Field Work

Medicare: the Future is Now

When health care is factored in, more than half of Americans haven’t saved enough money for retirement.

But that price tag could become more unattainable under President Obama’s proposal last week to cut $248 billion from Medicare by raising premiums, copayments, and other health costs. With Republicans also talking reform, the impact of Beltway belt-tightening is coming into sharper focus for more than 45 million Americans covered by the federal program.

It’s a good time to revisit 2010 research by Anthony Webb, an economist with the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, which hosts this blog. Webb calculated how much a “typical” retired couple, both age 65, needs today to cover out-of-pocket expenses over their remaining lives. The numbers are shocking:

  • A couple needs $197,000 for future Medicare and other premiums, drugs, copayments, and home health costs;
  • There is a 5-percent risk they need more than $311,000;
  • Including nursing-home costs, the amount needed increases to $260,000;
  • There is a 5-percent risk that will exceed $517,000.

To arrive at the estimates, Webb simulated lifetime healthcare histories by drawing on a national survey of older Americans. The difficulty for individual retirees who might want to use these estimates, however, is that their actual spending will vary widely depending on how long they live and their health outcomes. That’s where the risk comes in.

In this video, Alicia Munnell, director of the Center, interviews Webb about his research. To read a research brief, click here.

Learn More

Cartoon of five orange heads with microchip like lines extending from their brains.

Research

High School Influences Life Knowledge

It’s been well-established that most people have low levels of financial literacy and struggle to manage and plan their personal finances. Now two Wisconsin researchers have taken the conversation to the next level by trying to explain why.

According to their study, featured in a webinar posted online today, the financial literacy of people entering retirement is significantly determined by high school IQ level or by whether the individual took high-level math classes in school.

University of Wisconsin professors Pamela Herd and Karen Holden arrived at this finding by analyzing 6,000 individuals from a unique longitudinal data set of people who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957 – and were in their mid-60s at the time of the study. …Learn More

airplane

On the Web

Readers Like a Travel Twist on Finances

Two of our readers’ favorite articles so far this year connected difficult bread and butter issues – personal finance and retirement – with a far more pleasant topic: travel.

The most popular blog profiled a Houston couple scouting locations for a dream retirement home in South America, which has a lower cost of living.  Another well-read blog was about Liz Patterson, a young carpenter in Colorado who built a $7,000 tiny house on a flat-bed trailer to radically reduce her expenses – so she could travel more.

The downsizing efforts of 27-year-old Patterson inspired several older readers to post comments to the blog about their own downsizing. “From children’s cribs and toys in the attic, to collectible things from my parents’ 70-year marriage!” Elaine wrote. “Purging has been heart wrenching and frustrating and long overdue!”

The following articles attracted the most interest from our readers in the first six months of 2018. Topics ranged from 401(k)s, income taxes, and Americans’ uneven participation in the stock market to geriatric care managers. Each headline includes a link to the blog. …Learn More

hospital

Research

Despite Medicare, Medical Expenses Bite

Medicare pays for the bulk of the medical care for Americans over 65, but a lot of their income is still eaten up by medical expenses.

The list of expenses is long. The lion’s share goes toward various insurance premiums – for Medicare Part B coverage, Part D prescription drug coverage, and supplemental insurance, whether Medigap, a Medicare Advantage plan, or employer health insurance for retirees. The remaining costs, for copayments and deductibles, are also significant.

These out-of-pocket costs, when added together, averaged about $4,300 annually per person, finds a new study by researchers Melissa McInerney, Matthew Rutledge, and Sara Ellen King of the Center for Retirement Research.

Out-of-pocket costs consume a third of the amount that retirees receive from Social Security, which is the most significant source of retirement income for a wide swath of the nation’s seniors, including many people in the middle-class. Half of seniors get at least half of all their income from the federal program.

The Medicare Part D prescription drug program has given some relief to retirees. After it became effective in 2006, the share of seniors’ income consumed by out-of-pocket costs declined slightly and then declined again after a follow-up reform of Part D began to close a big gap in drug coverage – known as the donut hole – in 2010. …Learn More

slot machine

On the Web

Squared Away at Year 7

Seven years ago this month, this personal finance and retirement blog debuted. How things have changed.

