MONEY retirement planning

How to Make Sure Your Retirement Adviser Is On Your Team

two people the same bike
Claire Benoist

A new rule would require financial advisers to act solely in their clients' best interest when giving retirement advice. Until that happens, here's how you can protect yourself.

In a move aimed at improving consumer protection for investors, the U.S. Labor Department today proposed a rule that would reduce conflicts of interest for brokers who advise on retirement accounts.

The proposed rule would require brokers to act solely in their clients’ best interests when giving advice or selling products related to retirement plans, including 401(k)s or IRAs.

Conflicted advice has been a longstanding problem for anyone nearing retirement—a parade of financial advisers will line up to help you roll over your 401(k) into an individual retirement account. And all too often, the guidance you get may improve your adviser’s returns more than yours.

A report issued in February by the Council of Economic Advisers found that conflicted financial advice costs retirement investors an estimated $17 billion a year. That’s why President Obama announced his support for the proposal back in February.

The new rule would require brokers to follow what is known as a fiduciary standard, which already applies to registered investment advisers. In contrast to RIAs, stockbrokers—who may go by “wealth manager” or some other title—follow a less stringent “suitability” standard, which lets them sell investments that are appropriate for you but may not be the best choice.

Many brokers do well by their customers, but some don’t. “A broker might recommend a high-cost, actively managed fund that pays him higher commissions, when a comparable lower-cost fund would be better for the investor,” says Barbara Roper, director of investor protection for the Consumer Federation of America.

During the next 75 days, the rule will be open to public comments. After that, the Labor Department is expected to hold a hearing and receive more comments. After that, the rule could be revised further. And it’s not clear when a final rule would go into effect—perhaps not before Obama leaves office.

An earlier Labor Department measure was derailed in 2011 by Wall Street lobbyists, who argued it would drive out advisers who work with small accounts. The new measure carves out exceptions for brokers who simply take orders for transactions. It also permits brokers to work with fiduciaries who understand the nature of their sales role.

Securities and Exchange Commission chairwoman Mary Jo White has also announced support for a fiduciary standard that would protect more individual investors beyond just those seeking help with retirement accounts. And the New York City Comptroller recently proposed a state law that would require brokers to tell clients that they are not fiduciaries.

Until those measures take effect—and even if they do—protect your retirement portfolio by following these guidelines:

Find out if you come first. Ask your adviser or prospective adviser if she is a fiduciary. A yes doesn’t guarantee ethical behavior, but it’s a good starting point, says Roper.

Then ask how the adviser will be paid. Many pros who don’t receive commissions charge a percentage of assets, typically 1%. Some advisers, however, are fiduciaries in certain situations but not all. So ask if the adviser is compensated in any other way for selling products or services. “You should understand what the total costs of the advice will be,” says Fred Reish, a benefits attorney with Drinker Biddle.

Many RIAs work with affluent clients—say, those investing at least $500,000—since larger portfolios generate larger fees. That’s one reason other investors end up with brokers, who are often paid by commission. Have a smaller portfolio? Find a planner who will charge by the hour at GarrettPlanning.com or findanadvisor.napfa.org (select “hourly financial planning services”). Your total cost might range from $500 for a basic plan to $2,500 or more for a comprehensive one.

Beware a troubled past. Any financial professional can say he puts his clients’ interests first, but his past actions might contradict that. To see whether a broker has run afoul of customers or regulators, inspect his record at brokercheck.finra.org. RIAs, who are regulated by the SEC and the states, must file a disclosure form called ADV Part 2, which details any disciplinary actions and conflicts of interest; you can look it up at adviserinfo.sec.gov.

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Favor a low-cost approach. A fiduciary outlook should be reflected in an adviser’s investment choices for you—and their expense. “Before making any recommendations, your adviser should first ask how your portfolio is currently invested,” says Mercer Bullard, a securities law professor at the University of Mississippi. Your 401(k) may have low fees and good investment options, so a rollover might be a bad idea.

If the adviser is quick to suggest costly, complex investments such as variable annuities, move on. “Most investors are best off in low-cost funds,” says Bullard. And with so much at stake, you want an adviser who’s more concerned with your costs than his profits.

Read Next: Even a “Fiduciary” Financial Adviser Can Rip You Off If You Don’t Know These 3 Things

MONEY Savings

Why Many Middle-Class Households Are Outsaving the Wealthy

big piggy bank and gold piggy bank
Kyu Oh/Getty Images (left)—Alamy (right)

It might seem counterintuitive, but the best savers can be found in the middle class.

Can it be that Americans are finally getting the message about saving for retirement?

Granted, studies have repeatedly confirmed America’s lack of savings. And the overall results of a new Bankrate.com survey seem to add to the pile: One in five Americans is saving nothing at all, while 28% are saving just 5% of their income or less. Overall, a mere 24% are saving more than 10% of their incomes, and only 14% of Americans are stashing away more than 15%.

