September 8, 2020
A Laid-off Boomer’s Retirement Plan 2.0
Jennifer Lee wanted to work until 70 to max out her monthly Social Security checks – at least that was the plan before she was laid off three years ago from a Washington D.C. church.
The church’s newly hired pastor “decided he wanted a whole new staff,” she said. “I felt to a degree he was entitled to do that,” she said – except that “he was only eliminating people on the staff who were over 60.”
She wasn’t having any luck finding a new job and felt that her only choice was to sign up for Social Security at 63½ to pay her bills. Eventually, Lee, a one-time nurse and medical administrator, landed a nice part-time job as a Jack-of-all-trades in an oral surgeon’s office. Post-pandemic, her duties have expanded to include overseeing the COVID-19 safety protocols.
The recession is putting many baby boomers in a predicament similar to Lee’s: a layoff has derailed their plans to work full-time to build up their retirement savings. Since March, the unemployment rate for Americans who are at least 55 years old has more than tripled, to 9.7 percent in June.
“Most older people, when they’re laid off, will take Social Security right away,” but “that’s not their best short-term solution,” said Wendy Weiss, a Cambridge, Mass., financial adviser. She urges them to find other ways to generate income or reduce expenses, because delaying Social Security increases the monthly check by 7 percent to 8 percent for each additional year the benefits are postponed.
But, Weiss acknowledges, the recession is putting growing numbers of unemployed boomers in situations that aren’t easily solved. “It’s not going to be pretty,” she said about the next few years.
Lee, who is 65, was fully aware she should have postponed her Social Security. But it took her more than six months to find her current job, and she didn’t have any unemployment benefits to tide her over, because church employers don’t usually pay into state unemployment insurance funds. She wasn’t old enough for Medicare at the time of her 2017 layoff either.
“I waited five months to apply for Social Security. I waited as long as I could,” she said.
She sees a problem not in the difficult decisions she’s had to make but in a shortage of policies for older workers like herself, who may be more vulnerable to layoffs and also can have a tougher time finding a new job even in an expanding economy. …Learn More
August 13, 2020
Workers Lacking 401ks Need a Solution
Although COVID-19 has exposed alarming gaps in a health insurance system that revolves around the employer, the Affordable Care Act is one potential solution for workers who lack the employer coverage.
There is nothing equivalent on the retirement side, however.
Many workers between ages 50 and 64 are in jobs that provide neither health insurance nor a retirement savings plan. But, in contrast to the health insurance options available to them, “no retirement saving vehicle appears effective in helping older workers in nontraditional jobs set aside money for retirement,” concluded a new analysis of workers in these nontraditional jobs.
Nontraditional workers who want to save for retirement are left with two options: their spouse’s 401(k) savings plan or an IRA operated by a bank, broker or financial firm.
A spouse’s 401(k) hasn’t been an effective fallback for a couple of reasons. First, a substantial number of the workers who lack their own 401(k)s are not married. And second, if they are married to someone with a 401(k), they’re not any better off. The researcher found that married people currently contributing to 401(k)s do not save more to compensate for the spouse without a 401(k), reinforcing other research showing these couples don’t save enough for two.
The other option – an IRA – is open to everyone. But only a small fraction of Americans currently are saving money in IRAs, and most of them already have a 401(k). So IRAs, in practice, aren’t doing much for the people who need the help: workers who lack employer benefits. … Learn More
July 21, 2020
Pandemic Puts More Retirements at Risk
Americans’ retirement outlook has gone from bleak to bleaker.
The unemployment caused by COVID-19 has pushed up the share of working-age households not able to afford their current standard of living in retirement from 50 percent to 55 percent, according to a new analysis by the Center for Retirement Research, which sponsors this blog.
The analysis updates a previous estimate, based on 2016 data, to include the harmful effects of surging unemployment. The researchers estimate that perhaps 30 percent of workers – far more than is reflected in the monthly jobless rate – could be affected by layoffs now and in the future. They did not factor in the recession’s impact on the housing and financial markets, which could make things worse.
