MONEY annuities

Why Millennials May Be Risking Their Retirements with This Investment

Young investors are being targeted by salespeople pushing a complex annuity with a tempting guarantee.

Memo to Millennials: Don’t be surprised if an adviser or insurance salesperson suggests that your retirement savings strategy include a type of annuity that’s guaranteed not to lose money. My advice if you’re on the receiving end of that pitch: Walk the other way.

It’s hardly news that many young investors are wary of the stock market. So I was hardly taken aback when a recent survey by the Indexed Annuity Leadership Council (IALC) found that more than twice as many investors age 18 to 34 described their retirement investing strategy as conservative as opposed to aggressive. But another stat highlighted in IALC’s press release did grab my attention: namely, 52% of Millennials—more than any other age group—said they were interested in fixed indexed annuities.

Really? Fixed indexed annuities aren’t exactly a mainstream investment. And to the extent you do hear about them, they’re usually associated with older investors looking to preserve capital in or near retirement. So I was surprised that Millennials would be familiar with them at all.

And in fact they’re probably not. You see, the IALC survey didn’t actually mention fixed indexed annuities. Rather, it asked Millennials if they would be interested in an investment that may not have as high returns as the stock market, but would provide guaranteed payments in retirement and guarantee that they would not lose money.

I can’t help but wonder, however, whether those young investors would have been less enthusiastic if they were aware of some of the less appealing aspects of fixed indexed annuities, such as the fact that many levy steep surrender charges, which I’ve seen go as high as 18%, if you withdraw your money soon after investing. They’re also incredibly complicated, starting with the arcane methods they use to calculate returns (daily average, annual point-to-point, monthly point-to-point). And while they allow you to participate in market gains on a tax-deferred basis while protecting you from losses—and offer a minimum guaranteed return, typically 1% to 2% these days—they can seriously limit your upside. Fixed indexed annuities typically impose annual “caps,” “participation rates” or “spreads” that reduce the amount of the market, or benchmark, return you actually receive. So, for example, if your fixed indexed annuity is tied to the S&P 500 index and that index rises 10% or 15% in a given year, you may be credited with a return of, say, 5%.

Don’t take my word for these drawbacks, though. Check out FINRA’s Investor Alert on such annuities, which describes them as “anything but easy to understand” and notes that it’s difficult to compare one to another “because of the variety and complexity of the methods used to credit interest.”

But even if you’re able to wade through such complexities and make an informed choice, should you put your retirement savings into a such a vehicle if you’re in your 20s or 30s? I don’t think so. After all, if you’ve got upwards of 30 or 40 years until you retire, your savings stash has plenty of time to recuperate from any market meltdowns between now and retirement. (Besides, if you’re really anxious about short-term market setbacks, you can easily deal with that anxiety by scaling back the proportion of your savings you keep in stocks vs. bonds.)

Better to create a mix of low-cost stock and bond index funds that jibes with your tolerance for risk and allows you to fully participate in the financial markets’ long-term gains than to opt for an investment that severely limits your upside in return for providing more protection from periodic setbacks than you really need. Or to put it another way, why end up with a stunted nest egg at retirement to insulate yourself from a threat that, viewed over a time horizon of 30 or 40 years, isn’t as ominous as it may seem?

When I talked to Jim Poolman, a former North Dakota insurance commissioner and the executive director of IALC, he did note that Millennials shouldn’t be putting all their retirement savings into fixed indexed annuities. Rather, he says fixed indexed annuities can be “part of a balanced portfolio” that would include traditional investments, such as stock and bond funds in a 401(k). But as much as I like the idea of balance and diversification, I’m not convinced even that is a good strategy. I mean, if you’ve funded your 401(k) and are looking to invest even more for retirement outside your plan, what’s the point of choosing an investment that not only restricts long-term growth potential but that could leave you facing hefty surrender charges (plus a 10% tax penalty if you’re under age 59 1/2), should you need to access those funds?

I’m not anti-annuity. I’ve long believed that certain types of annuities can often play a valuable role for people in or nearing retirement by providing guaranteed lifetime retirement income regardless of what’s going on in the financial markets. But if you’re in your 20s or 30s, you should focus on investing your savings in a way that gives you the best shot at growing your nest egg over the long-term, not obsessing about the market’s ups and downs.

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

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Why the Right Kind of Annuity Can Boost Your Retirement Income

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The risks of longevity convinced this early retiree that guaranteed income has a place in his portfolio.

The ultimate in retirement security is guaranteed, lifetime, inflation-adjusted income. Most of us will get some of that—though not enough— in the form of Social Security. A few will get the balance of what they need from pensions. But the rest of us will see a shortfall between our fixed living expenses and our guaranteed income.

