More Americans could face a housing-related financial hardship in retirement, according to a new Harvard study.
America’s population is going to experience a dramatic shift during the next 15 years. More than 130 million Americans will be aged 50 or over, and the entire baby boomer generation will be in retirement age — making 20% of the country’s population older than 65. If recent trends continue, there will be a larger number of retirees renting and paying mortgages than ever before.
A recent study published by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies describes how this could lead an unprecedented number of America’s aging population to face a lower quality of life or even financial hardship. However, the same study also points out that there is time for many of those who could be affected to do something about it.
Housing debt and rent costs pose a big threat
According to the data Harvard researchers put together, homeowners tend to be in a much better financial position than renters. The majority of homeowners over 50 have retirement savings with a median value of $93,000, plus $10,000 in savings. More than three-quarters of renters, on the other hand, have no retirement and only $1,000 in savings on average.
While renters — who don’t have the benefit of home equity wealth — face the biggest challenges, a growing percentage of those 50 and older are carrying mortgage debt. Income levels tend to peak for most in their late 40s before declining in the 50s, and then comes retirement. The result? Housing costs consume a growing percentage of income as those over 50 get older and enter retirement.
How bad is it? Check out this table from the Harvard study:
More than 40% of those over 65 with a mortgage or rent payment are considered moderately or severely burdened, meaning that at least 30% of their income goes toward housing costs. The percentage drops below 15% when they own their home. If you pay rent or carry a mortgage into retirement, there’s a big chance it will take up a significant amount of your income. In 1992, it was estimated that just more than 60% of those between 50 and 64 had a mortgage, but by 2010, the number had jumped past 70%.
Even more concerning? The rate of those over 65 still paying a mortgage has almost doubled since 1992 to nearly 40%.
The impact of housing costs on retirees
The impact is felt most by those with the lowest incomes, and there is a clear relationship between high housing costs and hardship. Those who are 65 and older and are both in the lowest income quartile and moderately or severely burdened by housing costs spend up to 30% less on food than people in the same income bracket who do not have a housing-cost burden. Those who face a housing-cost burden also spend markedly less on healthcare, including preventative care.
In many cases, these burdens can become too much to bear, often leading retirees to live with a family member — if the option is available. While this is more common in some cultures, this isn’t an appealing option to most Americans, who generally view retirement as an opportunity to be independent. More than 70% of respondents in a recent AARP survey said they want to remain in their current residence as long as they can. Unfortunately, those who carry mortgage debt into retirement are more likely to have financial difficulties and limited choices, and they’re also more likely to have less money in retirement savings.
What to do?
Considering the data and the trends the Harvard study uncovered, more and more Americans could face a housing-related financial hardship in retirement. If you want to avoid that predicament, there are things you can do at any age.
- Refinance or no? Refinancing typically only makes sense if it will reduce the total amount you pay for your home. Saving $200 per month doesn’t do you any good if you end up paying $3,000 more over the term of the loan. However, if a lower interest rate means you’ll spend less money than you do on your current loan, refinance.
- Reverse mortgages. If you’re in retirement and have equity in your home, a reverse mortgage might make sense. There are a few different types based on whether you need financial support via monthly income, cash to pay for repairs or taxes on your home, or other needs. However, understand how a reverse mortgage works and what you are giving up before you choose this route. There are housing counseling agencies that can help you figure out the best options for your situation, and for some reverse mortgage programs you are required to meet with a counselor first. Check out the Federal Trade Commission’s website for more information.
All that said, avoiding financial hardship in retirement takes more than managing your mortgage. A big hedge is entering retirement with as much wealth as possible. Here are some ways to do that:
- Max out your employee match. If your employer offers a match to retirement account contributions, make sure you’re getting all of it. Even if you’re only a few years from retiring, this is free money; don’t leave it on the table. Furthermore, your 401(k) contributions reduce your taxable income, meaning it will actually hit your paycheck by a smaller amount than your contribution.
- Catching up. The IRS allows those over age 50 to contribute an extra $1,000 per year to personal IRAs, putting their total contribution limit at $6,500. And contributions to traditional IRAs can reduce your taxable income, just like 401(k) contributions. There are some limitations, so check with your tax pro to see how it affects your situation. Also, while contributions to a Roth IRA aren’t tax-deductible, distributions in retirement are tax-free.
