MONEY year-end moves

3 Smart Year-End Moves for Retirement Savers of All Ages

golden eggs of ascending size
Getty Images

To give your long-term financial security a boost, take one of these steps before December 31.

It’s year-end, and retirement savers of all ages need to check their to-do lists. Here are some suggestions for current retirees, near-retirees, and younger savers just getting started.

Already Retired: Take Your Distribution

Unfortunately, the “deferred” part of tax-deferred retirement accounts doesn’t last forever. Required minimum distributions (RMDs) must be taken from individual retirement accounts (IRAs) starting in the year you turn 70 1/2 and from 401(k)s at the same age, unless you’re still working for the employer that sponsors the plan.

Fidelity Investments reports that nearly 68% of the company’s IRA account holders who needed to take RMDs for tax year 2014 hadn’t done it as of late October.

It’s important to get this right: Failure to take the correct distribution results in an onerous 50% tax—plus interest—on any required withdrawals you fail to take.

RMDs must be calculated for each account you own by dividing the prior Dec. 31 balance with a life expectancy factor (found in IRS Publication 590). Your account provider may calculate RMDs for you, but the final responsibility is yours. FINRA, the financial services self-regulatory agency, offers a calculator, and the IRS has worksheets to help calculate RMDs.

Take care of RMDs ahead of the year-end rush, advises Joshua Kadish, partner in planning firm RPG Life Transition Specialists in Riverwoods, Ill. “We try to do it by Dec. 1 for all of our clients—if you push it beyond that, the financial institutions are all overwhelmed with year-end paperwork and they’re getting backed up.”

Near-Retired: Consider a Roth

Vanguard reports that 20% of its investors who take an RMD reinvest the funds in a taxable account—in other words, they didn’t need the money. If you fall into this category, consider converting some of your tax-deferred assets to a Roth IRA. No RMDs are required on Roth accounts, which can be beneficial in managing your tax liability in retirement.

You’ll owe income tax on converted funds in the year of conversion. That runs against conventional planning wisdom, which calls for deferring taxes as long as possible. But it’s a strategy that can make sense in certain situations, says Maria Bruno, senior investment analyst in Vanguard’s Investment Counseling & Research group.

“Many retirees find that their income may be lower in the early years of retirement—either because they haven’t filed yet for Social Security, or perhaps one spouse has retired and the other is still working. Doing a conversion that goes to the top of your current tax bracket is something worth considering.”

Bruno suggests a series of partial conversions over time that don’t bump you into a higher marginal bracket. Also, if you’re not retired, check to see if your workplace 401(k) plan offers a Roth option, and consider moving part of your annual contribution there.

Young Savers: Start Early, Bump It Up Annually

“Time is on my side,” sang the Rolling Stones, and it’s true for young savers. Getting an early start is the single best thing you can do for yourself, even if you can’t contribute much right now.

Let the magic of compound returns help you over the years. A study done by Vanguard a couple years ago found that an investor who starts at age 25 with a moderate investment allocation and contributes 6% of salary will finish with 34% more in her account than the same investor who starts at 35—and 64% more than an investor who starts at 45.

Try to increase the amount every year. A recent Charles Schwab survey found that 43% of plan participants haven’t increased their 401(k) contributions in the past two years. Kadish suggests a year-end tally of what you spent during the year and how much you saved. “It’s not what people like to do—but you have a full year under your belt, so it’s a good opportunity to look at where your money went. Could you get more efficient in some area, and save more?”

If you’re a mega-saver already, note that the limit on employee contributions for 401(k) accounts rises to $18,000 next year from $17,500; the catch-up contribution for people age 50 and over rises to $6,000 from $5,500. The IRA limit is unchanged at $5,500, and catch-up contributions stay at $1,000.

MONEY retirement planning

Money Makeover: Married 20-Somethings With $135,000 in Debt—And Roommates

The Liebhards
Julian Dufort

A young couple gets some advice on how to save for the future even while saddled with loads of student debt.

Samantha and Travis Liebhard, both 24, met as college freshmen, married right after graduating in 2012, and quickly moved to Minneapolis so that Travis could start his graduate pharmacy program at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities.

They face intimidating debts: Travis has racked up $135,000 in student loans and expects to incur another $60,000 before graduation. Barely making ends meet this year, the couple came up with an idea: Why not cut their $1,500 monthly rent in half by giving up their big two-bedroom apartment and finding room­mates to share a similarly priced four-bedroom unit?

