October 4, 2012
The Long-Term Care Insurance Gamble
A good friend in Houston recently emailed me to ask whether she should buy long-term care insurance. Let me be very clear about my answer: I have no idea.
This writer is like baby boomers everywhere trying to get a grip on this long-term care stuff. Where to start?
First, let’s look at the prices for long-term care. Squared Away used data from Genworth, one of the nation’s largest insurers in this market, to generate a U.S. map with the median cost in each state of a semi-private room in a nursing care facility.
Genworth’s goal is obviously to sell insurance. But I ran its data by a few people, and it held up well, with a few observations and caveats discussed later…Learn More
September 25, 2012
401(k) Fund Choices: Less is More
New research suggests that the more mutual funds your 401(k) offers, the more likely you are to take the easy way out to escape the mental gridlock.
The typical 401(k) has seven mutual fund investment options, but some have as many as 21 funds. We may think we like choices, but behavioral research has shown that people simply can’t handle so many options – that’s why some employers have turned to auto enrollment in their 401(k)s or picking investments for workers who can’t or won’t make the decision.
A new study building on prior research finds that the more investment options an employee has the more likely he or she is to simply divide the money evenly among those options. This can potentially reduce the diversification in employees’ retirement portfolios, with long-term consequences.
“We find that considering a larger number of funds to invest in may be overwhelming for many investors,” said the research, by Gergana Nenkov and colleagues at Boston College, as well as Rutgers University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Texas, Austin. Splitting the money evenly is how we cope.
“We just don’t have enough capacity to sift through the options that are out there,” Nenkov explained in an interview. Employees aren’t financial experts, and asking them to make these decisions is often “too much,” she said, and may even be “making us unhappy.”
The focus is on 401(k) choices in this study, recently published in the Journal of Marketing Research, But the argument may apply to the proliferation of all kinds of complex financial products, including credit cards charging different rates for balance transfers, purchases and cash advances, as well as debit cards with hidden fees and mortgages with complicated terms.
Multiple products act to prevent consumers from comparison shopping. But the demise of the defined benefit plan and the sudden responsibility thrown on employees to manage tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in their personal investment portfolios is clearly more than many of us can handle. Don’t feel bad either – Nenkov, who has a PhD in marketing, admits to feeling overwhelmed by the choices. (As does this blog writer.) …Learn More
September 20, 2012
Social Security: There is a Better Way
Married couples have up to 567 options for deciding when and how to file for their Social Security benefits. Yes, 567!
“They are faced with a bewildering array” of choices, said David Freitag, vice president of Impact Technologies Group Inc. in Charlotte, North Carolina, which just released a spiffy, user-friendly Social Security calculator to help.
No wonder people just throw up their hands and claim their benefits at 62, when they first become eligible. But in the midst of the baby boomer retirement tsunami, oodles of calculators are coming online to simplify the decision for couples. Impact is offering a 14-day free trial to anyone who wants to test its calculator.
Couples’ strategies have become more complex, because today’s boomer wives have spent a lifetime working and because they may earn wages rivaling or exceeding their husband’s, said Jim Blankenship, a financial planner in New Berlin in central Illinois. There is also more money at stake in making the right decision, he said.
“Before, it was much easier to have a rule of thumb to go by,” he said. “The decisions are different than what they used to be.” …Learn More
September 13, 2012
It Pays More Than Ever To Delay
Single people can receive tens of thousands more from Social Security over many years of retirement and couples can receive nearly $125,000 more by waiting until their late 60s to sign up.
The most common age for starting up Social Security is 62, when individuals first become eligible, even though monthly benefit checks would rise sharply if they’d wait. But it’s becoming increasingly worthwhile financially to hold out, according to economist Sita Nataraj Slavov of the American Enterprise Institute, who presented her research findings at the Retirement Research Conference in Washington last month.
This contradicts the conventional wisdom that no matter when people file, they’re going to essentially receive the same total amount over their entire retirement. The trade-off has always been between filing early and receiving a smaller check for a longer period of time, or filing later and receiving a bigger check for fewer years. Financially, it’s a wash.
But an economic fluke has changed all that: historically low interest rates. Slavov and co-author John Shoven, a Stanford University economist, have determined that, increasingly, there’s a payoff to holding out in this unusual rate environment. (More later on how that works.)
“There’s real money at stake here. This is not a trivial amount for most people,” Slavov said in a telephone interview. “What we’re trying to communicate is, it’d be good to think more about what you’re giving up when you claim early.”
At Squared Away’s request, Slavov calculated the present values for retirees who file for Social Security at the age at which they would maximize their benefits – she did so for the average single man, single woman, and two-earner couple. The payoff is largest for married couples who delay filing for benefits: …Learn More
September 11, 2012
Motivation to Save: A Simple Solution?
Quiz: by socking away $400 per month, earning 10 percent on your money, you can save $302,412 in 20 years. So, how much would you have in that same account in 40 years?
Yes, it’s more than double. But how much more?
Most Americans can’t do the math, explains Craig McKenzie of the University of California, San Diego’s Rady School of Management, in this video. And if they can’t do the math, then they are unable to comprehend how much easier their lives would be if they took advantage of the enormous benefits of starting to save early for their retirement.
That’s hardly surprising. What is surprising, however, is that McKenzie, a cognitive psychologist by training, experimented with a “simple, straightforward intervention” to get the point across to research subjects of the large boost to saving of earning compound interest over many years. Even better, it succeeded in motivating them to save, he said.
The solution is, as promised, simple – so easy that employers who offer 401ks, as well as mutual fund companies, banks and credit unions, could easily implement it…
September 6, 2012
Campaign Discourse Misses Major Issue
Retirement-income security is receiving little attention as the presidential campaign heats up, despite a mound of evidence that Americans’ retirement prospects are stagnating – or worse.
While Medicare has been at the center of the debate, there has been little emphasis on the broader topic of income security for what remains the largest demographic bulge in U.S. history – the baby boomer generation – and now the largest block of retirees.
In the retirement community, however, debate swirls constantly about how bad the situation really is. These debates are slicing the onion awfully thin when one research paper or report after another contains a new aspect of the troubling fallout from the final years of a transition from secure, employer-guaranteed pensions to DIY retirement. Sometimes it seems that Wall Street’s collapse in 2008 was just the kickoff for the bad news on the retirement front.
A new report from Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research, which funds this blog, finds that just 42 percent of workers in the private sector had pension coverage in their current jobs in 2010 – that’s coverage of any kind, including the defined-contribution plans that now dominate. Yikes!…Learn More
September 4, 2012
Flatline: U.S. Retirement Savings
Baby boomers’ balances in 401k and IRA accounts have barely budged for most of the past decade.
In 2004, the typical U.S. household between ages 55 and 64 held just over $45,000 in their tax-exempt retirement plans. Plan balances for people who fell in that age group in 2007 rose but settled back down after the biggest financial crisis in U.S. history. In 2010, they were $42,000, a few bucks lower than 2004 balances.
These are among the reams of sobering data contained in the Federal Reserve’s 2010 Survey of Consumer Finances released in June. The $42,000 average balance is for all Americans – it includes the more than half of U.S. workers who do not participate in an employer-sponsored savings program.
There’s more bad news buried in the SCF: the value of other financial assets such as bank savings accounts dropped in half, to $18,000. And hardship withdrawals from 401(k)s have increased, to more than 2 percent of plan participants, from 1.5 percent in 2004.
So, where did all that wealth created by the longest economic boom in U.S. history go? The 2008 financial collapse didn’t help. But we can also blame the baby boom culture. Click here to read a year-ago article that examines the cultural reasons for the troubling condition of our retirement system.
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