- Financial assistance and property tax breaks. Whether you’re a homeowner or a renter, there are assistance programs that can help bridge the housing-cost gap. Both state and federal government programs exist, but nobody is going to knock on your door and tell you about them. A good place to start is to contact your local housing authority. The available assistance can also include property tax credits, exemptions, and deferrals. Check with your local tax commissioner to find out what is available in your area.
Stop putting it off
If you’re already in this situation, or know someone who is, then you know the emotional and financial strain it causes. If you’re afraid you might be on the path to be in those straits, then it’s up to you to take steps to change course.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a few months from 65 or a few months into your first job: Doing nothing gets you nowhere and wastes invaluable time that you can’t get back.
401(k) loans aren't always a terrible choice. But make sure you keep saving at the same rate during the loan payback period.
A loan from your 401(k) plan has well-known drawbacks, among them the taxes and penalties that may be due if you lose your job and can’t pay off the loan in a timely way. But there is a subtler issue too: millions of borrowers cut their contribution rate during the loan repayment period and end up losing hundreds of dollars each month in retirement income, new research shows.
Academics and policymakers have long fixated on the costs of money leaking out of tax-deferred accounts through hardship withdrawals, cash-outs when workers switch jobs, and loans that do not get repaid. The problem is big. Some want more curbs on early distributions and believe that funds borrowed from a 401(k) should be insured and that the payback period after a job loss should be much longer.
Yet most people who borrow from their 401(k) plan manage to pay back the loan in full, says Jeanne Thompson, vice president of thought leadership at Fidelity Investments. A more widespread problem is the lost savings—and decades of lost growth on those savings—that result when plan borrowers cut their contribution rate. About 40% of those with a 401(k) loan reduce contributions, and of those a third quit contributing altogether, Fidelity found.
To gauge the impact, Fidelity looked at two 401(k) investors making $50,000 a year and starting at age 25 to save 6% of pay with a 4% company match. Fidelity assumed that at age 35 one investor stopped saving and resumed 10 years later. At the same age, the other investor cut saving in half and resumed five years later. Both employees earned inflation-like raises and the same rate of return (3.2 percentage points above inflation). At age 67 they began drawing down the balance to zero by age 93.
The investor who stopped saving for 10 years wound up with $1,960 of monthly income; the investor who cut saving in half for five years wound up with $2,470 of monthly income. Had they maintained their savings uninterrupted each would have wound up with $2,650 of monthly income. So the annual toll on retirement income came to $2,160 to $8,280.
Nearly one million workers in a Fidelity administered 401(k) plan initiated a loan in the year ending June 30, the company said. That’s about 11% of all its participants and part of rising trend, the company says. The typical loan amount is $9,100 unless the loan is to help with the purchase of home—in that case the typical amount borrowed is $23,500.
These figures are generally in line with data from the Employee Benefit Research Institute, which found that the typical unpaid loan balance in 2012 was $7,153 and that 21% of participants eligible for a loan had one outstanding. The loans were relatively modest, representing just 13% of the remaining 401(k) balance.
Workers change their contribution rate for many reasons, including financial setbacks and a big new commitment like payments on a car or mortgage. But cutting contributions to make loan payback easier may be the most common reason—and the least understood cost of a 401(k) loan.
'Bond King' Bill Gross has resigned from the firm he founded. Here's why his move matters.
It many not be LeBron leaving Miami, but on Wall Street, at least, it was arguably an even bigger deal. Bill Gross, long one of the biggest stars in money management, has resigned from the Newport Beach, Calif., asset management giant Pimco and will be heading to Janus Capital in Denver.
Why Gross is such big news
Gross’s $221 billion Pimco Total Return fund (PTTCX) is one of the largest mutual funds on the market—in fact, it has more assets than any bond fund in the world. And it’s a mainstay in many 401(k) plans. So there is a good chance at least some of your retirement savings are at stake. Because it invests largely in a diversified mix of government and corporate bonds, for many people Pimco Total Return is the primary holding for money they don’t put in the stock market.
And since Gross’s fund and Pimco, the firm he founded in 1971, are major players in the market for U.S. Treasuries, he also has been an important public figure, with financial journalists closely following his comments on interest rates, Federal Reserve policy, the U.S. debt and other economic issues. Similar to famous stock investors like Warren Buffett, news that Gross was buying something could move markets.
