MONEY working in retirement

Here’s the Best Way to Rescue Your Retirement and Find Happiness Too

A second career can provide income as well as meaning. This advice from retirement expert Chris Farrell can help you plan your next venture.

Chris Farrell has a hot retirement investing tip for you, but it’s not a stock or bond.

Farrell wants you to invest in yourself. In his new book, Unretirement (Bloomsbury Press), he argues that developing skills that can help you earn income well past traditional retirement age offers a better return on investment than any financial instrument—and it can help transform the economy as it continues to heal from the Great Recession.

Farrell is senior economics contributor at public radio’s Marketplace, a contributing editor at Bloomberg Businessweek and a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In a recent interview, I asked him to describe his vision of unretirement.

Q: How do you define “unretirement”?

“Unretirement” is about the financial impact of working longer. If you can work well into your 60s, even earning just a part-time income through a bridge job or contract work, you’ll make so much more in the course of a year than you could from saving.

That changes the financial picture—and not just income. You also don’t have to tap your retirement nest egg during those years, and you might be able to add to it. And it allows you to realistically wait to claim Social Security between age 66 and 70, depending on your health and personal circumstances.

Q: What are the essential tools and strategies for people trying to figure out how to unretire? Where should they begin?

The most important thing is to begin by asking yourself what it is you want to be doing—what kind of work. Do informational interviews with people. The real asset that older workers have is their networks—the people who have known them over the years. Talk with them to find out if you need to add new skills.

Don’t romanticize any particular idea—research it. Think about how you can take your existing skills and move into a different sector of the economy with those.

Q: One of the biggest obstacles facing older workers is age bias. Are employers adapting to help older people keep working longer?

The only evidence I’ve seen of that is at companies that face very tight labor markets—typically technology businesses. It’s also true for the nursing profession. For the rest of the economy, I’ve been to conference after conference focused on older workers, where employers wring their hands about all the brain power walking out the door. They’re sincere, but when they go back to the office they really aren’t motivated to do anything about it because the labor market isn’t strong enough

Q: If that’s the case, how will unretirement be able to take hold as a trend?

The economy is getting better, and labor markets are tightening. But this also will be driven by grassroots change. Many leading-edge boomers are negotiating their own deals, starting businesses or setting themselves up for self-employment with a portfolio of part-time jobs. It’s very do-it-yourself.

And attitudes are changing—there will be enormous pressure from society as people push for this. They’re going to be saying, “We’re pretty well educated, and healthier than we were before, and the numbers don’t work for us to go down to Florida or Arizona and retire—and we actually don’t want to do that.”

Q: There’s a great debate under way over whether we are headed for a crisis in retirement security or not. What’s your view?

I don’t think there will be a retirement crisis if we continue to work longer. But we’re going to want to do it with jobs that provide meaning rather than those that make people just miserable enough that they have to continue to work.

One thing that upsets me is that we have a conflation of financial stresses facing the middle class and pretending that the middle class will be in poverty in retirement—and that’s just not true. There is a group that is really vulnerable—they’ve worked all their lives for companies that don’t provide retirement or health insurance benefits. That is the really vulnerable group.

I think two-thirds of our society will be fine, but for this other group, it’s not about investing in a 401(k), because they simply don’t have the money. For them, Social Security will be the entire retirement plan.

Q: That suggests we will need to beef up Social Security, at least for the lowest-income retirees.

Absolutely. If a majority of us are healthy and continue to work and pay into the Social Security system, we will become a wealthier society—and we will be able to afford to be more generous with Social Security.

Chris Farrell’s write columns on second careers for NextAvenue.com, which also appear on Money.com; you can find his articles here.

MONEY retirement planning

Why Gen X Feels Lousiest About the Recession and Retirement

THE BREAKFAST CLUB, from left: Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, 1985.
Three decades after "The Breakfast Club" hit theaters, Gen X is still struggling. Universal—Courtesy Everett Collection

Sandwiched between much larger generations and stuck with modest 401(k)s, Gen Xers get no love from financial planners, marketers or media. No wonder they're feeling low.

The Great Recession took a heavy toll on all generations. Yet the downturn and slow recovery seem to have left Generation X feeling most glum.

Defined as those aged 36 to 49, Gen X members are least likely to say they have recovered from the crisis, according to the latest Transamerica Retirement Survey. They are most likely to say they will have a harder time reaching financial security than their parents. Gen X also is far more likely to strongly believe that Social Security will not be there for them and that personal savings will be their primary source of income in retirement.

“Generation X is clearly behind the eight ball,” says Catherine Collinson, president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. “They need a vote of confidence. But they still have time to fix their problems.”

Arguably, Gen X was feeling most beat up even before the recession. This group is in the toughest phase of life: kids at home, a mortgage, not yet in peak earning years. Mid-life crises typically hit at this age. Studies show that the busy child-rearing years tend to be the unhappiest of our life. The happiest years are 23 and 69 with a big dip in between.