So in September, two of Travis’s classmates moved in with the Liebhards. Now Samantha’s $40,000 salary in her public relations job and Travis’s $8,000 pay from a part-time hospital job seem like enough to get by on. Samantha complains about dishes in the sink and clothes left on the floor, but the four roommates get along well. “It’s helping me prepare to have children one day,” she jokes.

Retirement seems far away, given the Liebhards’ more urgent financial concerns, starting with the student debt. The couple also want to have kids and buy a house, but Travis won’t be making a full pharmacist’s salary of about $120,000 for another four years; after his expected graduation in 2016 comes a two-year residency, paying about $40,000 annually.

The Liebhards don’t know whether to save for re­tirement now or just focus on their debt. So far the couple have only $2,000 in the bank and $3,200 in retirement accounts. Samantha wants to get serious about saving for retirement, but Travis isn’t sure: “It’s hard for me to even think about retirement until we can real­ly do something about it.”

Helping the Liebhards navigate their options is Sophia Bera of Gen Y Planning in Minneapolis. The key to success, she says, is to have a reasonable spending plan and take incremental steps.

The Advice

Save in moderation: Given how much Travis owes, plus the 6.8% interest rate on most of his loans, repaying debt should indeed be the couple’s top priority, says Bera. So for now Samantha should only bump up her 4% 401(k) contribution to 6%—enough to get her full match. Her 401(k) portfolio—half in a 2020 target-date fund and half in a large-cap U.S. stock fund—is too conservative for her age and not properly diversified, says Bera. Her plan’s 2050 target-date fund, which is 80% in stocks, would be a better choice.

Bank some cash: Because the Liebhards have little saved for emergencies, Bera says they should put Travis’s $800 monthly pay­check­—the amount they are saving in rent—into a savings account; the goal is for that to reach $10,000, or three months of their net pay. Next, they need to budget Samantha’s $2,600 monthly take-home pay. Bera suggests $800 for the fixed costs of rent and phones, and $1,500 to be divided between discretionary spending and monthly essentials such as groceries.

Attack the debt: The $300 left over in Bera’s proposed budget should go toward paying down interest on Travis’s debt, even though he can defer repayment until after his residency; his current loans are accruing interest amounting to about $7,000 annually. Their payments will likely qualify the couple for an annual $2,500 student loan interest tax deduction over the next few years. Once Travis finishes his residency, Bera says, he should be able to pay off his loans in 10 years at the rate of $2,300 a month, while maxing out his 401(k) contributions ($17,500 is the current annual limit).

Though the Liebhards needn’t have roommates for­ever, says Bera, they should hold off on buying a home. “If you have student loans the size of a mortgage, you should avoid taking out a mortgage,” she says. Samantha is not so sure. “We can wait a few years after Travis graduates,” she says, “but once we have a child who’s able to walk, we’d like to have a place bigger than an apartment.”

More Retirement Money Makeovers:
4 Kids, 2 Jobs, No Time to Plan
30 Years Old and Already Falling Behind

MONEY Investing

The Easy Fix for an Incredibly Common and Costly Retirement Mistake

New proof that just showing up is half the investing game.

Writing about retirement inevitably turns you into the bearer of bad news. But last week brought a positive development: The downward trend in the percentage of workers participating in an employment-based retirement plan reversed course in 2013. The number of workers participating is now at the highest level since 2007, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute (ERBI).

Which means, unfortunately, that from a wealth-building perspective, the timing of the nation’s workforce is actually pretty terrible.

The ERBI has only been tracking participation rates since 1987, a relatively short window, but still a bad pattern has clearly emerged: Workers are less likely to participate after the stock market drops, so they lose out when the market recovers.

The participation of wage and salary workers peaked in 2000 at 51.6%, right before a 3-year bear market that saw the compound annual growth rate (the CAGR, which includes dividends) of the S & P 500 declining 9.11% in 2000, 11.98% in 2001, and 22.27% in 2002. In 2003 however, the S & P rebounded up 28.72%, but retirement plan participation rates continued to decline, hitting a low of 45.5% in 2006 before finally beginning to rise.

Then the same thing happened again after the financial crisis. Participation rates had peaked at 47.7% in 2007, before declining in 2008 when the S & P 500 dropped a whopping 37.22%. Even though the market began to bounce back immediately in 2009, participation rates continued to decline down to 44.2% until that trend finally reversed in 2013 according to the EBRI data released last week. With each stock market shock, the participation rate fell but never fully reached its previous high, so that the 2013 rate of 45.8% is still lower than the 46.1% participation rate seen in 1987.

