MONEY retirement savings

Borrowing From Your 401(k) Might Not Be Such a Bad Thing

carton of gold eggs, some are empty
GP Kidd—Getty Images

Most loans get paid back. It's cashing out that's the problem.

“Leakage,” using 401(k) or IRA savings to pay for anything other than retirement, has become something of a bad word in the personal finance world. One policy wonk, Matt Fellowes, the founder and CEO of HelloWallet, took the metaphor even further when he wrote that “the large rate and systematic quality of the non-retirement uses of DC [defined contribution] assets indicates that these plans are now being ‘breached.’ This is a massive systematic problem that now affects 1 out of every 4 participants, on average—which is more like a gaping hole in the DC boat than a pesky ‘leak.’

But leaks come in different shapes and sizes, and it turns out that some of them—such as taking loans from your own account, which you then pay back with interest—are less dangerous to your future financial security than others. Data from Vanguard shows that 18% of people participating in plans offering loans had a loan outstanding in 2013, and about 11% took out a new loan that year, which sounds like a very high rate. But the average loan was about $9,500 and most of it gets repaid, so it actually doesn’t represent a permanent drain on retirement savings. “Loans are sometimes criticized as a source of revolving credit for the young, but in fact they are used more frequently by mid-career participants,” note Alicia Munnell and Anthony Webb of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

The real problem is what is known as a “cash-out,” when employees take a lump-sum distribution when they change jobs, instead of keeping their savings in their employer’s plan, transferring it to their new employer’s 401(k), or rolling it into an IRA. These cash-outs are subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty (if you’re under the age of 59½) and a 20% withholding tax. Vanguard reports that 29% of plan participants who left their jobs in 2013 took a cash distribution. Younger participants with lower balances are more likely to cash out than older ones.

Equally risky, although more difficult to obtain, are “hardship withdrawals,” which allow 401(k) plan participants to access funds if they can prove that they face an “immediate and heavy financial need,” such as to prevent an eviction or foreclosure or to pay for postsecondary tuition bills. As with cash-outs, these withdrawals are subject to a 10% penalty as well as 20% withholding for income tax. (You can take a non-penalized withdrawal if you become permanently disabled or to cover very large medical expenses.) Employees must prove that they’ve exhausted every other means, including taking a loan from their 401(k). The rules governing IRAs are much more relaxed and include taking penalty-free withdrawals of up to $10,000 to buy, build, or rebuild a first home or even to pay for medical insurance for those unemployed for 12 weeks or more—situations one might argue it would be better to have established a six-month emergency or house fund to cover instead of taking from your IRA.

Policy watchers such as Munnell and Webb recommend tightening up regulations to reduce leakage, arguing in particular that allowing participants to cash out of 401(k)s when they change jobs is “hard to defend” and that the mechanism could be closed down entirely by changing the law to prohibit lump-sum distributions upon termination. It would also make sense to make the rules for withdrawals from IRAs as strict as those from 401(k)s, since more and more assets are moving in that direction as people leave jobs and open rollover IRAs.

But perhaps the biggest lesson of leakage is that if people are reaching into their retirement funds to pay for basic needs such as housing or health insurance, they may be better off not participating in a 401(k) until they have enough emergency savings under their belt. Contributing to a retirement plan is important, but not if you turn your 401(k) into a short-terms savings vehicle and ignore basic budgeting and emergency planning.

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.

MONEY Longevity

The New Rules for Making Your Money Last in Retirement

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Murat Giray/Getty Images

In today's longevity economy, retirement as we know it is disappearing. Here's what to do now.

Are you ready to live to age 95—or beyond?

It’s a real possibility. For an upper-middle-class couple age 65 today, there’s a 43% chance that one or both will reach at least age 95, according to the latest data from the Society of Actuaries.

Living longer is a good thing, of course. But there’s a downside—increasing longevity may mean the end of retirement as we know it.

Problem is, a long lifetime in retirement is a huge financial challenge. As Laura Carstensen, head of Stanford Center on Longevity, said in a recent presentation, “Most people can’t save enough in 40 years of working to support themselves for 30 or more years of not working. Nor can society provide enough in terms of pensions to support nonworking people that long.” Instead, Carstensen argues, we need to move toward a longer, more flexible working life.

