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Field Work

Could Social Security Statement Do More?

Two out of three working Americans grade their retirement readiness at no better than a “C.”

So how about using the Social Security Statement that lands in their mailboxes, grabbing their attention, to spur them to action?

The statement is already valued by millions of Americans. A survey funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) found that people who received statements were “dramatically” more knowledgeable about their basic pension benefits than people who had already retired when SSA started mailing them out in the mid-1990s.

Social Security is the nation’s most important source of retirement income, and the information in the statements is essential to most workers’ retirement planning. Mailed out before every fifth birthday – 25, 30, 35, etc. – and annually at age 60, the statement provides estimates of each worker’s future benefits at three different claiming ages: 62, when they have access to their smallest monthly benefit; the “full retirement age”; and 70, when workers receive their highest monthly benefit. It clearly lays out how much workers can increase their monthly retirement income by delaying when they start collecting their benefits. …Learn More

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Field Work

How Melanie Paid Off Her Student Debt

Sitting at her computer in the oversized studio apartment she shares with her boyfriend in Portland, Oregon, Melanie Lockert received confirmation on Dec. 10 that her ordeal was over: $81,000 in college and graduate school loans were finally paid off.

She had two reactions. The first was an existential panic. “Who am I without debt?” the 31-year-old asked herself. Then a grin spread across her face. “I started dancing and screaming in my apartment. It was such an amazing moment, and I felt incredibly happy to be done with this,” she said.

Recent college graduates might despair that their day of liberation is far away or might never come. But Lockert’s single-minded focus on demolishing her debt, particularly by accelerating her payments recently, provides a roadmap – and some hard lessons – for those facing a seemingly endless string of monthly payments.

Melanie Lockert

Lockert’s path followed a zigzag pattern, which she documented in a Dear Debt blog that she started writing in 2013. Being debt-free was not her first priority when she packed up her undergraduate loans and moved from California to New York in 2010 to attend graduate school – a decision that would more than triple her total student debt. Paying off her loans required a lot of patience and sacrifice, some risk-taking, and brutal self-honesty. She concluded that she couldn’t accomplish her financial goal if she pursued a career in the field she had studied in college. … Learn More

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On the Web

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

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Field Work

Breaking Up (the Pension) Is Hard to Do

In a divorce, splitting up the pension is trickier than dividing the house.

Divorcing couples and their advisers “who aren’t hip to divorce splitting of retirement plan assets often do it improperly,” said Howard Phillips, a Delray Beach, Florida, actuary and author of “Dividing Retirement Plan Assets in a Divorce.”  He knows, because he values pensions for couples negotiating their divorce settlements and then drafts the order that will be entered into the court.

Dividing a house is easy.  Two realtors pouring over sales of comparable nearby properties can readily agree on a value – once the house is sold, the parties pay the realtor and split the proceeds.  But a pension plan’s value greatly depends on how and when it’s counted and the method used to allocate that value between the spouses.

Phillips explained the basics of how defined benefit plans and defined contribution plans – 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and IRAs – may be handled in a divorce during a recent podcast for the Retirement Income Industry Association.  The following methods for splitting a pension 50/50 have strikingly different outcomes for the participant in the pension plan and for his or her former spouse:

Defined contribution plans:

  • Tracing assets: If one spouse comes to the marriage with $50,000 in a 10-year-old 401(k) account, only contributions made during the marriage – and investment returns on the new contributions – are divided.  If the plan now has $150,000, the amount that’s divided up can vary widely – or it can be zero if no new contributions were made during the marriage. The remaining balance goes to the spouse who started the 401(k) account. …
  • Learn More

Research

The Impact of Taxing Health Premiums

Excluding the health insurance premiums paid by employers and employees from workers’ taxable earnings is the federal government’s largest single tax expenditure, amounting to some $250 billion a year in lost revenue.

Eliminating the exclusions – as some in Washington have proposed – would sharply increase how much is taken out of workers’ paychecks for payroll taxes and for income taxes. But any such proposal would also put more money in their pockets when they retire by increasing the earnings base on which their Social Security benefits are calculated.

Urban Institute researchers Karen Smith and Eric Toder recently estimated the policy’s impact on workers’ taxes and benefits and found that it varied widely for different income groups and among people born in five different decades, the 1950s through the 1990s.

Their analysis took into account the myriad idiosyncrasies of the U.S. tax code, including a regressive payroll tax, a progressive income tax, Earned Income Tax Credits paid to the lowest-wage workers, and the cap on payroll taxes for the highest earners.  To evaluate the proposals’ impact, the researchers added the premium amounts paid by both the employer and employee to workers’ taxable incomes – just as the deficit reduction proposals would do.