This bears repeating: The participation rate in an employment-based retirement plan in 2013 was lower than it was in 1987. I don’t think I need to tell you what has happened to the S&P 500 from 1987 to 2013.

Now of course one could argue that it’s harder to save for retirement if your salary has been frozen, or your bonus was cut, or especially if you were forced to take a lower-paying job, as many who were able to stay employed throughout the recession experienced. Employers have also been scaling back or eliminating entirely company matches, which further disincentives workers from participating. But waiting until you start making more money to save for retirement is a losing game, especially if you subscribe to the new theory put forth by Thomas Piketty in his much-discussed but I suspect less-widely read book Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Piketty’s thesis is that the return on capital in the twenty-first century will be significantly higher than the growth rate of the economy and more specifically the growth of wages (4% to 5% for return, barely 1.5% for wage growth.) Furthermore, the return on capital has always been greater than economic (and wage) growth, except for an anomalous period during the second half of the twentieth century when there was an exceptionally high rate of growth worldwide. It is the inequality of capital ownership that drives wealth inequality, a phenomenon that cannot be reversed as long as the rate of return continues to exceed the rate of growth, or as Piketty helpfully provides, R>G. (Full disclosure: I only read the introduction and then used the index to find sections that most interested me.)

If you apply R>G to retirement planning, it follows that it’s more important to be in the market than to wait for a raise or to reach the next step on the career ladder to start participating in a plan. The usual caveats apply: First you must get rid of any high-interest debt and create a three-month cushion for emergencies. But once you’re in a plan, if the economy—and your income along with it—hits some major bumps, it’s even more important to continue to contribute lest you miss out on the upside. Just remember: R>G.

MONEY IRAs

Closing the Loophole Behind $10 Million Tax-Free Retirement Accounts

Fewer than 1,100 of 43 million IRA owners have what may be called outsized balances, and the IRS wants to rein them in.

The former presidential hopeful Mitt Romney lit a fuse three years ago when he disclosed his IRA was valued at as much as $102 million. Now the federal government wants to keep the issue from exploding, and is weighing actions that would prevent rich people from accumulating so much in a tax-advantaged account.

Last week, the General Accounting Office recommended that the IRS either restrict the types of investments held in IRAs or set a ceiling for IRA account balances. The idea is to give all taxpayers equal ability to save while making certain the amounts put away tax-advantaged do not go beyond what is generally regarded as sufficient savings to secure a comfortable retirement.

Romney’s campaign disclosure caught almost everyone by surprise. How could one person build such a large IRA balance when yearly allowable contributions — up to $5,500 a year in 2014 and $6,500 if you’re age 50 or older — have always been comparatively low? The answer lies in the types of investments he and privileged others were able to put in their IRA: extremely low-priced and often non-public securities that later soared in value.

One such security might be the shares of a privately owned business. These can reasonably be expected to take flight if the business does well and later goes public. That produces a wealth of tax-advantaged savings to company founders, investment bankers and venture capitalists. But these gains are not generally available to any other investor. Once an asset is inside an IRA there is no limit to how valuable it may become and still remain in the tax-advantaged account.

Restricting eligible IRA holdings to publicly available securities is one way to level the field and rein in the accumulation of tax-advantaged wealth. Another way is to cap IRA balances at, say, $5 million and require IRA holders to take an immediate taxable distribution anytime their combined IRA holdings exceed that threshold.

The GAO found that the federal government stands to forego $17 billion of 2014 tax revenue through the IRA contributions of individuals. That’s not a high price to pay for added retirement security for the masses. The problem is that under current rules only a select few will ever be able to put together multi-million-dollar IRAs. There are 43 million IRA owners in the U.S. with total assets of $5.2 trillion. Fewer than 10,000 have more than $5 million, and the GAO seems to have little quarrel with even this group. They tend to be above-average earners past age 65 who had been contributing to their IRA for many years—pretty much exactly as designed.

But just over 1,100 have account values greater than $10 million and only 300 have account values greater than $25 million, the GAO found. “The accumulation of these large IRA balances by a small number of investors stands in contrast to Congress’s aim to prevent the tax-favored accumulation of balances exceeding what is needed for retirement,” the report states.