Carstensen is hardly alone here. Alicia Munnell, head of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College and a co-author of “Falling Short: The Coming Retirement Crisis and What to Do About It”, has long warned about the nation’s lack of retirement preparedness. Following the Great Recession, Munnell has pounded away at the reality that continuing to work is the only feasible strategy for many people if they wish to have any hope of affording even modestly comfortable retirements.

For many retiring Baby Boomers, the notion of working longer has appeal—not only for the additional income but as a way of staying involved and giving back. That’s what spurred Marc Freedman, founder of Encore.org, to encourage older workers to use their skills for social purpose. Chris Farrell, a Money contributor, captures this movement in his recent book, “Unretirement: How Baby Boomers are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and the Good Life.”

Still, to afford a longer life, Americans will have to rethink their savings and withdrawal methods too. Right now, most retirement calculators default to no more than a 30-year time horizon. What if you want to keep your retirement income going past age 95? Fidelity’s planners suggest three alternatives that can help:

*Stay on the job longer. Say you are a 65-year old woman who earned $100,000 a year, and you have a $1 million portfolio. You’ll also receive a $30,000 Social Security benefit ($2,500 a month) and you plan to withdraw an initial $50,000 a year from your portfolio. All told, you’ll have $80,000, or 80% of your pre-retirement income. If inflation averages 2%, and the portfolio grows by 4%, your savings will likely last for 25 years, or until age 90. After that, odds are the money will run out.

But if you instead work four more years, until age 69, and keep saving 15% of your income, your portfolio will grow to $1,240,000. That would be enough to provide income for eight more years—until age 98.

*Postpone Social Security. Another move is to work two more years and defer claiming Social Security till age 67, which means your monthly benefit will rise from $2,500 to $2,850. That would replace 35% of her income, instead of 30%, and her portfolio would need replace just 45% of your pre-retirement earnings vs 50%. By age 67, your portfolio will total $1,110,000, which will deliver retirement income till age 98.

*Consider an annuity. You could purchase an immediate annuity, which would give you a lifetime stream of income. The trade-off, of course, is that your money is locked up and payments will cease when you die (unless you add a joint-and-survivor option, which would reduce your payout). Many advisers suggest using only a portion of your portfolio to buy an annuity—you might aim to cover your essential expenses with a guaranteed income stream, which would include Social Security.

A 65-year-old woman who invested $200,000 in an immediate annuity with a 2% annual inflation adjustment would receive guaranteed monthly payments of about $870 a month, or $10,440 a year, according to Income Solutions. Added to Social Security, this income would replace roughly 40% of a $100,000 salary, which will allow the rest of the portfolio to keep growing longer.

But make no mistake. This is a big decision, and many investment experts oppose locking up money in an annuity, given today’s low interest rates. But longevity investing raises the appeal of guaranteed streams of income, and annuity payouts will become more attractive if and when interest rates slowly rise toward historical norms.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is the co-author of “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” and a research fellow at the Center for Aging & Work at Boston College. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: The Suddenly Hot Job Market for Workers Over 50

MONEY Careers

The Suddenly Hot Job Market for Workers Over 50

Barclay's bank
Dominic Lipinski—PA Wire/Press Association Images

More companies are recognizing the value of mature workers—and they're starting to hire them.

Things are finally looking up for older workers.

The latest data show the unemployment rate for those over age 55 stands at just 4.1%, compared with 5.7% for the total population and a steep 18.8% for teens. The ranks of the long-term unemployed, which ballooned during the recession as mature workers lost their jobs, are coming down. Age-discrimination charges have fallen for six consecutive years. And now, as the job market lurches back to life, more companies are wooing the silver set with formal retraining programs.

This is not to say that older workers have it easy. Overall, the long-term unemployment rate remains stubbornly high—31.5%. And even though age-discrimination charges have declined they remain at peak pre-recession levels. Meanwhile, critics note that some corporate re-entry programs are not a great deal, paying little or no salary and distracting workers from seeking full-time gainful employment.

Still, the big picture is one of improving opportunity for workers past age 50. That’s welcome news for many reasons, not least is that those who lose their job past age 58 are at greater health risk and, on average, lose three years of life expectancy. Meanwhile, older workers are a bigger piece of the labor force. Two decades ago, less than a third of people age 55 and over were employed or looking for work. Today, the share is 40%, according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve.

AARP and others have long argued that older workers are reliable, flexible, experienced and possess valuable institutional knowledge. Increasingly, employers seem to want these traits.

