MONEY retirement income

The New Way to Get IRA Income

Thanks to a government rule on annuities, retirees can be rewarded for their patience.

For years, financial planners have touted the benefits of longevity annuities for retirees. Now a new IRS rule has made these income generators an even better deal.

With a longevity annuity—also called a deferred income annuity or longevity insurance—you pay a lump sum in return for monthly income for life, starting at some future date. Because the issuer assumes that—let’s just say it—some buyers will die before they start receiving money, or soon after they do, your monthly check will be far more than you would receive from an immediate annuity costing the same (see the chart below). A longevity annuity’s larger, delayed payout helps hedge against the risk of outliving your money. It also frees you up to invest more aggressively in the rest of your portfolio, because you know you’ll have this income later on.

Under a rule passed last year, if you use IRA funds to buy a longevity annuity meeting certain IRS guidelines, its cost—up to $125,000 or 25% of your account, whichever is less—won’t be used in calculating the required minimum distributions you have to take from your retirement account starting at age 70½. Such a qualified longevity annuity contract, or QLAC, as it’s known, lets you leave more money to continue growing tax-free in your portfolio. To decide whether a longevity annuity is right for you, follow these steps:

Assess your cash situation. As useful as the annuity can be, you have to balance that future income stream with your need for money that you can tap for emergencies, either now or later. So commit only a small portion of your portfolio— no more than 20%—to a deferred annuity, suggests Michael Finke, financial planning professor at Texas Tech. “The sweet spot for buying a deferred annuity is $500,000 to $1 million or more in retirement assets,” he says. Less than that, and you won’t be able to purchase much income; more than that, and you can likely fund your future needs without annuitizing.

RIA_pays_delay_graphic

Make sure you can wait. Some buyers of longevity insurance are workers who plan to defer their annuity only until they retire, often within 10 years. But to maximize your benefit, defer 15 years or longer and wait until you’re in your seventies or eighties. Otherwise, you won’t get a big income bump from the issuer’s expectation that a certain number of buyers like you won’t collect. “If you can’t afford to wait more than a few years, there’s not much advantage over an immediate annuity,” says York University finance professor Moshe Milevsky.

Get ready to research. Several insurance companies have started selling QLACs, including Principal Financial and American General. You can get quotes for them at ImmediateAnnuities.com or through Vanguard and Fidelity.

So your money will be there when you need it, stick with insurers rated A+ or better by A.M. Best or Standard & Poor’s, says Coral Gables, Fla., financial planner Harold Evensky. After all, the whole point is to have fewer financial worries in retirement.

Read more about annuities:
What is an immediate annuity?
How do I know if buying an annuity is right for me?
What payout options do I have?

MONEY Savings

The Real Reasons Americans Aren’t Saving Enough for Retirement

$100 bill on target and darts on wall
Sarina Finkelstein (photo illustration)—Getty Images (4)

Retirement savers face challenges on multiple fronts.

When it comes to saving for retirement, most American workers are not only falling short, they don’t even know how behind they are. What’s more disturbing, research shows that savings trends are getting worse, despite a decades-long push to enroll workers in 401(k)s and other employer plans.

The retirement disconnect is highlighted in a new survey from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, which includes responses from 4,550 full-time and part-time workers between the ages of 18 to 65+. Overall, some 59% reported they were “somewhat” or “very” confident that they will be able to retire comfortably.

To maintain this comfortable living standard, more than half think they’ll need at least $1 million saved by retirement, and 29% believe they’ll need $2 million. Those targets have increased in recent years, according to Transamerica—the typical savings goal was just $600,000 in 2011.

So how much have these workers got socked away? Overall, the typical worker savings account held $63,000. That’s up from $43,000 in 2012, but also far from what’s needed for a $1 million retirement. Even among baby boomer households, the group closest to retirement, the median account held just $132,000.

Given these relatively meager savings, you may well wonder how workers can still be so optimistic about their golden years. Part of the reason is the long-running bull market, which has led to a gradual recovery from the financial ravages of the recession. Some 56% of those surveyed say that they have bounced back fully or partially; 21% say they were not impacted by the downturn.

It’s also likely that many workers simply don’t understand what it will take to meet their goals. More than half (53%) say they “guessed” when asked how they estimated how much they need to save for retirement. Two-thirds acknowledged they don’t know as much as they should about retirement investment. And just 27% say saving for retirement is their greatest financial priority vs. “just getting by” (21%) and “paying off debt” (20%). The typical worker saves just 8% of salary, while most experts recommend 15% or more.