But the survey also highlights an emerging countertrend: Many Americans are saving a lot—and, shocker, they’re folks in the middle class. Some 35% of households earning between $50,000 and $74,999 are putting away more than 10% of their incomes, including 14% who are saving more than 15%, according to Bankrate.com’s Financial Security Index. By contrast, only 19% of higher-income households (those earning $75,000 or more) are saving at that rate.

Why are middle-class savers outpacing their wealthier peers? “The middle class are increasingly aware that the saving for retirement is on them, and many have the discipline to do what’s necessary,” says Greg McBride, Bankrate.com’s chief financial analyst. “And they know they won’t have the resources of wealthier households if they fall short.”

The strengthening economy and improved job outlook have also provided a boost, since more households have additional money to put away. Americans also are also increasingly optimistic about their future income. Overall some 27% of workers are feeling more secure in their jobs than they did a year ago, which is twice the percentage of those who feel less secure (13%). And nearly 30% of those surveyed say their financial situation has improved vs. 18% who say it has deteriorated.

Still, most Americans remain financially challenged, as Bankrate’s study shows:

  • While 23% of those surveyed feel more comfortable with their debt level compared with a year ago, some 20% are feeling less comfortable, while the rest feel about the same.
  • Some 24% of respondents feel better about their savings vs the previous year, but 27% are less comfortable—though, as Bankrate pointed out, that margin was the smallest to date.
  • When asked about their net worth, only 24% reported it to be higher compared with last year, while most said it was lower (14%) or about same (57%).

The Bankrate.com survey did not ask whether workers were participating in a 401(k), but other research shows that consistent saving in a plan throughout your career is key to reaching your financial goals. As a recent study by Empower Retirement found, those with access to a 401(k) or other retirement plan had lifetime income scores (a measure of retirement readiness) of 74%, while those who lacked plans had an average score of just 42%. Unfortunately, only about half of workers have access to an employer plan.

Even if you do have a 401(k), it’s difficult to save consistently, and avoid tapping that money, over the course of three decades. Stuff happens, including job changes, layoffs, and health emergencies. Still, those who at least try to save end up much better off than those who don’t, as a 2014 study shows. And for the lucky few who stick to their plan—who knows?—you may even end up a 401(k) millionaire.

Read next: Here’s How to Tell If You’re Saving Enough for Retirement

MONEY Taxes

How to Make Tapping a $1 Million Retirement Plan Less Taxing

adding machine printing $100 bill
Sarina Finkelstein (photo illustration)—Mike Lorrig/Corbis (1); iStock (1)

With a seven-figure account balance, you have to work extra hard to minimize the tax hit once you starting taking withdrawals.

More than three decades after the creation of the 401(k), this workplace plan has become the No. 1 way for Americans to save for retirement. And save they have. The average plan balance has hit a record high, and the number of million-dollar-plus 401(k)s has more than doubled since 2012.

In the first part of this four-part series, we laid out how to build a $1 million 401(k) plan. Part two covered making your money last. Next up: getting smart about taxes when you draw down that $1 million.

Most of your 401(k) money was probably saved pretax, and once you start making withdrawals, Uncle Sam will want his share. The conventional wisdom would have you postpone taking out 401(k) funds for as long as possible, giving your money more time to grow tax-deferred. But retirees must start making required minimum distributions (RMDs) by age 70½. With a million-dollar-plus account, that income could push you into a higher tax bracket. Here are three possible ways to reduce that tax bite.

1. Make the Most of Income Dips

Perhaps in the year after you retire, with no paycheck coming in, you drop to the 15% bracket (income up to $73,800 for a married couple filing jointly). Or you have medical expenses or charitable deductions that reduce your taxable income briefly before you bump back up to a higher bracket. Tapping pretax accounts in low-tax years may enable you to pay less in taxes on future withdrawals, says Marc Freedman, a financial adviser in Peabody, Mass.

2. Spread Out the Tax Bill

Taking advantage of low-tax-bracket years to convert IRA money to a Roth can cut your tax bill over time. Just make sure you have cash on hand to pay the conversion taxes.

Say you and your spouse are both 62, with Social Security and pension income that covers your living expenses, as well as $800,000 in a rollover IRA. If you leave the money there, it will grow to nearly $1.1 million by the time you start taking RMDs, assuming 5% annual returns, says Andrew Sloan, a financial adviser in Louisville.

If you convert $50,000 a year to a Roth for eight years instead, paying $7,500 in income taxes each time, you can stay in the 15% bracket. But you will end up paying less in taxes when RMDs begin, since your IRA balance will be only $675,000. Meanwhile, you will have $475,000 in the Roth. Another benefit: Since Roth IRAs aren’t subject to RMDs, you can pass on more of your IRAs to your heirs.

3. Plot Your Exit from Employer Stock

Some 401(k) investors, often those with large balances, hold company stock. Across all plans, 9% of 401(k) assets were in employer shares at the end of 2013, Vanguard data show—for 9% of participants, that stock accounts for more than 20% of their plan.