This spring, the global bank Barclays will expand its apprenticeship program and begin looking at candidates past age 50. The bank will consider mature workers from unrelated fields, saying the only experience they need is practical experience. The bank says this is no PR stunt; it values older workers who have life experience and can better relate to customers seeking a mortgage or auto loan. With training, the bank believes they would make good, full-time, fairly compensated loan officers.

Already, Barclays has a team of tech-savvy older workers in place to help mature customers with online banking. The new apprenticeship program builds on this effort to capitalize on the life skills of experienced employees.

Others have tiptoed into this space. Goldman Sachs started a “returnship” in the throes of the recession. But the program is only a 10-week retraining exercise, with competitive pay, and highly selective. About 2% of applicants get accepted. It is not designed as a gateway to full-time employment at Goldman, though some older interns end up with job offers at the bank.

The nonprofit Encore.com offers mature workers a one-year fellowship, typically in a professional capacity at another nonprofit, to help mature workers re-enter the job market. Again, this is a temporary arrangement and pays just $25,000.

But a growing number of organizations—the National Institutes of Health, Stanley Consultants, and Michelin North America, among many others—embrace a seasoned workforce and have programs designed to attract and keep workers past 50. Companies with internship programs for older workers include PwC, Regeneron, Harvard Business School, MetLife and McKinsey. Find a longer list at irelaunch.com. And get back in the game.

Read next: These Workers Landed Cool and Unusual Retirement Jobs—Here’s How

MONEY Second Career

These Workers Landed Cool and Unusual Retirement Jobs—Here’s How

senior fixing tractor
Zuma Press—Alamy

If you're willing to think outside the box, you'll find fun jobs that provide income and adventure.

Retirement surveys say that many people plan to work part-time in retirement—for the income, the enjoyment or both. But an Unretirement job doesn’t mean you have to be a Walmart greeter (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Instead, think out of the box and create, or find, a part-time position that’s fun, too.

Tinkering in Unretirement

Don Carlson, a former engineer in Columbia, S.C. who spent over three decades in the auto industry, loves working with machine tools, making and repairing things. So when he retired from Ford, Carlson launched a part-time business restoring old tractors. He’s since evolved it into fixing things mostly for fun—recently, he breathed life into an old manual sewing machine. “Most of what I do is for friends now,” says Carlson. “I get energy doing it.”

Tractor restoration is in line with lots of other unusual jobs I’ve learned that people are embracing in their Unretirement. People like Peter Millon, 69, who lives in Park City, Utah and waxes and repairs skis for racers part-time. Or John Kerr, 76; his encore career is a Yellowstone Park ranger.

Retired, But Not Retired

On a public radio broadcast I was on, a Wyoming, Minn. caller named Rick said that after he retired from being a school counselor and decided he wasn’t ready “for the rocking chair,” he picked up a job as a driver. He loves it, especially the flexibility. “I am retired, but I’m not retired,” he said.

How’s this for an Unretirement job pitch? “If you consider yourself ‘Older & Bolder,’ you are retired or planning on retiring, and are looking for a seasonal or temporary job in a great place, the following employers are interested in you. Keep in mind, each has varied accommodations; some have RV spaces, some offer private rooms, and others have rentals nearby. Are you ready for your encore career?” It’s from the website Coolworks.com.

Part-Time Work at a National Park

Cool Works posts mostly seasonal jobs, typically paying minimum wage or slightly higher. They can be enticing for people who’d love to spend time in a national park or another exotic locale, though. When I checked out Cool Works’ job postings on February 25, the openings included: line cooks, night auditors and gift store manager in the Grand Teton National Park; multiple seasonal management opportunities in Mount Rainer and tutoring kids with the Carson and Barnes Circus.

“You can do all kinds of things,” says Kari Quaas, human resources and recruiting specialist at Cool Works.

Reading through the postings reminded me of an interview I did a few years ago with Frank and Sandie, then empty nesters in their 50s. They forged a new life for themselves, living three months of the year alongside Grand Lake in the Colorado mountains (an RV parking space and utilities were free in exchange for campsite maintenance work) and another three with the RV Care-A-Vanners on the road, building Habitat for Humanity homes. The rest of the time they lived and worked in Arizona, Frank at a pharmacy and Sandie as a craft store cashier.

Out-of-the-box Unretirement jobs like theirs can often be nomadic, short-term gigs with beautiful surroundings and so-so pay. Participants often draw on some kind of a pension or have dramatically downsized their possessions and material wants (or, more realistically, have combined savings with frugality). The lure is the adventure and the income helps make the job practical.