But Gross has been in the spotlight for less flattering reasons lately. We don’t know all the details; the first news of his departure came from a press releases issued by Janus this morning. Both the Wall Street Journal and CNBC are reporting that Pimco was ready to push him, if he hadn’t jumped.
Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise
Gross has a famously quirky personality that helped to build Pimco’s brand. He writes colorful shareholder letters and started practicing yoga before it was cool among money managers. According to one report, Gross didn’t like people to look him in the eye on the trading floor. None of this mattered when Pimco was delivering outsize investment returns. But lately performance has lagged — in the past year Pimco Total Return finished in the bottom tenth of its Morningstar category — in part because of missed calls on the direction the Treasury market. And that may have made his quirks harder for some to take.
After the high profile departure of Gross’ protege and presumed successor Mohamed El-Erian earlier this year, Bloomberg Businessweek put Gross on the cover with the headline “Am I Really Such a Jerk?” Gross didn’t tone it down. In June, he gave what many regarded as an odd speech at a large investment conference, wearing sunglasses and comparing himself to Justin Beiber.
For Pimco, and its investors, it’s a time to wait and see.
While Bill Gross has always been the public face of Pimco, the Newport Beach, Calif., money manager which oversees a total of $2 trillion, is a lot more than Gross.
Businessweek ran a story in May 2013 called “Pimco Prepares for Life After Bill Gross,” noting Gross was 69 at the time. Pimco is known for its deep bench. According to it’s Web site it has more than 700 investment professionals. Another Pimco star, Chief Economist Paul McCulley, who had retired from Pimco in 2010, returned in May.
The big question is whether the investment magic will remain with Pimco or go with Gross. There is one recent precedent worth looking at. In 2009, another high-profile, equally flamboyant bond manager, Jeffrey Gundlach, left his long-time employer, TCW, in acrimonious circumstances and founded a new firm known as DoubleLine. The DoubleLine Total Return (DBLTX) fund has proved a success, beating the market over the past three years and attracting more than $30 billion. But controversy has followed Gundlach too. He made headlines earlier this year after getting embroiled with fund researcher Morningstar.
This may give Janus new life.
If you’re old enough to remember the first Internet bubble — the one that popped in the early 2000s — there’s a good chance you know Janus. For a time, the Denver fund company, which bet and won big on the era’s tech names, seemed like middle America’ gateway to Internet riches. At the peak of the bubble, according the New York Times, half the money flowing into mutual funds went to Janus. That all changed later in the decade when investors departed in droves. Janus has been trying to recapture its former glory ever since.
Since 2002 the company has had five different chief executives. The latest one — a Pimco alum named Dick Weil who arrived in 2010 — has been trying to broaden the company’s focus beyond stock funds. That’s where Gross appears to fit in. According to the Janus release, he’ll be running an “unconstrained bond fund.” Those investments, called unconstrained because they can invest in a wider array of securities than traditional bond funds, have proved popular at a time when ultra-low interest rates have hurt traditional fixed income returns. But as you might guess, there are risks too. Janus is probably betting that Gross’s popularity will reassure investors otherwise reluctant to take another chance with it.
Q: My husband and I are in our middle 30s and both have good jobs in a professional field. We each make $60,000 a year. Should we be saving in our 401(k) plans, or contributing to a Roth IRA?
A: The answer, of course, is that you should be doing both—but not necessarily in equal amounts, and much depends on your expenses and how much you are able to sock away. Let’s look at some of the variables.
The first consideration is making certain both of you get the full amount of your employer’s matching 401(k) plan contributions. “Fill up the 401(k) bucket first,” says IRA expert Ed Slott, founder of IRAhelp.com. “That is free money and you shouldn’t leave any of it on the table.” In many 401(k) plans, companies kick in 50 cents for every $1 you save up to 6% of pay. If both of you are in such plans, you should each contribute $7,200 per year to your 401(k) plans to collect the $3,600 your employers will match. But don’t contribute more than that, and if you get no match, skip it entirely—for now. It’s time to move on to a Roth IRA.
