MONEY Savings

How to Thrive in Retirement After Falling Short of Goals

Turns out, many retirees don't need as much in savings as they once thought. They are surprisingly delighted with their downsized life and embrace a flexible budget.

Maybe the experts are wrong. Retirement planners say you will need at least 70% of pre-retirement income to enjoy your golden years. Some target as much as 80% or even 85%. Yet recent retirees with less say they are doing just fine, thank you.

Three years into retirement, the average replacement income of people with an IRA or 401(k) plan is just 66% of final pay, mutual fund company T. Rowe Price found. Yet more than half say they are living as well or better than when they were working, and 89% say they are somewhat or very satisfied with retirement so far.

Such findings belie our widely accepted retirement savings crisis. In aggregate, we are way under saved. The average 50-year-old has put away just $44,000. But clearly a large subset—those with either a 401(k) plan or IRA, or both—are doing pretty well. This is the group that T. Rowe Price surveyed by filtering for those retired less than five years or over 50 and still working.

This particular group of savers may want to let up on the handwringing. As recent research by EBRI and ICI show, consistent 401(k) investors (those who held accounts between 2007 and 2012) had balances 67% higher than overall plan participants, reaching an average $107,000.

For years a small band of economists led by Lawrence Kotlikoff, the Boston University economics professor, have been making the case that many people are over saving. Kotlikoff argues that the financial services industry is essentially scaring people into over saving in order to collect fees. The fright factor is evident in the T. Rowe Price survey, where those still at work expressed far more anxiety than those who have reached retirement and found it to be less financially challenging than they may have been led to believe.

Half of workers believe they will have to reduce their standard of living in retirement, compared to just 35% of recent retirees who think that way. More workers also believe they will run out of money (22% vs. 14%), and workers are much less likely to believe they will be able to afford health care (49% vs. 70%), the survey shows.

Recent retirees in this survey have median assets of $473,000. That includes investable assets plus home equity minus debt. Home equity is a big part of their holdings at $191,000. They have just 52% of investable assets in stocks and asset allocation mutual funds, and are playing it fairly safe with 31% in cash.

How are they managing on pre-retirement income that falls short of most planners’ models? A third are working at something or looking for work, and to augment Social Security and pension income they are drawing down their savings by an average of 4% a year, which is a rate that many planners consider reasonable.

But the real source of new retiree satisfaction may be their genuine appreciation for a downsized life: 85% say they do not need to spend as much in order to be happy and 65% feel relieved to no longer be trying to keep up with the Joneses. In addition, they embrace flexibility with 60% saying they would rather adjust their spending to maintain their portfolio than maintain their spending at the expense of their portfolio. With that attitude, almost any retiree can feel good about their life.

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MONEY 401(k)s

Are You a Saver or an Investor? It Matters in a 401(k)

Close-up piggy bank
Fuse—Getty Images

Most 401(k) participants see themselves as savers, new research shows. And it's holding them back.

The venerable 401(k) plan has many failings and is ill suited as a primary retirement savings vehicle. Yet it could do so much more if only workers understood how to best use it.

The vast majority of 401(k) plan participants view themselves as savers, not investors, according to new research. As such, they are less likely to allocate money to 401(k) plan options that will provide the long-term growth they need to retire in comfort.

Only 22% of workers in a 401(k) plan in the U.S., U.K. and Ireland say they are knowledgeable about investing, State Street Global Advisors found. This translates into a low tolerance for risk: only 27% in the U.S., 15% in the U.K., and 10% in Ireland say they are willing to take greater risk to achieve better returns.

This in turn leads to sinking retirement confidence. Only 31% in the U.S., 26% in the U.K., and 16% in Ireland feel they will save enough in their 401(k) plan to fund a comfortable retirement, the survey shows.

The faults of 401(k) plans are well documented and range from uncertain returns to high fees to failing to provide guaranteed lifetime income. Economic activists like Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor of economics at the New School and author of When I’m Sixty-Four, have been arguing for years that we need to return to something like the traditional pension.

But the switch to 401(k) plans from traditional pensions has taken more than three decades. A broad reversal will be slow too, if it comes at all. In the meantime, workers need to understand how to best use their 401(k) or other employer-sponsored defined contribution plan. Like it or not, these plans have become our de facto primary retirement savings vehicles.

