November 2019

Photo of turkey

Happy Thanksgiving to All!

Whether you’re having Thanksgiving with family or your celebration will take the form of a Friendsgiving, the staff at Squared Away and the blog’s sponsor, the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, wish you a wonderful holiday. …Learn More

The Art of Persuasion and Social Security

Retirees could get substantially more in their Social Security check if they would just wait longer – up to age 70 – to sign up.

Bar graph showing Social Security claiming agesBut only a tiny fraction of workers make it to 70, and more than a third get the minimum monthly benefits because they start them as soon as the program allows, at 62. A Bocconi University professor and three UCLA professors have set about trying to change minds by testing 13 ways of encouraging older workers to hold off and lock in a larger Social Security check.

The techniques, which they tried on various groups of workers between ages 40 and 61, ranged widely in approach. But two of the most successful tests had one thing in common: participants were asked to engage in a little reflection about the personal impact of choosing when to start receiving their Social Security. This approach departed from the more common strategy of trying to influence people by feeding them financial or other information.

Everyone began the same way: they saw a table showing how much more they would receive from Social Security for each year after 62 that they delayed. One of the most effective tests was an exercise in self-reflection. The participants were asked to list “their own reasons” for how delaying would help them personally. Only after this step did they list the reasons to start their benefits at a younger age.

The order of these requests was intentional and intended to counteract the tendency by most people to focus on their short-term desires. This group reported that they intended to sign up 10 months later than the control group, which wasn’t exposed to the test, according to the study conducted for the Retirement Research Consortium. …Learn More

Oldest Women, Often Poor, Need a Hand

In this video, Elena Chavez Quezada introduces two working women in her family who didn’t get a fair shot at a comfortable retirement.

Her mother-in-law, a single mother and immigrant from the Dominican Republic, pieced together a living for herself, her parents, and her children. She never had a 401(k) or owned a house. Each time she built up a little savings, an emergency depleted it. Now in her 70s, she is supported by her son and Quezada.

Quezada’s aunt possessed the personality of a chief executive but worked as a housekeeper and sold snow cones and hot dogs at her husband’s stand in Albuquerque. After his death, she worked well into her 90s as a receptionist for a hair salon.

The goal for retired women like them should be “to age comfortably and with dignity,” said Quezada, a senior director for the San Francisco Foundation, which supports communities in the Bay area.

That’s very difficult for many older women to do. They have less wealth, and although their poverty rate has declined, women – many of them widows – still make up the vast majority of poor people over 80. This is rooted in part in their years as working women, when they earned less. Women are also the majority of single parents raising their families on a single paycheck.

A lack of a retirement plan is a common problem. More than half of the women employed full-time or part-time in the private sector are not saving in a retirement plan at any given time. …Learn More

Unbalanced scales

Social Security Eases Racial Disparities

Social Security is a major source of income for most retirees. It is even more important to blacks and Hispanics in a nation that is becoming increasingly diverse.

Social Security is helping to even out the racial and ethnic inequities in income and wealth that exist in the working population and continue in old age, according to a study by the Center for Retirement Research for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

The researchers estimate how much Social Security reduces this inequality by comparing retirement wealth for white, black, and Hispanic-Americans.

Wealth is defined broadly to include obvious things like home equity and financial assets such as 401(k) retirement accounts, certificates of deposit, and money market accounts. In addition, the researchers converted the income that workers get from Social Security and defined benefit pensions into wealth by estimating the total value today of their future benefit checks.

The estimates of wealth, when Social Security is excluded, reveal enormous disparities. The typical white worker in his early- to mid-50s can expect to have about $177,000 in non-Social Security wealth in retirement, compared with just $24,000 for blacks – about a 7 to 1 ratio. Hispanics have $35,000 – or a 5 to 1 ratio.

These ratios improve dramatically, dropping to roughly 2 to 1 when Social Security is added in. The white worker has $378,000 in total wealth, compared with $173,000 for blacks and $186,000 for Hispanics.

Social Security’s progressive benefit formula reduces retirement inequality by replacing more of the income of lower-paid workers. The program also provides nearly universal coverage, whereas many workers do not have access to retirement plans at work. These features help black and Hispanic workers, who tend to have lower incomes and are also less likely to have retirement plans.

“Social Security is the most equal form of retirement wealth and the most important source for most minority households,” the researchers conclude. …Learn More

More Retirees Today Have a Mortgage

In one significant way, retirement is materially different than it used to be: far more retirees are still trying to pay off their houses.

Bar graph showing the number of retirees with mortgagesThirty years ago, just one of every four homeowners in their late 60s to late 70s still had a mortgage – today, nearly half do. Once people hit 80, mortgages used to be extremely rare – only 3 percent had them. Today, it’s one in four, Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies recently reported.

