Tapping Home Equity – Retirees’ Relief Valve

Woman getting a prescriptionOne telling indication that retirees are in serious financial straits is when they take less of their medications or don’t fill prescriptions.

Nearly one in four low-income retirees has difficulty paying for medications, despite passage of Medicare Part D in 2006, which reduced out-of-pocket drug costs. Between 2011 and 2015, the average Medicare beneficiary spent $620 to $700 a year on prescriptions, and people with diabetes, lung disease, and cardiovascular disease spent more than $1,000 a year.

One way retirees can address such hardships would be to tap some of the equity in their homes. Although a homeowner probably wouldn’t use this strategy just to cover drug copayments, new research finds that older Americans who tap equity significantly increase their adherence to their medications – and this finding has broader significance for improving their retirement security.

Most older homeowners are, on the one hand, reluctant to pull cash out of their homes – often their largest asset – through a home equity loan, mortgage refinancing, or reverse mortgage. Yet many of them don’t have enough income to live comfortably and could put this asset to good use to reduce their debt or pay medical bills if they become seriously ill.

To test how home equity might help retirees, the researchers used a series of surveys between 1998 and 2016 that have data on older people’s finances and ask whether, at any time in the past two years, they took “less medication than prescribed … because of the cost?” The analysis controlled for various influences on financial well-being, including education, marital status, and cognitive health, as well as financial resources.

Extracting home equity improved adherence to medications in the short term, particularly for homeowners over 65 who have little wealth outside of their homes. Separately, the researchers showed that retirees who tapped home equity were significantly more likely to take their medications at a critical time – after experiencing a serious illness.

“Housing wealth can play an important role in reducing economic insecurity,” concluded the study, which was funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration. …Learn More

People waiting by a bus

Retired People of Color Struggle with Debt

The oldest minority retirees are struggling with debt, a new Urban Institute study finds.

The researchers’ starting point is that people generally reduce their debt as they age. To prepare for retiring, older workers try to pay down their mortgage balances and pay off credit cards. Once retired, their debt continues to shrink.

But on closer inspection, retirees in their 70s and 80s in the nation’s predominantly minority neighborhoods have shed less of their debt than their counterparts in mostly white neighborhoods, who tend to be better off financially.

In a sign of financial distress among the oldest lower-income and minority retirees, 20 percent of their loans go to collections for non-payment – double the rate for higher-income and white retirees. Minority retirees also have lower credit scores and longer spells of poor credit, according to the study, which compared U.S. households with debt in four age groups: 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.

The researchers concluded that disadvantaged retirees “may heavily rely on debt to support their standard of living in retirement.”

To get some perspective on this racial disparity, first compare workers in mostly white and mostly minority neighborhoods. White households in their 50s typically owed $43,000 on their credit cards, car loans, and mortgages in 2019, the most recent year of survey data.

But in minority neighborhoods, 50-somethings owe half as much – in large part because financial companies and mortgage lenders extend less credit to lower-income customers.

(These debt levels may seem small, but the analysis included renters, who don’t have a mortgage, which is the single largest debt for most Americans, and homeowners who have whittled down their mortgages or even paid them off entirely).

For retirees, the racial pattern is very different. Borrowers in their 80s in minority neighborhoods typically owed $3,250 in 2019 – more than their white counterparts. And $3,250 is a substantial burden for retirees relying mainly on Social Security. Since they’re more likely to be renters, the debt is concentrated in auto loans and high-rate credit cards, which aren’t backed by an appreciating asset like a house. …Learn More

woman with baby

How Many Kids Will 30-Somethings Have?

U.S. fertility is already at record lows, and women in their 30s have had only 1.3 children on average – well short of their expectations for more than two children.

But they still have time left on their biological clock. So, will they catch up?

Several factors are working specifically against the college graduates in this cohort. Religiously observant people usually have more children, and the decline in religious affiliation is reducing their fertility. Their fertility is also being hurt by the falling marriage rate, which leaves fewer couples ready to raise a family. In addition, the women’s careers often compete with having children.

In a new study, Anqi Chen and Nilufer Gok at the Center for Retirement Research predicted that the final fertility rate for Millennials in their 30s – the rate at the end of their childbearing years – will average 1.96 children.

If this prediction proves accurate, it would get them somewhat closer to what they’d expected and close to the number of children required to replace two parents.

Predicting the final fertility rate for the Millennial women born in the early 1980s required going back in time to analyze the established patterns of a generation that is now past its childbearing years: women born in the second half of the baby boom wave. The researchers applied what they learned about these late boomers and, after adjusting for recent trends, estimated final fertility for today’s 30-somethings.

The 1.96 fertility rate sounds encouraging, but that number applies only to these Millennials. The longer-term prospects suggest fertility may be lower in the future. …Learn More

Working Multiple Jobs to Make Ends Meet

If people need to work and can work, they will work. That’s my takeaway from a new set of data that sketches a clearer picture of U.S. workers who are holding down multiple jobs.