At a basic level, plan participants of all ages must begin to embrace higher risk in return for higher rewards. The State Street survey reveals broad under-exposure to stocks, which historically have provided the highest long-term returns. A popular rule of thumb is to subtract your age from 110 to determine your allocation to stocks. But the latest research suggests that even just a few years from retirement you are better off holding more stocks.

There is much more to making the most of your 401(k) plan than just adding risk. You need to contribute enough to capture the full employer match and be well diversified, among other things. But it all starts with understanding that saving in a secure fixed-income product is not investing, and it is not enough to get you to the promised land.

Yes, the financial crisis is still fresh and the market’s deep plunge is an all-too-real reminder that stocks have risk. But just five years later the market has fully recovered, and 401(k) balances have never been plumper. Fixate on the recovery, not the downturn. A diversified stock portfolio almost never loses money over a 10-year period. It took the Great Depression and then the Great Recession to produce 10-year losses, which were less than 5% and disappeared quickly in the recovery.

If you feel nervous about investing in stocks, consider opting for a target-date retirement fund, which will give you an asset mix that shifts to become more conservative as you near retirement. While they may not suit everyone, target-date funds tend to outperform most do-it-yourselfers, research shows. With your asset mix on cruise control, you can focus on saving, which is enough of a challenge.

MONEY 401(k)s

How to Fix the 401(k) and Income Inequality in One Fell Swoop

A top economic adviser wants to cut the tax break for 401(k) savings for high earners and launch a new government plan with a generous match and low fees.

Two hot-button economic issues appear to be colliding: the failed 401(k) plan and growing income inequality. Both have been garnering headlines, and now a noted expert is tying them together through proposed reform.

Gene B. Sperling, a former White House economic adviser in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, wants to cut the tax advantage of 401(k) contributions to top earners. He also wants to create a government-funded universal 401(k) plan that would incorporate all the best parts of these plans—low fees, safety, a generous match, and automatic enrollment.

Presumably, a government-backed 401(k) plan also would offer an option like deferred annuities, which the industry has been resisting, and an easy way to convert some or all of your 401(k) balance to guaranteed lifetime income upon retirement. Both those provisions have had strong backing from the White House.

In a New York Times op-ed, Sperling blamed an “upside-down tax incentive system” for contributing to income inequality in America, adding “it makes higher-income Americans triple winners and people earning less money triple losers” as they save for retirement.

Currently top earners pay a federal tax rate of 39.6%, which makes their tax deduction for 401(k) contributions more valuable than the deduction for contributions of those in lower tax brackets. Top earners also have more tax-advantaged savings opportunities, and they benefit more from employer matches. The upshot, Sperling asserts, is that the top 5% of earners get more tax relief for saving than the bottom 80%. He proposes a flat 28% tax credit for saving, regardless of income.

His universal 401(k) plan also would skew toward lower income households with a dollar-for-dollar match up to $4,000 a year below certain income thresholds. Higher income households would be capped at 60 cents on the dollar—still about double the average match today.

Sperling isn’t the first to champion a universal 401(k) or fret publicly about income inequality. President Clinton floated universal accounts in 1999. Versions of this government-funded plan exist in parts of Europe, and Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor of economics at the New School and author of When I’m Sixty-Four, has been arguing for years for private sector workers to be able to enroll in cost-efficient and professionally managed state-operated retirement programs.

So far the idea hasn’t gotten much traction. The debate in Washington has centered on Social Security and tax reform. Maybe this op-ed from a beltway insider is a sign that 401(k) reform—and income inequality—will heat up as an issue in the coming election cycle.

If so, paying for it all will surely be part of the debate. But not to worry, writes Sperling. Among other possibilities, we could cut the federal estate tax exemption. Currently a married couple can leave $10.7 million to heirs tax-free. Cutting the exemption to $7 million would free up billions to bolster the retirement accounts of lower earners and shore up some of what’s wrong with 401(k) plans today—and take a further whack at income inequality in the process.