And let’s not forget that Gen X is only two-thirds the size of Millennial (ages 18 to 35) and Baby Boomer (ages 50 to 68) populations. Marketing companies and the media have largely ignored this generation, which early on acquired the downbeat label: slackers. Collinson believes the financial industry is equally focused on older and younger generations, leaving Gen X all alone.

“They have to stake out a plan and pursue it on their own,” she says. “The harsh reality is people have to take on increasing responsibility for their own financial security.”

Maybe that’s why Gen X believes it must build a bigger nest egg. Asked for their retirement number, the median Gen X respondent said they need $1 million. Nearly a third said $2 million or more. The median figure for both Millennials and boomers was $800,000 with only 29% and 23%, respectively, saying they would need $2 million or more.

Perhaps Gen X is being realistic. Even $1 million won’t provide a cushy lifestyle. A 64-year-old retiring next year with that amount would receive an annual payout of only $49,000 a year, according to Blackrock’s CoRI index, which tracks the income your savings will provide in retirement. Looked at another way: purchasing an immediate annuity for $1 million today would buy $5,000 of monthly income, according to ImmediateAnnuities.com. Not bad. But less than most might expect.

Gen X has boosted savings since the recession, the survey found. The typical Gen X nest egg is now $70,000, more than double savings of just $32,000 in 2007. This suggests that Gen X did a good job of sticking to their 401(k) contribution rate during the downturn, buying stocks while they were low and enjoying the rebound. Millennials did a little better, going from $9,000 to $32,000. Baby Boomers were less likely to hang in through the tough times, partly because older boomers were already retired and taking distributions. The median boomer next egg has risen to $127,000 from $75,000 in 2007.

Overall, Baby Boomers felt the brunt of the downturn. They suffered more layoffs and wage cuts, took a bigger hit to their assets, and by a wide margin more Boomers believe their standard of living will fall in retirement. But at least many Boomers are still blessed with traditional pensions and have a better shot at collecting full Social Security benefits.

Millennials are old enough to have learned from the downturn but not so old that they had many assets at risk. This generation began saving at age 22, vs. age 27 for Gen X and age 35 for boomers. Millennials also benefit from modern 401(k) plan structures with easy and smart investment options like target-date funds and managed accounts.

Meanwhile, Gen X is largely pensionless and was something of a 401(k) guinea pig when members entered the labor force. Plans then were untested and lacked many of today’s investment options or any educational material. The plans may have been mismanaged, subject to higher fees or even ignored. Even today, the Gen X contribution rate of 7% lags that of Millennials (8%) and Boomers (10%). Gen X is also most likely to borrow or take an early withdrawal from their plan (27%, vs. 20% for Millennials and 23% for boomers). Some of this relates to their period in life. But they have other reasons to feel glum too.

Still, there is some hope for Gen X. Recent research by EBRI found that if this generation manages to keep investing in their 401(k)s, most could end up with a decent retirement—no worse than Baby Boomers. And they still have time. If Gen Xers raise their savings rate a bit more, they can retire even more comfortably.

MONEY Hit Peak Performance

5 Tips For Tapping Your Nest Egg

Cracked egg
Getty Images—Getty Images

Forget those complex portfolio withdrawal schemes. Here are simple moves for making your money last a lifetime.

It used to be that if you wanted your nest egg to carry you through 30 or more years of retirement, you followed the 4% rule: you withdrew 4% of the value of your savings the first year of retirement and adjusted that dollar amount annually for inflation to maintain purchasing power. But that standard—which was never really as simple as it seemed— has come under a cloud.

So what’s replacing it?

Depends on whom you ask. Some research suggests that if you really want to avoid running out of money in your dotage, you might have to scale back that initial withdrawal to 3%. Vanguard, on the other hand, recently laid out a system that starts with an initial withdrawal rate—which could be 4% or some other rate—and then allows withdrawals to fluctuate within a range based on the previous year’s spending.

JP Morgan Asset Management has also weighed in. After contending in a recent paper that the 4% rule is broken, the firm went on to describe what it refers to as a “dynamic decumulation model” that, while comprehensive, I think would be beyond the abilities of most individual investors to put into practice.

So if you’re a retiree or near-retiree, how can you draw enough savings from your nest egg to live on, yet not so much you run out of dough too soon or so little that you end up sitting on a big pile of assets in your dotage?

Here are my five tips:

Tip #1: Chill. That’s right, relax. No system, no matter how sophisticated, will be able to tell you precisely how much you can safely withdraw from your nest egg. There are just too many things that can happen over the course of a long retirement—markets can go kerflooey, inflation can spike, your spending could rise or fall dramatically in some years, etc. So while you certainly want to monitor withdrawals and your nest egg’s balance, obsessing over them won’t help, could hurt and will make your retirement less enjoyable.