You can try to fill that gap by making systematic withdrawals from your investment portfolio throughout your retirement. A balanced portfolio is likely to outperform many other retirement income options, if the markets do average or well. But it’s not guaranteed. Even for experienced investors, there are serious risks in managing a retirement portfolio.

The insurance industry offers what sounds like a safer idea: an annuity. Annuities can provide peace of mind by removing longevity risk—the chance you’ll outlive your assets. And, they let you generate more safe income than you could from the same amount in a portfolio of stocks and bonds. That’s because, with an annuity, you’re consuming both principal and earnings, plus you’re pooling your lifetime risk with other buyers.

Unfortunately, many kinds of annuities, especially complex variable and indexed annuities, are a quagmire of pushy salespeople, hidden expenses, and dizzying complexity. Consequently, many careful retirees rule out any kind of annuity as a retirement income solution. I was once in that camp. Why would I need an annuity, when I had proven success growing my own diversified portfolio in excess of our retirement income needs?

But then the market crashed in 2009. Our portfolio did better than most, and we had no need for income at the time, but the huge drop demonstrated the potential downside of retiring at the wrong time. I knew that retirees who had purchased annuities were happy with the steady paychecks they received during the crisis. I realized that annuities had a place in retirement planning, at least for those without the investing skills and fortitude to endure a severe recession.

Once I retired, the decades ahead without a regular paycheck suddenly became very real. It didn’t matter that I had many years of investing under my belt, and was confident in my ability to manage our portfolio. It didn’t matter that we lived frugally, and could cut our living expenses even further if needed. Because there was one thing I realized I couldn’t control: how long I would live. Insurers, however, could control that variable and protect me from running out of money, by combining my lifetime with thousands of others via an annuity.

Finally, when I reviewed my estate plan, I realized that, even though I had accumulated enough money to provide for my family, I would not necessarily be around to manage those assets for the duration. I could see that my loved ones might need to put a portion of our assets on “autopilot,” so they could count on a steady lifetime income without worries.

Then along came research demonstrating that combining single-premium immediate annuities (SPIAs) with stocks may be the best way to generate retirement income for a wide set of circumstances.

Given all those factors, I’ve come to believe that you should plan for a guaranteed income “floor” in retirement. This assures a reliable income stream that meets your essential living expenses until the end of your life, however long that may be.

Annuities will be a key part of that equation for many. We’re talking here about simple single-premium immediate annuities, not their complex and expensive cousins—variable and indexed annuities. With a SPIA, you hand the insurance company a lump sum and they immediately begin paying you a monthly amount. There’s no unexpected variability, no complex indexing formulas, and no extra fees.

When should you buy an annuity, and how much annuity should you buy? These are complex questions that require personal financial planning. For example, we are in our mid-50’s, our lifestyle is flexible, we can manage our own investments, and we don’t need extra income right now. So it’s too early for us to put our retirement finances on “autopilot.” We will probably wait until our mid-60’s, when we may put about half our current portfolio into annuities. While the need for an annuity is a given in many cases, the exact timing and amount are anything but…

Darrow Kirkpatrick is a software engineer and author who lived frugally, invested successfully, and retired in 2011 at age 50. He writes regularly about saving, investing and retiring on his blog CanIRetireYet.com.

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MONEY retirement income

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MONEY withdrawal strategy

Which Generates More Retirement Income—Annuities or Portfolio Withdrawals?

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People's overconfidence in their investing ability makes them less likely to opt for guaranteed income.

New research by Mark Warshawsky, the retirement income guru who’s now a visiting scholar at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, suggests more retirees should consider making an immediate annuity part of their retirement portfolio—and also highlights a reason why many people may simply ignore this advice.

When it comes to turning retirement savings into lifetime retirement income, many retirees and advisers rely on the 4% rule—that is, withdraw 4% of savings the first year of retirement and increase that amount by inflation each year to maintain purchasing power (although in a concession to today’s low yields and expected returns, some are reducing that initial draw to 3% or even lower to assure they don’t deplete their savings too soon).

But is a systematic withdrawal strategy likely to provide more income over retirement than simply purchasing an immediate annuity? To see, Warshawsky looked at how a variety of hypothetical retirees of different ages retiring in different years would have fared with an immediate annuity vs. the 4% rule and some variants. The study is too long and complicated to go into the particulars here. (You can read it yourself by going to the link to it in my Retirement Toolbox section.) The upshot, though, is Warshawsky concluded that while an annuity didn’t always outperform systematic withdrawal, an annuity provided more inflation-adjusted income throughout retirement often enough (with little risk of ever running out) that “it is hard to argue against a significant and widespread role for immediate life annuities in the production of retirement income.”