Related:

Half of Workers Are on Track to Retire Well—Here’s How to Join Them

Why Your 401(k) Won’t Offer This Promising Retirement Income Option

This Nobel Economist Nails What’s Really Wrong with Your 401(k)

MONEY Get On The Right Path

Half of Workers Are on Track to Retire Well—Here’s How to Join Them

140618_money_gen_13
iStock

Save 15% of pay for 30 years and you will be fine, a new study shows. Save for longer, and it gets much easier.

The shift from traditional pensions to 401(k) plans hasn’t gone well for most workers. One in two U.S. households are destined for a lifestyle downgrade in retirement, data show, as guaranteed lifetime income from old-style pensions disappears. But new research finds that most families can stay on track to a comfortable retirement by regularly saving 15% of pay over 30 years. Start earlier, and you only need to put away 10%.

The news isn’t all bad if you’re starting late. Even folks past age 50 have time to adjust. But clearly those with the shortest windows to retirement have the steepest hill to climb—and probably need to start factoring in a longer working life and more austere retirement lifestyle right away.

The typical middle-income household headed by someone 50-plus, and with a projected retirement shortfall, would need to boost its savings rate by 29 percentage points to retire comfortably at age 65, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. That would mean saving, say, 39% of every paycheck instead of 10%.

Calling this savings rate “unrealistic,” researchers Alicia H. Munnell, Anthony Webb, and Wenliang Hou conclude in their paper, “A better strategy for these households would be to work longer and cut current and future consumption in order to reduce the required saving rate to a more feasible level.” One thing the paper does not mention is that one in 10 U.S. workers is limited or unable to work due to poor health—and those past age 65 are three times more likely to have this issue, according to the National Health Interview Survey.

On a cheerier note, younger middle-income workers currently on track to fall short of retirement income still have time to realize their dreams by boosting savings just 7 to 13 percentage points (the younger you are, the lower the savings rate needed), research shows. The impact of starting early and letting your savings compound over more years cannot be overstated.

The typical wage earner planning to retire at age 65 in 2040 would need to build a nest egg of $538,000, the paper states. By purchasing an immediate annuity, you would replace 34% of pre-retirement income. Social Security would replace 36% of pre-retirement income—in all giving the household 70% of pre-retirement income, which is considered an acceptable minimum level. To reach this savings goal this household would have to save 15% of every paycheck starting at age 35. But if the household planned to work to age 70—or started saving five years earlier—it would need to save just 6% of every paycheck.

In general, the typical middle-income household must save enough to produce a third of its retirement income. Low-income households need only get a quarter of retirement income from savings. High-income households (with a more expensive lifestyle) need to save enough to produce half their retirement income, the paper found.

Related links:

Why It’s Never Too Late to Fix Your Finances

The Amazing Result of Actually Trying to Save Money

 

MONEY 401(k)s

Stock Gains (and Saving) Push 401(k)s to Record Highs

Staying the course has rarely paid off so well as average retirement account balances soar.

The financial crisis is so yesterday. Retirement savings accounts have never been plumper, according to a new survey of 401(k) plans and IRAs at Fidelity Investments.

At mid-year, the average 401(k) balance stood at a record $91,000, up nearly 13% from a year ago. The average IRA balance stood at $92,600, also a record, and up nearly 15% from the previous year.

These figures include all employees in a plan, even those in their first year of saving. Looking just at long-time savers the picture brightens further. Workers who had been active in a workplace retirement plan for at least 10 years had a record average balance of $246,200—a figure that has grown at an average annual rate of 15% for a decade.

Over the past year, the resurgent stock market accounted for 77% of the higher average balance in 401(k) plans, Fidelity said. Ongoing employer and employee contributions accounted for 23% of the gain. The typical worker socks away $9,590 a year—$6,050 from her own contributions and $3,540 from an employer match.

Of course, the financial crisis still weighs on many Americans. Employment has been an ongoing weak spot and wage growth has been all but non-existent. Meanwhile, those in or nearing retirement may have fallen short of their goals after losing a decade of market growth at just the wrong point in their savings cycle. Many had to sell while prices were down.

But the Fidelity data reinforces the value of steady savings over a long period. By contributing through thick and thin, savers were able to offset much of the portfolio damage from the crisis. They not only held firm and enjoyed the market’s robust recovery but also were buying shares when prices were low. They earned a spectacular return on new money put into stocks the last five years. In calendar year 2013 alone, the S&P 500 plus dividends rose 32%.