Unloading those shares at retirement will reduce the risk in your portfolio. Plus, that sale may cut your tax bill. That’s because of a tax rule called net unrealized appreciation (NUA), which is the difference between the price you paid for the stock and its market value.

Say you bought 5,000 shares of company stock in your 401(k) at $20 a share, for a total price of $100,000. Five years later the shares are worth $50, or $250,000 in total. That gives you a cost of $100,000, and an NUA of $150,000. At retirement, you could simply roll that stock into an IRA. But to save on taxes, your best move may be to stash it in a taxable account while investing the balance of your plan in an IRA, says Jeffrey Levine, a CPA at IRAhelp.com.

All rollover IRA withdrawals will be taxed at your income tax rate, which can be as high as 39.6%. When you take company stock out of your 401(k), though, you owe income tax only on the original purchase price. Then, when you sell, you’ll owe long-term capital gains taxes of no more than 20% on the NUA.

Of course, these complex strategies may call for an accountant or financial adviser. But after decades of careful saving, you don’t want to jeopardize your million-dollar 401(k) with a bad tax move.

MONEY 401k plans

The Secrets to Making a $1 Million Retirement Stash Last

door opening with Franklin $100 staring through the crack
Sarina Finkelstein (photo illustration)—Getty Images (2)

More and more Americans are on target to save seven figures. The next challenge is managing that money once you reach retirement.

More than three decades after the creation of the 401(k), this workplace plan has become the No. 1 way for Americans to save for retirement. And save they have. The average plan balance has hit a record high, and the number of million-dollar-plus 401(k)s has more than doubled since 2012.

In the first part of this four-part series, we laid out what you need to do to build a $1 million 401(k) plan. We also shared lessons from 401(k) millionaires in the making. In this second installment, you’ll learn how to manage that enviable nest egg once you hit retirement.

Dial Back On Stocks

A bear market at the start of retirement could put a permanent dent in your income. Retiring with a 55% stock/45% bond portfolio in 2000, at the start of a bear market, meant reducing your withdrawals by 25% just to maintain your odds of not running out of money, according to research by T. Rowe Price.

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That’s why financial adviser Rick Ferri, head of Portfolio Solutions, recommends shifting to a 30% stock and 70% bond portfolio at the outset of retirement. As the graphic below shows, that mix would have fallen far less during the 2007–09 bear market, while giving up just a little potential return. “The 30/70 allocation is the center of gravity between risk and return—it avoids big losses while still providing growth,” Ferri says.

Financial adviser Michael Kitces and American College professor of retirement income Wade Pfau go one step further. They suggest starting with a similar 30% stock/70% bond allocation and then gradually increasing your stock holdings. “This approach creates more sustainable income in retirement,” says Pfau.

That said, if you have a pension or other guaranteed source of income, or feel confident you can manage a market plunge, you may do fine with a larger stake in stocks.

Know When to Say Goodbye

You’re at the finish line with a seven-figure 401(k). Now you need to turn that lump sum into a lasting income, something that even dedicated do-it-yourselfers may want help with. When it comes to that kind of advice, your workplace plan may not be up to the task.

In fact, most retirees eventually roll over 401(k) money into an IRA—a 2013 report from the General Accountability Office found that 50% of savings from participants 60 and older remained in employer plans one year after leaving, but only 20% was there five years later.

Here’s how to do it:

Give your plan a shot. Even if your first instinct is to roll over your 401(k), you may find compelling reasons to leave your money where it is, such as low costs (no more than 0.5% of assets) and advice. “It can often make sense to stay with your 401(k) if it has good, low-fee options,” says Jim Ludwick, a financial adviser in Odenton, Md.

More than a third of 401(k)s have automatic withdrawal options, according to Aon Hewitt. The plan might transfer an amount you specify to your bank every month. A smaller percentage offer financial advice or other retirement income services. (For a managed account, you might pay 0.4% to 1% of your balance.) Especially if your finances aren’t complex, there’s no reason to rush for the exit.

Leave for something better. With an IRA, you have a wider array of investment choices, more options for getting advice, and perhaps lower fees. Plus, consolidating accounts in one place will make it easier to monitor your money.

But be cautious with your rollover, since many in the financial services industry are peddling costly investments, such as variable annuities or other insurance products, to new retirees. “Everyone and their uncle will want your IRA rollover,” says Brooklyn financial adviser Tom Fredrickson. You will most likely do best with a diversified portfolio at a low-fee brokerage or fund group. What’s more, new online services are making advice more affordable than ever.

Go Slow to Make It Last

A $1 million nest egg sounds like a lot of money—and it is. If you have stashed $1 million in your 401(k), you have amassed five times more than the average 60-year-old who has saved for 20 years.

But being a millionaire is no guarantee that you can live large in retirement. “These days the notion of a millionaire is actually kind of quaint,” says Fredrickson.

