirement funds.  Catherine Collinson, president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, connected this “alarmingly high share” to a shortage of cash: 21 percent of workers reported having less than $1,000 saved for emergencies and another 14 percent have saved just $1,000 to $5,000. …Learn More

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