Caretaking For Someone’s Home

Home-caretaking is another possibility for those intrigued by the vagabond life. Caretakers, sometimes called housesitters, mostly look after residences and other properties of wealthy homeowners usually while they’re away. Other opportunities open up when a relative dies, leaving a home to someone living far away and the beneficiary needs someone to temporarily watch over the property.

Free board is always part of the caretaking deal, but there’s generally only compensation if you’re watching a well-off owner’s place, says Gary Dunn, publisher of the Caretaker Gazette. He adds that owners tend to prefer older caretakers and many favor former members of the military, police officers and firefighters.

Jobs for Retired Brains

For some other out-of-the-box ideas, I checked in with Art Koff, 79, founder of the website Retired Brains, which focuses on work. Koff mentioned a number of unusual possibilities, such as traveling-assistance companion, shuttle driver for car dealers and golf cart management.

Koff’s own story is a great example of picking up fascinating work after a first career. He spent 40 years in the high-pressure ad business and retired in his late 60s. “I wondered, ‘What to do?’ says Koff. “I couldn’t imagine not having something to do.” So he started Retired Brains. “I am working 50 hours a week, but I really enjoy what I’m doing every day,” he says. “It’s a quasi-public service business. It pays for itself, but I’m not in it for the money.”

Mention the catchphrase “working longer” to many boomers and the immediate image that comes to mind is spending more years stuck in a cubicle or working at a big-box retailer. But the Unretirement narrative shows that more and more retirees are shucking the big box for something out-of-the-box.

Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor for American Public Media’s Marketplace and author of the forthcoming Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and The Good Life. Send your queries to him at cfarrell@mpr.org. His twitter address is @cfarrellecon.

More from Next Avenue:

Splitting Work and Fund in Retirement

Still Working After 75—and Loving It

Why You’ll Be Able to Work Longer Than You Think

MONEY Debt

The Hidden Threat to Your Retirement

More older Americans are approaching their golden years with heavy debt loads.

When Wanda Simpson reached retirement a couple of years ago, the Cleveland mom had an unwelcome companion: Around $25,000 in debt.

Despite a longtime job as a municipal administrator, Simpson wrestled with a combination of a second mortgage and credit-card bills that she racked up thanks to health problems and a generous tendency to help out family members.

“I was very worried, and there were a lot of sleepless nights,” remembers Simpson, 68. “I didn’t want to be a burden on my children, or pass away and leave a lot of debt behind.”

New data reveal that Wanda Simpson has company—and plenty of it.

Indeed, the percentage of older Americans carrying debt has increased markedly in the past couple of decades. Among families headed by those 55 or older, 65.4% are still carrying debt loads, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI). That is up more than 10 percentage points from 1992, when only 53.8% of such families grappled with debt.

“It’s a two-fold story of higher prevalence of debt, and an uptick in those with a very high level of debt,” says Craig Copeland, EBRI’s senior research associate. “Some people are in real trouble.”

To wit, 9.2% of families headed by older Americans are forking over at least 40% of their income to debt payments. That, too, is up, from 8.5% three years earlier.

The only bright spot in the data? The average debt balance of families headed by those over 55 has actually decreased since 2010, according to EBRI, from $80,564 to $73,211 in 2013.

Still sound high? It is especially so for those heading into reduced earning years, or retiring completely.

The primary culprit, according to Copeland: rising home prices and the longer-term mortgages that result, often leaving seniors with a monthly nut well into their golden years.

Seniors are even dealing with lingering student debt: 706,000 senior households grappled with a record $18.2 billion in student loans in 2013, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

It’s not an easy subject to discuss, since older Americans may be ashamed that they are still dealing with debt after so many years in the workforce. They do not want to feel like a burden on their kids or grandkids, and so keep their financial struggles to themselves.

But financial experts stress that not all debt is automatically bad. A reasonable mortgage locked in at current low rates, in a home where you plan to stay for a long period, can be a very intelligent inflation hedge.

“I always suggest clients consolidate it in the form of good debt, like a mortgage on your primary residence,” says Stephen Doucette, a planner with Proctor Financial in Sherborn, Massachusetts. “You are borrowing against an appreciating asset, you don’t have to worry about inflation increasing the payment, and the interest is deductible.

As long as this debt is a small portion of your net worth, it is okay to play a little arbitrage, especially considering stock market risk, where a sudden decline could leave older investors very vulnerable.