The Persistence of Wealth

This savings shortfall was a focus of studies presented at the Retirement Research Consortium held recently in Washington. Following up an earlier study that found that roughly half of Americans die with $10,000 or less in assets, professors James Poterba of MIT and Harvard’s Steven Venti and David Wise looked at possible reasons that the money ran out. Perhaps retirees spend their money too quickly, or perhaps they have few assets to begin with.

Analyzing Health and Retirement Study data for different generational cohorts, the researchers found that how much subjects had the first year their assets were measured showed the strongest determinant of the amount of the wealth they had at the end of life. For older Americans, 52% who had less than $50,000 at the end also had that amount when first surveyed. For the younger cohort: 70% of those with less than $50,000 in assets when last surveyed also had that skimpy amount when first observed.

By contrast, those who had significant balances at the start also held those balances at the end—confirming both the persistence of wealth and, at the same time, the lack of savings progress for most Americans. Poterba offered possible reasons for this trend, including that workers may simply choose not to save; at each income level, he pointed out, there are high and low savers, so earnings aren’t the only factor.

Still, lack of wage growth, the disappearance of pensions, and the decline in 401(k) coverage among private sector workers, especially low- and middle-income households, contribute to the problem for younger Americans. This last point was emphasized by John Sabelhaus, an assistant director at the Federal Reserve, in a discussion of Poterba’s paper. Data from the Survey of Consumer Finances show that low- and middle-income workers are losing retirement plan coverage, he noted. (A similar trend can be found in the Transamerica survey, which showed that just 66% of workers were offered an employer retirement plan in 2015 vs. 76% in 2012.)

What You Can Do

Both Poterba and Sabelhaus emphasized the importance of Social Security for Americans with few assets. Beyond that, the only solution is to save as much as you can. But there are behavioral hurdles to boosting the savings rate. In another study a team of researchers, including Gopi Shah Goda of Stanford and Aaron Sojourner of the University of Minnesota, found savers face two major mental blocks; some 90% of Americans hold one or both, which drag down retirement savings by an estimated 50%.

One of these mental blocks is procrastination—it’s hard to resist the immediate gratification you get from spending. The other hurdle, which is less obvious, involves financial literacy. Most people don’t grasp the power of compound savings. As Sojourner explained at the conference, the majority of people believe savings grow in a straight line. Only 22% understand that savings growth is exponential: as your savings compound, you earn interest on interest, which enables your savings to grow faster and faster.

In short, it can take a long time to save your first $1 million, but it’s a lot quicker to get to $2 million. If more Americans understood this, and acted on it, there would be good reason to be optimistic about retirement.

Want to fast-track your retirement savings? Check out MONEY’s Ultimate Retirement Guide

MONEY retirement income

4 Ways to Bridge the Retirement Income Gap

Gregory Reid; prop styling by Renee Flugge

Think you can't afford to delay taking Social Security once you retire? These steps can help.

If you’re on the verge of retirement, you’ve probably heard this Social Security advice: Delay claiming your benefit as long as possible, and it will increase by 7% to 8% each year you wait.

Great idea, except for one problem. Once you retire, how do you come up with enough money to live on until benefits kick in? Two-thirds of workers file before full retirement age—currently 66—and only about 2% wait until 70, when benefits max out.

The good news is that you can make waiting easier, assuming you have money saved up or have other sources of cash. Even if you defer claiming your benefit for only a year or two, you’ll permanently boost your income and financial security. Here are four strategies for delaying.

Work … Just a Little

Because Social Security will come to only a fraction of your salary—typically $20,000 to $25,000 if you retire at $100,000 a year—you need work only a fraction of the time to replace it. Some companies have phased-retirement programs letting older workers cut their hours; if your employer doesn’t, maybe you can negotiate a schedule light enough to feel like retirement. Want a change? Start exploring part-time opportunities in new fields, suggests psychologist Robert Delamontagne, author of The Retiring Mind.

The upside is not just financial. “For many people,” says Delamontagne, “working part-time, especially if you are highly engaged, can increase health and happiness.”

Go Halfway

If you’re married, both of you can delay claiming retirement benefits on your own work records at the same time that one of you receives Social Security money—payments that can be equal to half of what the other spouse would be due at full retirement age.

To do this, follow what’s known as a file-and-suspend strategy, says Jim Blankenship, a planner in New Berlin, Ill. At full retirement age, the higher-earning spouse files for benefits, then suspends payments. Then the other spouse files for spousal benefits. If the primary earner is due, say, $2,500 a month at full retirement age, the spouse would receive $1,250. Meanwhile, the eventual monthly retirement benefits for each spouse—based on his or her own earnings—would continue to grow until he or she starts taking checks or reaches age 70. Wait until you’re both at full retirement age to do this, or your benefits will be trimmed.