Why $1 million isn’t what it once was. Using a standard 4% withdrawal rate, your $1 million portfolio will give you an income of just $40,000 in your first year of retirement. (In following years you can adjust that for inflation.) Assuming you also receive $27,000 annually from Social Security (a typical amount for an upper-middle-class couple), you’ll end up with a total retirement income of $67,000.

In many areas of the country, you can live quite comfortably on that. But it may be a lot less than your pre-retirement salary. And as the graphic below shows, taking out more severely cuts your chances of seeing that $1 million last.

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What your real goal should be. To avoid a sharp decline in your standard of living, focus on hitting the right multiple of your pre-retirement income. A useful rule of thumb is to put away 12 times your salary by the time you stop working. Check your progress with an online tool, such as the retirement income calculator at T. Rowe Price.

Why high earners need to aim higher. Anyone earning more will need to save even more, since Social Security will make up less of your income, says Wharton finance professor Richard Marston. A couple earning $200,000 should put away 15.5 times salary. At that level, $3 million is the new $1 million.

MONEY 401(k)s

How to Build a $1 Million Retirement Plan

$100 bricks and mortar
Money (photo illustration)—Getty Images(2)

The number of savers with seven-figure workplace retirement plans has doubled over the past two years. Here's how you can become one of them.

The 401(k) was born in 1981 as an obscure IRS regulation that let workers set aside pretax money to supplement their pensions. More than three decades later, this workplace plan has become America’s No. 1 way to save. According to a 2013 Gallup survey, 65% of those earning $75,000 or more expect their 401(k)s, IRAs, and other savings to be a major source of income in retirement. Only 34% say the same for a pension.

Thirty-plus years is also roughly how long you’ll prep for retirement (assuming you don’t get serious until you’ve been on the job a few years). So we’re finally seeing how the first generation of savers with access to a 401(k) throughout their careers is making out. For an elite few, the answer is “very well.” The stock market’s recent winning streak has not only pushed the average 401(k) plan balance to a record high, but also boosted the ranks of a new breed of retirement investor: the 401(k) millionaire.

Seven-figure 401(k)s are still rare—less than 1% of today’s 52 million 401(k) savers have one, reports the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI)—but growing fast. At Fidelity Investments, one of the largest 401(k) plan providers, the number of million-dollar-plus 401(k)s has more than doubled since 2012, topping 72,000 at the end of 2014. Schwab reports a similar trend. And those tallies don’t count the two-career couples whose combined 401(k)s are worth $1 million.

Workers with high salaries have a leg up, for sure. But not all members of the seven-figure club are in because they make big bucks. At Fidelity thousands earning less than $150,000 a year have passed the million-dollar mark. “You don’t have to make a million to save a million in your 401(k),” says Meghan Murphy, a director at Fidelity.

You do have to do all the little things right, from setting and sticking to a high savings rate to picking a suitable stock and bond allocation as you go along. To join this exclusive club, you need to study the masters: folks who have made it, as well as savers who are poised to do the same. What you’ll learn are these secrets for building a $1 million 401(k).

1) Play the Long Game

Fidelity’s crop of 401(k) millionaires have contributed an above-average 14% of their pay to a 401(k) over their careers, and they’ve been at it for a long time. Most are over 50, with the average age 60.

Those habits are crucial with a 401(k), and here’s why: Compounding—earning money on your reinvested earnings as well as on your original savings—is the “secret sauce” to make it to a million. “Compounding gives you a big boost toward the end that can carry you to the finish line,” says Catherine Golladay, head of Schwab’s 401(k) participant services. And with a 401(k), you pay no taxes on your investment income until you make withdrawals, putting even more money to work.

You can save $18,000 in a 401(k) in 2015; $24,000 if you’re 50 or older. While generous, those caps make playing catch-up tough to do in a plan alone. You need years of steady saving to build up the kind of balance that will get a big boost from compounding in the home stretch.

Here’s how to do it:

Make time your ally. Someone who earns $50,000 a year at age 30, gets 2% raises, and puts away 14% of pay on average will have $547,000 by age 55—a hefty sum that with continued contributions will double to $1.1 million by 65, assuming 6% annualized returns. Do the same starting at age 35, and you’ll reach $812,000 at 65.

Yet saving aggressively from the get-go is a tall order. You may need several years to get your savings rate up to the max. Stick with it. Increase your contribution rate with every raise. And picking up part-time or freelance work and earmarking the money for retirement can push you over the top.

Milk your employer. For Fidelity 401(k) millionaires, employer matches accounted for a third of total plan contributions. You should squirrel away as much of the boss’s cash as you can.

According to HR association WorldatWork, at a third of companies 50% of workers don’t contribute enough to the company 401(k) plans to get the full match. That’s a missed opportunity to collect free money. A full 80% of 401(k) plans offer a match, most commonly 50¢ for each $1 you contribute, up to 6% of your salary, but dollar-for-dollar matches are a close second.