“A retiree who has debt and a retirement account with equity exposure may not have the staying power he or she thinks. The debt is a fixed amount; the retirement account is variable,” says David Haraway, a planner with LPL Financial in Colorado Springs, Colo.

It is important not to halt 401(k) contributions, or drain all other sources of funds, just because you desire to be totally debt-free. Planner Scot Hansen of Shoreview, Minn. has witnessed clients do this, and ironically their good intentions end up damaging years of careful planning.

“But this distribution only created more income to be reported, and more taxes to be paid. Plus it depleted their retirement funding source.” he says.

Instead, take a measured approach. That’s what Wanda Simpson did, slowly chipping away at her debt with the help of the firm Consolidated Credit, while living off her Social Security and pension checks.

The result: She just sent off her final payment.

MONEY Social Security

The Taxing Problem With Working Longer

Earning money after you start collecting Social Security can be a tax headache.

The question of when and how to file for Social Security is a tough one for many retirees—I regularly field questions on the topic. Recently a reader wrote to say he’d like to draw Social Security benefits at age 66 yet keep working until 75. What are the tax implications?

When you continue to work and draw Social Security, your benefits are reduced temporarily if you’re 65 or younger and your outside income exceeds certain levels. After 65, these reductions do not apply. You may, however, owe taxes on your Social Security income.

How Earnings Can Hurt

Not all of your Social Security income is taxable. Social Security uses a measure it calls “combined income” to determine how much of your benefit is taxable, and it can be tricky to understand.

To determine your combined income, take your adjusted gross income (check last year’s tax return), then add any nontaxable interest income and half of your Social Security benefit. (If you haven’t started claiming, you can get a projection online by setting up an account at ssa.gov.)

If the total is less than $25,000 ($32,000 on joint tax returns), you owe no income taxes on your Social Security benefits. If the total is between $25,000 and $34,000 ($32,000 and $44,000 on joint returns), you may have to pay taxes on half of your Social Security that’s over that threshold. Above that, 85% of your benefits may be taxable—the top rate.

Here’s how that could play out. Take a retiree in the 15% federal tax bracket who is taxed on 50% of his Social Security. When he earns another $1,000, his so-called combined income rises by that much too, subjecting another $500 of Social Security income to taxes. So the tax bill on that $1,000 won’t be $150 (15% of $1,000) but $225 (15% of $1,500), for an effective rate of 22.5%.

150223_RET_WorkingLate
MONEY

Your Workarounds

Beefing up your tax-free holdings, especially Roth IRAs, can mean money coming in that won’t trigger more taxable Social Security income. (Working less lowers your tax bill too, but you’re usually better off earning the money.)

If you can live on just your salary, deferring Social Security until age 70 also helps. Your taxes should be lower while you wait. And delaying benefits will increase your monthly Social Security payments by 8% a year (plus annual inflation adjustments).

Hedging Your Bets

Single retirees should think about one other option: filing for and suspending Social Security benefits at age 66. By doing so you will be able to request a lump-sum payment for all the suspended benefits
anytime until age 70.

Even the best of plans can change, so that payment could come in handy if you face an emergency cash crunch. But there’s a downside: Once you request a lump sum, your payout will be valued as if you took benefits at 66, as will your regular monthly benefit going forward.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His book, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” was published in February by Simon & Schuster. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

 

MONEY housing

Boomers’ Homes Are Once Again Their Castles

House in Colorado
Getty Images

A new study looks at the relationship older Americans have with their homes and finds some surprises.

Aging Baby Boomers apparently missed the memo about how badly they’ve prepared for retirement. While study after study highlights inadequate retirement savings and planning, a new survey and report sponsored by Merrill Lynch finds that a broad cross-section of older Americans are eagerly looking forward to new adventures and, especially, freedoms, in their later years.

“Home in Retirement: More Freedom, New Choices,” prepared for Merrill Lynch by the Age Wave consulting firm, focuses on the age-related transitions that people are making in the way they live and how they regard their homes. According to the study, nearly two-thirds of retirees say they are now living in the “best home of their lives” and making active efforts to create living spaces that match their new retirement lifestyles. Nearly as many say they are likely to move during their retirement years, and most of this group has already relocated once.

“When I look out at the future of our aging population, I have concerns, too,” said Ken Dychtwald, head of Age Wave and a longtime leader in aging research. “I am not a beginner at this. But I think a lot of our worries are not a fait accompli,” he said. “I think we have, to a fair extent, overemphasized the misery of aging.”

