MONEY Savings

When Good Investments Are Bad for Your Retirement Savings

Q: I have an investment portfolio outside of my retirement plans. That portfolio kicks out dividend and interest income. If I roll all that passive income back into my portfolio, can I count that toward my retirement savings rate? — Scott King, Kansas City, Mo.

A: No. The interest income and dividends that your portfolio generates are part of your portfolio’s total return, says Drew Taylor, a managing director at investment advisory firm Halbert Hargrove in Long Beach, Calif. “Counting income from your portfolio as savings would be double counting.”

There are two parts to total return: capital appreciation and income. Capital appreciation is simply when your investments increase in value. For example, if a stock you invest in rises in price, then the capital you invested appreciates. The other half of the equation is income, which can come from interest paid by fixed-income investments such as bonds, or through stock dividends.

If your portfolio generates a lot income from dividends and bonds, that’s a good thing. Reinvesting it while you’re in saving mode rather than taking it as income to spend will boost your total return.

But dividends can get cut and interest rates can fluctuate, so counting those as part of your savings rate is risky. “The only reliable way to meet your savings goal is to save the money you earn,” says John C. Abusaid, president of Halbert Hargrove.

It’s understandable why you’d want to count income in your savings rate. The amount you need to save for retirement can be daunting. Financial advisers recommend saving 10% to 15% of your income annually starting in your 20s. The goal is to end up with about 10 times your final annual earnings by the time you quit working.

How much you need to put away now depends on how much you have already saved and the lifestyle you want when you are older. To get a more precise read on whether you are on track to your goals, use a retirement calculator like this one from T. Rowe Price.

It’s great that you are saving outside of your retirement plans. While 401(k)s and IRAs are the best way to save for retirement and provide a generous tax break, you are still limited in how much you can put away: $18,000 this year in a 401(k) and $5,500 for an IRA. If you’re over 50, you can put away another $6,000 in your 401(k) and $1,000 in an IRA.

That’s a lot of money. “But if you’re playing catch-up or want to live a more lavish lifestyle when you retire, you may have to do more than max out your 401(k) and IRAs,” Taylor says.

Read next: How to Prepare for the Next Market Meltdown

MONEY stocks

How to Prepare for the Next Market Meltdown

A trader works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange shortly before the closing bell, June 29, 2015. U.S. stocks fell sharply in heavy trading on Monday and the S&P 500 and the Dow had their worst day since October after a collapse in Greek bailout talks intensified fears that the country could be the first to exit the euro zone.
Lucas Jackson—Reuters A trader works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange shortly before the closing bell, June 29, 2015. U.S. stocks fell sharply in heavy trading on Monday and the S&P 500 and the Dow had their worst day since October after a collapse in Greek bailout talks intensified fears that the country could be the first to exit the euro zone.

You don't need a crystal ball.

What will ignite the fuse that sets off the next big market crash? Greece, as it tries to cling to—or exit—the European currency union? China, whose economy and stock market are already showing signs of stress? Or will it be something closer to home, say, a snafu by the Federal Reserve as it attempts to unwind years of loose monetary policy?

The answer, of course, is that nobody knows. While anyone can come up with a long list of candidates that could cause the next downturn, it’s impossible to know in advance what the actual trigger will be. I’ve learned this from personal experience. Not long before the 2008 financial crisis I interviewed Richard Bookstaber, a risk expert who had just published A Demon of Our Own Design: Markets, Hedge Funds, and the Perils of Financial Innovation, a book in which he explains how our increasingly complex financial system is evolving beyond regulators’ ability to control—and our ability to predict its behavior.

During that interview, he ticked off a litany of problems that had the potential to topple the economy and the financial markets, including arcane financial instruments like credit swaps, emerging market funds, risky hedge funds, even overheated housing and mortgage markets. I remember thinking at the time, credit swaps, sure; emerging markets, yeah, I could see that; hedge funds, definitely. But inflated housing prices and problematic mortgages bringing the U.S. and global markets to their knees? It seems obvious today with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. But before the financial crisis, it seemed rather far-fetched.

Fortunately, positioning your portfolio to weather the next big downturn doesn’t require that you be able to foresee when the setback will occur or what will instigate it. Rather, all you have to do is assure you have your savings invested in a mix of stocks and bonds you would be equally comfortable sticking with if the market continues to make it to higher ground—or gets whacked for a sizable loss from a development everyone anticipates or from a shock that comes completely out of the blue. In other words, it’s not as important that you be able to predict the timing or the cause of a rout as it is that you are prepared to handle the consequences.

