Author Archives: Kim Blanton

Using Home Equity Improves Retiree Health

Retirees spend $1,500 more per year, on average, for medical care after a diagnosis of a serious condition like lung disease or diabetes.

Often, the solution for individuals who can’t afford such big bills is to scrimp on care or avoid the doctor altogether. But older homeowners can get access to extra cash if they withdraw some of the home equity they’ve built up over the years.

While the money clearly provides financial relief for retirees, a new study out of Ohio State University finds that it is also good for their health. Every $10,000 that Medicare beneficiaries extracted from their homes greatly improved their success in controlling a chronic or serious disease.

Among the retirees who had hypertension or heart disease, for example, one standard used to determine whether the condition was under control was whether blood pressure levels stayed below 140/90, which the medical profession deems an acceptable level. The people who tapped their home equity were more likely to stay below these levels than those who did not.

This is one of several studies in recent years to tie financial security to home equity, a resource many retirees are reluctant to tap. A study in 2020 found that older homeowners were less likely to skip medications due to cost after they had extracted equity through a refinancing, home equity loan, or reverse mortgage.

But this new research is the first attempt to connect the strategy to retirees’ actual health. The analysis followed the health of more than 4,000 homeowners for up to 15 years after they were diagnosed with one of four conditions – lung disease, diabetes, heart conditions, or cancer. …Learn More

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Boomers Lament Disappearance of Pensions

More than one of this blog’s readers said a recent article about 401(k)s was hardly revelatory. But it sure generated a lot of comments.

Ed McGrath wrote this about “Retirees with Pensions Slower to Spend 401(k):” “Well thank you for this Caption Obvious.”

Perhaps the article struck a nerve because baby boomers are the generation who mostly lost out on pensions. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. workers born in the 1920s through the 1940s – many of them parents of boomers – had pensions. But a measly 6 percent of boomers from the tail end of the wave have them.

Millennials and members of Generation Z usually wouldn’t even consider pensions in their retirement plans. But boomers at one time might’ve hoped or even expected to enjoy a retirement similar to their pensioned parents.

“I am a single woman, a former nurse, and not one job offered me a pension,” said Jennifer Lee, who is 67. “I am relying on my savings and Social Security as well as the equity in my home.” Lee expressed chagrin that a 60-year-old cousin – a rare boomer with a pension – has already “mailed in his retirement papers.”

Gumball MachineSeveral readers pointed out problems with a U.S. retirement system that increasingly relies on savings – leaving retirees to figure out how much to withdraw every year – as monthly pension checks have disappeared. Ken Pidock, quoting a financial journalist, said 401(k)s lack the reliability of pensions: “Forcing people of modest means to depend on the stock market for income to pay bills after they stop working is madness.”

Paul Brustowicz, a former insurance company employee in his late 70s, feels lucky to have the security that comes with a pension, along with his Social Security and some IRA funds he converted to an annuity. “The steady monthly income lets my wife rest easy at night,” he said.

But another reader, Brian Jarvis, has a different perspective on the generational pension divide. “Yes, my father had a traditional pension that I don’t have,” he said. But Jarvis and his wife built up an ample nest egg “that my parents couldn’t have dreamed of,” he said. “We’ll be in good shape for quite a while – the rest of our lives – even without our parents’ type of pensions.”

Unfortunately, not everyone is as prepared as Jarvis. About half of U.S. households aren’t saving enough to retire at the traditional age of 65, which puts them at risk of suffering a drop in their standard of living when they quit working and the paychecks stop. …Learn More

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Disability Applicants’ Opioid Use in Decline

A big drop in opioid use among people applying for federal disability benefits seems like encouraging news, even if they do still use the drugs at considerably higher rates than the general population.

A Big Drop in Use in Just 5 YearsNew research finds that opioid use fell from one in three disability applicants in 2013 to one in four 2018 applicants. And the improvements were across the board: opioid use declined regardless of age, education level, sex, or region, according to the study funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration, which administers the program.

The researchers wanted to get as accurate a picture as possible of use and abuse in the disability community, a source of one in four hospitalizations for opioid overdoses. To tease out opioid use in Social Security’s records, they combed through applicants’ own free text descriptions of their medications for every conceivable name they might’ve used, including generic and brand names. The researchers even included misspellings – for example, oxycotin for oxycontin – and excluded cough suppressants with an opioid as an ingredient. …Learn More

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Retired Couple Chopped Down $40,000 Debt

While living in New York City, Clifton Seale and Charles Gilmore piled up an enormous amount of credit card debt for basic expenses and frequent dinners out.

After retiring – Seale was a librarian and Gilmore a clergyman – the couple were notified of a $200 rent increase on their Queens apartment. With so much debt on the books, they realized they could no longer afford New York City, and after a few visits to see friends near the Delaware seashore, they moved there.

“I like to say I flunked retirement because I found out neither of us could afford to live on the pension and Social Security,” Gilmore said.

Although Delaware was a less expensive place to live, they didn’t turn their finances around until they found the non-profit Stand by Me 50+, which offers free financial coaches to Delaware residents over age 50.

The couple, who have been together 35 years and married for 8 years, have a decent income by rural Delaware’s standards, if not New York’s. Their combined income is about $70,000 per year. They were able to buy a $185,000 three-bedroom house in Lincoln, Delaware, after a friend helped with the down payment. Their $1,150 mortgage isn’t much more than the rent on their one-bedroom apartment in Queens.