After lives largely determined by work and family responsibilities, boomer retirees find they are experiencing a new sense of freedom about where and how they live. An estimated 4.2 million retirees moved into new homes last year alone, the report found. And while downsizing is often recommended as a new lifestyle for retirees, nearly a third of retirees who relocated actually moved into larger homes. (One reason: One out of every six retirees has a “boomerang” child who moved back in with them.)

Only one in six retirees who moved last year wound up in a different state, emphasizing the strong attachments that boomers have to their existing communities. Among future retirees, 60% say they expect to stay in their current state while 40% want to explore other parts of the country.

From their 60s to their late 70’s, people “think of this as a great time and a time of great freedom,” Dychtwald said. “That word—freedom—came up over and over again.”

Reaching age 60 seems to represent a “threshold event” for people, added Cyndi Hutchins, director of financial gerontology for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. With careers winding down and children out of the house, people take a new look at their futures. Another transition occurs in the early to middle 70s, when many begin to slow down and become less active. “We see a spike in that freedom threshold again at that age,” she said. “We see retirement as a succession of different time periods.”

Whether people move or not, or downsize or not, their homes assume added significance, the study found. “Prior to age 55, more homeowners say the financial value of their home outweighs its emotional value,” the report said. “As people age, however, they are far more likely to say their home’s emotional value is more important than its financial value.” More than 80% of people aged 65 and older own their own homes, and more than 70% of them have paid off their mortgages.

If boomers do reinvest in their homes, it would provide a major boost to the housing and home furnishings business. In the next decade, the study notes, the number of U.S. households will increase by nearly 13 million, with nearly all of this growth—nearly 11 million—occurring among people aged 65 and older.

“Age 55+ households account for nearly half (47%) of all spending on home renovations—about $90 billion annually,” the report noted. “While younger households slowed or reduced spending on home renovations between 2003 and 2013, spending among those age 65+ increased by 26%.”

Common renovations among retired homeowners include: home office (35%), improved curb appeal (34%), a kitchen upgrade (32%), improved bathroom (29%), adding age-friendly safety features in a bathroom (28%), and modifying their home so they can live on a single level if needed (15%).

The report found the South Atlantic states were the favorite place for people to live and to relocate, followed by Mountain and Pacific states.

It also echoed other research that finds people overwhelmingly prefer to “age in place” in their own homes, with 85% of people preferring this option as opposed to moving to a senior or assisted living community.

Leading age-ready home features include a no-step entry; single-floor living; extra-wide hallways and doors; accessible electrical controls; lever-style handles on doors and faucets; bathroom safety features, and, accessible countertops and cabinets.

The Merrill Lynch study is the fifth in its series of seven planned reports dealing with people’s life priorities for their health, home, family, finance, giving, work, and leisure. Its findings are based on a survey of more than 3,600 adults representative of the broader U.S. population in terms of age, income, gender and place of residence.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health, and co-author of “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

MONEY financial advice

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

man in suit with briefcase stuffed with bills
Roy Hsu—Getty Images

After years of fits and starts, the move to require brokers and other financial advisers to act as fiduciaries—essentially making them put their clients’ interests first—seems to be gaining traction again. Witness President Obama’s recent speech at AARP on the topic. Whether a fiduciary mandate eventually comes to pass or not, here are three things you should know if you’re working with—or thinking of hiring—an adviser bound by the fiduciary standard.

1. Fiduciary status doesn’t guarantee honesty, or competence. The idea behind compelling financial advisers to act in their client’s best interest is that doing so will help eliminate a variety of dubious practices and outright abuses, such as pushing high-cost or otherwise inappropriate investments that do more to boost the adviser’s income than the size of an investor’s nest egg. And perhaps a rule or law requiring advisers to act as fiduciaries when dispensing advice or counseling consumers about investments will achieve that noble aim.

But you would be foolish to count on it. Fact is, no rule or standard can prevent an adviser from taking advantage of clients or, for that matter, prevent an unscrupulous one from using the mantle of fiduciary status to lull clients into a false sense of security. As a registered investment adviser with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Ponzi scheme perpetrator Bernie Madoff had a fiduciary duty to his clients. Clearly, that didn’t stop him from ripping them off.

Fiduciary or no, you should thoroughly vet any adviser before signing on. You should also assure that any money the adviser is investing or overseeing is held by an independent trustee, and stipulate that the adviser himself should not have unrestricted access to your funds.