Use the free Social Security calculator at FinancialEngines.com to see how this would work for you, or pay up for customized guidance at MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com ($40) or at SocialSecuritySolutions.com (starts at $20).

Take Bigger Withdrawls

Ideally, you would minimize the odds of exhausting your portfolio in retirement by limiting your initial annual withdrawal to 3% to 5% of your savings (then adjusting for inflation). If that’s not an option, you might try the riskier strategy of starting at a higher rate, then lowering it once you claim benefits.

Although this approach may seem counterintuitive, the longer you wait to claim, the lower your chances of running out of money—as long as you keep your inflation-adjusted income level until you claim, says Morningstar’s head of retirement research, David Blanchett. The gains to be had from a higher monthly benefit more than offset the increased drain on your portfolio (see the chart at left). But before you try this strategy, Blanchett advises testing it with a Social Security calculator or consulting a financial planner.

Start With Your 401(k)

Whatever your withdrawal rate, take advantage of your low tax bracket before Social Security and mandatory withdrawals from retirement accounts kick in. Pull money from your pretax accounts, such as your 401(k) or traditional IRA, where most of your investments likely sit, says Baylor University finance professor William Reichenstein, a principal at Social Security Solutions.

His reasoning: After age 70½ you’ll have to take required minimum distributions from those pretax accounts. Added to your Social Security checks, those RMDs may generate more income than you need—and more taxes. (For married couples filing jointly and making over $32,000, up to 85% of Social Security benefits are taxed.) By withdrawing pretax money in your sixties, before you have to, you’ll have smaller RMDs later, an easier time controlling your income, and a portfolio that—because you’ll lose less of it to taxes—is more likely to last you in retirement.

Read next:This Is the Maximum Benefit You Can Get from Social Security

Money
MONEY consumer psychology

How a Bowl of Cashews Changed the Way You Save for Retirement

Matt Furman Richard Thaler

Richard Thaler pioneered behavioral economics, and changed the way companies manage their 401(k)s.

As young academic in the 1970s, the economist Richard Thaler began compiling what he calls “the List,” a collection of the everyday ways in which real people fail to act as economic theory predicts. One item on the List: the puzzling reaction of his friends at a party when Thaler took away a bowl of cashews. The List became the seed of his pioneering work in the new field of behavioral economics, a field that has, among other things, transformed how 401(k) plans are designed. (If you were automatically signed up for your company’s retirement plan, you can thank behavioral research.)

Thaler, 69, is a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. (He tweets at @R_Thaler.) His new book Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics was published on May 11. MONEY editor-at-large Penelope Wang interviewed Thaler for the June issue of the magazine. The interview, which was edited, starts with a discussion of what happened with those cashews.

How can I make smarter money choices?
It helps to have what I call nudges. The lesson of my field, behavioral economics, is that we need to understand the ways in which we differ from the rational human assumed in standard economic theory. I call this idealized person the “Econ.”

My classic example of the difference between Econs and actual humans is something that happened years ago. I was having a dinner party for fellow economics grad students. Before dinner I served some cashew nuts along with cocktails, and everyone kept eating them. Soon their appetites were in danger, not to mention their waistlines. I grabbed the bowl and hid it in the kitchen. People were (a) happy, and (b) they realized their reaction conflicted with traditional economic theory. Econs are better off with more choices. We humans actually need help controlling our impulses—nudges.

How would “hiding the cashews” work with money?
Here’s a model of saving for retirement that’s guaranteed to fail: Decide at the end of every month how much you want to save. You’ll have spent a lot of the money by then. Instead, the way to really save is to put the money away in a 401(k) even before you get it, via a payroll deduction. And behavioral economics says a little nudge can help you to do that even better.

In 1994 I wrote an article advising auto-enrollment in 401(k) plans—putting people in the plan by default, while giving them an opportunity to opt out, so you still have a choice. Saving would happen without having to make decisions to do it every week or month. The 2006 Pension Protection Act even encouraged employers to use auto-enrollment, and now more than half of large plans do so. But many people still aren’t saving enough.