Officials are now gathering data on the types of assets held in IRAs, including the so-called “carried interest” stake that private equity managers have in the investment funds they run. These stakes, which give them a percentage of a fund’s gain, are another way that a select few manage to sock away multiple millions of dollars in IRAs. No one doubts the data will illustrate that only a privileged few have access to outsized IRA savings. The Romney campaign showed us that three years ago.

Read next: 3 Ways to Have a Happier, Healthier Retirement

MONEY Longevity

3 Ways to Have a Happier, Healthier Retirement

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Dan Saelinger—Styling by Dominique Baynes; Hai

You're likely to have a long run in retirement. Maintaining a lively pace is good for your health—and good for your wallet, too.

Better access to and improvements in medical care mean that you’re likely to not only live longer but be healthier as well. On average, Americans are living in good health nearly two years more compared with retirees two decades ago and have compressed the time spent in really poor health to the very end of life, says David Cutler, a Harvard University professor who analyzed health data from 90,000 Medicare recipients from 1991 to 2009.

There’s a financial payoff, as well as a quality-of-life one, to maintaining good health longer. Although your total health care costs rise the longer you live (see the graphic below), your annual outlay is far less when you’re in the pink: Average out-of-pocket spending on medical expenses is $6,000 a year for people in good health, vs. $7,416 for people in poor health, according to data from the University of Michigan Health and Retirement study. That means you can devote less of your annual budget to health care bills and more to activities that make your retirement enjoyable. And fortunately, you have a lot more control over your health and quality of life in your later years than you may think, even if you have a chronic health condition.

The Key Moves

Stick with the pack: The elderly subjects in the New England Centenarian Study are poster children for the behaviors that are associated with healthy aging. Yes, they typically don’t smoke, follow a diet that is heavy in vegetables, exercise regularly, and manage stress with aplomb. Less obvious: Nearly 90% of the centenarians live independently well into their nineties, retire later than average, often do volunteer work, and have active social lives involving daily contact with family and friends. Says Thomas Perls, director of the study: “We rarely see a lonely centenarian.”

Keep on moving: Just how much exercise do you need to add years to your life? Doing something to get your muscles working every day is critical, but it doesn’t have to be a lot—even as little as 15 minutes a day is enough to add years to your lifespan, according to Maria Corrada, an associate professor at the University of California at Irvine who is part of a study of nonagenarians that aims to identify factors that lead to a longer life. A woman who exercises 15 to 30 minutes a day has a 20% decrease in the risk of dying at a given age compared with someone who is sedentary, Corrada says.

And good news for those who have spent a lifetime watching their weight: A little more padding in your later years—up to 30 pounds for a person of average height, but no more—may be beneficial too. The extra pounds provide some protection against falls, Corrada says, helping to prevent breaks in brittle bones.

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Don’t worry, be happy: Reports on aging often focus on the problems associated with longevity. Here’s an overlooked piece of good news: Retirees consistently report being happier than younger folks. Happiness, researchers have found, tends to be U-shaped: People start adulthood feeling pretty good about themselves, but then the glow diminishes steadily as the stresses of life pile on, according to a study published by the National Academy of Sciences. At age 50, though, the trend reverses, and people report feeling better as they age; by 85, they are even more satisfied with themselves than they were at 18.

Smart money management helps you further stack the deck in your favor; a recent Merrill Lynch study found that financial security was second only to good health among factors that make retirees happy. After all, if you make it to 100, you’ve more than earned the right not to worry about money.

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More great tips from the Ultimate Retirement Guide:
6 Ways to Have a Richer Retirement
4 Smart Ways to Give Your Career Staying Power
6 Moves to Make Your Money Last a Lifetime

 

MONEY Health Care

Why Obamacare Is Making Medicare Open Enrollment More Confusing

Tangle of Stethoscopes
Comstock Images—Getty Images

The time to sign up for an individual health insurance plan overlaps with the annual window for switching your Medicare plan. Here's how seniors can navigate this tangle of health care choices.

This is enrollment season for two huge public health insurance programs: Medicare and the Affordable Care Act health insurance exchanges. For older Americans, the overlapping sign-up periods can lead to confusion and enrollment errors.

Insurers offering Medicare and ACA policies have big money at stake, and consumers are subject to a blizzard of marketing messages. Annual enrollment for Medicare prescription drug (Part D) and Advantage (Part C) plans began Oct. 15 and runs until Dec. 7; shopping for healthcare policies in the marketplace exchanges created under the ACA began Nov. 15 and ends Feb. 15.