A Roth IRA is a far different savings vehicle than a 401(k) plan. Having one will give you more flexibility in retirement. Your 401(k) plan is funded with pre-tax dollars that grow tax-deferred. You pay tax when you start taking distributions no later than your 71st year. A Roth IRA is funded with after-tax dollars that grow tax-free for the rest of your life and that of your spouse, and they have tax advantages for your heirs as well. You can also take early distributions of the principal that you contribute, without penalty or tax, should you run into a cash crunch. So after you have each maxed out your 401(k) match, shift to a Roth IRA. Each of you can save up to the $5,500 annual limit.
The downside of a Roth IRA is that you lose the immediate tax deduction that you get with a 401(k) contribution. Still, “you eliminate the uncertainty of what future tax rates may do to your retirement income plan,” says Slott. If tax rates go up, as many believe they must in the years ahead, your 401(k) savings will become a little less valuable. But your Roth IRA savings will be unaffected.
Once you have each saved $7,200 to get the company match of $3,600, and have also fully funded a Roth IRA to the tune of $5,500—congratulate one another. That comes to $16,300 each of annual savings, or a Herculean savings rate of 27%. Most experts advise saving at a 15% rate, and even higher when possible. If you still have more free cash to sock away, you can begin to put more in your 401(k) to get the additional tax deferral. But you should first consider opening a taxable brokerage account where you invest in stocks and stock mutual funds. After a one-year holding period these get taxed as a capital gain, currently a lower rate (15% to 20%) than the ordinary income rate that applies to your 401(k) distributions.
Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write toAskTheExpert@moneymail.com.
CalPERS’ move is a vote for passive investing
It would be reasonable to assume that the professionals running CalPERS, the California pension fund with $300 billion in assets, would be good at picking stocks. Or at least reasonably good at picking other smart people to pick stocks for them. But in the past year, CalPERS has made two decisions that are telling for all investors when it comes to trying to outperform the market.
Late last year, the pension fund signaled its intention to move more assets from active management into passively managed index funds. These are funds in which you buy a market, such as the S&P 500 or the Russell 2000, unlike mutual funds that try to select winners within a given class of equities. More recently, CalPERS said it would also pull out the $4 billion it has invested in hedge funds. Although hedge-fund honchos make headlines with their personal wealth, the industry has significantly lagged the market in the past three years. “Call it capitulation or sobriety: it’s saying that we can’t beat the market and we can’t find managers who can beat the market, and even if they can, their fee structures are overwhelming,” says Mitch Tuchman, CEO of Rebalance IRA, an investment adviser focused on index-fund-only portfolios.
The CalPERS move is a nod to University of Chicago economist Eugene Fama, who won a Nobel for his lifelong work on “efficient markets.” That theory says that because stock prices reflect all available information at any moment–they are informationally “efficient”–future prices are unpredictable, so trying to beat the market is useless. According to the SPIVA (S&P Indices Versus Active) Scorecard, the return on the S&P 500 beat 87% of active managers in domestic large-cap equity funds over the past five years.
Why can’t expert money managers succeed? Researchers from the University of Chicago say there are so many smart managers that they offset one another, gaining or losing at others’ expense and winding up near the market average, before expenses. “Unless you have some really special information about a manager, there’s really no good reason to put your money in actively managed mutual funds,” says Juhani Linnainmaa, associate professor of finance at Chicago’s Booth School of Business. He says the median managed fund produces an average –1% alpha–that is, below the expected return. Some funds do beat their index–what’s not clear is why. “What is the luck factor?” he asks. “Given the noise in the market, it’s kind of hopeless to try to figure anything out of this.” Linnainmaa’s colleague, finance professor Lubos Pastor, also found that mutual funds have decreasing returns to scale. Size hurts a manager’s ability to trade.
Yet even if managers match the market, they’ve got expense ratios that then eat into returns. Index-fund proponents like John Bogle at Vanguard have long preached that fees dilute performance. A 1% difference can be huge. “It’s not 1% of all your money,” says Tuchman, “it’s 1% of expected returns: that’s 16% to 20%.” The average balance in Fidelity 401(k) plans was $89,300 in 2013. While 1% of that is $893, if you earned 8% compounded over 10 years, your balance would be $192,792; at 7% it’s $175,667, a difference of $17,125. Real money, in other words.