Despite continuing contributions, savings balances did not rise as fast as the S&P 500 due to plan fees, cash-outs and broad plan exposure to lower-return investments like bonds and cash. Roughly a third of job switchers do not roll over their plan savings; they take the money, often incurring taxes and penalties. The average 401(k) investor has 33% in fixed-income securities.

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MONEY Aging

Why It’s Never Too Late to Fix Your Finances

Those over 50 may become less sharp, but a little personal finance instruction can make a huge difference in their financial security.

When we speak of financial education today, in most cases we are referring to the broad, global effort to teach students how to stay out of debt and begin to save for retirement. But what about those who already have debts and may already be retired?

Clearly, we should teach them too. It’s never too late to improve your financial standing—and unlike financial education among the young, elders exposed to basic planning strategies adopt them readily, new research shows. This underscores the sweeping need for programs that address financial understanding at all ages and why even folks well past their saving years may still have time to get it right.

Last year, AARP Foundation and Charles Schwab Foundation completed a 15-month trial of financial instruction designed specifically for low-income people past the age of 50. After just six months of training, the subjects exhibited significant improvement in things like budgeting, saving, investing, managing debt and goal setting.

For example, only 42% of participants had at least one financial goal at the start of the program and 63% had set at least one financial goal after six months in the program. The rate of those spending more than they earned fell by a third and 35% had paid down debt. Many had begun to track spending and stop overdrawing accounts and paying late fees.

Participants saying they were “very worried” about money dropped to 14% from 22%; those saying they were “not very/not at all worried” jumped to 42% from 34%. These are remarkable gains in such a short period and among such a generally disadvantaged group. Half in the group had saved less than $10,000 and average income was about $35,000.

The research suggests that the 50-plus set can make big strides toward a secure financial life with some instruction. It jibes with other reports illustrating the value of financial inclusion for the unbanked millions and how a higher degree of personal financial ability might even save our way of life for everyone.

But let’s be clear: this isn’t just a way for low-income households to improve their lot. Plenty middle-class and even affluent households have a savings problem. And as we age we tend to make poorer money decisions regardless of our net worth. So it’s nice to see the financial education effort move beyond the classroom—increasingly to places of employment as part of benefits counseling and now, maybe, to community centers and retirement villages where willing adults can find it’s never too late to learn something new and feel good about their finances.

MONEY retirement planning

The Amazing Result of Actually Trying to Save Money

Many Americans aren't saving for retirement, but those who are making a real effort are tantalizingly close to hitting their mark.

The retirement savings crisis in America is real. But it is also skewed by vast numbers of people who have saved next to nothing. Looking only at those who are making a serious effort to put something away reveals a more encouraging data set.

Pre-retirees working full-time and who have both a 401(k) plan and an IRA are tantalizingly close to securing sufficient retirement income—and their situation has improved in the past 12 months, a recent study by investment firm BlackRock found. These savers can likely close the gap with a few simple adjustments.

We are all familiar with the doomsday statistics about retirement savings: A third of workers have less than $1,000 in savings and investments that could be used for retirement, and roughly two-thirds have less than $25,000. So large numbers of people will be stuck working longer than they like and counting on Social Security for nearly all their retirement income.

BlackRock weeded out less serious savers by looking only at those with a balance in both a 401(k) plan and an IRA. The typical working 55-year-old meeting this criterion has $264,000 saved and earns $58,000 a year. That level of savings will produce $19,000 a year in guaranteed lifetime income at age 65, based on calculations from the firm’s CoRI index. (This benchmark estimates the amount of annuity income a pre-retiree would be able to purchase at retirement.) Coupled with $21,000 a year from Social Security, this saver is on track to a secure retirement income equal to 69% of final salary.

Most financial planners believe that replacing 70% to 80% of final household income is the mark savers need to hit. So this typical 55-year-old saver is just about there and can close the gap by saving a little more, spending a little less, or working just another year or two. And if market conditions remain favorable, the pre-retiree may get over the hump without changing a thing. A year ago, the typical 55-year-old saver was on track to replace just 64% of final earnings. But the stock market soared, giving savers additional funds to purchase guaranteed lifetime income when they retire.