Unemployment hurts retirement in a variety of ways. Laid-off workers’ paychecks vanish immediately, but they may also earn less in the next job. The depressed earnings, over months or years, reduce the money flowing into their 401(k)s, and the amount they’ll receive in pensions and future Social Security benefits. It may also force some to spend down savings that, had they not lost their jobs, would’ve been preserved for retirement.
Interestingly, the impact on low-income workers is mixed. In one way, they’re protected by Social Security’s progressive benefit formula, which will replace a higher percentage of their earnings as their lifetime earnings decline. But low-income workers have had more layoffs, which widens the gap in their retirement savings – between what they can save and what they should be saving – more than for higher-income people.
The 2020 recession will impact retirement “in a very different way” than the Great Recession, the researchers said. This time, “the destruction is occurring more through widespread unemployment and less through a collapse in the value of financial assets and housing.” However, the lessons of the previous recession can’t be dismissed either. …Learn More
June 11, 2020
401ks are a Source of Cash in Pandemic
The U.S. retirement savings system has always been a little leaky. But the leaks seem to be getting bigger.
Some Americans are eyeing withdrawals from their 401(k) plans as the best of a few bad options for paying their rent or solving other cash-flow problems.
As of May 8, 1.5 percent of retirement plan participants had taken some money out of their 401(k) plans under new federal legislation permitting penalty-free withdrawals, The Wall Street Journal reported. An April survey by the non-profit Transamerica Institute put the number of savers responding to the pandemic much higher – about one in five.
But the data included people who took out loans from their 401(k)s, in addition to withdrawals from 401(k)s and IRAs. Further, Transamerica reported not only on what people have already done but what they say they plan to do. Younger workers and men were the most likely to resort to this desperation move.
Prior to the pandemic, many workers were already behind on their retirement savings and still had not fully recovered from the recession a decade ago.
The current economic downturn will only set them back further as the layoffs, reduced hours and sales commissions derail or curtail their efforts to save. Employers having to lay off workers are also conserving cash by suspending their matching contributions to their employees’ 401(k)s.
“The negative economic effects of the pandemic are further threatening retirement savings and security,” said Catherine Collinson, chief executive of the Transamerica Institute, a partner of the Center for Retirement Research, which funds this blog.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed in March made it easier to withdraw money by waiving the standard 20 percent income tax withholding and 10 percent penalty, which usually applies to people under age 59½. But one estimate made prior to the pandemic shows this is a costly strategy: prematurely taking money out of 401(k)s and IRAs reduces the average amount of money available for retirement by about one-fourth.
People who still have jobs are also saving less. One in five workers have reduced their 401(k) contributions, a Magnify Money survey shows. The informal poll isn’t representative of the population but is certainly an indication of the financial strain the pandemic is putting on workers.
Employers are pulling back too. At last count, some four dozen companies reeling from a drop in revenue – including big names like AutoNation, Best Buy, Hilton Grand Vacations, and Tripadvisor – are temporarily halting their matching contributions, according to a list compiled by the Center for Retirement Research. …Learn More
April 14, 2020
More Cuts to 401k Matches are Coming
To conserve cash, some employers are suspending contributions to their workers’ 401(k)s. And if this downturn plays out like previous recessions, more will follow.
The handful of employers announcing suspensions in recent weeks include travel companies and retailers hit first and hardest by shrinking consumer demand, including Amtrak, Marriott Vacations Worldwide, the travel company Sabre, Macy’s, Bassett Furniture Industries, Haverty Furniture Companies, and La-Z-Boy.
Tenet Healthcare and a physician practice in Boston on the front lines of providing expensive coronavirus care have also suspended their matches. Employees, not surprisingly, are unhappy with these moves. An emergency room doctor told The Boston Globe that his organization’s decision comes as he is “working huge extra hours trying to scrape together [personal protective equipment] and otherwise brace for COVID-19.”
Employers are required to give their workers a 30-day notice and cannot stop the match prior to the 30-day period.