Tip #2: Create a retirement budget. You don’t have be accurate down to the dollar. You just want to have a good idea of the costs you’ll be facing when you initially retire, as well as which expenses might be going away down the road (such as the mortgage or car loan you’ll be paying off).

Ideally, you’ll also want to separate those expenses into two categories—essential and discretionary—so you’ll know how much you can realistically cut back spending should you need to later on. You can do this budgeting with a pencil and paper. But if you use an online tool like Fidelity’s Retirement Income Planner or Vanguard’s Retirement Expenses Worksheet—both of which you’ll find in the Retirement Income section of Real Deal Retirement’s Retirement Toolboxyou’ll find it easier to factor in the inevitable changes into your budget as you age.

Tip #3: Take a hard look at Social Security. The major questions here: When should you claim benefits? At 62, the earliest you’re eligible? At full retirement age (which is 66 for most people nearing retirement today)? And how might you and your spouse coordinate your claiming to maximize your benefit?

Generally, it pays to postpone benefits as your monthly payment rises 7% to 8% (even before increases for inflation) each year you delay between ages 62 and 70 (after 70 you get nothing extra for holding off). But the right move, especially for married couples, will depend on a variety of factors, including how badly you need the money now, whether you have savings that can carry you if you wait to claim and, in the case of married couples, your age and your wife’s age and your earnings.

Best course: Check out one of the growing number of calculators and services that allow you to run different claiming scenarios. T. Rowe Price’s Social Security Benefits Evaluator will run various scenarios free; the Social Security Solutions service makes a recommendation for a fee that ranges from $20 to $250. You’ll find both in the Retirement Toolbox.

Tip #4: Consider an immediate annuity. If you’ll be getting enough assured income to cover most or all of your essential expenses from Social Security and other sources, such as a pension, you may not want or need an annuity. But if you’d like to have more income that you can count on no matter how long you live and regardless of how the markets fare, then you may want to at least think about an annuity. But not just any annuity. I’m talking about an immediate annuity, the type where you hand over a sum to an insurance company (even though you may actually buy the annuity through another investment firm), and the insurer guarantees you (and your spouse, if you wish) a payment for life.

To maximize your monthly payment, you must give up access to the money you devote to an anuity. So even if you decide an annuity makes sense for you, you shouldn’t put all or probably even most your savings into one. You’ll want to have plenty of other money invested in a portfolio of stocks and bonds that can provide long-term growth, and that you can tap if needed for emergencies and such. To learn more about how immediate annuities work, you can click here. And to see how much lifetime income an immediate annuity might provide, you can go to the How Much Guaranteed Income Can You Get? calculator.

Tip #5: Stay flexible. Now to the question of how much you can draw from your savings. If you’re like most people, an initial withdrawal rate of 3% won’t come close to giving you the income you’ll need. Start at 5%, however, and the chances of running out of money substantially increase. So you’re probably looking at an initial withdrawal of 4% to 5%.

Whatever initial withdrawal you start with, be prepared to change it as your needs, market conditions and your nest egg’s value change. If the market has been on a roll and your savings balance soars, you may be able to boost withdrawals. If, on the other hand, a market setback puts a big dent in your savings, you may want to scale back a bit. The idea is to make small adjustments so that you don’t spend so freely that you deplete your savings too soon—or stint so much that you have a huge nest egg late in life (and you realize too late that you could have spent large and enjoyed yourself more early on).

My suggestion: Every year or so go to a retirement calculator like the ones in Real Deal Retirement’s Retirement Toobox and plug in your current financial information. This will give you a sense of whether you can stick to your current level of withdrawals—or whether you need to scale back or (if you’re lucky) give yourself a raise.

MORE FROM REAL DEAL RETIREMENT

Are You A Fox or A Hedgehog In Your Retirement Planning?

Why You Shouldn’t Obsess About A Market Crash

What’s Your Number? Who Cares?

MONEY Social Security

Here’s How to Handle Social Security’s Trickiest Claiming Rule

Grandfather with family
Cavan Images—Getty Images

Your spouse and other family members may depend on Social Security benefits. But their income may be limited by the family benefit "ceiling"—unless you plan now.

Social Security benefits include a surprising array of payments beyond your own retirement benefit. As I wrote last week, these so-called auxiliary benefits, which are geared to your earnings record, may provide income to your spouse (or former spouse), your children and even your parents. If you’re disabled, yet another set of Social Security benefits to your present and former family members may kick in.

This is, overall, a good deal. (And it’s a reason why delaying your own benefits is a thoughtful way to increase benefits to your loved ones.) But there is a big, big catch—it’s called the Family Maximum Benefit (FMB). This rule limits total Social Security payments to you and any eligible family members to a percentage of your own Social Security benefit. And it’s arguably one of the most tricky aspects of figuring out the best Social Security claiming strategy for you and your family.