Investors are getting the message, pouring some $345 billion into passive mutual and exchange-traded funds over the past 12 months vs. $126 billion in active funds, says Morningstar. “At the end of the day,” says Tuchman, “an index fund is run by a computer, a robot. We don’t want to believe that a robot can beat Ivy League M.B.A.s–and I’m one of them.” What CalPERS seems to be saying is that the game is over. The robot wins.
You might think a stock market slump or a shaky economy pose the biggest danger to your retirement. But the biggest threat may be looking back at you in the mirror.
There’s no shortage of things that can jeopardize your retirement security. Market slumps, job layoffs, medical expenses, an unanticipated spike in inflation, unexpected financial obligations…the list goes on and on. But as scary as these threats may be, they don’t represent the biggest danger to your retirement security. That would be…
Yes, that attractive devil staring back at you in the mirror every morning.
That’s not to say the other hazards I’ve mentioned can’t diminish your retirement prospects. They can. But the danger we ourselves pose to our retirement security can be more insidious if only because we’re not as likely to be aware of it.
So how, exactly, do we undermine our own retirement success? Here are the main ways, followed by advice on how you can limit self-inflicted damage.
*We have a fear of commitment. I’m not talking relationships here, but the difficulty we have in starting to plan for retirement and, more specifically, beginning a savings regimen early on and sticking with it throughout our career. The latest stats from the Bureau of Economic Analysis show that the U.S. savings rate today hovers just below 6% of disposable income, less than half where it stood in the early 1970s. Even among people earning $100,000 or more, only about a third contribute the max to their 401(k). This reluctance to save isn’t totally surprising. After all, our brains are hard-wired for immediate gratification. The sleek car or fancy duds we can have right now are more appealing to us than financial security down the road.
*We’re too emotional. Just when we should be thinking with our heads, we too often go with our guts. Prime example: When the markets are booming, we feel more ebullient, which makes us more apt to underestimate the risk in stocks and load up on them. After a crash, our ebullience turns to gloom, leading us to overestimate the risk we face and flee stocks for the short-term safety of bonds and cash.
*We don’t follow through. Even when we take the time and effort to come up with a coherent strategy, such as building a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds that jibes with our appetite for risk, we then sabotage our efforts by failing to adhere to our plan. We know that different returns for different asset classes will knock our portfolio’s balance out of whack over time. Still, we don’t bother to periodically rebalance our holdings to bring them back to their proper proportions. Similarly, even if go to the trouble to go to a good online retirement calculator to figure out how much we need to save to have a decent shot at a secure retirement, we often fail to monitor our progress and make periodic adjustments. Retirement is a multi-decade journey. You can’t set your course once and go on autopilot for 30 years.
*We focus on the wrong things. Instead of focusing on the most important aspects of retirement planning—Am I saving enough? Do I have the right mix of stocks and bonds? How should my spouse and I coordinate claiming Social Security to get more in benefits?—we get mired in the weeds, poring over performance charts for the funds that have the highest returns or endlessly researching exotic new investments that purport to provide more diversification in our portfolios. News flash: In the long run, the single most important thing you can do to improve your retirement prospects is save more. If you focus first on that and then turn your attention to building a simple mix of low-cost stock and bond index funds, you’ll have laid the groundwork for a secure retirement.
Fortunately, it’s possible, if not to completely eliminate, then at least mitigate the threat we pose to ourselves when it comes to retirement planning. We do have a natural tendency to spend, but behavioral research shows that we may be more likely to save for the future if we feel some sort of link with our future selves. One way to establish that link is to check out the Face Retirement tool in RDR’s Retirement Toolbox, which uses age-morphing technology to “introduce” you to your future self. Once you’ve made that connection, you may find it easier to set aside resources today to help the you of tomorrow.
Similarly, you can prevent emotions from wreaking havoc with your retirement by adopting a more disciplined approach to planning. Writing down a savings target—10% to 15% is reasonable—will make you more likely to adhere to it than a mere mental note to yourself to try to put some money away. Sign up for your 401(k) plan and elect to have that target percentage deducted from your paycheck, and boom! You’re overcoming both the fear to commit and the failure to follow through. Set an annual date—your birthday, day after Thanksgiving, whenever—to rebalance your retirement portfolio and check your progress with an online retirement planning calculator, and you’re doing an even better job on the follow-through front
The reality is that today the onus is increasingly on you to provide for your security in retirement. So the more you’re able to turn yourself into an asset that enhances your future financial prospects rather than a threat that diminishes them, the more secure and enjoyable a retirement you’re likely to achieve.