How to Disaster-Proof Your Portfolio

The first step is to review your current holdings. Over the course of a long bull market, it’s easy to end up with a portfolio that’s more aggressive than you think. Which is why it’s important to do a quick inventory of what you own. Basically, you want to divide your investments into three broad categories—stocks, bonds, and cash—so you know what percentage each represents of your overall holdings. If you have funds that own a mix of those asset categories, such as a balanced fund or target-date retirement fund, you can plug its name or ticker symbol into Morningstar’s Instant X-Ray tool to see how it divvies up its assets.

Once you know your portfolio’s stocks-bonds mix, you want to make sure you’ll be comfortable with that mix should stock prices head south. The simplest way to do that: complete a risk tolerance-asset allocation questionnaire like the free one Vanguard offers online. After you answer 11 questions about how long you plan to keep your money invested, how you react after losses, and what kind of volatility you think you can handle, the tool will recommend a mix of stocks and bonds consistent with your answers. The tool also provides performance stats showing how the recommended mix, as well as others more conservative and more aggressive, have performed in past markets good and bad.

You can then see how that recommended mix compares with how your portfolio is actually divvied up between stocks and bonds. If there’s a significant difference—say, your portfolio consists of 80% stocks and 20% bonds and the tool suggests a 50-50 blend—you need to decide whether it makes sense to stick with your current mix or ratchet back your stock holdings. One way to do that is to calculate how both mixes would have fared during the 2008 financial crisis, when stocks lost nearly 60% of their value from the market’s 2007 high to its 2009 low and bonds gained roughly 8%. By comparing their performance, you can decide which portfolio you’d be more comfortable holding if the next downturn generates comparable losses.

Keep in mind, though, that limiting short-term setbacks isn’t your only investment objective. If it were, you could simply plow all your dough into federally insured savings accounts and CDs. If you’re investing for a retirement that’s decades away, you also need capital growth to boost the size of your nest egg. And even if you’re retired, you likely still want to have at least some of your nest egg in stocks to assure that your savings can generate income that will stand up to inflation throughout retirement. To get a sense of whether the mix you’ve decided will give you a decent shot at meeting such goals, you can plug your investments, along with information such as how much you have saved and how many years you expect to live in retirement, into a good retirement income calculator.

So let the pundits engage in their endless guessing game of when the next meltdown will occur and what incident or set of factors will precipitate it. But don’t take it too seriously. It’s ultimately a fruitless exercise, and one that could end up wreaking havoc on your portfolio if you make the mistake of actually acting on their speculation and conjecture.

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:

3 Steps To Crash-Proof Your Retirement Plan

Which Generates More Lifetime Income—Annuities or Portfolio Withdrawals?

The Best Way To Invest For Retirement Income

MONEY retirement income

3 Retirement Loopholes That Are Likely to Close

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Design Pics/Darren Greenwood—Getty Images

The government has a knack for catching on to the most popular loopholes.

There are plenty of tips and tricks to maximizing your retirement benefits, and more than a few are considered “loopholes” that taxpayers have been able to use to circumvent the letter of the law in order to pay less to the government.

But as often happens when too many people make use of such shortcuts, the government may move to close three retirement loopholes that have become increasingly popular as financial advisers have learned how to exploit kinks in the law.

1. Back-door Roth IRA conversions
The U.S. Congress created this particular loophole by lifting income restrictions from conversions from a traditional Individual Retirement Account (IRA) to a Roth IRA, but not listing these restrictions from the contributions to the accounts.

People whose incomes are too high to put after-tax money directly into a Roth, where the growth is tax-free, can instead fund a traditional IRA with a nondeductible contribution and shortly thereafter convert the IRA to a Roth.

Taxes are typically due in a Roth conversion, but this technique will not trigger much, if any, tax bill if the contributor does not have other money in an IRA.
President Obama’s 2016 budget proposal suggests that future Roth conversions be limited to pre-tax money only, effectively killing most back-door Roths.

Congressional gridlock, though, means action is not likely until the next administration takes over, said financial planner and enrolled agent Francis St. Onge with Total Financial Planning in Brighton, Michigan. He doubts any tax change would be retroactive, which means the window for doing back-door Roths is likely to remain open for awhile.

