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Social Security: the ‘Break-even’ Debate

Our recent blog post about the merits of delaying Social Security to improve one’s retirement outlook sparked a raft of comments, pro and con.

In the example in the article, a 65-year-old who is slated to receive $12,000 a year from Social Security could, by waiting until 66 to sign up for benefits, get $12,860 a year instead. By comparison, it would cost quite a bit more – about $13,500 – to buy an equivalent, inflation-adjusted annuity in the private insurance market that pays that additional $860 a year.

The strategy of delaying Social Security “is the best deal in town,” said a retirement expert quoted in the article.

Aaron Smith, a reader, doesn’t agree. “It will take 14 years to make that ($12,000) up. Sorry but I’ll take the $12k when I’m in my early 60s and can actually enjoy it,” he said in a comment on the blog.

Smith is making what is known as the “break-even” argument, which is behind a lot of people’s decisions about when to start collecting their Social Security.

But other readers point out that the decision isn’t a simple win-loss calculation. The benefit of getting a few extra dollars in each Social Security check – between 7 and 8 percent for each year they delay – is that it would help retirees pay their bills month after month.

This is a critical consideration for people who won’t have enough income from Social Security and savings to maintain their current standard of living after they stop working – and 44 percent of workers between 50 and 59 are at risk of falling short of that goal.

One big advantage of Social Security is that it’s effectively an annuity, because it provides insurance against the risk of living a long time. So the larger check that comes with delaying also “lasts the rest of your life,” said Chuck Miller, another reader. …Learn More

Magnifying glass over the words 'life insurance'

Prevent Life Insurance Surprises

Angela Mahany was completely in the dark about how complicated her late husband’s finances had become.

Dick Mahany, in a loving effort years ago to make sure she would be set financially when he died, had borrowed money from a whole life insurance policy that had built up a cash balance to buy a term life insurance policy payable at his death. But when he used up the whole life policy’s value, he had to come up with enough cash to pay the premiums for both policies.

Angela discovered her husband had been doing this just a few months before he passed away in February 2017. By then, he was suffering the effects of Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War and could not help her figure out how to pay the premiums.

“When I was all of a sudden responsible for the finances, it blew my mind,” Angela Mahany, 73, said.

Her finances were far more complicated than the circumstances most people can expect to face when they become widowed. But being uninformed about the life insurance is not unusual.

“A husband wants to be in control, and he’ll take care of things,” said Paul Brustowicz, a former insurance agent and a grief counselor at his church. “The problems occur when he does not tell his wife about everything or what’s been done. Of course, this can also happen to a widower, if his wife handles the finances.”

Brustowicz recalled one woman who walked into the insurance company where he used to work and informed the receptionist that she could no longer afford the premiums on her deceased husband’s life insurance. The clerk looked up her policy number and confirmed her suspicion about the widow: rather than owe any money, she had $25,000 in death benefits coming to her. “The wife had no idea,” Brustowicz said. …Learn More

Thift Savings Plan logo

Modifying a Retirement Plan is Tricky

Employers beware: changing your retirement plan’s design can have unfortunate, unintended consequences for your employees.

That’s what happened to the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) for federal workers, says a new study by a team of researchers for the NBER Retirement and Disability Research Center.

Like many private-sector savings plans, the $500 billion TSP – one of the nation’s largest retirement plans – has automatic enrollment. Federal employees can make their own decision about how much they want to save and, in a separate decision, how to invest their money. But if they don’t do anything, their employer will automatically do it for them.

In 2015, the TSP changed its automatic, or default, investment from a government securities fund to a lifecycle fund invested in a mix of stocks and bonds with the potential for higher returns than the government fund. However, the employer did not change the plan’s default savings rate for workers – 3 percent of their gross pay. (The government matches this contribution with a 3 percent contribution to employees’ accounts.)

After the TSP switched to the lifecycle fund, the new employees at one federal agency – the Office of Personnel Management – started saving less, the researchers said.

This probably occurred because, in passively accepting the TSP’s new lifecycle fund – a more appealing option than the old government securities fund – they were also passively accepting the relatively low default 3 percent contribution.

Employees seem to “make asset and contribution decisions jointly, rather than separately,” the researchers concluded. …Learn More

Walk? Yes! But Not 10,000 Steps a Day

A few of my friends who’ve recently retired decided to start walking more, sometimes for an hour or more a day.

Seniors Walking Together at the Park

Becoming sedentary seems to be a danger in retirement, when life can slow down, and medical research has documented the myriad health benefits of physical activity. To enjoy the benefits from walking – weight loss, heart health, more independence in old age, and even a longer life – medical experts and fitness gurus often recommend that people shoot for 10,000 steps per day.

But what’s the point of a goal if it’s unrealistic? A Centers for Disease Control study that gave middle-aged people a pedometer to record their activity found that “the 10,000-step recommendation for daily exercise was considered too difficult to achieve.”

Here’s new information that should take some of the pressure off: walking about half as many steps still has substantial health benefits.

I. Min Lee at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston tracked 17,000 older women – average age 72 – to determine whether walking regularly would increase their life spans. It turns out that the women’s death rate declined by 40 percent when they walked just 4,400 steps a day.

Walking more than 4,400 steps is even better – but only up to a point. For every 1,000 additional steps beyond 4,400, the mortality rate declined, but the benefits stopped at around 7,500 steps per day, said the study, published in the May issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

More good news in the study for retirees is that it’s not necessary to walk vigorously to enjoy the health benefits. …Learn More

Checkboxes next to "Now" and "Later"

A Proposal to Fill Your Retirement Gap

David and Debra S. both had successful careers. In analyzing their retirement finances, the couple agreed that he should wait until age 70 to start his Social Security in order to get the largest monthly benefit.

