Social Security sign

Social Security Tapped More in Downturn

It happened after the 2001 and 2008-2009 recessions, and it will happen again. Some older workers who lose their jobs will turn, in desperation, to a ready source of cash: Social Security.

In the wake of a stock market crash like the one we just experienced, baby boomers’ first inclination will be to remain employed a few more years to make up some of the investment losses in their 401(k)s. But as the economy slows and layoffs mount, that may not be an option for many of the unemployed boomers, who will need to get income wherever they can find it.

Age 62 is the earliest that Social Security allows workers to start their retirement benefits. In 2009, one year after the stock market plummeted, 42.4 percent of 62-year-olds signed up for their benefits, up sharply from 37.6 percent in 2008, according to the Center for Retirement Research (CRR).

Social Security is a critical source of income even in good times. One out of two retirees receives half of their income from the program, and they can also count on it when times get tough.

But the financial cost of starting Social Security prematurely is steep, because it locks in a smaller monthly benefit for the rest of the retiree’s life. For those who can wait, the size of the monthly check increases an average 7 percent to 8 percent per year for each year claiming is delayed up until age 70.

Unfortunately, the people who claimed Social Security early in the wake of the 2001 recession had fewer financial resources to begin with – namely, their earnings were lower, they had less wealth, and they were less likely to have a spouse to fall back on – according to the CRR study.

“These simple characteristics suggest that those hardest hit by recessions are most likely to use Social Security as an income-insurance policy,” the researchers concluded. …Learn More

child drawing with chalk

Medicaid for Children Pays Off Later

Medicaid health insurance, which covers a third of the nation’s children, has a payoff down the line: fewer adults on disability.

A well-known benefit of Medicaid is that low-income children covered under the insurance program turn into healthier adults. But a recent study found that these health improvements translate to another positive outcome for adults: fewer applications to Social Security’s Disability Insurance (SSDI) program, which provides monthly cash benefits to people who are not healthy enough to work.

The study, conducted by researchers at Middlebury College and Vanderbilt University, used U.S. Census data to follow 63,000 individuals between ages 25 and 64 who were exposed to Medicaid for various lengths of time during childhood, depending on when they were born and when their state first implemented the program, which Congress passed in 1965.

First, the study confirmed the health benefits of Medicaid coverage for children: the adults in the study could more easily pass a few basic tests of health and physical stamina, such as lifting 10 pounds, standing for an hour, and walking up 10 stairs.

And better health did, indeed, reduce their applications for SSDI – and ultimately, the number of adults receiving disability benefits. In fact, the longer they would have been insured under Medicaid as children, the less likely they were to apply for disability, said the study, which was for NBER’s Retirement and Disability Research Center.

This is a clear example of how early intervention can reduce government spending down the road. …Learn More

Boomers Cope with Real Financial Pain

We really appreciate readers opening up about their personal experiences in the comments section at the end of each blog. It’s important to stop occasionally and listen to what they have to say.

Aging readers reacted strongly to blog posts in recent weeks about two of the biggest challenges they face: spiraling prescription drug costs and a so-so job market for older workers who aren’t ready to retire.

Here are summaries of their comments on each article:

High Drug Prices Erode Part D Coverage

Readers expressed anger about rising prescription drug prices in response to a blog featuring a diabetic in Arizona who, despite having a Medicare Part D plan, spends thousands of dollars a year for her insulin. She resorts occasionally to buying surplus supplies on eBay from private individuals.

Dr. Edward Hoffer in Boston responded that Americans pay five times more for Lantus than diabetics in the rest of the world. “The same is true for most brand name drugs and most medical devices. It is an embarrassment that we pay double per capita what comparable western countries pay for health care with worse national health statistics,” he said.

Bill MacDonald shared his story in a Tweet and follow-up messages.  This North Carolina retiree on a fixed income has paid $6,000 annually out-of-pocket – a third of his income – for two drugs he’s taken since an automobile accident caused medical problems and depression that led to other issues. He spends $3,200 for one of the drugs, a cholesterol medication called Repatha – that’s his tab after his insurance company pays for most of it. (Last year, Amgen slashed Repatha’s price from more than $10,000 per year to $5,850, which MacDonald hopes will reduce this expense.)

Steve B. was thrilled about a new generic on the market to replace his Rapaflo, a prostate medication. Then he learned that the generic is not much of a bargain either.

Careers Become Dicey after Age 50Learn More

Drug Discounts, Other Help Available

Consumers are powerless to control spiraling medication prices, but low-income, uninsured and under-insured individuals can often get help paying for their drugs.

The help, in the form of subsidies or prescription price reductions, comes from four sources. The first is exclusively for seniors on Medicare, but the rest are available to everyone.

Federal aid

Medicare’s Extra Help program provides up to $4,900 to subsidize retirees’ drug copayments and Medicare Part D premiums. Individuals are eligible for this assistance if their income is less than $18,210 and the value of their investments, bank accounts and other assets is under $14,390. The limits for couples are $24,690 in income and $28,720 in assets.  Retirees who own their homes do not have to include the property’s value in this limit. Social Security’s website explains what does and does not count as assets.