“It would create too much turmoil if they forced people to undo them,” says St. Onge.

2. The stretch IRA
People who inherit an IRA have the option of taking distributions over their lifetimes. Wealthy families that convert IRAs to Roths can potentially provide tax-free income to their heirs for decades, since Roth withdrawals are typically
not taxed.

That bothers lawmakers across the political spectrum who think retirement funds should be for retirement – not a bonanza for inheritors.

“Congress never imagined the IRA to be an estate-planning vehicle,” said Ed Slott, a certified public accountant and author of “Ed Slott’s 2015 Retirement Decisions Guide.”

Most recent tax-related bills have included a provision to kill the stretch IRA and replace it with a law requiring beneficiaries other than spouses to withdraw the money within five years.

Anyone contemplating a Roth conversion for the benefit of heirs should evaluate whether the strategy makes sense if those heirs have to withdraw the money within five years, Slott said.

3. “Aggressive” strategies for Social Security
Obama’s budget also proposed to eliminate “aggressive” Social Security claiming strategies, which it said allow upper-income beneficiaries to manipulate the timing of collection of Social Security benefits in order to maximize delayed retirement credits.

Obama did not specify which strategies, but retirement experts said he is likely referring to the “file and suspend” and “claim now, claim more later” techniques.

Married people can claim a benefit based on their own work record or a spousal benefit of up to half their partner’s benefit. Dual-earner couples may profit by doing both.

People who choose a spousal benefit at full retirement age (currently 66) can later switch to their own benefit when it maxes out at age 70 – known as the “claim now, claim more later” approach that can boost a couple’s lifetime Social Security payout by tens of thousands of dollars.

The “file and suspend” technique can be used in conjunction with this strategy or on its own. Typically one member of a couple has to file for retirement benefits for the other partner to get a spousal benefit.

Someone who reaches full retirement age also has the option of applying for Social Security and then immediately suspending the application so that the benefit continues to grow, while allowing a spouse to claim a spousal benefit.

People close to retirement need not worry, said Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff, who wrote the bestseller “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Social Security.”

“I don’t see them ever taking anything away that they’ve already given,” Kotlikoff said. “If they do something, they’ll have to phase it in.”

MONEY Medicare

How to Time Your Medicare Enrollment

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: When should I sign up for Medicare?

A: Most pre-retirees know that Medicare coverage kicks in when you turn 65. But that’s not the whole story. If you want to enroll in Medicare without hassles and costly penalties, you need to know exactly when to sign up for the program you want. There are different enrollment periods, so it’s trickier than you might think. Many older Americans fail to sign up at the right time, which can lead to higher premiums or leave you with coverage gaps, studies have found.

First, though, there are exceptions to the age 65 sign-up date. You may still be covered by your employer’s health care plan, for example, or if you are eligible for Medicare due to a disability, you can sign up earlier.

Initial Enrollment Window: Medicare has established a seven-month Initial Enrollment Period, which includes the three months before you turn 65, your birthday month, and the three months afterward. This window applies to all forms of Medicare—Parts A (hospital), B (doctor and outpatient expenses), C (Medicare Advantage), and D (prescription drugs).

Medigap Enrollment: There is a separate six-month open enrollment period for Medicare Supplement policies (also called Medigap), which begins when you’ve turned 65 and are enrolled in Part B. During this period, insurers must sell you any Medigap policy they offer, and they can’t charge you more because of your age or health condition. This guaranteed access may be crucial because if you miss this window and try to buy a Medigap policy later, insurers may not be obligated to sell you a policy and may be able to charge you more money.

General Enrollment: If you missed enrolling in Part A or B during the Initial Enrollment Period, there is also a General Enrollment Period from January 1 through March 31 each year. Waiting until this period could, however, trigger lifetime premium surcharges for late Part B enrollment, which can end up costing you thousands of dollars. And your coverage won’t begin until July.

Part D drug coverage is not legally required. But if you don’t sign up for it when you first can, and later decide you want it, you will face potentially large premium surcharges. For example, if you missed enrolling during your initial enrollment period and then bought a policy, a premium surcharge would later take effect if you were without Part D coverage for 63 days.