But he wanted to sell his business at age 69 and retire then, so the North Carolina couple used their savings to cover some expenses over the next year.

Waiting until 70 – the latest claiming age under Social Security’s rules – accomplished two things. In addition to ensuring David gets the maximum benefit, waiting guaranteed that Debra, who retired a few years ago, at 62, would receive the maximum survivor benefit if David were to die first.

Other baby boomers might want to consider using this strategy.  As this blog frequently reminds readers, each additional year that someone waits to sign up for Social Security adds an average 7 percent to 8 percent to their annual benefit – and these yearly increments spill over into the survivor benefit.

Delaying Social Security is “the best deal in town,” said Steve Sass at the Center for Retirement Research, in a report that proposes baby boomers use the strategy to improve their retirement finances.

Here’s the rationale. Say, an individual wants a larger benefit. Instead of collecting $12,000 a year at age 65, he can wait until 66, which would increase his Social Security income to $12,860 a year, adjusted for inflation, with the increase passed along to his wife after his death (if his benefit is larger than his working wife’s own benefit). The cost of that additional Social Security income is the $12,000 the couple would have to withdraw from savings to pay their expenses while they delayed for that one year.

Social Security is essentially an annuity with inflation protection – and the payments last as long as a retiree does. So the $12,000 cost of increasing his Social Security benefit can be compared with cost of purchasing an equivalent, inflation-indexed annuity in the private insurance market. An equivalent insurance company annuity for a 65-year-old man, which begins paying immediately and includes a survivor benefit, would cost about $13,500. …Learn More

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Widows: Manage Your Grief, Finances

Kathleen Rehl’s husband died in February 2007, two months after his cancer diagnosis. She has taken on the mission of helping other widows process their grief, while they slowly assume the new financial responsibilities of widowhood. Rehl, who is 72, is a former financial planner, speaker, and author of “Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows.” She explains the three stages of widowhood – and advises women to take each stage at their own pace.

Question: Why focus on widows?

Rehl: After a husband dies, and whether it’s unexpected or a long-lingering death, there is a numb period. Some widows refer to it as “my jello brain” or “my widow’s brain.” It’s a result of how the body processes grief. The broken heart syndrome is actually real. After a death, the immune system is compromised, and chronic inflammation can happen. It’s hard to sleep at night and there can be digestive difficulties. Memory can be short, attention spans weakened, and thinking downright difficult. You’ve got this grief, and yet the widow might think, “What do I have to do?” The best thing she can do initially is nothing.

Q: Why nothing?

Rehl: I talk about the three stages of widowhood: grief, growth, grace. At first, she’s so vulnerable that if she’s making irrevocable decisions immediately, they may not be in her best interest. The only immediate things she might need to do are file for benefits like Social Security and life insurance and make sure the bills are still being paid.  All widows need to take care of these essential financial matters. But major decisions should be delayed. I knew one widow whose son said, “Move in with us.” That would’ve been a really bad decision, because she didn’t get along with the daughter-in-law, and it would’ve introduced another type of grief – loss of place, loss of friends. Then her son got a job in Silicon Valley and moved away.

Or a widow deposits her life insurance in the bank, and a helpful teller says, “I think Fred in our wealth management department down the hall can see you because you need to do something with your money.” Fred sells her a financial product she doesn’t understand, and two or three months later, when she’s coming out of her grief, she thinks, “What did I buy?” One widow came to me who had locked her money into a deferred annuity that wasn’t going to pay out for years, and she needed the money now.

Q: With most women working today, aren’t they better equipped than previous generations of widows to handle the finances? Learn More

401k in typewriter font

Index Fund Rise Coincides with 401k Suits

Employee lawsuits against their 401(k) retirement plans are grinding through the legal system, with mixed success. Many employers are beating them back, but there have also been some big-money settlements.

This year, health insurer Anthem settled a complaint filed by its employees for $24 million, Franklin Templeton Investments settled for $14 million, and Brown University for $3.5 million.

More 401(k) lawsuits were filed in 2016 and 2017 than during the 2008 financial crisis, and the steady drumbeat of litigation could be affecting how workers save and invest. For one thing, the suits have coincided with a dramatic increase in equity index funds, according to a report by the Center for Retirement Research. Last year, nearly one out of three U.S. stock funds were index funds, double the share 10 years ago.

Line chart showing stock index funds on the riseSome see this change as positive. Many retirement experts believe that the best investment option for an inexperienced 401(k) investor is an index fund, which automatically tracks a specific stock market index, such as the S&P500. Federal law requires employers to invest 401(k)s for the “sole benefit” of their workers, and index funds usually charge lower fees and carry less risk of underperforming the market than actively managed funds – two issues at the heart of the lawsuits.

To avoid litigation – and to comply with recent regulatory changes – employers are also becoming more transparent about the fees their workers pay to the 401(k) plan record keeper and to the investment manager. This transparency may have had a beneficial effect: lower mutual fund fees, which translate to more money in workers’ accounts when they retire. The average fund fee is about one-half of 1 percent, down from three-fourths of 1 percent in 2009, according to Morningstar.

In short, these lawsuits appear to be changing how people invest and how much they pay in fees for their 401(k)s. …Learn More

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