In fact, you say many plans are nudging people to save too little.
Most companies using auto-enrollment set the default contribution rate too low. It’s stuck at 3% of salary, which was never intended by the law. Can you get people to save more than the default? Part of the answer is to combine auto-enrollment with auto-escalation. Research I did with Shlomo Benartzi of UCLA showed that even if people think they can save only a little right now, they’re willing to accept future increases in contributions, such as when they get raises. A state-of-the-art 401(k) should start out with auto-enrollment at 6% and escalate to at least 10% or higher. The evidence shows raising the default to 6% won’t lead to a high opt-out rate.

Money

Outside of a 401(k), how can knowing a bit about behavioral economics help me make better decisions? Psychology and economics professor George Loewenstein, at Carnegie Mellon, has a phrase: hot-cold empathy gap. It means you have two kinds of emotional states, hot and cold. So if I’m thinking about what to have for dinner in the morning, when I’m not hungry, I’ll say I’ll have fish and salad. I’m in a cold state. But by the time I go out for dinner, I’ll have a weakness maybe for a cocktail, I’ll see ribs and a big bowl of pasta—I’ll be in a hot state. I’ll order the ribs.

The point George makes is that people overestimate the self-control they’ll have in the hot state. So we need to make concessions to our frailties, such as choosing a restaurant with healthier choices or making a list before you go shopping, to help you buy only what you decided to buy in the cold state. If you’re not putting enough away for emergencies or retirement, making commitments in advance, such as signing up for payroll withholding, can help.

You helped discover something called the endowment effect. It seems like something that would affect investors. Tell us about it.
It was one of the first behaviors I studied, and it shows we demand more to give things up than we would pay to acquire them. We studied this by showing how students valued coffee mugs we handed out. People who got the mugs demanded twice as much to give them up as people who didn’t get the mugs would pay to get one. The endowment effect overlaps with other behavioral phenomena, such as loss aversion—seeking to avoid losses more than we seek gains—and a bias for the status quo. For these reasons, investors tend to hold on too long to stocks that have gone down, hoping they will rebound so they can sell without realizing a loss.

If people aren’t as rational as economists assume, can I take advantage of that as an investor?
That’s exactly what some professional investors are trying to do. Behavioral economics offers a plausible explanation for overreactions by the market. For example, a long period of bad performance can lead to stereotyping. There was a period when Apple was considered an inept company on the road to bankruptcy. That was an opportunity.

But it’s not easy to beat the market. Most professionals fail, and research shows individuals are abysmal market timers, buying high and selling low. I don’t think I can beat the market, but I think my firm can. [Thaler is a co-founder of a money management firm, Fuller & Thaler, but does not choose its investments.] I keep my money professionally managed or in index funds.

Maybe I could at least use behavioral insights to spot times when there’s an irrational bubble.
I don’t think most people can. For example, research shows people buy real estate based on naive extrapolations. “Real estate prices in Scottsdale will never go down.” I think we can make two conclusions: One, we’re really bad at this. Two, with investments like target-date funds, which diversify your assets and rebalance automatically, you can minimize the damage.

It seems so obvious that people make mistakes, but your book has gossipy fun recounting pitched academic battles over the idea. Why do economists resist it?
Some thought human errors were random and so would cancel each other out, which the work of [economics Nobel laureate] Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky found was not true. Most of the errors go in the same direction. Or they thought that if the stakes are high, people make the right decisions. The mortgage crisis showed that people still make mistakes when stakes are high.

Governments have been getting interested in behavioral economics. What are they doing with the research?
I’ve been working with a group within the United Kingdom’s government called the Behavioural Insights Team. One of the first experiments in the U.K. was to encourage more people to pay their taxes on time. We just changed the letter that was sent out to people who owed money, and added the true fact that 90% of people pay taxes on time. So the only difference was that we were telling people, “You are in the minority.” If you are an Econ, this should be irrelevant. But it brought in millions of pounds in tax revenue a lot faster.

There are all kinds of opportunities. Climate change is a behavioral problem—telling homeowners they use more power than their neighbors tends to reduce consumption. So is obesity. Health care costs are partly behavioral. It makes sense to ask behavioral scientists for their ideas, and then test them rigorously.

What about the worry that nudges can manipulate people? It’s just looking to see how we can help people without forcing them to do anything. We didn’t invent the idea of nudging people toward certain choices—it’s been around throughout human history. When the government employs these strategies, there are important ethical questions, and Cass Sunstein and I wrote about this in our book Nudge. We insist the government has to be transparent. Critics forget you cannot have a world without nudging. If people have to remember to sign up for a 401(k), the employer is effectively nudging them not to enroll. Either way, you have to decide what the default is. We advocate picking the one that makes people better off.

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.

150414_RET_Getapro_graphic

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.

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