Medical Costs Slam a Minority of Seniors

As retirees’ health declines, their medical costs go up. These costs include both everyday healthcare expenses and long-term care costs.

The everyday expenses that Medicare does not cover – Part B and Part D premiums, copayments, eyeglasses, and dental care – consume about 20 percent of the incomes of households ages 75 and over. While not exactly good news, 20 percent is “perhaps manageable” for most, concluded researchers at the Center for Retirement Research in a summary of various studies in this area.

The real problem comes for the unlucky minority – about 5 percent of seniors – who spend more than half of their income out of their own pockets for healthcare.

Turning to long-term care, these services are less frequently required but can be very costly. For example, while many nursing home stays are relatively short, a lengthy stay is a potentially crippling expense. One common trigger for a long-term stay is dementia.

The retirees facing the greatest financial risk from health care expenses tend to be those who earned enough to buy a house and put money away in their employer’s retirement plan. They have more to lose if their wealth is eaten up by exorbitant medical costs. The poor, in contrast, are covered by Medicaid, which often pays for Medicare premiums and long-term care. …Learn More

Do Couples Save Enough for Two?

Since only about half of all private sector workers currently have access to an employer 401(k) plan, it’s not at all unusual for spouses who are both working to have only one saver in the family.

Bar graph showing couple's saving ratesWhen that’s the case, is the person who is contributing to the employer retirement plan saving for two?  The answer is definitely not, concludes a new study by the Center for Retirement Research.

The challenge for couples living on two paychecks is that they have to save more money to maintain their current lifestyle after they retire. But households with two earners and only one saver end up saving less than others – only about 5 percent of the couple’s combined incomes, compared with more than 9 percent when both spouses are working and saving, the study found.

Couples who rely on a lone saver need that person to pick up the slack. Employers could help them if they considered the employee’s family situation when setting a 401(k) contribution rate in plans that automatically enroll workers. …Learn More

Silhouettes

Boomers with Disabilities Often Retire

One in four workers in their mid-50s will eventually encounter difficulties on the job, because their bodies start breaking down or they aren’t as sharp as they used to be.

When a new, disabling condition is long-lasting, 63-year-olds – still a young age to be retiring – are two times more likely to stop working than other people their age, according to a new study by Mathematica, a Princeton, N.J., research firm.

The researchers started out with a fairly healthy group of 55-year-olds and followed their career paths through age 67. Strikingly, even people as young as 59 who have experienced a new work-limiting health condition leave the labor force at a much higher rate than those who did not. It’s inevitable that many, though not all, of the oldest workers in this group decide to retire, rather than find a new job.

Of course, the nature of the work factors into whether someone decides they have to retire. When older workers have physically demanding jobs, they are more likely to report a new disabling condition, the study found. It can be extremely difficult to soldier on in occupations such as construction or heavy industry.

With less physical jobs, however, it is more feasible to work longer even with a disability. For example, a lawyer or administrative assistant could conceivably keep working, even if it became difficult to walk.

In addition to the physical challenges, disability couldn’t come at a worse time financially for baby boomers, a significant minority of whom are not well-prepared for retirement.

They would benefit from staying in the labor force as long as possible to save more and hold out for a larger Social Security check every month. …Learn More

Vintage Social Security poster

Know the Social Security Survivor Benefit

My divorced aunt did not work while she was raising eight children. After her former husband died, she was pleasantly surprised to learn she could start collecting his Social Security.

She has a lot of company. Nearly two out of three men and women in a new survey by RAND were unaware of this rule: a divorced person who was married for at least 10 years is entitled to the deceased spouses’s survivor benefit. In fact, she would even get the benefit if he remarried.

In the case of couples who were still married when the spouse died, the marriage had to last only nine months for the survivor to get the benefit. Fewer than half of the people surveyed by the RAND researchers were aware of this rule.

The responses were no more impressive for some of the other questions about Social Security’s survivor benefit. This benefit is based on the higher-earning spouse’s work record – typically the husband. Even a wife who used to work and is collecting Social Security based on her work record is eligible to switch to her husband’s benefit after he dies – if his check is larger than hers.

To make the switch in this particular case, the widow must file with the Social Security Administration either online or at a local office. (However, if the wife never worked and is at retirement age, she will automatically start receiving her late-husband’s check.)

Unmarried partners sometimes operate under a misconception too: three out of four think, incorrectly, either that unmarried people can get the survivor benefit, or they don’t know.