2. Your interests and an adviser’s never completely align. There’s no way to eliminate all conflicts of interest between you and a financial adviser, even if he’s a fiduciary. If an adviser is compensated through sales commissions, for example, he may be tempted to recommend investments that pay him the most or frequently move your money to generate more commissions. An adviser who eschews commissions in favor of an annual fee—say, 1% or 1.5% of assets under management—might be prone to avoid investments that can reduce the value of assets under his charge, such as immediate annuities. Or, the adviser might charge the same 1% a year as assets increase even if his workload doesn’t.

My advice: Ask the adviser outright how your interests and his may deviate, as well as how he intends to handle conflicts so you’ll be treated fairly. If the adviser says he has no conflicts, move on to one with a more discerning mind.

3. Even with fiduciaries high fees can be an issue. Much of the rationale over the fiduciary mandate centers around protecting investors from bloated investments costs. But don’t assume that just because an adviser is a fiduciary that his fees are a bargain, or that you can’t do better. Advisers can and do charge a wide range of fees for very similar services, and fiduciaries are no exception. So ask for the details—in writing—of the services you’ll receive and exactly what you’ll pay for them. And don’t be shy about negotiating for a lower rate, or taking a proposal to another adviser to see if you can save on fees and expenses.

A fiduciary may have a duty to put your interests first. But that duty doesn’t extend to helping you find a competitor who may offer a better deal. That’s on you.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

More from RealDealRetirement.com:

Should You Claim Social Security Early and Invest It—Or Claim Later For A Higher Benefit?

How To Protect Your Nest Egg From Shifting Government Policies

Your 3 Most Pressing Social Security Questions Answered

 

MONEY financial advisers

Proposed Retiree Safeguard Is Long Overdue

businessman putting money into his suit jacket pocket
Jan Stromme—Getty Images

The financial-advice regulations pushed by the Obama administration will save retirees, on average, an estimated $12,000.

When you are planning for retirement and ask for advice, whose interest should come first — yours or the financial expert you ask for help?

That is the question at the heart of a Washington debate over the unsexy-sounding term “fiduciary standard.” Simply put, it is a legal responsibility requiring an adviser to put the best interest of a client ahead of all else.

The issue has been kicking around Washington ever since the financial crisis, and it took a dramatic turn on Monday when President Barack Obama gave a very public embrace to an expanded set of fiduciary rules. In a speech at AARP, the president endorsed rules proposed by the Department of Labor that would require everyone giving retirement investment advice to adhere to a fiduciary standard.

The president’s decision to embrace and elevate fiduciary reform into a major policy move is huge.

“The White House knows that this is the most significant action it can take to promote retirement security without legislation,” said Cristina Martin Firvida, director of financial security and consumer affairs at AARP, which has been pushing for adoption of the new fiduciary rules.

Today, financial planning advice comes in two flavors. Registered investment advisors (RIAs) are required to meet a fiduciary standard. Most everyone else you would encounter in this sphere — stockbrokers, broker-dealer representatives and people who sell financial products for banks or insurance companies — adhere to a weaker standard where they are allowed to put themselves first.

“Most people don’t know the difference,” said Christopher Jones, chief investment officer of Financial Engines, a large RIA firm that provides fiduciary financial advice to workers in 401(k) plans.

The difference can be huge for your retirement outcome. A report issued this month by the President’s Council of Economic Advisers found that retirement savers receiving conflicted advice earn about 1 percentage point less in returns, with an aggregate loss of $17 billion annually.

The report pays special attention to the huge market of rollovers from workplace 401(k)s to individual retirement accounts — transfers which often occur when workers retire. Nine of 10 new IRAs are rollovers, according to the Investment Company Institute mutual fund trade group. The CEA report estimates that $300 billion is rolled over annually, and the figures are accelerating along with baby-boom-generation retirements.

The CEA report estimates a worker receiving conflicted advice would lose about 12% of the account’s value over a 30-year period of drawdowns. Since the average IRA rollover for near-retirees is just over $100,000, that translates into a $12,000 loss.

What constitutes conflicted advice? Plan sponsors — employers — have a fiduciary responsibility to act in participants’ best interest. But many small 401(k) plans hire plan recordkeepers and advisers who are not fiduciaries. They are free to pitch expensive mutual funds and annuity products, and industry data consistently shows that small plans have higher cost and lower rates of return than big, well-managed plans.