Broaden your horizons. As the graphic below shows, power-saving in your forties or fifties may bump you up against your 401(k)’s annual limits. “If you get a late start, in order to hit the $1 million mark, you will need to contribute extra savings into a brokerage account,” says Dirk Quayle, president of NextCapital, which provides portfolio-management software to 401(k) plans.

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2) Act Like a Company Lifer

The Fidelity 401(k) millionaires have spent an average of 34 years with the same employer. That kind of staying power is nearly unheard-of these days. The average job tenure with the same employer is five years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only half of workers over age 55 have logged 10 or more years with the same company. But even if you can’t spend your career at one place—and job switching is often the best way to boost your pay—you can mimic the ways steady employment builds up your retirement plan.

Here’s how to do it:

Consider your 401(k) untouchable. A fifth of 401(k) savers borrowed against their plan in 2013, according to EBRI. It’s tempting to tap your 401(k) for a big-ticket expense, such as buying a home. Trouble is, you may shortchange your future. According to a Fidelity survey, five years after taking a loan, 40% of 401(k) borrowers were saving less; 15% had stopped altogether. “There are no do-overs in retirement,” says Donna Nadler, a certified financial planner at Capital Management Group in New York.

Even worse is cashing out your 401(k) when you leave your job; that triggers income taxes as well as a 10% penalty if you’re under age 59½. A survey by benefits consultant Aon Hewitt found that 42% of workers who left their jobs in 2011 took their 401(k) in cash. Young workers were even more likely to do so. As you can see in the graphic below, siphoning off a chunk of your savings shaves off years of growth. “If you pocket the money, it means starting your retirement saving all over again,” says Nadler.

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Resist the urge to borrow and roll your old plan into your new 401(k) or an IRA when you switch jobs. Or let inertia work in your favor. As long as your 401(k) is worth $5,000 or more, you can leave it behind at your old plan.

Fill in the gaps. Another problem with switching jobs is that you may have to wait to get into the 401(k). Waiting periods have shrunk: Today two-thirds of plans allow you to enroll in a 401(k) on day one, up from 57% five years ago, according to the Plan Sponsor Council of America. Still, the rest make you cool your heels for three months to a year. Meanwhile, 40% of plans require you to be on the job six months or more before you get matching contributions.

When you face a gap, keep saving, either in a taxable account or in a traditional or Roth IRA (if you qualify). Also, keep in mind that more than 60% of plans don’t allow you to keep the company match until you’ve been on the job for a specific number of years, typically three to five. If you’re close to vesting, sticking around can add thousands to your retirement savings.

Put a price on your benefits. A generous 401(k) match and friendly vesting can be a lucrative part of your compensation. The match added about $4,600 a year to Fidelity’s 401(k) millionaire accounts. All else being equal, seek out a generous retirement plan when you’re looking for a new job. In the absence of one, negotiate higher pay to make up for the missing match. If you face a long waiting period, ask for a signing bonus.

3) Keep Faith in Stocks

Research into millionaires by the Spectrem Group finds a greater willingness to take reasonable risks in stocks. True to form, Fidelity’s supersavers have 75% of their assets in stocks on average, vs. 66% for the typical 401(k) saver. That hefty equity stake has helped 401(k) millionaires hit seven figures, especially during the bull market that began in 2009.

What’s right for you will depend in part on your risk tolerance and what else you own outside your 401(k) plan. What’s more, you may not get the recent bull market turbo-boost that today’s 401(k) millionaires enjoyed. With rising interest rates expected to weigh on financial markets, analysts are projecting single-digit stock gains over the next decade. Still, those returns should beat what you’ll get from bonds and cash. And that commitment to stocks is crucial for making it to the million-dollar mark.

MONEY retirement planning

The Growing Divide Between the Retirement Elite and Everyone Else

empty and full transparent piggy banks
iStock

Americans are on track to replace 60% of income, but only one in five pre-retirees report good health. That's likely to prove costly.

There’s a growing retirement savings gap between workers with 401(k)s and those without.

Overall the typical American worker is on track to replace about 58% of current pay through savings at retirement. That’s according to a new Lifetime Income Score study, by Empower Retirement, which calculated the income workers are on track to receive from retirement plans and other financial assets, as well as Social Security benefits.

“Those who have workplace plans like 401(k)s aren’t doing too badly, but there’s a big savings deficit for those who don’t have them,” says Empower president Ed Murphy. (Formed through a recent merger, Empower combines the retirement services of Putnam, Great-West and J.P. Morgan.)

Those with access to a 401(k) or other retirement plan had lifetime income scores of 74%, while those lacked plans had an average score of just 42%. It’s one reason this year’s overall score of 58% is a slight dip from last year’s score of 61% .

Living well on just 58% of current income is certainly possible—many retirees are doing just fine at that level. But financial planners typical suggest aiming for a 75% to 80% replacement rate to leave room for unexpected costs. And for many workers, it’s possible to close the savings gap by stepping up 401(k) contributions by staying on the job longer.