Suspending matching contributions has become somewhat of a recession tradition. In the months following the September 2008 market crash, more than 200 major companies rushed to do so, according to the Center for Retirement Research. The firms’ primary financial motivation was easing an immediate cash-flow constraint – not a concern about profits – the researchers found.
But cutting 401(k) contributions may be a small price to pay for mitigating layoffs, said Megan Gorman, a managing partner with Chequers Financial Management in San Francisco. “It might be a stop gap to help save the business in the long run,” she said. A typical employer matches 50 percent of employee contributions up to 6 percent of their salaries.
Amy Reynolds, a partner at Mercer Consulting, said the bigger danger for workers’ future retirement security is tapping their 401(k)s to pay their routine expenses in a tough economy. As part of the rescue package Congress passed in March, workers can withdraw up to $100,000 without paying the 10 percent penalty usually imposed on 401(k) withdrawals by people under 59½. “We want them to be thoughtful and consider other sources before they get to that,” Reynolds said. …Learn More
February 25, 2020
Have You Misplaced a Retirement Plan?
Wouldn’t it be nice to find some money sitting in a long-forgotten retirement account somewhere?
It’s not hard for workers to lose track of an old account as they move from employer to employer, often across state lines. Each state government keeps a repository of unclaimed property – most have been doing this since the 1980s – and residents and former residents can check online through a simple name search in the state’s unclaimed-accounts database.
But not everyone takes the trouble to search for the money or is even aware it exists. So billions of dollars have accumulated nationwide in various types of unclaimed accounts, including retirement plans, insurance policies, trusts, and brokerage and bank accounts – so much so that firms have sprung up that will do the legwork required for individuals to claim their money. But little has been known about how much sits idle in unclaimed retirement accounts.
A new study estimates conservatively that about $38 million, accumulated over many years in some 70,000 retirement savings plans nationwide, had not yet been claimed in the states’ property accounts as of 2016. Most of these are 401(k)-style plans but they also include IRAs and pension checks.
The average account value is only about $550. But the largest ones are anywhere from $5,000 to $13,000, which could be meaningful to retirees who are struggling financially. …Learn More
February 6, 2020
Can’t Afford to Retire? Not All Your Fault
Three out of four members of Generation X wish they could turn back the clock and get another shot at planning for retirement. One in three baby boomers say don’t think they’ll ever be able to retire.
“Overwhelmingly, Americans are stressed about their current – and future – financial situation,” the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors said about these new survey results.
Regrets about not planning and saving enough are enmeshed in our thinking about retirement. But it is really all your fault that you’re not getting it done?
The honest answer to that question is “no.” There are big gaps in the U.S. retirement system that make it very difficult for many to carry the responsibility it places on workers’ shoulders.
I predict some of our readers will send a comment into this blog saying, “I worked hard and planned and am comfortable about my retirement. Why can’t you?”
Granted, we should all strive to do as much as possible to prepare for old age, and many people have made enormous sacrifices in preparation for retiring. The hard truth is that some people are much better-positioned than others. Obvious examples include a public employee with a pension waiting for him at the end of his career, or a well-paid biotechnology worker with an employer that contributes 10 percent of every paycheck to her retirement savings account. These workers frequently also have employer-sponsored health insurance, which limits their out-of-pocket spending on medical care. This leaves more money for retirement saving than someone who pays their entire premium and has a $5,000 deductible.
Sure, we could all do a better job of planning out our careers when we’re first starting out. But my husband, as a Boston public school teacher, started accruing pension credits before he could’ve imagined ever getting old. He recently retired, and his pension, accumulated during 27 years of teaching, is making our life a lot easier.
But pensions are on the wane in the private sector, and more than half of U.S. workers have neither a pension nor a 401(k) in their current job – this makes it pretty hard to save. IRAs are an option available to anyone, but human inertia makes that an imperfect solution to the problem, because people tend to procrastinate and don’t set them up. Further, working couples in which only one spouse has a 401(k) aren’t saving enough for both of them, one analysis found. …Learn More