Consumer assistance groups report that some Medicare enrollees mistakenly think they must also enroll in the ACA exchanges. And for people with ACA plans who are turning 65, the transition to Medicare can be tricky. Here are some common questions about enrollment overlap, and answers aimed at helping older Americans keep things straight.

Q: What should I do about the ACA marketplaces if I’m already on Medicare?

Nothing. The policies sold on the exchanges are for Americans who don’t have coverage through an employer. And it is illegal for someone to sell you an exchange plan if the provider knows you are covered by Medicare. You can’t buy a Medicare Advantage, Medigap or Part D drug plan through the ACA marketplaces; to enroll in these plans, visit the federal government’s Medicare Plan Finder website.

Q: I bought health insurance this year on my state’s exchange, but I’m turning 65 in December. Do I need to shift to Medicare then?

It’s critical that you move to Medicare as soon as you are eligible. The enrollment window starts three months before your 65th birthday and ends three months afterward.

Failure to enroll will saddle you with expensive premium penalties. Monthly Part B premiums jump 10% for each 12-month period that you could have had coverage but didn’t—for life. That can add up: A senior who fails to enroll for five years ultimately would face a 50% Part B penalty—10% for each year. Penalties also are applied for late enrollment in Part D, under a different formula.

Q: When I shift into Medicare, can I just stick with the company that insures me in the ACA exchange?

You probably could do that; many of the nation’s biggest health insurers operate in both Medicare and the ACA exchanges. But brand loyalty isn’t advised here. Even if you’ve been satisfied with your provider, that company’s Medicare prescription drug plan may not offer the same coverage you had in the exchange. And the Medicare Advantage plan may not include the same network of providers or level of benefits.

Treat Medicare sign-up as a new shopping exercise. For starters, think about whether you want traditional fee-for-service Medicare or Advantage, a managed care alternative. Traditional Medicare allows you to see any health provider that participates in Medicare, but you’ll probably want to add a standalone prescription drug plan and a Medigap supplemental policy. With Advantage, you’ll be limited to in-network providers, but most plans have built-in prescription drug coverage and cap out-of-pocket spending.

Q: I qualified for tax subsidies in the ACA exchanges. Will those continue when I go into Medicare?

No. The ACA subsidies offset premium costs for households in a wide band of income, from 100% to 400% of the federal poverty level. This year that worked out to an annual income of between $11,490 and $45,960 for an individual, and $23,550 to $94,320 for a family of four.

Medicare enrollees can get assistance with premiums if they meet certain income and asset tests through the Medicare Savings Program. Another program, called Extra Help, can offset most or all prescription drug costs. The Medicare Rights Center’s website has a summary of these programs.

MONEY retirement planning

Retirement Makeover: 30 Years Old, and Already Falling Behind

Chianti Lomax
Julian Dufort

When she turned 30, Chianti Lomax had an epiphany: Her salary and savings weren't enough to buy a home or start a family. MONEY paired her with a financial expert for help with a plan.

Chianti Lomax grew up poor in Greenville, S.C., raised by a single mother who supported her four children by holding several jobs at once. Inspired by her mom, Lomax worked her way through high school and college; today, the Alexandria, Va., resident makes $83,000 plus bonuses as a management consultant.

But turning 30 last December, Lomax had an epi­phany: Her career and her 401(k)—now worth $35,000 —weren’t enough to achieve her long-term goals: raising a family and buying a house in the rural South.

Her biggest problem, she realized, was her spending. So she downsized from the $1,200-a-month one-bedroom apartment she rented to a $950 studio, canceled her cable, got a free gym membership by teaching a Zumba class, and gave up the 2010 Honda she leased in favor of a 2004 Acura she paid for in cash. With those savings, she doubled her 401(k) contribution to 6% to get her full employer match.

And yet, nearly a year later, Lomax has only $400 in the bank, along with $12,000 in student loans. Having gone as far as she can by herself, Lomax wants advice. As she puts it, “How can I find more ways to save and make my money grow?”

Marcio Silveira of Pavlov Financial Planning in Arlington, Va., says Lomax is doing many things right, including avoiding credit card debt. Spending, however, remains her weakness. Lomax estimates that she spends $500 a month on extras like weekend meals with friends and $5 nonfat caramel macchiatos, but Silveira, studying her cash flow, says it’s probably more like $700. “That money could be put to far better use,” he says.