Special Enrollment: There are lots of special conditions that can expand your penalty-free options for when you sign up for Medicare. And there also are what’s called Special Enrollment Periods for people who’ve moved, lost their employer group coverage or face other special circumstances. These special periods may have enrollment windows that differ in length from the standard ones.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is co-author ofThe New York Times bestseller, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” and is working on a companion book about Medicare. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: How to Make Sure Medicare Really Covers Your Hospital Stay

 

MONEY

You’ll Never Guess the Latest Victims of the Student Loan Crisis

hand reaching out of hole using adding machine with rolls of paper
Renold Zergat—Getty Images

A fast-growing number of seniors are hitting retirement with a student debt burden. Even their Social Security is at risk.

Most debt you can get out of—painful as it might be. Credit card debt can be cleared in bankruptcy. A mortgage can end in foreclosure. But student debt is more sticky, and it turns out it can have big consequences in retirement.

Last year, Richard Minuti’s Social Security payments were cut by 10%.

The Philadelphia native was already earning only a bit over $10,000 a year, including some part-time work as a tutor. “I was desperate,” says Minuti. “Taking 10% of a person’s pay who’s trying to live with bills, that’s the cruelty of it.”

The Treasury Department was taking the money to pay for federal student loans he had taken out years before. Just before age 50, Minuti had gone back to college to get a second bachelor’s degree and a better job in social work and counseling. But the non-profit jobs he landed afterwards were lower paying, and he defaulted on the debt.

Student debt’s painful new twist

Minuti is one of the small but expanding group of seniors who are hitting retirement with a student debt burden. Over the past decade, people over the age of 60 had the fastest growing educational loan balances of any age group, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The total amount grew by more than nine times, from $6 billion in 2004 to $58 billion in 2014.

SeniorEduLoanGrowth

Only about 4% of households headed by people age 65 to 74 carry educational debt, according to a 2014 U.S. Government Accountability Office report. But as recently as 2004, student loans balances in retirement were close to unheard of, affecting less than 1% of this group.

Educational loans are very difficult to pay off when you are in or near retirement. Unlike a new college grad, there’s little prospect of years of rising salary income to help pay off the loan. That’s one reason older debtors have the highest default rate of any age group. (Also, most people who can’t pay off a loan will eventually age into being included among older debtors.) Over half of federal loans held by people over age 75 are in default, according to the GAO.

Student loan debts can’t be discharged in bankruptcy. And, as Minuti learned, federal tax refunds and up to 15% of wages and Social Security can be garnished.

This can be devastating, says Joanna Darcus, consumer rights attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.

“Most clients find me because the collection activity that they’re facing is preventing them from paying their utilities, from buying food for themselves, from paying their rent or their mortgage,” says Darcus, who works with low-income borrowers.

The number of seniors whose Social Security checks were garnished rose by roughly six times over the past decade, from about 6,000 to 36,000 people, says the GAO. Legislation from the mid-1990s ensured recipients could still get a minimum of $750 a month. At the time, this was enough to keep them from sliding below the poverty threshold. But to meet the current threshold, Congress would need to increase this to above $1,000 a month.

In other words, with enough debt, a Social Security recipient can be pulled into poverty.

“That’s pretty stressful for seniors when they understand that,” says Jan Miller, a student loan consultant who has seen a rise in his senior clients.

What’s behind the rise?

It’s not, despite what you might guess, only about parents who are taking on loans for their kids late in their careers.

Listen: How to decide if you should take out loans for your children’s education

In the GAO data, about 18% of federal educational debt held by seniors was from Parent PLUS loans for children or grandchildren. The remaining 82% was taken out by the borrower for his or her own education. (The GAO data differs from the New York Fed’s, showing lower total balances, so it may be missing some parental borrowing.)

SeniorLoansforOwnEdu

Darcus says many of her clients turned to education as a solution to unemployment and long-stagnant wages. Enrollment for all full and part-time students over age 35 increased 20% from 2004 to its recessionary peak in 2010, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“Among many of my clients, education is viewed as a pathway out of poverty and toward financial stability, but their reality is much different from that,” Darcus says. “Sometimes it’s their debt that keeps them in poverty, or pushes them deeper into it.”

And in recent years, both tuition and older debts have been especially difficult to pay, as home values and household assets took a hit in the Great Recession. Meanwhile, of course, the cost of higher education has soared. Tuition for private nonprofit institutions is up 78% in real dollars since 2004, according to the College Board.

What may be changing

New regulations and legislation this year may bring some relief to educational loan borrowers. The Senate in March introduced legislation to make private loans, but not federally subsidized loans, dismissible through bankruptcy.