Retiree’s financial condition depends on much more than how much they spend on housing – in particular the size of their retirement savings accounts and Social Security checks. But rent or a mortgage payment is typically the largest item in the monthly budget. Being free of both can be a significant boost to one’s standard of living in retirement.

Jennifer Molinsky, a senior research associate at Harvard’s housing center, described several developments over the past three decades that may explain the dramatic increase in the share of retirees with mortgages.

First, she said, Americans today “seem to have less aversion to debt” than the generation that grew up after the Great Depression and was instilled with frugality. Although consumer debt levels always ebb and flow with the economy’s cycles, total debt as a percentage of disposable income is significantly higher today than it was in the 1990s. The 1986 tax reform act also made mortgages a more attractive form of debt to hold. The reform eliminated the income tax deductions for interest on credit cards and other types of consumer debt, with one exception: mortgage interest.

Having a mortgage isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Mortgage rates have fallen dramatically in recent decades. Many retirees who are still making monthly mortgage payments were able to reduce the payments by refinancing old, partially paid off mortgages into new 30-year loans with lower interest rates.

But another factor that may have pushed up the share of retirees with mortgages has been the long-term run-up in house prices, relative to earnings, which makes it increasingly difficult to pay off a house before retiring. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, house prices were about three times the typical household’s earnings, according to the housing center. Today, prices are more than four times earnings. …Learn More

From Disability to Low Retirement Income

By their early 60s, four out of five workers have chronic health problems. One in four has developed some type of physical or cognitive limitation.

If these problems force them to stop working, they can apply to Social Security for disability. But developing a disability late in a career still has long-term financial consequences. These workers not only give up their steady paychecks. Their preparations for retirement are also derailed at a critical time.

A 2018 study in the Journal of Disability and Policy Studies quantifies the financial fallout. Four groups were compared, each ranging in age from 67 to 69. One started receiving disability benefits sometime between 58 and 62. A second group went on disability between 62 and Social Security’s full retirement age, which is 66 for most boomers. The other two groups claimed their regular retirement benefits. One signed up between the earliest age allowed – 62 – and the full retirement age, and one started their benefits after the full retirement age, which yields a larger monthly check.

Where each of the four groups falls in a ranking of retirement incomes is easy to predict: the earlier a worker starts disability benefits, the less income he’ll have. Healthy retirees, on the other hand, enjoy big rewards from continuing to work, saving in a 401(k), accruing pension credits, and delaying Social Security.

Household income for the last group to retire was $76,000 per year at ages 67 to 69, with Social Security providing only about a third of it, according to researchers at Mathematica who conducted the study for the Disability Research Consortium. Households that claimed a retirement benefit between 62 and the full retirement age had $48,000 in income, with 45 percent supplied by Social Security.


 
The retirees who had been on disability were far worse off in their late 60s. If they started receiving the benefits between 62 and their full retirement age, they had only $36,000 in household income in their late 60s – not even half the income of the late retirees. Social Security retirement benefits were the largest source of income, supplying two-thirds of it. …Learn More

A Brighter Future for a Graying Workforce

Perceptions of older workers haven’t caught up with the reality of their increasingly prominent role in the labor force.

The federal Administration for Community Living reports that the U.S. population over age 60 has surged nearly 40 percent in just the past decade. By 2030, retirees will outnumber children for the first time in history, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts. The world population is on a similar path.

But in the face of this significant demographic shift, discriminatory views of older people persist in obvious and subtle ways. This discrimination colors coworkers’ beliefs about, among other things, older workers’ mental ability, efficiency, and competence on the job, according to one international review of studies on aging.

When people think about the future, “they fail to appreciate the potential that older workers present as workers and consumers,” Paul Irving, an expert on aging, writes in a special November edition of the Harvard Business Review exploring issues relevant to our aging workforce.

Research backs him up. Older people are living longer than past generations, which gives them more capacity to extend their work lives. They’re also generally healthier and enjoy more disability-free years, thanks to innovations like cataract surgery to restore their vision.

But ageism’s consequences are still apparent in the workplace. An Urban Institute report said that older workers, for a variety of reasons, are frequently pushed or nudged out of a long-term job at some point late in their careers. Some are forced into early retirement. And for those who do find another job, the new opportunities, while less stressful, are often a step down in terms of prestige and pay.

Irving, who is chairman of the Milken Institute’s Center for the Future of Aging, wants to chart a more hopeful path for our graying U.S. workforce, one that views it as an opportunity – rather than a looming crisis. …Learn More