The resulting tax bite would be largest for the middle class.  That’s because middle-income workers are more likely to have employer-provided health insurance than lower-income workers, and their insurance premiums are a larger share of their income than they are for higher-income groups.  Under the proposal, middle-income workers’ federal income and payroll taxes would rise by an amount equal to 3.5 percent of their lifetime earnings. …Learn More

Field Work

Alzheimer’s: a Financial Plan Revamped

Ken Sullivan and Michelle Palomera with their daughters Leah (left) and Abby.

Ken Sullivan’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease at age 47 unleashed a torrent of feelings: shock, isolation, fear.  It’s probably why he lost his demanding job at a large financial company.

The diagnosis was also emotionally devastating for his wife, Michelle Palomera.

But for both of them, it was a rude awakening to the myriad financial preparations required for Alzheimer’s.  Even though both are financial professionals, they had no idea how complex it would be to revise their existing financial plan, how hard it would be to find professionals with the specific legal and financial expertise to help them, or how long this project would take – 17 months and counting.

“This disease has so many layers and aspects to it,” Palomera said.

The risk to an older individual of getting Alzheimer’s is only 10 percent – and early-onset like Sullivan’s is even rarer.  But when there is a diagnosis, one issue is the lack of a centralized system for managing care and coordinating the myriad professionals and organizations involved.  These range from the medical people who diagnose and treat an Alzheimer’s victim to health insurers, attorneys, social workers, disability and long-term care providers, and the real estate agent who may be needed if a victim or the family decides they can’t remain in their home.

Sullivan and Palomera had always shared their family’s financial duties.  But Sullivan’s new struggles with details and spreadsheets left these tasks entirely on Palomera’s shoulders – all while juggling her job as a managing director for a financial company.  “If something were to happen to me, I have to be really air tight on having everything squared away so the trustee – someone – can manage the situation for our daughters and Ken,” she said.

After Sullivan’s June 8, 2013 diagnosis, the couple called family to gently break the news. Their next calls were to a disability attorney and a financial planner.   They’ve since gone through four estate attorneys to find one who could answer their questions and suggest the best options for themselves and daughters Leah, 9, and Abby, 11.Learn More

Behavior

New Book Spotlights Behavioral Finance

Investor Behavior Book CoverDid you know that an investor may be more likely to hold on to a money-loser if he bought it himself than if he inherited it? That people born with the “warrior gene” will take more risks? Or that trust is essential to whether individuals prepare for retirement?

A new edited volume, “Investor Behavior: the Psychology of Financial Planning and Investing,” is a thorough tour of the research on these and other aspects of behavioral finance.  The book was compiled for financial planners, investment professionals, academics, and finance students and edited by two finance professors, H. Kent Baker of American University’s Kogod School of Business and Victor Ricciardi of Goucher College.

The field of behavioral finance is gaining traction as financial experts increasingly recognize that psychology, sociology, neurology and other fields may have something to say about why people behave the way they do around money.

Traditional theories explaining investor behavior, such as modern portfolio and utility theory, assume that people make “rational” choices.  In contrast, the research covered in this new book tries to explain why financial decisions are not always rational, are often infused with emotion, and can be very predictable.  Or, as 1978 Nobel laureate Herbert Simon once explained, orthodox finance’s “traditional paradigm did not describe the behavior of real people,” the book says. …Learn More

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Research

Swedish Retirees Spend More Freely

Americans are known for being reluctant to spend their life savings after they retire. The burning question has always been why.

New research comparing tight-fisted Americans with more free-spending Swedes found that U.S. retirees tend to hold on to their savings, because they face more risk of having to pay high out-of-pocket costs in the future for their medical and long-term care.

U.S. households, by the time they’re in their late 80s, have tapped only about one-third of the net worth they held in their late 60s, according to the study. Swedish households in their late 80s have spent more than three-fourths.

In preliminary findings presented at an August meeting of the Retirement Research Consortium in Washington, researcher Irina Telyukova said her study with Makoto Nakajima found that nearly 70 percent of the difference in the way Swedish and U.S. retirees spend down their financial assets can be explained by differences in their potential future medical costs.

Sweden’s healthcare system reduces the uncertainties for retirees in two ways. Sweden has national health care for everyone. Swedish municipalities are responsible for providing long-term care to the elderly in their communities, limiting a cost that can be enormous for U.S. retirees who need these services. …Learn More

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