Of course, what the market gives it can also take back. This is a moving target. But stocks usually rise over a 10-year period, and if interest rates rise over the next 10 years—most believe that will be the case—it will have the effect of boosting replacement income even further because products like immediate annuities will offer a higher return.

The picture is less rosy for older pre-retirees. The typical 60-year-old saver is on track to replace 64% of final earnings and the typical 64-year-old saver is on track to replace just 59% of final earnings. The poorer preparedness of these groups probably stems from their getting a later start saving in 401(k) plans and IRAs, says Chip Castille, head of the BlackRock Retirement Group. The working years of this age group overlapped the transition between defined-benefits plans, which began to disappear, and the rise of defined-contribution plans. They didn’t react right away and missed years of growth.

In general, the retirement readiness picture in the U.S. remains bleak. Even regular savers are falling well short of the more aggressive retirement income replacement goals. But clearly those who have taken action are much better positioned, and with only modest spending adjustments, they can easily hit the lower range of what planners advise.

MONEY Personal Finance

Money Know-How? American Teens Are, Well, Just Average

Students taking test in classroom
Roy Mehta—Getty Images

A major study shows that American 15-year-olds are barely average when it comes to knowledge of personal finance—and way behind the kids in Shanghai.

For a country whose grandest export might be capitalism, we don’t do very well with our own kids. American teens land smack in the middle of the pack when it comes to simple personal financial know-how, according to a groundbreaking new global study.

Topping the list are kids in Shanghai, Belgium, Estonia, Australia and New Zealand. Bringing up the bottom are teens in Colombia, Italy, Slovak Republic, and Israel. The U.S. rates just below Latvia and ahead of France.

These findings come in the newly released 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a widely recognized comparative measure of student proficiency in 65 countries. In the past, PISA has focused on math, science, and reading. For the first time, in 2012 it added testing on personal financial concepts.

Only 18 countries opted into the financial literacy component, which is a statement all by itself. This is a relatively new field of education and most countries have little more than a fledgling effort. Some who take it seriously and have broad financial education programs, like Australia and New Zealand, scored relatively well. But Shanghai, which is not regarded as a leader, produced the best results of all.

The assessment looked specifically at 15-year-olds. Those in Shanghai had a mean score of 603—well ahead of second-place Belgium (541) and 9th-place U.S. (492). In last place was Colombia’s mean score of 379. PISA is part of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The 2012 results, eagerly awaited in education circles (and especially in financial education circles), were a bust in at least one big way. The goal is to figure out how to raise the financial I.Q. of people around the world by starting early and teaching in classrooms about budgets, credit cards, saving and investing. Asked what seems to work best, Michael Davidson, head of schools at the OECD, said, “The easy answer is we don’t know.”

The strong scores in Shanghai correlate with strong math scores there, he noted. But in other countries, the highest scores correlated with simply having a bank account. In general, strong financial literacy scores were also highly correlated with students demonstrating problem-solving skills and perseverance. So it may be that the best approach is a focus on math, offering kids some exposure to real world financial decisions and cultivating their will to ask questions and not give up so quickly in all spheres of life.

Among U.S. students, the OECD found that:

  • A worse-than-average 17.8% do not reach even a baseline level of understanding about money concepts, meaning that at best such students will understand an invoice or the difference between a want and a need. They have little aptitude for even simple things like a basic budget or loan.
  • A nearly average 9.4% is a top performer, meaning they understand things like fees and transactions costs and can make financial decisions with no immediate benefit but which will be good for them in the long run.

These are discouraging numbers, especially when weighed against the results in Shanghai, where just 2% of 15-year-olds do not reach the baseline and 43% are top performers—and efforts at formal financial education there are way behind those in the U.S.. With numbers like these, it’s the Chinese in Shanghai that soon may be exporting capitalism.

MONEY Investing

How Harvard and Yale’s ‘Smart’ Money Missed the Bull Market

Some influential investors have been on the sidelines for much of this surprising bull market.

The next time you want to give up on stocks for the long run consider this: Some of the world’s biggest investors did just that and have all but missed this bull market, proving again that the smart money isn’t always so smart and that trying to time the stock market is a fool’s game.

When the things looked bleakest in March 2009, the stock market began a torrid run that has carried into this year. That’s the way the market works. Gains come when you least expect them. You have to be there through thick and thin to consistently reap the benefits. But even big investors (or should I say especially big investors?) get scared and run.