For federal loans, more favorable income-driven repayment plans may be extended to up to 5 million borrowers this year. These plans, which have been growing in popularity since launching in 2009, adjust monthly payments according to reported discretionary income. The Department of Education is scheduled to issue new regulations by the end of 2015 that may allow all student borrowers to cap payments at 10% of their monthly income.

But it is unclear what percentage of that 5 million people are older borrowers who would benefit. Some borrowers have also complained that income-driven repayment plans require too much complex paperwork to enroll and stay enrolled. Borrowers who want to find out if they are already eligible for income-driven repayment plans can go here.

Parent PLUS loans would not be included in the new regulations. However, Parent PLUS loans can still be consolidated in order to take advantage of a similar, albeit less generous option, called the Income Contingent Repayment plan. This plan allows borrowers to cap their monthly payments at 20% of their discretionary income.

Still, some feel the best way to help seniors with student loan debt is to stop threatening to garnish Social Security benefits altogether. This spring, the Senate Aging Committee called for further investigations of the effects of student debt on seniors.

“Garnishing Social Security benefits defeats the entire point of the program—that’s why we don’t allow banks or credit card companies to do it,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri in a statement.

Getting out from under

Richard Minuti was able to enroll in an income-based repayment plan last year with the help of a legal advocacy group. Because Minuti earned less than 150% of the federal poverty level, the government set his monthly obligation at $0, eliminating his monthly payment.

“I’m appreciative of that, thank God they have something like that,” Minuti says, “because obviously there are many people like myself who are similarly situated, 60-plus, and having these problems.”

But Deanne Loonin, director of the National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project, says she doesn’t see the trend of rising educational debts ending any time soon. And some seniors will struggle with this debt well into retirement.

“I’ve got clients in nursing homes who are still having their Social Security garnished and they were in their 90s,” she says.

MONEY Medicare

How to Avoid Losing Out on Medicare If You’re Still Working at 65

Older workers need to watch out for these Medicare enrollment mistakes.

For anyone who plans to keep working after they turn 65—and that’s a growing number of people—planning for Medicare can be complicated. Last week’s column discussed the dizzying array of enrollment periods and other sign-up timetables for people who turn 65 and sign up for Medicare. In this column, I’ll explain the tricky transition from employer insurance to Medicare.

Roughly a third of Americans aged 65 to 69 remain in the work force—a rate 50% higher than only a decade ago. So the adage that everyone must get Medicare when they turn 65 is not true for more and more older Americans.

If you continue to work and have employer group health insurance, you probably do not need to sign up for Medicare. Also, if you lose employer coverage and do get Medicare, and then get a new job with employer health coverage, you usually will not need to keep Medicare. This often surprises people who think they must remain covered by Medicare for the rest of their lives once they get it the first time.

That said, there are exceptions and caveats to that general rule. So to avoid potential stumbling blocks, consider these three key guidelines:

Small business workers may need to sign up. If you’re about to turn 65, and you work for an employer with fewer than 20 workers, yes, you probably need to sign up. In these small-employer plans, Medicare becomes what’s called the primary payer of covered insurance claims for employees 65 and older. Your employer plan is the secondary payer.

If you fail to enroll, Medicare can deny you primary health insurance for many months. And when you finally do sign up, you often face premium surcharges that will last the rest of your life, which could cost you thousands of dollars. As a I mentioned last week, the initial enrollment window for Medicare lasts for seven months—three months before turning 65, the month you turn 65, and three months after your birthday month.

Check your employer’s Part D plan. For people working for larger employers, you don’t face this enrollment rule. However—and there are almost always howevers when it comes to Medicare—there’s a technical requirement for avoiding Medicare coverage, which could be a potential stumbling block to coverage.

Medicare requires that a person’s employer drug coverage be “creditable”—meaning that it must be at least as good as a Medicare Part D prescription drug plan. If that’s not the case, the person would need to sign up for a Part D plan. If you don’t, you will face lifetime premium surcharges for failing to do so on a timely basis.

How likely is it that your drug coverage would not be credible? Honestly, I have never gotten a reader question or spoken to anyone whose employer drug coverage was found to fall short. But if it did, the employee likely would not know until it was too late. Since it is a rule, employees approaching 65 should get confirmation from their human resource manager that your drug coverage passes this test.