For one thing, back in 2011, a lot more people were reading blogs and newspapers on their clunky desktop computers. In recognition of the now-ubiquitous smart phone – more accurately, a computer that happens to have a phone – we just redesigned how Squared Away looks on phones to enlarge the type and make the articles easier to read.  Our older readers will appreciate this update.

Year 7 is also an opportunity to restate the blog’s mission, which, frankly, was not fully refined in the early years.  In some ways, our mission has not changed: we continue to emphasize retirement security and personal finance, with a bent toward the evidence-based research that provides a clearer understanding of the financial, economic, and behavioral issues that are critical to a high quality of life.

We regularly report on research by scholars around the country, including studies produced by members of the U.S. Social Security Administration’s Retirement Research Consortium: the NBER Retirement Research Center in Cambridge, Mass., the University of Michigan Retirement Research Center, and the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, which also is the blog’s home.

But it’s natural for a new publication to find its sweet spot over time, and Squared Away is no different. One theme that has emerged very clearly is that the threads of retirement saving are shot through the fabric of our financial lives.

The predicament of Millennials is an obvious example. Immediately after beginning their careers, 20- and 30-somethings – so much more than their parents and grandparents – are under the gun to save for retirements that no longer are likely to include a pension. …Learn More

map

Field Work

Boomers are Longing to Retire Overseas

Australia, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Spain, Portugal, Scotland, Ecuador, Belize, Nicaragua – our readers living all over the world, or planning to, shared their experiences in comments posted to a February blog, “The Ultimate Travel: Retiring Abroad.”

The article profiled a Houston couple on the verge of retiring who are systematically exploring cities that interest them in Panama and Costa Rica. Few blogs have elicited so many comments – no doubt because thoughts of retiring overseas are more fun than worrying about whether the 401(k) account has enough money in it.

The success of retiree Dennis Desmond and his wife’s relocation to Australia makes it hard to resist temptation. “The weather here is incredible, the people are fantastically friendly, and the scenery is wonderful,” Desmond said in his comment.

But the picture isn’t all roses. William Pederson wrote in his comment that he knows five couples who’ve moved overseas and returned stateside. “You get what you pay for,” he said.

Here’s more of the fun stuff, and a few downsides, from our readers: …Learn More

stock market chart

Field Work

Stock Market Jitters, Millennials? Relax

Back in December, the Vanguard Group predicted a stock market that would “remain placidly subdued” in 2018.   What a difference two months has made.

A Morgan Stanley analyst, echoing many on Wall Street, has now declared, “The long-anticipated return of [stock market] volatility has arrived.”  The Standard & Poor’s index of 500 stocks slid 10 percent in a few days in late January and early February, bounced back, and then dropped again last week: the S&P declined another 2 percent, and the Dow index was down even more, by 3 percent.

No one can predict the future, of course – not Vanguard or Morgan Stanley.  “Time will tell,” the analyst said.  But while baby boomers have been thrown around by the stock market and witnessed a recovery in their portfolios, young adults might not be so chill.

Here are some earnest words of comfort, Millennials: you are truly the lucky ones. …Learn More

Boat that says "Tax refund"

Field Work

Low Earners Save Their Tax Refunds

Cash-strapped workers understandably are tempted to spend their tax refunds, a sort of financial lifeboat that floats by once a year.

Financial experts see the windfall as something more: an ideal opportunity to sock money away. Yet only about 10 percent of low-income workers save their refunds, even though doing so could prevent the financial dominoes – past due bills, late rent payments, or delayed car repairs – from falling. These are common outcomes when their spending gets out of whack.

Past experiments that tried to encourage cash-strapped low earners to save had modest success. A novel research study looks for clues to what motivates them by examining who spends the refund versus who saves it. The central finding in a Journal of Consumer Affairs article: the people who saved had put some thought into predicting the size of their refunds at the time they filed their taxes. This held true whether their estimates were accurate or not.

The act of estimating in advance “appears to be a form of planning,” said the researchers, University of Rhode Island professor Nilton Porto and Michael Collins, director of the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Financial Security.

Porto said they don’t know the reason estimating leads to saving, but he had one idea. The connection between the two could stem partly from the taxpayer having some advantage, such as financial skill or superior knowledge – in short, they might have higher financial literacy. …Learn More

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