Basically the FMB limits total payments to you and eligible family members to a total of 150% to 187% of the payments you alone would receive. It thus sets a ceiling on total family benefits—often, a very low ceiling. Here’s how it works:

Let’s say your spouse applies for spousal benefits based on your earnings and the payout is equal to 50% of your retirement benefit. Already we’re up to 150% of your retirement benefit. Now let’s say you have other family members who qualify for benefits—perhaps dependent children—who add another 150%, for a total of 200% on top of your payout. In all, these payments would cost Social Security 300% of your benefit.

This is where the the FMB ceiling comes in. If your FMB is 175% of your retirement benefit, then the rule will require the agency to reduce everyone’s benefit (except yours, which cannot be reduced) to a total of 75% of your benefit. Your family members will have to take nearly a two-thirds’ haircut in their benefits.

For those who want to get deeper into Social Security math—the rest of you can skip ahead—the FMB ceiling is based on what’s called your Primary Insurance Amount (PIA). This is the monthly retirement benefit you would receive if you started payments at what’s known as the Full Retirement Age (FRA), which is age 66 for those born between 1943 and 1954. (The FRA then will rise by two months a year for those born between 1955 and 1959, finally settling at 67 for anyone born in 1960 or later.) If your PIA is projected to be $2,500 in a few years, and you’re using this number for making auxiliary benefit decisions, here’s the way this year’s FMB formula would work:

  • 150% of the first $1,042 of your PIA (or $1,563);
  • 272% of the PIA between $1,042 through $1,505 (or $1,259);
  • 134% of the PIA over $1,505 through $1,962 (or $612); and,
  • 175% of the PIA over $1,962 (or $942).

The sum of these four numbers—$4,376—is the FMB for monthly benefits for all Social Security claims based on your earnings record. It equals 175% of your PIA. There is a separate formula covering FMBs for disabled persons, and it can produce very small benefits for lower-income claimants.

Is there a way around the FMB ceiling? Yes, but only if your family is flexible. Since the FMB limits apply to total benefits being collected on your earnings record in a given year, consider staggering the timing of your family’s claims. That way, they may be able to stay under the ceiling.

Here’s one example: Say you have a spouse and younger children who qualify for benefits. If your FMB would seriously reduce all these benefits, it might be best for your husband or wife to hold off on claiming the spousal benefit and take the child benefits only. The amount of money your family receives might not drop much, if at all. And the child benefits likely will expire anyway when the kids are older. Your spouse can make a claim at a later date, when the benefit also may have risen in value, depending on your age and the age of your significant other. Clearly, when it comes to strategizing benefits, Social Security is a family affair.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is an award-winning business journalist and a research fellow at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

MONEY Ask the Expert

How To Tap Your IRA When You Really Need the Money

140605_AskExpert_illo
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I am 52 and recently lost my job. I have a fairly large IRA. I was thinking of taking a “rule 72(t)” distribution for income and shifting some of those IRA assets to my Roth IRA, paying the tax now while I’m unemployed and most likely at a lower tax rate. What do you think of this strategy? – Mark, Ft. Lauderdale, FL

A: It’s a workable strategy, but it’s one that’s very complex and may cost you a big chunk of your retirement savings, says Ed Slott, a CPA and founder of IRAhelp.com.

Because your IRA is meant to provide income in retirement, the IRS strongly encourages you to save it for that by imposing a 10% withdrawal penalty (on top of income taxes) if you tap the money before you reach age 59 ½. There are several exceptions that allow you to avoid the penalty, such as incurring steep medical bills, paying for higher education or a down payment on a first home. (Unemployment is not included.)

The exception that you’re considering is known as rule 72(t), after the IRS section code that spells it out, and anyone can use this strategy to avoid the 10% penalty if you follow the requirements precisely. You must take the money out on a specific schedule in regular increments and stick with that payment schedule for five years, or until you reach age 59 ½, whichever is longer. Deviate from this program, and you’ll have to pay the penalty on all money withdrawn from the IRA, plus interest. (The formal, less catchy name of this strategy is the Substantially Equal Periodic Payment, or SEPP, rule.)

The IRS gives you three different methods to calculate your payment amount: required minimum distribution, fixed amortization and fixed annuitization. Several sites, including 72t.net, Dinkytown and CalcXML, offer tools if you want to run scenarios. Generally, the amortization method will gives you the highest income, says Slott. But it’s a good idea to consult a tax professional to see which one is best for you.

If you do use the 72(t) method, and want to shift some of your traditional IRA assets to a Roth, consider first dividing your current account into two—that way, you can convert only a portion of the money. But you must do so before you set up the 72(t) plan. If you later decide that you no longer need the distributions, you can’t contribute 72(t) income into another IRA or put it into a Roth. Your best option would be to save it in a taxable fund. “Then the money will be there if you need it down the road,” says Slott.

