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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

Map of the United States

Where Will You Retire? This Might Help

The toughest part of Paul and Cathy Brustowicz’s decision to relocate from New Jersey to Summerville, South Carolina, was leaving behind their two grandchildren. The retirees also miss the theater and dinners in Manhattan.

A big advantage of South Carolina, though, is “more house for the money,” Paul Brustowicz said. The couple also had a few old friends who were already living there, and the warm weather is nice, though it, too, involves a tradeoff: high summer humidity and hurricane season. As for amenities, it’s a quick drive to Charleston for dinner, the airport, and the Medical University of South Carolina.

“Overall, it was the right move for us,” he said about the 2012 relocation.

South Carolina ranked a very respectable 14th in WalletHub’s 2021 report on the best and worst states to retire. New Jersey, on the other hand, is squarely in last place because of its steep cost of living.

Also at the bottom of the ranking are New York – another very high-cost state – and Mississippi, which is ranked as having a subpar health care system.

Wallet Hub’s 50-state rankings are based on three categories: affordability, quality of life, and health care. A chart displays each state’s ranking overall and in each category.

Florida, with its year-round sun, golf, and very large retiree community, came out on top. Housing is a relative bargain there, and taxes are low. The tradeoff is the state’s mediocre health care system.

After Florida comes Colorado, which gets high marks all around, and Delaware, which is an affordable retirement spot. …Learn More

Bars of gold

Billionaires Got Much Richer in Pandemic

In the COVID-19 downturn, this blog has had a steady supply of stories and statistics about the damage being done to low-income and middle-class families.

That’s one perspective on the pandemic. The growing billionaire class is another one.

Top 10 US billionairesSince last March, the nation’s 660 billionaires have added more than $1 trillion to their wealth – a 39 percent increase. Their combined net worth is now $4 trillion, which is nearly double the $2 trillion held by the 165 million Americans in the bottom half, according to the Institute for Policy Studies’ new report.

“It’s a troubling sign that too much of society’s wealth and income is flowing upwards to that small group of people,” Chuck Collins of the Institute for Policy Studies said during an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air.

The institute’s report is based on Forbes magazine’s annual estimates of the net worth of the world’s richest people.

Inequality has always been with us, but economists say it has grown as billionaires’ wealth has hit stratospheric levels.

To be sure, inequality would’ve been worse without the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The $500 billion in direct assistance to families last spring prevented a surge in poverty, and the relief bill passed in late December is sending more aid to unemployed and under-employed people who need it.

The billionaires are getting richer for a couple reasons, starting with a surprisingly strong stock market in 2020. Despite the worst public health crisis in a century and a struggling economy, the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index shot up 18 percent.

But some billionaires were also in the right place at the right time – a pandemic. …Learn More

Mortgage Paid Off

Readers See Pros, Cons to Paid-off Mortgage

Baby boomers love to discuss this age-old question: Should I pay off the mortgage before retiring?

Our blog readers fell into two camps in their comments on a recent article.

Some made an emotional argument – that a mortgage-free retirement makes them feel secure. The other camp argued that paying off the mortgage does not make financial sense.

The article, “Boomers Repairing their Mortgage Finances,” described research showing that boomers have sharply cut what they owe on their mortgages by paying extra in the years since the housing market bust. People naturally pay more of this debt as they age. But the boomers’ rapid payoffs partly explain why 40 percent to 50 percent of Americans in their 60s no longer have a mortgage, wiping out what is often a retiree’s largest single expense.

Despite the recent payoffs, boomers still trail their parents. Roughly 80 percent of the homeowners born in the 1930s had paid off their home loans by the same age, according to Jason Fichtner’s analysis for the Center for Financial Security at the University of Wisconsin.

As for whether to pay off the mortgage, many boomers don’t have that luxury. After the wave of foreclosures a decade ago, Fichtner found, the homeownership rate for 60-something boomers quickly slid more than 10 percentage points, to around 65 percent. The U.S. homeownership rate has increased in recent years but is still below the pre-recession peak.

The financial argument against paying off the mortgage was made in a blog comment by Tony Webb, a research economist at The New School. “At current interest rates and anticipated inflation rates, mortgage borrowing is almost free,” he wrote.

“All but the most risk-averse should load up on money while it’s on sale,” he said. [Full disclosure: Webb used to work at the Center for Retirement Research, which sponsors this blog.]