But truth is, most workers end up retiring well before age 65, and few have enough saved by that point. The least prepared workers, some 32% of those surveyed, were on track to receive just 38% of their income in retirement, which would be largely Social Security benefits.

By contrast, an elite group of workers, some 20%, are on track to replace 143% of their current income, Empower found. And it’s not just those pulling down high salaries. “The key success factors were access to a 401(k) and consistently saving 10% of pay, not income,” Murphy says.

Access to a financial adviser also made a big difference in whether workers were on track to a comfortable retirement income. Those who worked with a pro were on track to replace 82% of income vs 55% for those without. And for those with a formal retirement plan, their lifetime income score hit 87% vs the average 58%.

For all retirement savers, however, health care costs are a looming problem. Only 21% of those ages 60 to 65 reported having none of six major medical issues, such as diabetes or tobacco use. For the typical 65-year-old couple, health care expenses, including Medicare premiums and out-of-pocket costs, might reach $220,000 over the course of retirement, according to a Fidelity analysis. Those in worse health can expect to pay far higher costs, which means you should plan to save even more.

Here are other key findings from the Empower study:

  • Nearly two-thirds of workers lack confidence about their ability to cover health care costs in retirement
  • Some 75% say they have little or no concern about job security, vs. 60% in 2012.
  • Some 72% of workers are somewhat interested or very interested in guaranteed income options, such as annuities.
  • The percentage of workers considering delaying retirement is falling—some 30% now vs. 41% from a peak in 2012.
  • Many are hoarding cash, which accounts for 35% of retirement plan assets. For those without advisers, that allocation is a steep 55%.

Clearly, estimating your retirement income is crucial to achieving your financial goals—and studies have shown that going through that exercise can help spur saving. More 401(k) plans are offering tools and other guidance to help savers estimate their retirement income and help you choose the right stock and bond allocation. For those who aren’t participating in a 401(k) plan, try the T. Rowe Price retirement income calculator, which is free.

MONEY Social Security

Why Social Security Benefit Rules Are Making Inequality Worse

Laurence Kotlikoff, an economics professor at Boston University.
Jodi Hilton—The New York Times/Redux Laurence Kotlikoff, an economics professor at Boston University

Benefit rules are so complex that a new book on claiming strategies has become a best-seller. Here’s how to get it right.

If you find Social Security rules bewildering, don’t feel too bad; so do Social Security experts. As Boston University economics professor Larry Kotlikoff points out, the 2,728 Social Security rules, if you print them out, are longer than the federal tax code. Little wonder his new book explaining to how to max out Social Security benefits—Get What’s Yours, co-authored with MONEY contributor Philip Moeller and PBS journalist Paul Solman—landed on the New York Times and Amazon best-seller lists. Kotlikoff recently spoke to MONEY about the program’s shortcomings and the best way to claim benefits.

Q: Why are Social Security rules so maddeningly complicated?

A: The system was designed decades ago by older white males who may have had their own interests somewhat at heart. In any case, it awards benefits unfairly. Single people are at a disadvantage to married couples, who have more types of benefits available to them. Married couples with two earners are at a disadvantage to those with one earner. The disabled are also treated unfairly.

Worse, whether you get all the benefits you are entitled to is a random process. It all depends on whether you understand the complex system, and you get the right information from customer representatives, who aren’t well trained. Americans are leaving billions on the table as a result. But higher-income people are better able to take advantage of Social Security’s claiming options. This worsens economic inequality.

Q: You’re an advocate for entitlement reform, yet you’re also encouraging Americans to max out their benefits. Isn’t that contradictory?

A: I want to expose inequities wherever they are. I’ve written about the nation’s generational inequities [“The Coming Generational Storm“], and the expropriation of money that should go to our kids because of the ballooning costs of these programs. But Social Security rules are a disgrace and unfair to people of all ages. No one should get more benefits just because they know the rules.

Q: Given the program’s funding problems, should younger Americans count on Social Security?

A: The system is 33% unfunded, according to the last trustees’ report. So somebody has to pay to fix it. My co-authors and I don’t agree on how to fix things—there’s a debate about solutions in the book. I explain my preferred solution at the Purple Social Security Plan.

Still, I think people 55 and older will get their full benefits. It’s too difficult politically to change their treatment. Younger people will likely receive something, but they’ll probably pay for it with higher taxes.

Q: What is the biggest mistake people make when they claim?

A: For many households, the problem is claiming benefits too early. If you wait to claim till age 70, you can increase your benefits by 76%, compared with starting at age 62, the earliest age you can claim. By delaying, you have an opportunity to tap a source of guaranteed inflation-proof income at an incredibly low price. That said, many people can’t afford to wait, since they have no other means of support.

Q: Many financial planners recommend claiming based on your “break-even” age—how long it will take for higher benefits claimed at a later age to exceed what you’d get by claiming early at 62.

A: This is a fundamental misunderstanding. People mistakenly look at Social Security as an investment, and they try to figure out the break-even point, when they’ll make their money back. They don’t understand the economics of working longer, or how to value the extra income you get by waiting.