If the 401(k) system worked as advertised, the typical retiree would have $373,000, one study finds. The reality: $100,000.
It’s no secret that America’s 401(k) system has a few flaws. But a new paper from the Boston College Center for Retirement Research shows just how far the system may be falling short.
The research, based on triennial survey data collected by Federal Reserve economists, found that the typical 401(k) balance for middle-income Americans preretirees—those between 55 and 65—was just $100,000. Based on current annuity prices, that amount would give you a retirement income of only $500 a month, a sum that would be eroded each year by inflation. Since “the typical household holds virtually no financial assets outside of its 401(k),” as the study notes, the average 401(k) plan isn’t likely to provide much of a supplement to Social Security.
That’s not what was supposed to happen. If the 401(k) system had worked as well in reality as it did in theory, those same workers would have $373,000 saved, or $273,000 more, according the study.
To reach that figure, researchers assumed a middle-income worker who turned 60 in 2013 began saving in 1982, at age 29. The worker contributed 6% to his or her 401(k) while receiving a 3% company match and invested in a portfolio split evenly between stocks and bonds—all seemingly reasonable assumptions.
So what happened to that missing $273,000?
The answer is that 401(k) balances have been eroded by a combination of unnecessary fees, poor plan design, and bad—or perhaps just desperate—decisions by savers.
Here’s where the money went:
Fees: As the Center’s illustration shows, a big chunk of that missing money, some $59,000, went to Wall Street. The study’s analysis was based on the average fee paid to portfolio managers who oversee 401(k) mutual funds. Clearly, fund managers need to be paid something. But 401(k) investors are almost certainly being charged too much. Across the 401(k) universe, the average stock fund investor hands over fees amounting to 0.74% a year to fund managers, largely because they’re invested in actively managed funds. By contrast, the average stock index fund costs just 0.12%. The upshot: Most of that $59,000 is unnecessary cost.
Withdrawals: Another $78,000 is lost to so-called leakage—essentially, investors yanking money out of the plan. The Center for Retirement Research cited another study by Vanguard Group, which found that on average Vanguard plans leaked about 1.2% of assets a year, although that figure may be low, since Vanguard tends to work with large plans with wealthier employees who are less likely to cash out. It’s difficult to tell why investors aren’t sticking with the program. But it appears that roughly half the time investors simply cash the money out, while about a quarter of the time they qualified for a “hardship withdrawal,” such as a medical or housing expense.
Inadequate saving: Finally, there’s the problem of investor behavior. Most workers don’t save enough, or make “intermittent” contributions. Others failed to sign up or lacked the opportunity to do so, especially earlier in their careers—the “immature” system problem. Congress attempted to boost savings rates with the 2006 Pension Protection Act, which made it easier for employers to default new workers into 401(k) plans. As a result, many young people entering the workforce today are enrolled automatically. But there is still room for improvement. Many plans start workers saving at just 3%, not the 6% or higher rate that would lead to a larger balance—perhaps as much as $373,000.
What to make of all this? It looks like Wall Street, workers themselves and the design of the 401(k) all share part of the blame. “Surely, the system could function more efficiently,” the Center’s study says. Hard to argue with that.
These changes would help all of us work longer, if we want to, and retire more comfortably.
Boomers have expressed a strong desire to remain engaged in the market economy. They still want to make a difference. They’re a creative force for change.
What could the government do to make it practical and desirable for more people to work longer? After spending two years researching my new book, Unretirement, I think the answer is: Fix four problems in America’s retirement system. In my opinion, these remedies would entice boomers to stay on the job, switch careers (possibly pursuing encore careers for the greater good) and launch businesses in midlife.
Below are four initiatives I think might accelerate unretirement; you may like all, a handful, or none of them. But hopefully, taken altogether, the ideas will spark a conversation about what’s possible and desirable for encouraging unretirement and encore careers.
1. Make America’s retirement savings system universal and with lower costs. It’s high time to acknowledge that our retirement savings system is not only broken, but unsuited for the new world of unretirement.