Consider signing up for Part A anyway. Even if you do not need to enroll for Medicare at age 65, you should probably sign up for Medicare Part A, which covers hospital expenses and short-term stays in nursing homes. Part A premiums are waived for people whose work records qualify them for Social Security. Normally, this requires working 40 quarters in jobs where Social Security payroll taxes are paid.

Medicare Part A is a secondary payer in this scenario, which means it can help out with expenses not covered by employer group insurance. It does carry a steep-sounding deductible of $1,260 for each covered stay. But the cost of even brief hospital stays easily can soar to many multiples of this deductible, making Part A a nice benefit to have.

Signing up for Part A does have a big downside. By doing so, you will no longer be eligible to contribute to a tax-advantaged health savings account (HSA). If you have an HSA now, you will need to compare the potential benefit of Part A coverage with the loss of your ability to contribute to the account. If you choose to give up contributing to your HSA, however, you will still keep any accumulated funds for as long as you wish. And that money won’t be taxed if you spend it on qualified medical expenses.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is co-author of The New York Times bestseller, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” and is working on a companion book about Medicare. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: This Is the Biggest Mistake People Make When Signing Up for Medicare

MONEY retirement income

New Annuity Options Let You Plan Around Life’s Biggest Unknowns

Longevity annuities can ensure your money lasts a lifetime—and now they can reduce required minimum distributions too.

How much money you will need to save to enjoy a secure retirement depends on the ultimate unknowable: How long will you live?

The possibility of running short is called longevity risk, and the Obama administration last year established rules to foster a new type of annuity, the Qualified Longevity Annuity Contract, that would provide a steady monthly payment until you die.

QLACs are a variation on a broader product category called deferred income annuities, which let buyers pay an initial premium or make a series of scheduled payments and set a future date to start receiving income. Deferred annuities are less expensive to buy than immediate annuities, which start paying out monthly as soon as you purchase them.

You can purchase the plans at or near your retirement age, typically 70, with payouts starting much later, usually at 80 or 85.

The advantage of these QLAC plans is that they provide some guaranteed regular income until death, so they can supplement Social Security. And the deferred feature allows you to generate much more income per dollar invested.

For example, Principal Financial Group Inc, which introduced a QLAC for individual retirement accounts in February, says an $80,000 policy purchased at age 70 will generate $12,840 annually for a man and $11,490 for a woman at age 80. An immediate annuity would provide $6,144 for the 70-year-old man and $5,748 for the woman, according to Immediateannuities.com.

Despite the benefits, annuities have lagged in popularity. The White House thought it could encourage more people to buy deferred annuities if they could be purchased and held inside tax-deferred IRAs and 401(k) plans.

The problem it had to fix was that required minimum distributions mean that 401(k) and IRA participants must start taking withdrawals at age 70 1/2, which conflicts with the later payout dates of longevity annuities.

The new rules state that if a longevity annuity meets certain requirements, the distribution requirement is waived on the contract value (which cannot exceed $125,000 or 25% of the buyer’s account balance, whichever is less).

That not only makes a deferred annuity possible inside a tax-deferred plan, it also can encourage their use for anyone interested in reducing the total amount of savings subject to mandatory distributions.

Sixteen insurance companies are now selling QLAC variations, up from just four in 2012. At Principal Financial, QLACs now account for roughly 10% of all deferred annuities, with the average buyer close to age 70, according to Sara Wiener, assistant vice president of annuities.

Employer sponsors of 401(k) plans are showing more interest in adding income options to their plans, but they have been slow to add annuity options. Still, MetLife Inc is one insurance company testing this market, with a 401(k) product introduced last month.

“If you go back 40 years to the time when defined contribution plans were in their infancy, they were seen as companion savings plans to pensions,” says Roberta Rafaloff, MetLife vice president of institutional income annuities.

“Plan sponsors didn’t think of them as a plan for generating income streams until recently,” she said. “Now they’re taking a much more active interest in retirement income.”

All this still constitutes a small part of a shrinking pie. Sales for all annuity types have been falling in recent years due in part to persistently low interest rates, which determine payouts.

“It’s going to take time for consumers to understand the value of addressing longevity risk,” says Todd Giesing, senior annuity analyst at industry research and consulting group LIMRA. “But we’re hearing from insurance companies that it’s creating a great deal of conversation in the market.”