The Advice

Track the cash: Silveira says Lomax should log her spending with a free online service like Mint (also available as a smartphone app). That will make her more careful about flashing her debit card, he says, and give her the hard data she needs to create a budget. Lomax should cut her discretionary spending, he thinks, by $500 a month. Can a young, single person really socialize on $50 a week? Silveira says yes, given that Lomax cooks for herself most evenings and is busy with volunteer work. Lomax thinks $75 is more doable. “But I’d like to shoot for $50,” she says. “I like challenging myself.”

Setting More Aside infographic
MONEY

Automate savings: Saving money is easier when it’s not in front of you, says Silveira. He advises Lomax to open a Roth IRA and set up an automatic transfer of $200 a month from her checking account, adding in any year-end bonus to reach the current annual Roth contribution limit of $5,500, and putting all the cash into a low-risk short-term Treasury bond fund.

Initially, says Silveira, the Roth will be an emergency fund. Lomax can withdraw contributions tax-free, but will be less tempted to pull money out for everyday expenses than if the money were in a bank account. Once Lomax has $12,000 in the Roth, she should continue saving in a bank account and gradually reallocate the Roth to a stock- heavy retirement mix. Starting the emergency fund in a Roth, says Silveira, has the bonus of getting Lomax in the habit of saving for retirement outside of her 401(k).

Ramp it up: Lomax should increase her 401(k) contribution to 8% immediately and then again to 10% in January—a $140-a-month increase each time. Doing this in two steps, says Silveira, will make the transition easier. Under Silveira’s plan, Lomax will be setting aside 23% of her salary. She won’t be able to save that much upon starting a family or buying a house, he says, but setting aside so much right now will give her retirement savings many years to compound.

Read next:
12 Ways to Stop Wasting Money and Take Control of Your Stuff
Retirement Makeover: 4 Kids, 2 Jobs, No Time to Plan

MONEY Retirement

The Surprising Reason Employers Want You to Save for Retirement

man fails to make a putt
PM Images—Getty Images

Companies have stepped up their game with better options and features. Still, savings lag.

Employers have come a long way in terms of helping workers save for retirement. They have beefed up financial education efforts, embraced automatic savings features, and moved toward relatively safe one-decision investment options like target-date mutual funds. Yet our retirement savings crisis persists and may be taking a toll on the economy.

Three in four large or mid-sized employers with a 401(k) plan say that insufficient personal savings is a top concern for their workforce, according to a report from Towers Watson. Four in five say poor savings will become an even bigger issue for their employees in the next three years, the report concludes.

Personal money problems are a big and growing distraction at the office. The Society for Human Resources Management found that 83% of HR professionals report that workers’ money issues are having a negative impact on productivity, showing up in absenteeism rates, stress, and diminished ability to focus.

This fallout is one reason more employers are stepping up their game and making it easier to save smart. Today, 25% of 401(k) plans have an automatic enrollment feature, up from 17% five years ago, Fidelity found. And about a third of annual employee contribution hikes come from auto increase. Meanwhile, Fidelity clients with all their savings in a target-date mutual fund have soared to 35% of plan participants from just 3% a decade ago.

Yet companies know they must do more. Only 12% in the Towers report said their employees know how much they need for a secure retirement; only 20% said employees are comfortable making investment decisions. In addition, 53% of employers are concerned that older workers will have to delay retirement. That presents its own set of workplace challenges as employers are left with fewer slots to reward and retain their best younger workers.

Further innovation in investment options may help. The big missing piece today is a plan choice that converts into simple and cost-efficient guaranteed lifetime income. For a lot of reasons, annuities and other potential solutions have been slow to catch on inside of defined-contribution plans. But the push is on.

Another approach may be educational efforts that reach employees where they want to be found. The vast majority of employers continue to lean on traditional and passive methods of education, including sending out confusing account statements and newsletters, holding boring group meetings, and hosting webcasts. Less than 10% of employers incorporate mobile technology or have tried games designed to motivate employees to save.

These approaches have proved especially useful among young workers, who as a group have begun to save far earlier than previous generations. Still, some important lessons are not getting through. About half of all employers offer tax-free growth through a Roth savings option in their plan, yet only 11% of workers take advantage of the feature, Towers found. This is where better financial education could help.

 

 

MONEY 401(k)s

Are You Smart Enough to Boost Your 401(k)’s Return? Take This Simple Quiz

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Pete Ark/Getty Images

If you can answer these 5 basic questions, you'll likely earn bigger gains in your retirement plan.