One thing to note about this study is that Americans of all ages were surveyed, and it is not surprising that young adults would have little knowledge of program benefits intended for widows.  But age doesn’t seem to bring wisdom: the results were equally dismal in a similar earlier survey of individuals who were at least 50 years old.

April is National Social Security Month. Couples should celebrate by learning more about how Social Security works – it’s critical to a widow’s standard of living. …Learn More

3 trees with gradually less leaves

Dementia is a Threat to Managing Money

The perils of aging generally escalate around 75, and they are becoming more pervasive as more Americans live to very old ages.

One of these perils – declining cognitive ability – often creates financial problems. A new study that summarized the research on this side of the retirement equation identified the financial fallout from dementia.

Currently, dementia afflicts roughly a quarter of seniors in their early 80s. And geriatricians and demographers have predicted for years that dementia will become a serious societal problem in the future as the tsunami of baby boomers reach older ages.

The first sign of deteriorating financial skills might be forgetting to pay a bill. But when severe dementia sets in, the vast majority completely lose their ability to manage their finances and risk making big mistakes, such as losing money in a fraudulent investment scheme.

Another concern is retirees’ growing reliance on 401(k)s for more of their income. Increasingly, they are grappling with the complicated question of how much money to withdraw each year from their 401(k) accounts – this is difficult for anyone but virtually impossible for people with dementia.

Fortunately, most of them get assistance managing their finances. But the seniors who don’t get help face potentially grave repercussions, such as having difficulty affording food, housing and medical care.

Managing money is not the only financial risk posed by dementia. A more serious issue is the potential need for a lengthy stay in a nursing home, which will be addressed in a future blog post. …Learn More

Our Financial Status: Race Really Matters

Racial differences in workers’ finances are nothing less than shocking: whites have roughly six times more wealth than Latinos and black-Americans and double the income.

These age-old disparities will be as familiar to readers as they are to economists. But a clear and updated picture of their magnitude was presented in a recent study.

In 2016, U.S. household wealth, regardless of race, still had not rebounded to 2007 levels. But whites made a lot more progress climbing out of the hole created by the plunging stock market and housing crash that ushered in the 2008 recession.

The researchers examined changes in each group’s net worth over a decade. Pre-recession, white households had five times more wealth than blacks; this ratio grew to 7-to-1 in 2016. The white-Latino wealth ratio doubled from 3-to-1 to nearly 6-to-1.

 
The 2016 data are the most recent from the Federal Reserve’s triennial survey of American households’ personal finances.

The earnings picture isn’t as dire but the gap is still large. White households are earning slightly more than they did in 2007, and blacks and Latinos are not. In 2016, white Americans had two times more income than either minority group.

Many factors, notably education, influence how well someone does. But, clearly, race does matter. …
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Retirement Saving – Latinos Get an App

Amid a growing awareness that many Americans aren’t properly prepared for retirement, various efforts have ramped up to push the non-savers to save.

A notable initiative is occurring in state government. California, Illinois, and Oregon have started IRA savings programs that require private employers to offer the state-sponsored IRAs to workers if the company doesn’t already have a 401(k).

Picture of the appCell phone apps are also popping up to make saving easier. One such app – Finhabits – is being marketed directly to Latinos, who financial experts say are particularly unprepared for retirement. Two out of three Latino workers aren’t saving in a retirement plan, often because they work in low-wage restaurant and hotel jobs that don’t offer one.

The Finhabits app offers both traditional and Roth IRAs, which can also be set up online. The IRA regularly deducts an amount, designated by the customer, from his bank account and invests the money in low-cost exchange-traded index funds managed by Vanguard or BlackRock.

Carlos A. Garcia created the app – in English and Spanish – to confront a barrier to saving that he experienced in his own family as a child growing up in the border towns of El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico.  Saving “is not part of [Latino] culture,” he said. “Everybody’s working so hard. But you never talk about retirement.”

He carried this sentiment into his first job at Merrill Lynch after college graduation. He turned down the 401(k) option, because “I had no clue what a 401(k) was.”

This blog doesn’t recommend financial products, and Finhabits has advantages and disadvantages over competing apps. The app’s management fee is slightly higher than some, according to expert reviews. Nevertheless, Finhabits follows sound principles, such as investing in low-cost index funds. The Washington state government chose Finhabits as one of its vendors to provide a retirement plan through the state’s Retirement Marketplace for small businesses. …Learn More