Social Security takes the applications for this Medicare program. Applications can be submitted either online (SSA form 1020) or in person by making an appointment at a local Social Security office.  Social Security also notifies seniors about whether they qualify.

Price discounts in an app

If your drug is not covered by your health insurance, Consumer Reports suggests trying two cell phone apps (or go online) to search for the lowest-cost prescriptions at various pharmacies in your area. On the apps – GoodRx and BlinkHealth – search your drug name and dose and enter your zip code to find the discounted prices, which can vary dramatically. These companies act as middlemen between consumers and Pharmacy Benefit Managers, which buy generic and brand-name medications in bulk from manufacturers and pass the volume discounts on to consumers. GoodRx provides a coupon that can be saved on a phone or printed out for the pharmacist. BlinkRx requires consumers to pay for the drug on its website and provides a voucher for the pharmacist. These cash prices will not be run through insurance – and won’t count against your deductible – said Lisa Gill, Consumer Reports deputy editor and a specialist in medication pricing.

Walmart also offers discounts on generic drugs, and Costco has very low retail drug prices. Which option is best for you? “It’s going to depend on which medication you take and probably where you live,” Gill said. Not everyone will have success in reducing their costs but, she added, “if the drug’s not covered by insurance, it’s worth trying.” …

Learn More

Financial Product Legalese – it’s on You

Road sign

The Center for Plain Language had this to say about the legal fine print that overran one advertisement for an investment product:

“Once again a financial institution that expects me to trust them with my money makes it impossible for me to know what they are going to do with my money.”

The Center had singled out a Charles Schwab & Co. ad for a Wondermark “award” for unintelligible writing. But the center might have been referring to any of the hundreds of financial institutions that inundate us daily with online and television ads or the credit card offers that come in the mail.

Consumers are often faulted for making poor financial decisions, but surely much blame falls on financial companies that present consumers with terms of use agreements chock full of legalese or with disclosures that are difficult to read and understand.

Financial minefields pervade all aspects of our lives too. The 2016 Wondermark awards went to Victoria’s Secret for the “mumbo-jumbo” in its lengthy credit card agreement and to a Phoenix healthcare company that offers discounts to low-income customers – but first, they must decipher the confusing chart that explains who qualifies.

The person who nominated the healthcare company for an award said its discount information “seems like a classic case of the 0.2% who understand this chart will receive 85% of the Medical Financial Assistance, but they are clearly 400% above the average American who just got out of the hospital and has 0% of a clue as to what they’re talking about.” [Oddly, this chart seems to indicate that customers with higher incomes get larger discounts.] …Learn More

Illustration of different family types

Finances Change with US Family Structure

  • One out of every 10 Generation X mothers is single – many more than in the generation born during World War II.
  • Nearly two-thirds of single older people are the survivors of divorce – far more than in the past.
  • About one in three couples has moved away from their hometowns and from both of their mothers – blame this geographic mobility on the growing share of U.S. workers who are college educated.

These are just a few of the dramatic changes in U.S. family structure and behavior that have developed over the past half century.  These changes have had enormous financial consequences for everyone, especially women.

Squared Away has documented some of the financial impacts in previous blogs. A Lucky 7 such blogs, most of them based on studies by the Retirement Research Consortium, are summarized below (with links to each one):

  • Women are having babies five years later, on average, increasing their earnings substantially over their lifetimes.
  • About half of Americans don’t live near their mothers, creating new pressures for caregivers. This video explains who they are.
  • In the aftermath of divorce, many women figured out how to rebound in the labor force and earn more.
  • But when it comes to retirement preparedness, a doubling in the divorce rate since 1990 has put more baby boomers at a financial disadvantage.
  • Stepchildren, divorced parents, blended families – the structure of the parent-child relationship has grown more complex, and so have the parents’ wills. …

Learn More

Photo of house

Home Buying Not Tied to Student Debt

A popular assertion these days is that young adults paying off student loans can’t afford to buy a house. This might be the financial equivalent of Chicken Little.

Contrary to concerns that the sky is falling – or, rather, the first-time homebuyer market is falling due to student debt – a new study finds very little evidence to support this view.

The researchers tracked the home-buying behavior of more than 5,000 college-going young adults for a full decade through the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. They confined the analysis to people who attended college – graduates and non-graduates alike – in contrast to previous research that compared the behavior of all young adults and found that borrowing got in the way of homeownership.

The new study actually found they were slightly more likely than non-borrowers to purchase a house. But this could be due to the fact that the borrowers tended to be the type of people who persist and complete their degrees, attend more expensive schools, and possess other socioeconomic advantages. This comparison of borrowers and non-borrowers still didn’t settle the question of whether the probability of owning a home actually decreases as the level of student debt rises.

When the researchers further narrowed the analysis only to individuals who held student loans, they found no relationship between the amount of money borrowed and the probability of homeownership. “If you have $30,000 in debt you’re no less likely to buy a home than if you have $3,000 in debt,” said one of researchers, Jason Houle, an assistant professor of sociology at Dartmouth College.

The findings, Houle said, “cast doubt on this idea that student loan debt is dragging down the housing market.” …Learn More