So while the typical large stock has nearly tripled from the bottom, managers of the massive endowments at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford along with legions of corporate pension managers at places like GM and Citigroup were not there to collect. They were too busy sitting in bonds and other “safe” securities, which have woefully lagged the S&P 500’s five-year gain of 187%.

The Harvard endowment, the world’s largest with assets of $33 billion, missed the mark by the widest margin of the big universities. The stock market saw its steepest climb the past three years, a period when Harvard’s fund posted an average annual total return of 10.5%—well behind the 18.5% for the S&P 500. Yale’s $21 billion endowment returned 12.8%; Stanford’s $22 billion fund returned 11.5%. Harvard Management’s CEO recently said she would step down.

How did this happen? Well, the average college endowment has just 16% of its investment portfolio in U.S. stocks—half the exposure they had a decade ago. In the years following the Internet bust and then the financial crisis, managers steadily shifted assets to alternative investments like hedge funds, venture capital investments, and private equity. Corporate pension managers have done much the same, cutting their exposure to stocks, on average, by about a third.

Alternative investments have performed fairly well over the past decade, even outperforming the S&P 500 over that long period including the devastating collapse of 2008-2009. But there is no denying that the smart money was playing it too safe when the economy started showing signs of a rebound. Pension managers missed out on the deep value that had been created in the market.

The lesson is clear enough for individuals, who have limited low-cost access to things like private equity and venture capital anyway. Staying the course over the long pull is the best way to reach your financial dreams. Just three years after one of the worst market slides in history the average 401(k) balance had been totally restored, in part owing to the market’s recovery.

And you can give pension managers an assist. Their reluctance to bet on stocks near the bottom left prices depressed longer and allowed individuals putting a few hundred dollars into their 401(k) every month more time to accumulate stocks at the lower prices. That’s not great for those counting on a pension that, like so many, remains underfunded. It’s also not great for teacher salaries and student scholarships at major universities where endowments may fund a quarter of operating expenses. But don’t worry about all that. Just stick to your investing regimen, don’t panic, and know that you are the smart money more often than not.

MONEY retirement planning

Forget About Saving. Just Go on Vacation.

Mickey Mouse posing with the Gaither quintuplets
You budgeted for your Disney World trip, but did you count the hit to your retirement savings? Gene Duncan—AP

Americans get retirement saving backwards: We think about it more when there's less time to do it. Millennials, now's the time to fix on the problem.

More people plan for their next vacation than plan for their retirement, new research shows. This won’t shock anyone who has followed the retirement savings crisis in America—or scraped together $12,000 for a family trip to Disney World. What’s striking, though, is how totally upside down our thinking is on this issue.

The amount of time we spend thinking about retirement increases with age across every cohort, the financial services firm Edward Jones found. That makes sense until you think about it. By the time you are in your 60s it may be too late to make much of a difference in your nest egg. A little more thinking in your 30s would go a long way.

Yet Jones found that time spent thinking ahead about retirement rises dramatically with age. Among those 18 to 34, only 9% say retirement planning is top of mind. The share rises to 31% among those 35 to 44, to 37% among those 45 to 54, and to 40% among those 55 to 64. Overall, Jones found that 28% of Americans have the next vacation top of mind while 25% have retirement planning and 22% have paying for college top of mind.

Once upon a time, retirement planning could wait. More workers had pensions and retiree health benefits. Planning was more about when to take Social Security, who to designate as beneficiaries, and how to trigger pension payments. Today, if you don’t start thinking about retirement before 55 you are either wealthy or out of luck. Yes, important adjustments can be made at any age—like taking advantage of catch-up tax-deferred savings rules, working longer and delaying Social Security benefits. But the real juice is in saving early and often.

Compound growth for an extra 20 years, or even just 10, can more than double your savings over 35 years. Investing $2,000 a month and earning an 8% return would provide $399,082 over 35 years, according to data from T. Rowe Price. Savings after 25 years would total $165,457; over 15 years, just $60,203.

So when only 9% of young adults say that retirement planning is top of mind, it means that 91% are at extra risk of falling short in the long term—and doomed to think about retirement finances much more often when there is much less they can do about it.

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