Does it make sense to take 72(t) distributions? Only as a last resort. It is true that you’ll pay less in income tax while you’re unemployed. But at age 52, you’ll be taking distributions for seven and a half years, which is a long time to commit to the payout plan. If you get a job during that period, the income from the 72(t) distribution could push you into a higher tax bracket. Slott suggests checking into a home equity loan—or even taking some money out of your IRA up front and paying the 10% penalty, rather than withdrawing the bulk of the account. “Your retirement money is the result of years of saving,” says Slott. “If you take out big chunks now, you might not have enough lifetime to replace it.”

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write to AskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

MONEY 401(k)s

The Secret To Building A Bigger 401(k)

Ostrich egg in nest
Brad Wilson—Getty Images

There's growing evidence that financial advice makes a big difference in your ability to achieve a comfortable retirement.

Some people need a personal trainer to get motivated to exercise regularly. There’s growing evidence that a financial coach can help whip your retirement savings into better shape too.

People in 401(k) plans who work with financial advisors save more and have clearer financial goals than people who don’t use professional advice, according to a study out today by Natixis Global Asset Management. Workers with advisors contribute 9.5% of their annual salary to their 401(k) vs. 7.8% by those who aren’t advised, according to Natixis. That puts workers with advisors on target for the 10% to 15% of your annual income you need to put away (including company match) if you want to retire comfortably.

Natixis also found that three-quarters of 401(k) plan participants with advisors say they know what their 401(k) balance should be by the time they retire vs. half of workers without advisors who say the same.

The Natixis study follows a Charles Schwab survey out last week that found that workers who used third-party professional advisors and had one-on-one counseling tended to increase their savings rate, were better diversified and stayed the course in their investing decisions despite market ups and downs.

Similar research was released in May by Financial Engines—that study found that people who got professional investment help through managed accounts, target-date funds or online tools earned higher median annual returns than those who go it alone. On average employees getting advice had median annual returns that were 3.32 percentage points higher, net of fees, than workers managing their own retirement accounts.

Granted, most of these studies come from organizations that make money by providing advice—either directly to investors or as a resource provided by 401(k) plan providers. Still, Vanguard, who provides services to both advisers and do-it-yourself investors, has published research showing that financial guidance can add value. In a 2013 research paper, Advisor’s Alpha, Vanguard said that “left alone, investors often make choices that impair their returns and jeopardize their ability to fund their long-term objectives.” According to Vanguard, advisers can help add value if they “act as wealth managers and behavioral coaches, providing discipline and experience to investors who need it.”

In other words, the value of working with an advisor, like a personal trainer, may simply be that when someone is working one-on-one with you to reach a goal you are more likely to be engaged.

Whether you want to work with a financial advisor is a personal decision. If you’re like many people who feel overwhelmed by investment choices, or don’t have a lot of time to spend on investment decisions, getting professional financial advice can help you stay on course towards your retirement goals. You can get that advice through your 401(k) plan or via a periodic check up with a fee-only financial planner or simply by putting your retirement funds into a target date fund.

Still, before you hire a pro, make sure you understand the fees. A recent study by the GAO found that 401(k) managed accounts, which let you turn over portfolio decisions to a pro, may be costly—management fees ranged from .08% to as high as 1%, on top of investing expenses. Ideally, you should pay 0.3% or less. High fees could wipe out the advantage of professional guidance.

Other research has found that you may get similar benefits—generally at a much lower cost—by opting for a target-date fund. If you go outside your 401(k) plan, it’s generally better to use a fee-only planner, who gets paid only for the advice provided, not commissions earned by selling financial products. You can find fee-only financial planners through the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors; and for fee-only planners who charge by the hour, you can try Garrett Planning Network.

Still, if you enjoy investing, and you are willing to spend the time needed to stay on top of your finances, a do-it-yourself approach is fine. Using online calculators can give you a clearer picture of your goals, and simply knowing what your target should be can be motivating. The Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) consistently finds that people who calculated a savings goal were more than twice as likely to feel very confident they’ll be able to accumulate the money they need to retire and are more realistic about how much they need to save. All of which will help you reach your retirement goals.

MONEY 401(k)

3 Things to Know About Your 401(k)’s Escape Hatch

ladder leading to a bright blue sky
Alamy

More and more 401(k)s offer a formerly rare option—a brokerage window. That's raising questions from Washington regulators. Here's what you should watch out for.

While 401(k)s are known for their limited menu of options, more and more plans have been adding an escape hatch—or more precisely, a window. Known as a “brokerage window,” this plan feature gives you access to a brokerage account, which allows you to invest in wide variety of funds that aren’t part of of your plan’s regular menu. Some 401(k)s also allow you to trade stocks and exchange-traded funds, including those that target exotic assets such as real estate.