Read next: Which Generates More Retirement Income—Annuities or Portfolio Withdrawals?

MONEY Social Security

This Surprising Sign May Tell You When to Claim Social Security

old woman facing younger woman in profile
Liam Norris—Getty Images

For aging Americans, the condition of your skin can be a barometer of your overall health and longevity.

Skin is in, and not just for beach-going millennials. For boomers and older generations, the condition of your skin, especially your facial appearance, is a barometer of your overall health and perhaps your life expectancy, scientists say. And as the population ages—by 2020 one in seven people worldwide will be 60 or above—dollars are pouring into research that may eventually link your skin health to your retirement finances.

What does your skin condition have to do with your health and longevity? A skin assessment can be a surprisingly accurate window into how quickly we age, research shows. Beyond assessing your current health, these findings can also be used as to gauge your longevity. This estimate, based on personalized information and skin analysis, may be more reliable than a generic mortality table.

All of which has obvious implications for financial services companies. One day the condition of your skin—your face, in particular—may determine the rate you pay for life insurance, what withdrawal rate you choose for your retirement accounts, and the best age to start taking Social Security.

Skin health is also a growing focus for consumer and health care companies, which have come to realize that half of all people over 65 suffer from some kind of skin ailment. Nestle, which sees skin care as likely to grow much faster than its core packaged foods business, is spending $350 million this year on dermatology research. The consumer products giant also recently announced it would open 10 skin care research centers around the world, starting with one in New York later this year.

Smaller companies are in this mix as well. A crowd funded start-up venture just unveiled Way, a portable and compact wafer-like device that scans your skin using UV index and humidity sensors to detect oils and moisture and analyze overall skin health. It combines that information with atmospheric readings and through a smartphone app advises you when to apply moisturizers or sunscreen.

This is futuristic stuff, and unproven as a means for predicting how many years you may have left. I recently gave two of these predictive technologies a spin—with mixed results. The first was an online scientist-designed Ubble questionnaire. By asking a dozen or so questions—including how much you smoke, how briskly you walk and how many cars you own—the website purports to tell you if you will die within the next five years. My result: 1.4% chance I will not make it to 2020. Today I am 58.

The second website was Face My Age, which is also designed by research scientists. After answering short series of questions about marital status, sun exposure, smoking and education, you upload a photo to the site. The tool then compares your facial characteristics with others of the same age, gender, and ethnicity. The company behind the site, Lapetus Solutions, hopes to market its software to firms that rely heavily on life-expectancy algorithms, such as life insurers and other financial institutions.

Given the fledgling nature of this technology, it wasn’t too surprising that my results weren’t consistent. My face age ranged between 35 and 52, based on tiny differences in where I placed points on a close-up of my face. These points help the computer identify the distance between facial features, which is part of the analysis. In all cases, though, my predicted expiration age was 83. I’m not taking that too seriously. Both of my grandmothers and my mother, whom I take after, lived well past that age—and I take much better care of my health than they ever did.

Still, the science is intriguing, and it’s not hard to imagine vastly improved skin analysis in the future. While a personalized, scientific mortality forecast might offer a troublesome dose of reality, it would at least help navigate one of the most difficult financial challenges we face: knowing how much money we need to retire. A big failing of the 401(k) plan—the default retirement portfolio for most Americans—is that it does not guarantee lifetime income. Individuals must figure out on their own how to make their savings last, and to be safe they should plan for a longer life than is likely. That is a waste of resources.

I plan to live to 95, my facial map notwithstanding. But imagine if science really could determine that my end date is at 83, give or take a few years. It would be weird, for sure. But I’d have a good picture of how much I needed to save, how much I could spend, and whether delaying Social Security makes any sense. I’m not sure we’ll ever really be ready for that. But not being ready won’t stop that day from coming.

Read next: This Problem is Unexpectedly Crushing Many Retirement Dreams

MONEY real estate

This Problem Is Unexpectedly Crushing Many Retirement Dreams

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Peter Goldberg—Getty Images

Housing is most Americans' most important source of retirement security. So a sharp reduction in the rate of ownership, coupled with rising rents, is taking a toll.

The housing bust of 2008 touched every homeowner. The subsequent recovery has been selective, mainly benefiting those with the resources and credit to invest. This has had a more damaging effect on individuals’ retirement security than many might expect.