Social Security is insurance—an inexpensive, safe payout—not an investment. You don’t look at your homeowners’ insurance on a break-even basis. You look at the worst-case scenario, which is your house burned down, you have no place to live, and the insurance is there when you need it. The worst-case scenario here is living to 100 and running out of money well before then.

Q: Have you figured out your own Social Security claiming strategy?

In my case, it’s relatively straightforward—I can just look at my own book, and I don’t need to use my claiming software (MaximizeMySocialSecurity). I’m 64, and I’m older than my ex-wife and my fiancée. They’ll both be able to claim spousal benefits on my earnings record. I’m going to wait till age 70, and then collect my benefit.

Read next: The 3 Secrets to Maxing Out Social Security Spousal Benefits

MONEY Baby Boomers

How to Work Less—Without Giving Up Your Career

Briefcase with fishing lures
Zachary Zavislak

It's called "phased retirement," and it's catching on.

The youngest baby boomers have just turned 50, bringing retirement within sight for the entire generation. But many boomers don’t expect to work at full throttle until the last day at the office. More than 40% want to shift gradually from full- to part-time work or take on less stressful jobs before retiring, a recent survey by Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies found.

It’s a concept called phased retirement, and it’s catching on. Last November the federal government okayed a plan to let certain long-tenured workers 55 and up stay on half-time while getting half their pension and full health benefits. Says Sara Rix, an adviser at AARP Public Policy Institute: “The federal government’s program may influence private companies to follow their lead.”

Formal phased-retirement plans remain rare; only 18% of companies offer the option to most or all workers. Informal programs are easier to find—roughly half of employers say they allow older workers to dial back to part-time, Transamerica found. But only 21% of employees agree that those practices are in place. “There’s a big disconnect between what employers believe they are doing and what workers perceive their employers to be doing,” says Transamerica Center president Catherine Collinson.

So you may have to forge your own path if you want to downshift in your career. Here’s how:

Resist Raiding Your Savings

Before you do anything, figure out what scaling back will mean for your eventual full retirement. As a part-timer, your income will drop. Ideally you should avoid dipping into your savings or claiming Social Security early, since both will cut your income later. If you’re eligible for a pension, the formula will heavily weight your final years of pay. So a lower salary may make phased retirement too costly.

Cutting back your retirement saving, though, may hurt less than you think. Say you were earning $100,000 and split that in half from 62 to 66. If you had saved $500,000 by 60, and you delay tapping that stash or claiming Social Security, your total income would be $66,700 a year in retirement, according to T. Rowe Price. That’s only slightly less than the $69,500 you would have had if you kept working full-time and saving the max until 66.

Start at the Office

If your employer has an official phased-retirement program, your job is easier. Assuming you’re eligible, you might be able to work half-time for half your pay and still keep your health insurance.

Then ask colleagues who have made that move what has worked for them and what pitfalls to avoid. Devise a plan with your boss, focusing on how you can solve problems, not create new ones with your absence. Perhaps you can mentor younger workers or share client leads. “Don’t expect to arrange this in one conversation—it will be a negotiation,” says Dallas financial planner Richard Jackson.

Without a formal program, you’ll have to have a conversation about part-time or consulting work. To make your case, spell out how you can offer value at a lower cost than a full-time employee, says Phil Dyer, a financial planner in Towson, Md.

Giving up group health insurance will be less of a financial blow if you are 65 and eligible for Medicare, or have coverage through your spouse. If not, you can shop for a policy on your state’s insurance exchange. “Even if you have to pay health care premiums for a couple of years, you may find it worthwhile to reduce the stress of working full-time,” says Dyer.

Do an Encore Elsewhere

This wind-down could also be a chance to do something completely different. Take advantage of online resources for older job seekers, including Encore.org, RetiredBrains.com, and Retirement-Jobs.com. You can find low-cost training at community colleges, which may offer programs specifically to fill jobs for local employers. Or, if you want nonprofit work, volunteer first. Says Chris Farrell, author of Unretirement, a new book about boomers working in retirement: “It’s a great way to discover what the organization really needs and how your skills might fit in.”

Sign up for a weekly email roundup of top retirement news, insights, and advice from editor-at-large Penelope Wang: money.com/retirewithmoney.

MONEY IRAs

This Innovative Idea Could Improve Your Retirement

State governments are starting to step in to help workers save. Here's why that's a good thing.

A rare innovation in retirement saving is taking shape right now in, of all places, Illinois. In January the state became the first to okay an automatic IRA for workers at certain small businesses that don’t offer retirement plans. Those companies will be required to funnel 3% of their employees’ paychecks into a state-run Roth IRA, though workers can opt out.

It may seem surprising that Illinois is breaking ground in this area—after all, the state’s pension plans are among the worst funded in the nation. But Illinois is actually part of a broad movement. Some 30 states, including California and Connecticut, are developing similar savings programs. Says Sarah Mysiewicz Gill, senior legislative representative at AARP: “We’re reaching a critical mass of states.”