No question, brokerage windows can be a useful tool for some investors. But these windows carry extra costs, and given the increased investing options, you also face a higher risk that you’ll end up with a bad investment. All of which raises concerns that many employees may not fully understand what they’re getting into with these accounts. Earlier this week the U.S. Labor Department, which has been fighting a long-running battle to make retirement plans cheaper and safer for investors, asked 401(k) plan providers for information about brokerage windows.

You may wonder if a brokerage window is something you should use in your 401(k). To help you decide, here are answers to three key questions:

How common are brokerage windows?

Not long ago these features were rare. As recently as 2003, just 14% of large plans included offered a brokerage window, according to benefits company Aon Hewitt. But they’ve grown steadily more popular over the past decade, with about 40% of plans offering this option as of 2013. Interestingly, the growth has taken place even as more 401(k)s have opted to take investment decisions out of workers’ hands by automatically enrolling them in all-in-one investments like target-date funds.

Those two trends aren’t necessarily at odds. Experts say companies often add brokerage windows in response to a small but vocal minority of investors, who, rightly or wrongly, believe they can boost returns by actively picking investments. But overall just 5.6% of 401(k) investors opt for a window when it is offered. The group that is most likely use a brokerage window: males earning more than $100,000, about 9% of whom take advantage of the feature, according to Hewitt. (Not surprisingly, this group also tends to have the corporate clout to persuade HR to provide this option.) By contrast, only about 4% of high-earning women use a window.

When can brokerage windows make sense for the rest of us?

That depends in part on whether the other offerings in your 401(k) meet your needs. If you want an all-index portfolio, for example, a brokerage window may come in handy. Granted, more plans have added low-cost index funds, especially if you work for a large or mid-sized company. Today about 95% of large employers offer a large-company stock index fund, such as one that tracks the S&P 500, according to Hewitt.

Workers at small companies are less likely to enjoy the same access, however. These index funds are on the menu only about 65% of the time in plans with fewer than 50 participants, according to the Plan Sponsor Council of America, a trade group.

Moreover, even in large plans investors seeking to diversify beyond the broad stock and bond market can find themselves out of luck. Only about 25% of plans offer a fund that invests in REITS. And only about two in five offer a specialty bond fund, such as one that holds TIPS.

But even if a window allows you to diversify, you need to consider the additional costs. About 60% of plans that offer a brokerage window charge an annual maintenance fee for using it, according to Hewitt. The average amount of the fee was $94. And investors who use the window typically also pay trading commissions, just like they do at a regular brokerage.

Where does that leave me?

Before you decide to opt for a brokerage window, check to see if the fees outweigh the potential benefits. Here are some back-of-the-envelope calculations to get you started:

If you have, say, $200,000 socked away for retirement, paying an extra $100 a year to access a brokerage window works out to a modest additional fee of 0.05%. While the brokerage commission would increase that somewhat, you can minimize the damage by trading just once a quarter or once a year.

If your plan includes only actively managed mutual funds with annual investment fees in the neighborhood of 1%, the brokerage window could allow you to access ETFs charging as little as 0.1%. That means you could end up paying something like 0.15% instead of 1%.

If your plan has low-cost broad market index funds, however, a brokerage window offers less value. Say you want to add more more specialized investment options, such as a REIT or emerging market fund. Even if you have $200,000 in your 401(k), you’ll probably only invest a small amount in these more exotic investments—perhaps $5,000 or $10,000. So a $100 brokerage fee would increase your overall costs on that slice of your portfolio to 1% to 2%. Plus, you’ll pay brokerage commissions and fund investment fees. In that case, better to leave the escape hatch shut.

MONEY Social Security

Maximize Your Social Security Benefits…By Not Freaking Out

Seniors doing yoga on the beach
Lyn Balzer and Tony Perkins—Getty Images

A financial planner explains why, when it comes to retirement income, being patient can pay off in a big way.

About a month ago, a client walked into our office and announced that he had decided to take his retirement package being offered at work. We had to work out a number of issues related to his company’s retirement benefits. Finally, when the subject of Social Security came up, my client said, “I want to start taking the benefit as soon as I can, before they stop it.”

His opinion of Social Security is common. Many retirees believe that Social Security may run out or that Congress may legislate away their benefit.

We pushed back on this. First, the actuarial analysis shows the Social Security fund is pretty secure; it is Medicare that we all need to be worried about. Second, we feel that for a current retiree, the benefit amount is fairly safe; the only possible changes might involve a lower increase in the annual benefit. We agree with most experts that making changes to current benefits is a non-starter.

Our client was persuaded. Then he asked us a question we hear a lot: “When should I start taking Social Security, at age 66 or 70?”

The answer is not straightforward. If our client — let’s call him Jack — started taking Social Security at age 66, he’d receive a monthly benefit of $2,430. But your initial benefit increases the longer you postpone taking it, until you reach age 70. If Jack delayed taking the benefit until he turned 70, the initial amount would be $3,680, or 52% more per month.

