MONEY retirement income

The Search for Income in Retirement

Why we may be focusing too much on our nest egg and not enough on cash flow.

There are three components to retirement planning: accumulation, investment, and managing for income. And while we are usually more fixated on “the number” on our balance sheet, the bigger challenge is ensuring that a retirement portfolio can generate enough steady money as we live out our days.

In a recent academic panel hosted by the Defined Contribution Institutional Investment Association (DCIIA), professors Michael Finke of Texas Tech and Stephen Zeldes of Columbia University illustrated the challenge of getting into an income mindset by discussing what’s known as the “annuity puzzle.”

If people were to take their 401(k)s and convert them into annuities, they would get a lifetime income stream. And yet very few people actually annuitize, in part because they don’t want to lose control over their hard-earned savings. “Getting people to start thinking about their retirement in an income stream instead of a lump sum is a big problem,” Finke told the audience.

Also at play is the phenomenon of present bias, whereby half a million dollars today sounds a lot better than, say, $2,500 a month for the rest of your life. This is a major knowledge gap that needs to be addressed. A new survey of more than 1,000 Americans aged 60-75 with at least $100,000 conducted for the American College of Financial Services found that of all of the issues of financial literacy, respondents were least informed about how to use annuities as an income strategy. When asked to choose between taking an annuity over a lump sum from a defined benefit plan in order to meet basic living expenses, less than half agreed that the annuity was the better choice.

Granted, annuities are complicated products. In the past, they got a bad rap for not having death benefits and otherwise misleading investors, but the industry has evolved, and there are now so many different options that it would be quite an undertaking to wade through and understand them all. And annuities aren’t the only way to generate income. Another option people might want to consider is a real estate investment that can throw off consistent revenues from rent. The point is to start thinking more not just about accumulating money but about how you can make that money work for you by turning it into an income-producing asset.

In the meantime, academics like Zeldes are working on how to make annuitization more appealing. In a paper published in the Journal of Public Economics in August 2014, Zeldes and colleagues suggest that people are more likely to annuitize if they can do so with only part of their nest egg, and even a partial annuity can be better than no annuity at all. Zeldes also found that people prefer an extra “bonus” payment during one month of the year, which means that they essentially want their annuity to seem less annuity-like. I’m all for product innovation, but in this case I think we’d be better off learning the value of a steady stream—especially over a fake “bonus.”

Konigsberg is the author of The Truth About Grief, a contributor to the anthology Money Changes Everything, and a director at Arden Asset Management. The views expressed are solely her own.

Read more about annuities in the Ultimate Retirement Guide:
What is an immediate annuity?
What is a longevity annuity?
How do I know if buying an annuity is right for me?

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