US workers with more than one jobNearly 8 percent of workers had two or more jobs in 2018, the latest year of data available from the U.S. Census Bureau. The data also show that holding two or more jobs becomes more common during economic expansions, when jobs are plentiful, and falls during recessions, when the opportunities dry up.

But the longer-term trend is up: the share of people holding multiple jobs has slowly increased over the past two decades. In a recent webinar, Census Bureau economist James Spletzer provided a couple of reasons.

First, the country has lost millions of manufacturing jobs over several decades. They have been replaced by lower-quality jobs in retail and in service industries like health care, hotels and food preparation – and that’s where multiple job holders tend to work.

A second, related reason for working in multiple jobs is the “stagnation of earnings at the lower end of the earnings distribution,” Spletzer said. …Learn More

brain and money

Retirees Who Tested Well Added More Debt

A new study finds that debt burdens have grown for older workers and retirees in recent decades. But this isn’t the first research to reach that conclusion.

What is new is whose debt burden is increasing the most: the people who score higher on simple memory and math tests.

Across the three age groups the researchers examined – 56-61, 62-67, and 68-73 – the high scorers on the cognitive tests were more likely to have debts exceeding half of their assets in 2014 than the high scorers who were the same ages back in 1998.

They also added disproportionately more mortgage debt than people with lower cognition during the study’s time frame, a period when house prices were rising.

The upshot of this study is that people who have retained more of their memory and facility with numbers are “more financially fragile” than the high scorers were in the past, the University of Southern California researchers said.

The findings run counter to a common belief that financial companies in recent years have had more success selling their increasingly complex products to unwitting borrowers – a belief perhaps fostered by the subprime mortgages targeted to risky borrowers in the mid-2000s that triggered the global financial collapse.

Older Workers taking on more debtThe share of the older people in the study who were carrying debt increased between 1998 and 2014 regardless of their cognitive ability. The biggest jump occurred after 62 – a popular retirement age pegged to Social Security eligibility.

The heart of the analysis, however, is exploring the connection between cognitive ability and financial vulnerability. The researchers found the opposite of what one might expect: debt problems have loomed larger over time for those with higher scores on survey questions testing word recall and cognitive ability using simple subtraction and backward-counting exercises. …
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A business team in a meeting

Retirement Ages Geared to Life Expectancy

For most of the 20th century, life expectancy was on the rise. Yet older Americans were retiring at younger and younger ages. That changed in the 1990s. Life expectancy continued to rise, but retirement ages started increasing too.

Many significant developments are behind the dramatic shift in retirement habits, including the decline of private-sector pensions, changing attitudes about working women, and bigger financial incentives from Social Security for people who remain in the labor force in order to get a larger monthly check when they finally retire.

Given all of these changes, Urban Institute researchers wondered whether the dramatic longevity gains experienced by the people who make it to their 50s and 60s could be counted as another reason for the delayed retirement trend.

Their evidence suggests that growing lifespans are keeping men over age 55 in the labor force longer and postponing their retirement, particularly in areas with strong job markets and more opportunity.

But women’s behavior was much more nuanced. Their labor force participation also increased, but only for women under 65 and to a much smaller extent than men. For the oldest women in the study – ages 65 to 74 – the results were puzzling to the researchers because labor force participation actually declined with life expectancy for those in the bottom half of the income distribution. …Learn More

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Big Picture Helps with Retirement Finances

The prospect of retiring opens a Pandora’s box of questions. But one big question dominates all the others: How will I manage my finances when I retire?

This is a vexing problem, and baby boomers could use some help thinking it through. To ease the process, a team at UCLA and Cornell University led by David Zimmerman, a UCLA doctoral student, created an online decision tool. In an experiment, they found that the tool might help future retirees understand how to smooth out their income over many years and make their savings last.

The results are preliminary, and the researchers are refining their analysis. But for the initial experiment, they recruited 400 people, ages 40 through 63. The participants were instructed to use the tool to make three big retirement decisions: starting Social Security, choosing a 401(k)-withdrawal strategy, and deciding whether to purchase an annuity. Their decisions would be on behalf of a 60-year-old who is single and plans to retire in two years. He earns $55,000 and has $250,000 in savings to work with.

The participants were split into two comparison groups. One group received immediate feedback on the impact of each separate decision. For example, when the participants picked a Social Security starting age for the hypothetical person, a chart showed a horizontal line tracking the fixed annual benefit locked in by that decision.

When they moved on to another page and selected a plan for 401(k) withdrawals, a chart showed the age when the savings would probably run out. The final decision was whether to buy a deferred annuity with some portion, or all, of the 401(k) assets. The chart on this page displayed the fixed income the annuity would generate every year for as long as the person lives.

The participants were encouraged to change their decisions as much as they liked to see how a change affected that particular source of income. But the researchers suspected that seeing each decision in isolation doesn’t help to clarify how various decisions work together to determine total retirement income over time.

So, the second group got to see the big picture. The chart in this case displayed the impact of any single decision on the annual income from all sources.Learn More