A Local Approach

Why are states taking on retirement planning? Half of private-sector employees don’t have an employer plan—a crucial tool for building a nest egg. In fact, just having access to a retirement plan through work makes a huge difference in whether you save. While 90% of those with a workplace plan have put aside money for retirement, only 20% of those without one have, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

So states will face a huge drain on their budgets as workers with no savings reach retirement and need services such as Medicaid and food assistance. “If Washington were moving faster on this, the states wouldn’t have to,” says Illinois state senator Daniel Biss, who sponsored the new IRA.

No question, Congress has long dodged addressing the looming retirement crisis; it has failed to fix Social Security or create a federal automatic IRA, which President Obama proposed again in his most recent State of the Union address. Obama did introduce the myRA last year, which will allow savers without employer plans to put away as much as $15,000 in Treasury securities. But without auto-enrollment, the myRA’s effectiveness will be limited.

The Illinois program may prove to be an appealing prototype. (First it will need approval by the Department of Labor and IRS.) Still, each state is crafting its own version. In Connecticut, the automatic IRA may be paid out as a lifetime annuity or in a lump sum. Indiana is looking at setting up a voluntary plan with a tax credit. “States are a great laboratory for experimentation,” says Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, founder of Georgetown University’s Center for Retirement Initiatives.

Reason to Hope

Of course, it’s far from certain that state savings plans will make much headway: at 3%, Illinois’s minimum contribution is far below the 10% to 15% of pay that retirement experts generally recommend. And a hodgepodge of state IRAs would be less efficient and more costly than a national plan.

That said, states can sometimes get it right. State-run 529 college savings plans have helped countless families with tuition bills. The Massachusetts health care plan was a model for the national plan that has meant coverage for millions. Perhaps the states’ efforts will push retirement savings higher up the federal government’s priority list. If Illinois can lead the way on retirement, anything’s possible.

 

MONEY IRAs

The Extreme IRA Mistake You May Be Making

A new study reveals that many savers have crazy retirement portfolios. This four-step plan will keep you from going to extremes with your IRA.

When did you last pay attention to how your IRA is invested? It’s time to take a close look. Nearly two out of three IRA owners have extreme stock and bond allocations, a new study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) found. In 2010 and 2012, 33% of IRA savers had no money in stocks, while 23% were 100% in equities.

Many young savers and pre-retirees have portfolios that are either too cautious or too risky: 41% of 25- to 44-year-olds have 0% of their IRAs in stocks, while 21% of 55- to 65-year-olds are 100% in stocks.

An all-bond or all-stock IRA may be just what you want, of course. Perhaps you can’t tolerate the ups and downs of the stock market or you think you can handle 100% equities (more on that later). Or maybe your IRA is part of a larger portfolio.

But chances are, you ended up with an out-of-whack allocation because you left your IRA alone. “It seems likely many investors aren’t investing the right way for their goals, whether out of inertia or procrastination,” says EBRI senior research associate Craig Copeland. An earlier study by the Investment Company Institute found that less than 11% of traditional IRA investors moved money in their accounts in any of the five years ending in 2012.

To keep a closer tab on how your retirement funds are invested, take these four steps.

See where you stand. Looking at everything you have stashed in your IRA, 401(k), and taxable accounts (don’t forget your spouse’s plans), tally up your holdings by asset class—large-company stocks, short-term bonds, and the like. You’ll probably find that the bull market of the past five years has shifted your allocation dramatically. If you held 60% stocks and 40% bonds in 2009 and let your money ride, your current mix may be closer to 75% stocks and 25% bonds.

Get a grip on your risks. An extreme allocation—or a more extreme one than you planned—can put your retirement at risk. Hunkering down in fixed income means missing out on years of growth. Putting 100% in stocks could backfire if equities plunge just as you retire—what happened to many older 401(k) investors during the 2008–09 market crash.

Reset your target. If you also have a 401(k), your plan likely has an asset-allocation tool that can help you settle on a new mix, and you may find that you need to make big changes. That’s especially true for pre-retirees, who should be gradually reducing stocks, says George Papadopoulos, a financial planner in Novi, Mich.  A typical allocation for that age group is 60% stocks and 40% bonds. As you actually move into retirement, it could be 50/50.

Make the shift now. If moving a large amount of money in or out of stocks or bonds leaves you nervous, you may be tempted to do it gradually. But especially in tax-sheltered accounts, it’s best to fix your mistake quickly. (In taxable accounts you may want to add new money instead to avoid incurring taxable gains.) “If you’re someone who’s a procrastinator, you may never get around to rebalancing,” says Boca Raton, Fla., financial planner Mari Adam. And you don’t want a market downturn to do your rebalancing for you.

Get more IRA answers in the Ultimate Retirement Guide:
What’s the Difference Between a Traditional and a Roth IRA?
How Should I Invest My IRA Money?
How Will My IRA Withdrawals Be Taxed in Retirement?

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