Can knowing more about investing and finances boost your 401(k)’s returns? A recent study suggests that may be the case. But you don’t have to be a savant to improve performance. Even if you don’t know a qualified dividend from a capital gain, lessons from this research can help you fatten your investment accounts.

The more you know about finances and investing, the higher the returns you’re likely to earn in your 401(k). That, at least, is the conclusion researchers came to after giving thousands of participants of a large 401(k) plan a five-question test to gauge how much they know about basic financial concepts and then comparing the results with investment performance over 10 years.

You’ll get your turn to answer those questions in a minute. But first, let’s take a look at what the study found.

Savvier Investors Hold More Stocks

Basically, the 401(k) participants who answered more questions correctly earned substantially higher returns in their 401(k). And I mean substantially. Those who got four or five of the five questions right had annualized risk-adjusted returns of 9.5% on average compared with 8.2% for those who answered only one or none of the questions correctly. That 1.3-percent-a-year margin, the researchers note, would translate to a 25% larger nest egg over the course of a 25-year career. That could be the difference between scraping by in retirement versus living a secure and comfortable lifestyle.

But while the 401(k)s of participants with greater knowledge didn’t outperform the accounts of their less knowledgeable peers because of some arcane or sophisticated investing strategy. The secret of their success was actually pretty simple (and easily duplicated): They invested more of their savings in stock funds than their financially challenged counterparts. And even when less-informed participants did venture into stocks, they were less apt to invest in international stocks, small-cap funds and, most important to my mind, less likely to own index funds, the option that has the potential to lower investment costs and dramatically boost the value of your nest egg.

The better-informed investors’ results come with a caveat. Even though more financially savvy participants earned higher returns after accounting for risk, their portfolios tended to be somewhat somewhat more volatile (which isn’t surprising given the higher stock stake). So they had to be willing to endure a somewhat bumpier ride en route to their loftier returns.

I’d also add that while more exposure to stocks does generally equate to higher long-term returns, no one should take that as an invitation to just load up on equities. When investing your retirement savings, you’ve also got to take your risk tolerance into account as well as the effect larger stock holdings have when the market heads south. That’s especially true if you’re nearing retirement or already retired, as portfolio heavily invested in stocks could suffer a setback large enough to force you to seriously scale back or even abandon your retirement plans.

Mastering the Basics

Ready to see how you’ll fare on the study’s Financial Knowledge test? The five questions and correct answers are below, followed by my take on the lessons you should from this exercise, regardless of how you score.

Question #1. Suppose you had $100 in a savings account that paid 2% interest per year. After five years, how much would you have in the account if you left the money to grow?
a. More than $110
b. Exactly $110
c. Less than $110

Question #2. Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account was 1% per year and inflation was 2% per year. After one year, how much would you be able to buy with the money in this account?
a. More than today
b. Exactly the same
c. Less than today

Question #3. Is this statement true or false? Buying a single company’s stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.
a. True
b. False

Question #4. Assume you were in the 25% tax bracket (you pay $0.25 in tax for each dollar earned) and you contributed $100 pretax to an employer’s 401(k) plan. Your take-home pay (what’s in your paycheck after all taxes and other payments are taken out) will then:
a. Decline by $100
b. Decline by $75
c. Decline by $50
d. Remain the same

Question #5. Assume that an employer matched employee contributions dollar for dollar. If the employee contributed $100 to the 401(k) plan, his account balance in the plan including his contribution would:
a. Increase by $50
b. Increase by $100
c. Increase by $200
d. Remain the same

The answers:

1. a, More than $110. This question was designed to test people’s ability to do a simple interest calculation. To answer “more than” instead of “exactly” $100, you also had to understand the concept of compound interest. (Percentage of people who answered this question correctly: 76%.)

2. c, Less than today. This question gets at the relationship between investment returns and inflation and the concept of “real” return. To answer it correctly, you must understand that if your money grows at less than the inflation rate, its purchasing power declines. (92%)

3. b, False. Here, the idea was to test whether people understood that a stock mutual fund contains many stocks and that investing in a large group of stocks is generally less risky than putting all one’s money into a the stock of a single company. (88%)

4. b, Decline by $75. This question gauges people’s understanding of the tax benefit of a pretax contribution to a 401(k) and its effect on the paycheck of someone in the 25% tax bracket. (45%)

5. c, Increase by $200. This was simply a test of whether people understood the concept of matching funds and the effect of a dollar-for-dollar match. (78%)

Average score: 3.8 All 5 correct: 33% All 5 wrong: 2%

Okay, so now you know how you stack up compared with the 401(k) participants in the study. But whether you did well or not, remember that your performance on this or any other test isn’t necessarily a prediction of how your retirement portfolio will fare. Very financially astute people sometimes make dumb investment moves. Sometimes they try to get too fancy (think of the Nobel Laureates whose hedge fund lost billions in the late ’90s). Other times there may be a disconnect between what people know intellectually and how they react emotionally.