Another reader, Beth, said paying off the mortgage “is one cornerstone of a worry-free retirement.” However, she knows “several financially savvy people who for various valid reasons have not paid off their homes.” …Learn More

The Cares Act

CARES Act’s Loan Forbearance is Working

As the pandemic was sinking into our collective consciousness a year ago, Congress, fearing economic calamity, allowed Americans to temporarily halt their mortgage and student loan payments.

By the end of October – seven months after President Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act – Americans had postponed some $43 billion in debt, including car loans and credit cards, which many lenders deferred voluntarily. Billions more are still being added to the total amount in forbearance.

Fast action in Congress “resulted in substantial financial relief for households,” says a new study by researchers at some of the nation’s top business schools. Their recent analysis found that the assistance went where it was needed – to “financially vulnerable borrowers living in regions that experienced the highest COVID-19 infection rates and the greatest deterioration in their economic conditions.”

When lenders grant forbearance they agree to waive their customers’ debt payments for a specified period of time. For example, Congress said borrowers could request that their payments on federally backed mortgages be deferred by six months to a year.

Although forbearance was less visible than the checks taxpayers also received under the CARES Act, the financial lift was equally potent. Customers who received loan forbearance saved an average of $3,200 just on their mortgages last year – this compares with $3,400 in stimulus checks for a family of four.

Congress also automatically suspended all payments on federal student loans, saving borrowers an average $140 last year, and President Biden has just extended the forbearance until at least Oct. 1. Lenders, in an attempt to prevent massive loan defaults on their books, voluntarily gave consumers a break last year on two types of loans that weren’t part of the CARES Act: automobile loans ($430 saved) and credit cards ($70 saved).

Forbearance is only temporary relief, because the missed payments will eventually have to be made up. But in a telling indication that borrowers didn’t want to fall behind, just a third of the people who asked for debt relief actually used it. In these cases, forbearance “acts as a credit line” borrowers can draw on – if they really need it. …Learn More

The Cares Act

Wisconsin Finds Owners of Lost Pensions

Some people lose old retirement accounts because they forget about them. Others don’t want the hassle required to retrieve small amounts. And workers who change jobs fairly often can leave a lot of small accounts in their wake.

As a result, millions of dollars of retirement wealth – in pensions, 401(k)s, IRAs, profit-sharing plans, and annuities – sit in state repositories of unclaimed property.

So how can workers and retirees be united with their long-lost money?

To answer this question, a new study contrasts what has happened to unclaimed retirement accounts in two states with vastly different approaches to handling them: Wisconsin and Massachusetts.

Wisconsin in 2015 began to use Social Security numbers to automatically match up and return misplaced retirement accounts to their owners. As long as the account has a Social Security number attached to it, the state can find a resident’s current contact information in Wisconsin’s taxpayer records.

Under this system, two-thirds of the accounts were returned in 2016 and 2017, the researchers found.

Over the same two years in Massachusetts, only 3.4 percent of unclaimed retirement accounts were returned to their owners. Massachusetts takes the same passive approach used in most states: individuals must initiate the process by locating an account in the state’s unclaimed property database and then retrieve it themselves.

The University of Wisconsin study also uncovered an explanation for why some people are motivated to track down accounts on their own. …Learn More

Teacher teaching a class

Smaller Pensions Don’t Spur More Saving

Most state and local governments provide their employees with traditional pensions, which are nice to have. But not all pensions are equally generous.

The monthly benefits vary from one place to the next, and some governments have cut costs by reducing pensions for their newest hires. Further, one in four public-sector workers aren’t currently covered by Social Security, because their employers never joined the system.

A logical back-up plan for these workers would be to contribute money to the supplemental savings plans that most public-sector employers provide. When the workers retire, they can add the money saved in their accounts – a 401(k), 401(a), 457 or 403(b) – to their pension benefits.

But researchers at the Center for Retirement Research (CRR) find that workers are only slightly more likely to participate in a savings plan if they work for government employers with less generous pensions – a criterion based on how much of the worker’s current income will be replaced by the pension after they retire.

This lackluster response may not be surprising. Workers can see what’s deducted from their paychecks every week but don’t necessarily understand how these deductions – combined with their employer’s contributions – will translate to a pension.

Public-sector workers are probably more aware of whether their employers are part of the Social Security system. But apparently workers don’t consider that either. …Learn More