The rollover market also is rife with abuse, often starting with the advice to roll over in the first place. Participants in well-constructed, low-fee 401(k)s most often would do better leaving their money where it is at retirement; IRA expenses run 0.25 to 0.30 percentage points higher than 401(k)s, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Yet the big mutual fund companies blitz savers with cash come-ons, and, as I wrote recently, very few of their “advisers” ask customers the basic questions that would determine whether a rollover is in order.

The industry makes the Orwellian argument that a fiduciary standard will make it impossible for the industry to offer cost-effective assistance to the middle class. But that argument ignores the innovations in technology and business practices that already are shaking up the industry with low-cost advice options.

How effective will the new rules be? The devil will be in the details. Any changes are still a little far off: TheDepartment of Labor is expected to publish the new rules in a few months — a timetable that already is under attack by industry opponents as lacking a duly deliberative process.

Enough, already. This debate has been kicking around since the financial crisis, and an expanded fiduciary is long overdue.

MONEY Savings

Retirement Savers, Don’t Count on Washington to Protect You

Regulations that would protect the interests of retirement savers are finally gaining traction in Washington. But don't pop the champagne corks just yet.

After years of talk about how to protect retirement savers, the White House has gotten behind a Labor Department proposal that would require financial advisers to put clients’ interests ahead of their own.

Consumer champion Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who says she is not running for president, is doing wall-to-wall media on her view that the government should do more to regulate providers of 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans and individual retirement accounts.

The Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday in a case challenging high 401(k) fees.

But savers should not pop champagne corks yet. It takes forever and a day to legislate and regulate in Washington. Even if it ends up on a fast track, the Labor Department’s draft rule is expected to leave a loophole big enough to drive the brokerage industry through.

Labor Department officials have said it would allow retirement advisers to continue selling investments on commission, as long as they disclosed that to clients.

There are several issues involved in regulating retirement investment advice. A primary one is the quality of 401(k) and 403(b) plans. Employers, who have a fiduciary responsibility to provide good plans to their employees, often hand over program management to consultants, who can keep program costs to employers low and jack up investment fees that workers pay when they buy funds in their plans.

A second issue involves the quality of advice investors get on their individual retirement accounts. If the advice is from brokers, there is a possibility investors are being put into mutual funds that carry higher fees than are optimal for them or are in other ways being put into funds that are not right for them. Higher fees may compensate brokers who are paid by commission or may compensate fund companies that spend the extra cash in ways that benefit the brokerage firms that offer their funds. That can result in investment advice that is conflicted.

After years of lobbying by the brokerage industry, the Labor Department is leaning toward a rule that would allow conflicts, such as commissions and fund company payments to brokerages, as long as they were disclosed. So investors take note: you are eventually going to have to read all the small print, so you might as well start now.

Here’s how to protect your retirement savings:

Check your 401(k) plan. Numerous large employers have spent big bucks to settle class action lawsuits focused on mutual fund fees in retirement plans, and fees have fallen. Average annual management fees of 401(k) funds are below 0.5 percent at large companies and below 1 percent at small companies. If your company’s fund choices are out of line, talk to your human resources department. If your only choices are substandard funds and high fees, put only enough in your 401(k) to get the employer matching contributions, and then invest additional funds in a personal IRA or Roth IRA.

Choose inexpensive mutual funds. Investing in low cost index funds instead of costlier actively managed funds will put you ahead. A person earning $75,000 a year who starts saving at age 25 would spend $104,033 in fees over a lifetime if fees were capped at 0.25 percent of assets annually. At 1.3 percent, that same worker would spend $409,202, according to the Center for American Progress. That extra $305,169 could support roughly $1,000 a month for life in extra retirement income.

Separate advice from your investments. If you want help figuring out which funds to invest in, pay a fee-only financial adviser, do not depend on “free” advice from a commissioned broker. You can get inexpensive advice from big fund companies like Vanguard, Fidelity Investments, and T Rowe Price, or from so-called “robo advisers” like Wealthfront or Betterment.

Be especially careful about rollovers. When you leave a job, you typically have the right to keep your money invested in your 401(k), an excellent choice if you work for a company that provides good funds within the plan. Or you can roll it over into a so-called “Rollover IRA” at any brokerage or fund company. Choose a low-fee fund company or discount brokerage that will enable you to choose your own investments from a large pool of individual stocks and inexpensive funds, and buy only the advice you need.

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