Nor does a lack of financial smarts inevitably doom you to subpar performance. You don’t need a PhD in finance to understand the few basic concepts that lead to financial success: spreading your money among a variety of investments instead of going all-in on one or two things, keeping costs down and paying attention to both risk and return when investing your savings.

So by all means take the time to educate yourself about investing. But don’t feel you have to go beyond a few simple but effective investing techniques to earn competitive returns and improve your chances of a secure retirement.

More from RealDealRetirement.com:

Can I Double My Nest Egg In the Final Years of My Career?

How To Save On Retirement Investing Fees

How To Build A $1 Million IRA

MONEY housing

How to Cut Your Single Biggest Expense in Retirement

bouncy castle in suburbia
An age-proof home is one where you can live safely, comfortably, and conveniently in your older years. Sian Kennedy—Getty Images

You're going to spend a lot on housing in retirement. Here's how to make sure your home serves your needs as you age.

The single biggest expense you face in retirement is housing, which accounts for more than 40% of spending for people 65 and older, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Yet all too often, you end up shelling out those bucks for places that don’t serve your needs well as you age.

By age 85, for example, two-thirds of people have some type of disability. If you can’t get around your house or community or you don’t have easy access to the medical and social services you need, you could land in a costly nursing home prematurely, according to a Harvard Center for Joint Housing and AARP study.

“People don’t think about how their home will support their needs until they face a health issue,” says Amy Levner, manager of the Livable Communities initiative at AARP. “It doesn’t have to be a catastrophe either. Even something as simple as a knee replacement could make it difficult to stay in your home or drive, at least short term.”

Here are 3 ways to make sure you’ll stay comfortable in your home as you get older.

1. Get your house in shape: Three-quarters of people would prefer to stay in their current home as long as possible in retirement, according to AARP. Yet just 20% live in a house with features to help them live safely and comfortably there in their older years. Among them: a first-floor bedroom and bath so you can live on the main level if stairs become hard to climb, wider doorways that make getting around easier if you need a walker or wheelchair, and covered entrances so you don’t slip in rain or snow.

Those can be pricey renovations, so the best time to do the work is while you are still employed so that you can use current income to pay the bill instead of tapping savings, says Levner. But many adaptations that make a big difference when you’re older are inexpensive. Those include raising electrical outlets to make them easier to reach, putting grab bars and a shower chair in the bathroom, and installing nonslip gripper mats under area rugs. (A list of the most important steps to take and their typical cost is below.)

2. Take it down a notch: To save money without necessarily moving far away—two-thirds of people want to remain in their hometown when they retire, AARP says—you can downsize to a less expensive, more manageable house. You could use the proceeds from the sale of your current home to add to your retirement savings, while significantly cutting maintenance costs.

The potential savings, based on estimates from the Center for Retirement Research, are compelling. If you move from a $250,000 house to a $150,000 one, for instance, you could net $75,000 to add to your savings, after paying moving and closing costs (typically 10% of the sale price). Meanwhile, your annual bill for upkeep would probably fall from around $8,125 to $4,875, assuming typical property taxes, insurance, and maintenance of about 3.25% of the home’s value. These calculations assume that you own your home outright; if you still have a mortgage, the savings you would reap from downsizing might be even bigger.

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Move in step with your peers: Relocating can also help you cut expenses if you move to an area with lower taxes and a cheaper cost of living. Look for places that have good public transit, transportation services for seniors, and walkable, bike-friendly neighborhoods that are a short distance to stores and entertainment and close to medical facilities.

Where should you go? AARP is now working with dozens of places to create age-friendly communities. They include Birmingham, Denver, Des Moines, and Westchester County in New York (find the list at aarp.org/agefriendly). Next spring AARP will launch an online index with livability data about every community in the U.S. For more inspiration, check out MONEY’s Best Places to Retire.

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