Credit cards were Seale and Gilmore’s big issue. They owed about $40,000, including moving expenses and some new furniture purchased in Delaware. Both of them had retired at a fairly young age – 62 – but felt they had no choice but to go back to work. Gilmore found a job at a local operation for a national hospice organization and, last September, landed a part-time position as a Presbyterian pastor. Seale has worked at a non-profit that helps seniors who want to age in their homes.

The extra income helped, but the debt was still going up. “We weren’t paying off as much [debt] as we were spending,” Seale said. “No matter what I did, everything was still falling down around my shoulders.”

They just needed to get rid of the debt. …Learn More

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Low-Income Retiree Gets Financial Coach

Every state should have what Delaware has: a program that helps low- and moderate-income seniors find a financial survival strategy.

Stand by me logoSince it opened in 2013, the program, Stand by Me 50+, has connected more than 2,300 older residents – mostly retirees – with federal and state aid programs, advised them of Social Security’s rules, and helped them pay medical bills or eliminate debt. The services are free.

Kathleen Rupert, a financial coach and head of the organization, helped one man in his 70s pay off $13,000 in debt. Another retiree doubled his income from Social Security after she determined that he was eligible for his late wife’s $1,700 benefit. About 44 percent of the program’s clients have monthly income of $1,500 or less.

“We go wherever the need is – to senior housing, senior centers, community centers, libraries,” she said. “We set up appointments at Panera Bread or Hardee’s – wherever they’re available.”

Squared Away interviewed three clients who said the financial solutions they got from the program have given them peace of mind. Here is the first client’s account of how Stand by Me 50+ helped her.

Peggy Grasty with great granddaughters, Aaliyah Gale and Quamiylah Sease.Peggy Grasty with great granddaughters, Aaliyah Gale and Quamiylah Sease.

Peggy Grasty retired in 2010 after two decades at Elwyn, a non-profit social services agency where she was a supervisor and worked with people with mental disabilities. She continues to help people – voluntarily. The 71-year-old takes other retirees under her wing who need assistance because they have trouble walking or aren’t as capable as her.

She initially contacted Stand by Me because she couldn’t make ends meet. She has a comfortable, federally subsidized apartment in Wilmington, Delaware. But her income is limited to a $1,500 Social Security check and a $53 pension from a job long ago waxing floors and driving a bus for a Pennsylvania middle school.

Stand by Me got help for Grasty through two programs: federal SNAP food stamps and a Delaware non-profit that pays low-income residents’ medical bills. By doing this type of work, the program addresses a real need. Although myriad financial assistance programs are available for low-income workers and retirees, they are frequently unaware of the programs, assume they don’t qualify, or may need help navigating the application process. …Learn More

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High School Career Courses Keep on Giving

High school classFor young adults who don’t have a college degree, the career-oriented courses they took in high school give them a leg up in the job market. But do the benefits of higher-quality employment after high school continue into middle age?

The first known U.S. study to examine the long-term impact of high school curricula finds that career and technical classes produce workers who, even though they didn’t attend college, are employed at age 50 – even better if they also took Algebra 2 and other college-prep math courses.

To target the students who prepared themselves for better-paying jobs, the courses the researcher counted as career-oriented were business and marketing, health care, agriculture, and computer programming. Amanda Bosky at the University of Wisconsin excluded courses that tracked students into low-wage work like food service and childcare.

Career and technical courses improved the labor market standing of men and women, with subtle differences. For the women, the more career courses they took in high school, the more likely they were to be employed at age 50. The benefits held true regardless of the individual’s innate characteristics, which usually play a role in career success – from scores on standardized math tests to parents’ income.

For 50-year-old men, any amount of career and technical training improved their odds of continued work, according to the analysis, which used a survey of 1982 high school graduates that checked in on them again decades later. The students’ transcripts, detailing their coursework, supplemented the survey.

Although Bosky didn’t examine the types of jobs the older workers were doing, her premise is that it’s better to be employed than not in the years before retiring.

The findings have another important implication. Understanding what it takes for high school graduates to be engaged in the labor force at 50 is crucial at a time secure union jobs are being eliminated and the demands of a technology-based economy have increased. …Learn More

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Viewing Retirement Saving as a Fresh Start

Employers have learned over the years that understanding employee psychology is critical to getting them to save for retirement. Researchers have landed on a novel idea along those lines: explain to employees that they have an opportunity to save in a 401(k) or increase their 401(k) saving on a future date that represents a fresh start, such as a birthday or the first day of spring.

In a 2021 study in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, this “fresh start framing” during an experiment increased the percentage of workers who agreed to contribute to their employer retirement plans and increased the share of pay contributed to the plans. In both cases, the increases were well in excess of 25 percent in a comparison with employees who were presented with less salient future dates.

Add this technique to a well-established one that growing numbers of employers already use with some success: automatically enrolling workers in the 401(k), and sometimes automatically increasing their contributions, which research has shown can work better than waiting for them to do it themselves. Most of the retirement plans in the study did not have any automatic features, and the fresh start dates proved another way to elicit better saving habits – voluntarily.

The option to delay a commitment to save is based on an assumption that people are more willing to make a change that involves sacrifice if it can be postponed – smokers often try to quit this way. One theory for using a fresh start date is that it imbues a feeling of optimism, giving employees permission to set aside past failures. …Learn More

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