Since Jack has other forms of retirement income, he doesn’t need the monthly check as soon as possible to live on. Instead, Jack’s goal is to get as much back from Uncle Sam as possible.

If Jack started his benefit at age 66, he would receive approximately $116,700 by age 70. (He’d actually get more, since benefits are adjusted annually for inflation. But for the sake of simplicity, I am ignoring inflation and other complicating factors.)

If he waited until age 70, he would be receiving $1,250 more per month, but he wouldn’t have received any money over the prior four years. It would take around 94 months to recoup the $116,700 he did not earn by waiting.

In other words, Jack would have an eight-year breakeven point if he waited until 70. If Jack dies before age 78, he would have received more by taking the benefit at age 66; if he lives past 78, he would be better off to wait until age 70. Federal life expectancy tables say a male 65 years old has a life expectancy of age 82. So if Jack has average health, the odds suggest he should wait until age 70 to take his benefit.

Jack’s wife — we’ll call her Jill — is 65, and has been retired for a couple of years. Jill’s Social Security projection looks like $2,120 monthly at age 66 or $3,200 at age 70. Jill’s breakeven also projects to be at age 78, yet her life expectancy is age 85, so the odds that she will be better off waiting until age 70 are greater than Jack’s.

But they both shouldn’t necessarily wait until 70 to take their benefits. Why? Because Social Security offers married couples a spousal benefit option.

This takes us into a different kind of strategy with our clients, something advisers call “file and suspend.”

It is possible to start taking a spousal benefit at age 66 (as long as your spouse has filed for his or her own benefit amount) and let your personal benefit increase to the maximum amount at age 70. The strategy is to have both spouses wait until 70 to take their own benefit, but for the spouse with the lower benefit amount to take a spousal benefit from age 66 up to age 70. For this to work, the spouse with the higher benefit amount needs to file for his or her benefit—then suspend receiving his or her own benefit until age 70.

For Jack and Jill, the file and suspend would work as follows: Jack, the spouse with the higher benefit, files for benefits at age 66, then immediately requests the benefits be suspended; that’s “file and suspend.” Then at age 70, he requests his benefits, which would be approximately $3,680 a month.

Jill files for her spousal benefit at age 66. This allows her to delay her own benefit while collecting a spousal benefit of around $1,250 a month. Then at age 70, she cancels the spousal benefit in order to collect her full benefit of $3,200 a month.

This scenario would provide them an added benefit of almost $60,000 in those first 4 years!

All Social Security scenarios have a breakeven age, so it is important to take an honest look at your health when evaluating all your options. The most important factor is your own cash flow need when you retire. If Social Security is going to be one’s sole source of income in retirement, waiting until age 70 is probably not an option.

But for those who can, delaying benefits is a useful tool. Outliving your money in your 80s or 90s is a real possibility. Postponing Social Security to allow for the highest possible benefit can mitigate that longevity risk.

—————————————-

Scott Leonard, CFP, is the owner of Navigoe, a registered investment adviser with offices in Nevada and California. Author of The Liberated CEO, published by Wiley in 2014, Leonard was able to run his business, originally established in 1996, while taking his family on a two-year sailing trip from Florida to New Caledoniain the south Pacific Ocean. He is a speaker on investment and wealth management issues.

MONEY Social Security

What’s Missing in Your New Social Security Benefits Statement

colored balloons in a question mark formation
iStock

Many workers will start receiving Social Security benefits statements again. Just don't expect to see much discussion of inflation's impact on your payout.

The Social Security Administration will be mailing annual benefit statements for the first time in three years to some American workers. That’s good news, because the statements provide a useful projection of what you can expect to receive in benefits at various retirement ages, if you become widowed or suffer a disability that prevents you from working.

But if you do receive a statement next month, it is important to know how to interpret the benefit projections. They are likely somewhat smaller than the dollar amount you will receive when you actually claim benefits, because they are expressed in today’s dollars—before adjustment for inflation.

That is a good way to help future retirees understand their Social Security benefits in the context of today’s economy—both in terms of purchasing power, and how it compares with current take-home pay. “For someone who is 50 years old, this approach allows us to provide an illustration of their benefits that are in dollars comparable to people they might know today getting benefits,” says Stephen Goss, Social Security’s chief actuary. “It helps people understand their benefit relative to today’s standard of living.”

In part, the idea here is to keep Social Security out of the business of forecasting future inflation scenarios in the statement that might—or might not—pan out. The statement also provides a starting point for workers to consider the impact of delayed filing.

“It provides valuable information about how delaying when you start your benefit between 62 and 70 will increase the monthly amount for the rest of your life—an important fact for workers to consider,” says Virginia Reno, vice president for income security at the National Academy of Social Insurance.