For a quarter century, home equity has been the largest single source of wealth for all but the richest households nearing retirement age, accounting for 44% of net worth in the 1990s and 35% today, new research shows. The home equity percentage of net worth is greatest among homeowners with the least wealth, reaching 50% for those with median net worth of $42,460, according to a report from The Hamilton Project, a think tank closely affiliated with the Brookings Institution.

By comparison, the share of net worth in retirement accounts is just 33% for all but the wealthiest households, a figure that drops to 21% for low-wealth households. So a housing recovery that leaves out low-income families is especially damaging to the nation’s retirement security as a whole.

There can be little doubt that low-income households largely have missed the housing recovery. Homeownership in the U.S. has been falling for eight years, down to 63.7% in the first quarter from a peak of over 69% in 2004, according to a report from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. Former homeowners are now renters, frozen out of the market by their own poor credit and stricter lending standards.

Meanwhile, rents are rising, taking an additional toll on many Americans’ ability to save for retirement. On average, the number of new rental households has increased by 770,000 annually since 2004, making 2004 to 2014 the strongest 10-year stretch of rental growth since the late 1980s.

The uneven housing recovery is contributing to an expanding wealth gap, the report suggests. Among households near retirement age, those in the top half of the net worth spectrum had more wealth in 2013, adjusted for inflation, than the top half in 1989. Those in the bottom half had less wealth.

Housing is by no means the only concern registered in the report. Much of what researchers point to is fairly well known: Only half of working Americans expect to have enough money to live comfortably in retirement; longevity is putting a strain on retirement resources; half of American seniors will pay out-of-pocket expenses for long-term services and supports; the percentage of dedicated retirement assets in traditional defined-benefit plans has shrunk from two-thirds in 1978 to one third today.

All of this diminishes retirement security. Individuals must adapt, and with so much riding on our personal ability to manage our own financial affairs it is surprising that the report goes to some lengths to play down the importance of what has blossomed into a broad financial education effort in the U.S.

Financial acumen is generally lacking among Americans and, for that matter, most of the world. Just half of pre-retirees, and far fewer younger folks, can correctly answer three basic questions about inflation, compound growth, and diversification, according one often-cited study. Yet researchers at The Hamilton Project assert that it is an “open question” as to whether public resources should be spent on educational efforts, citing evidence of its effectiveness as “underwhelming.”

I have argued that we cannot afford not to spend money on this effort. Yet I also understand the benefits of promoting things like automatic enrollment into 401(k) plans and automatic escalation of contributions, which The Hamilton Project seems to prefer. The truth is we need to do all of it, and more.

MONEY financial problems

This Worry Keeps 62% of Americans Up at Night

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Frederic Cirou—Getty Images

Concerns about money are leaving a majority of Americans sleepless.

Most Americans are losing sleep over a financial concern, according to a new report.

A survey conducted by CreditCards.com found 62% of respondents said they were being kept awake by at least one financial problem. That number is lower than during the tail end of the recession in 2009, when 69% of Americans said they were losing sleep over their finances, but still worse than the beginning of the financial crisis in 2007 when the proportion of those kept awake stood at 56%.

Among those who are losing sleep, the most common fear is not saving enough for retirement. About 40% of Americans report they sometimes stay awake worrying about their retirement savings, and as many as half of respondents between age 50 and 64 say this concern keeps them up at night.

The second largest worry is educational expenses, which keeps 31% of the population—and 50% of 18-­ to 29-year­-olds—from slumber, followed by 29% of Americans who stay restless over medical bills.

Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com, said the results highlight how record levels of student debt have taken a toll on students and recent graduates. “It kind of confirms a lot of what we’ve seen,” said Schulz. “The education costs are the only financial fear that has continuously grown in all of the times we’ve done this survey.”

He also offered suggestions for how people stressed out by their finances can finally get some shuteye. “People lose sleep when things seem out of their control, and a lot of folks with student debt feel like it’s out of their control,” the analyst noted. “It’s important that people who are losing sleep and feel out of control take some sort action, whether they’re making a budget, or getting a side job—doing something that can help them get a little control over their financial issue. It may not solve their financial problems, but it might help them sleep better at night because they feel like they’re doing something about it.”

He also pointed out that, perhaps unsurprisingly, Americans making over $75,000 per year were less likely to lose sleep than those with lower incomes. “They say that money can’t buy you love or happiness but our survey shows it might be able to buy you a better night’s sleep,” Schulz added.

 

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