Only 42% of private sector workers ages 25 to 64 have any pension coverage in their current job. The result, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, is that more than one third of households end up with no coverage during their working years while others moving in and out of coverage accumulate small 401(k) balances. In short, the current system doesn’t even come close to universal coverage for the private economy.
The typical value of 401(k)s and IRAs for workers nearing retirement who do have them was about $120,000 in 2010, according to the Federal Reserve. That sum would provide a mere $575 in monthly income, assuming a couple bought a joint-and-survivor annuity, calculates Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
Defined-contribution savings plans, like 401(k)s, can be improved. They’ve asked too much of people. You’ve usually had to voluntarily join (a difficult decision for lower-income workers living off tight budgets); many employees have been overwhelmed by their plans’ enormous mutual fund options, and high fees have eroded their returns.
In addition, most 401(k) participants don’t have the option of receiving payments from their plans as a stream of annuitized income that they can’t outlive in retirement. It’s widely recognized that plans need to offer their near-retirees this choice.
Lawmakers should require 401(k) plans have: automatic enrollment (where you can opt out if you wish); automatic annual escalation of the percentage of pay employees contribute (again, you could opt out of this feature); limited investment choice (say, no more than five or six); low fees and an annuity option for retirees.
The government could open up to companies that don’t offer a retirement plan to their workers—usually smaller firms—the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), one of the world’s best designed plans. Contributions could be made through payroll deduction, so the cost to firms would be minimal.
The TSP offers five broad-based investment funds along with the option of a lifecycle fund. Its annual expense ratio was an extremely low 0.027% in 2012, meaning for each fund, the cost was about 27 cents per $1,000 of investment.
“What’s the downside?” asks Dean Baker, co-director at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, during an interview at his office. “It’s common sense.”
Better yet, lawmakers could create a universal retirement plan attached to the individual. There have been a number of proposals over the years along these lines. For instance, the government could enroll every worker in an IRA through automatic payroll deduction.
2. Allow Americans who delay claiming Social Security to take their benefits in a lump sum. That’s a proposal being floated by Jingjing Chai, Raimond Maurer, and Ralph Rogalla of Goethe University and Olivia Mitchell of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
The scholars give this example: Older workers who decide to stay on the job until age 66, rather than retire at 65, would get a lump sum worth 1.2 times the age 65 benefit and would also receive the age 65 annuity stream of income for life when filing for benefits at 66. Those who wait until 70 would get a lump sum worth some six times their starting-age annual benefit payment, plus the age 65 benefit stream for life.
Among the attractions of a lump sum are financial flexibility, the option of leaving money to heirs, and—for “financially sophisticated individuals”—the opportunity to invest the money. The lure of the lump sum would encourage workers to voluntarily stay on the job, on average by about one and a half to two years longer, the researchers calculate. Nevertheless, the workers’ Social Security benefits wouldn’t be cut, they would still have a lifetime annuity to live on and Social Security’s finances would remain essentially the same.
3. Offer Social Security payroll tax relief. A leading proponent of this idea is John Shoven, an economist at Stanford University. The current Social Security benefit formula is based on a calculation that takes into account a worker’s highest 35 years of earnings. Once 35 years have been put in, the incentive to stay on the job weakens, especially since older workers usually take home less pay than they did in middle age, their peak earning years.
Why not declare that older workers are “paid up” for Social Security after 40 years, asks Shoven. Why not indeed? There are a number of proposed variations on the idea, but they all converge on the notion that eliminating the employee share of the payroll tax around that point would be an immediate boost to an aging worker’s take-home pay and getting rid of the employer’s contribution then would lower the cost of employing older workers.
The change seems like a win-win situation from the unretirement perspective. “It’s an incentive for people to work longer,” says Richard Burkhauser, professor of policy analysis at Cornell University.
4. Change the rules for required minimum distributions (RMDs) beginning at age 70½ from 401(k)s, IRAs and the like. The requirements are Byzantine. For instance, with a traditional IRA, the RMD is April 1 following the year you reach 70 and six months, even if you are still working. The withdrawal requirement includes IRAs offered through an employer, such as the SIMPLE IRA and a SEP IRA. The same withdrawal date applies with a 401(k), unless you continue working for the same employer. But there is no RMD with a Roth IRA.
Got all this?