Unfortunately, the annual statement is silent when it comes to putting context around the specific benefit amounts. The document’s only reference to inflation is a caveat that the benefit figures presented are estimates. The actual number, it explains, could be affected by changes in your earnings over time, any changes to benefits Congress might enact, and by cost-of-living increases after you start getting benefits.

And the unadjusted expression of benefits can create glitches in retirement plans if you do not put the right context around them. Financial planners don’t always get it right, says William Meyer, co-founder of Social Security Solutions, a company that trains advisers and markets a Social Security claiming decision software tool.

“Most advisers do a horrible job coming up with expected returns. They choose the wrong ones or over-estimate,” he says, adding that some financial planning software tools simply apply a single discount rate (the current value of a future sum of money) to all asset classes: stocks, bonds and Social Security. What’s needed, he says, is a differentiated calculation of how Social Security benefits are likely to grow in dollar terms by the time you retire, compared with other assets.

“Take someone who is 54 years old today—and her statement says she can expect a $1,500 monthly benefit 13 years from now when she is at her full retirement age of 67,” says William Reichenstein, Meyer’s partner and a professor of investment management at Baylor University. “If inflation runs 2% every year between now and then, that’s a cumulative inflation of 30%, so her benefit will be $1,950—but prices will be 30 percent higher, too.

“But if I show you that number, you might think ‘I don’t need to save anything—I’ll be rich.’ A much better approach for that person is to ask herself if she can live on $1,500 a month. If not, she better think about saving.”

About those annual benefit statements: the Social Security Administration stopped mailing most paper statements in 2011 in response to budget pressures, saving $70 million annually. Instead, the agency has been trying to get people to create “My Social Security” accounts at its website, which allows workers to download electronic versions of the statement. The move prompted an outcry from some critics, who argue that the mailed statement provides an invaluable reminder each year to workers of what they can expect to get back from payroll taxes in the future.

Hence the reversal. Social Security announced last spring that it is re-starting mailings in September at five-year intervals to workers who have not signed up for online accounts. The statements will be sent to workers at ages 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55 and 60.

MONEY 401(k)s

Workers Spend More Time Researching Cars Than Checking Out 401(k) Options

140821_RET_ResearchCarsnot401k
Dimitri Vervitsiotis—Getty Images

Investors understand that retirement plans are important. But judging by time spent, 401(k)s are don't rate nearly as high as a new SUV.

When it comes to retirement saving, Americans still have their priorities skewed. That’s the conclusion of a new Charles Schwab survey, which found that workers spend more time investigating options for buying a new car or planning a vacation than researching the investment choices in their retirement plan. Cars and vacations got two hours of effort compared with one hour for 401(k)s.

It’s not that workers don’t value their retirement plans. Nearly 90% of workers say that a 401(k) is the most important option an employer can offer, the survey finds. But for most workers, appreciation of the plan isn’t translating into doing the best job possible of managing it. “It’s just human nature. We tend to gravitate to things we are comfortable with and avoid the things that we are not,” says Steve Anderson, president of Schwab Retirement Plan Services.

Part of the problem may be lack of financial knowledge. Workers surveyed by Schwab say they’d feel more confident about the ability to make a good financial decision if they had some professional guidance. Yet few people seek out help. Fewer than 25% participants who have access to professional advice have used it, according to the survey. By contrast, 87% of workers said they would hire a professional to change the oil in their car and 36% rely on one to do their taxes.

Of course, outsourcing your taxes and car maintenance isn’t the same as finding good investment help. But it’s not that the advice isn’t there. Three-quarters of 401(k) plans offer some type of help, ranging from from target-date funds to online tools to professionally managed accounts. Anderson said one reason people may not seek out help is that they don’t know it’s available. “Advice is available but it’s not promoted,” he says.

Taking advantage of this guidance can pay off, especially when it comes to reducing risk.

According to a study released by Financial Engines earlier this year, people who got professional investment help through managed accounts, target-date funds or online tools earned higher median annual returns than those who go it alone. It found that on average, employees getting advice had median annual returns that were 3.32 percentage points higher, net of fees, than workers managing their own retirement accounts.

Meanwhile, Schwab also found that people who used third-party professional advisors and had one-on-one counseling tended to increase their savings rate, were better diversified and stayed the course in their investing decisions despite market ups and downs.

If you are looking for plan guidance, though, make sure you understand the fees for this advice. A recent study by the GAO found that managed accounts, which let you turn over portfolio decisions to a pro, may be costly—management fees ranged from .08% to as high as 1%, on top of investing expenses. Ideally, you should pay 0.3% or less. High fees could wipe out the advantage of professional guidance. Other research has found that you may get similar benefits—generally at a much lower cost—by opting for a target-date fund.

In the long run, stepping up your saving and keeping fees low will make a bigger difference to your financial security than the investments you select. Still, making the right choices in your 401(k), as well as understanding what you need to do to reach your goals, is important. If professional advice will help you avoid making mistakes, it may be worth seeking out.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 45,999 other followers