A pet peeve of mine is how unnecessarily complicated the rules are for retirement savings plans. Washington could raise the required minimum distribution rules on all plans to, say, age 80 or 85. Then again, Washington could simply eliminate the RMD altogether.
Like the other proposals mentioned earlier, I think it’s worth a try.
This article is adapted from Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing The Way We Think About Work, Community, and the Good Life, by Chris Farrell. Chris is senior economics contributor for American Public Media’s Marketplace. He writes about Unretirement twice a month, focusing on the personal finance and entrepreneurial start-up implications and the lessons people learn as they search for meaning and income. Tell him about your experiences so he can address your questions in future columns. Send your queries to him at email@example.com. His twitter address is@cfarrellecon.
More from NextAvenue.org:
Two new studies underline housing and income challenges facing older Americans.
Monday marks the sixth anniversary of the bankruptcy filing of Lehman Brothers, a key event in the Wall Street meltdown that led to the Great Recession. The recession wreaked havoc on the retirement plans of millions of Americans, and two studies released last week suggest that most of us haven’t recovered well.
To be more precise: Middle- and lower-income Americans haven’t recovered at all, while the wealthiest households have done fine.
The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University (JCHS) issued its findings on the challenges we face meeting the housing needs of an aging population in the years ahead. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Board released its triennial Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF), a highly regarded resource for understanding American households’ finances.
The Harvard study found that our existing housing stock is ill-suited to meet seniors’ needs, including affordability, accessibility, social connectivity and support services. And high housing costs are eating into the ability of low-income older adults to pay for necessities like food and healthcare.
Housing is the largest expenditure in most household budgets, and so is a linchpin of financial security and well-being. “It’s really at the nexus of your financial health, physical health and healthcare,” says Jennifer Molinsky, research associate at the JCHS and principal author of the study.
Harvard found that a third of adults over age 50 pay more than 30% of their income for housing—including 37% of people over age 80. Harvard defines that group as “housing cost burdened.” Another group of “severely burdened” older Americans spend more than 50% of income on housing. That group spends 43% less on food, and 59% less on healthcare, compared with households that can afford their housing.
Homeowners are much less likely to be cost-burdened than renters, the study found. But more homeowners are carrying mortgages well into retirement. More than 70% of homeowners aged 50 to 64 were still paying off mortgages in 2010.
The Federal Reserve findings on middle-class retirement prospects are equally troubling. Despite the economy’s gradual mending, the SCF found a widening gap in income and net worth. The top 10% of households was the only income band registering rising income (up 2% since 2010). Households between the 40th and 90th percentiles of income saw little change in average real incomes from 2010 to 2013. And the rate of homeownership was 65%, down from 69% in 2004 and 67% in 2010.
Ownership of retirement plan accounts also fell sharply. In the bottom half of income distribution, just 40% of households owned any type of account—IRA, 401(k) or traditional pension—in 2013, down from 48% in the 2007 survey. The Fed attributes the drop mainly to declining IRA and 401(k) coverage, since defined benefit coverage remained flat. Meanwhile, coverage in the top half of income distribution was much higher. In the top 10%, 95% of families are covered.
Overall, the average value of retirement accounts jumped a substantial 10% from 2010 to 2013, to $201,300. The Fed attributed that to the strong stock market and larger contributions. But for the lowest-income group that owned accounts, the average combined IRA and 401(k) value was just $39,100—and that is down more than 20% from 2007.
Considering the stock market’s strong performance in the intervening years, that suggests many of these households either sold while the market was depressed, drew down savings—or both. Meanwhile, upper-middle-income households saw a gain of 20% since 2007.
In Washington, lobbyists and policymakers have been debating about whether a retirement crisis really is looming. The various sides typically filter the data to support their viewpoints and agendas. But it’s difficult to think of two sources aligned than the Federal Reserve Board and Harvard. The SCF, in particular, is widely viewed as a gold standard survey that will be relied on for many economic reports in the months ahead. It includes information on the household balance sheets, pensions, income and demographic characteristics of about 6,500 families.
The JCHS study was funded by the AARP Foundation and The Hartford insurance company, so there’s a possible agenda there, if you doubt Harvard’s independence as researchers. (I don’t.)
Taken together, the studies paint the portrait of a widening divide in the retirement prospects of working Americans. No matter how the data is sliced, we’ve got problems that need to be addressed.