Now, does this mean all retirees should own an immediate annuity? Of course not. There are plenty of reasons an annuity might not be the right choice for a given individual. If Social Security and pensions already provide enough guaranteed income, an annuity may be superfluous. Similarly, if you’ve got such a large nest egg that it’s unlikely you’ll ever go through it, you may not need or want an annuity. And if you have severe health problems or believe for some other reason you’ll have a short lifespan, then an annuity probably isn’t for you.

Even if you do decide to buy an annuity, you wouldn’t want to devote all your assets to one. The study notes the advantage of combining an annuity with a portfolio of financial assets that can provide liquidity and long-term growth, and suggests “laddering” annuities rather than purchasing all at once as a way to get a better feel for how much guaranteed income you’ll actually need and to avoid putting all one’s money in when rates are at a low.

But there’s another part of the paper that I found at least as interesting as the comparison of systematic withdrawals and annuities. That’s where Warshawsky says he worries whether the “lump sum culture” of 401(k)s and IRAs will interfere with people seriously considering annuities. I couldn’t agree more. Too many people laser in on their retirement account balance—the whole, “What’s Your Number?” thing—rather than thinking about what percentage of their current income they’ll be able to replace after retiring. And when choosing between, say, a traditional check-a-month pension vs. a lump-sum cash out, many people still tend to put too little value on assured lifetime monthly checks.

Although the paper didn’t mention this specifically, I think there’s a related problem of people’s overconfidence in their investing ability that makes them less likely to opt for guaranteed income. I can’t tell you the number of times after doing an annuity story that I’ve gotten feedback from people who essentially say they would never buy annuity because they think they can do better investing on their own—never mind that that’s difficult-to-impossible to do without taking on greater risk because annuities have what amounts to an extra return called a “mortality credit” that individuals can’t duplicate on their own.

Along the same lines I’m always surprised by the number of people who pooh-pooh the notion of delaying Social Security for a higher benefit because they’re convinced they can come out ahead by taking their benefits as soon as possible and investing them at a 6% to 8% annual return (although why anyone should feel confident about earning such gains consistently given today’s low rates and forecasts for low returns is puzzling).

Clearly, we all have to make our own decisions based on our particular circumstances about the best way to turn savings into income that we can count on throughout retirement, while also assuring we have a stash of assets we can tap for emergencies and unexpected expenses. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. That said, I think it’s a good idea for anyone nearing or already in retirement to at least consider an annuity as a possibility. If you rule it out, that’s fine. Annuities aren’t for everyone. Just be sure that if you’re nixing an annuity, you’re doing it for valid reasons, not because of a misplaced faith in your ability to earn outsize returns or because you’re unduly swayed by lump-sum culture.

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

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MONEY retirement planning

3 Ways to Boost the Odds Your Savings Will Last a Lifetime

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Sarina Finkelstein (photo illustration)—Getty Images (2)

Ease your worries about running out of money in retirement by making these relatively simple moves.

A recent report by the Insured Retirement Institute shows that only 27% of baby boomers are very confident they will have enough money to see them through retirement. That fear is justified when you combine overall low levels of savings with forecasts for low investment returns in the years ahead. Still, there are ways to improve your retirement income prospects. Here are three relatively simple steps you should consider.

1. Get the most out of Social Security. Even though we’re living longer, 62 is still the most popular age for claiming Social Security, according to a Government Accountability Office report. But by taking benefits earlier rather than later, you may end up collecting a lot less than you otherwise could over your lifetime, putting teven more strain on your nest egg to maintain your standard of living.

Here’s a quick summary of what you need to know: Every year you delay claiming benefits between age 62 and 70, your payment rises roughly 7% to 8%, and that’s before inflation adjustments. If you’re married, you and your spouse may be able to ramp up your potential lifetime benefit even more than individuals can by adopting any of a number of claiming strategies.

One example: If a 62-year-old man who earns $100,000 a year and his 60-year-old wife who makes $60,000 both start taking benefits at 62, they might collect a projected $1.1 million or so in lifetime benefits, according to Financial Engines’ Social Security calculator. But if the wife starts taking her own benefit at 64, the husband files a “restricted application” at age 66 to take spousal benefits and the husband then files for his own benefit at age 70, they can potentially increase the amount they’ll collect over their joint lifetimes by almost $300,000.

Given the money at stake and the complexity of the Social Security system, you’ll want to rev up a good Social Security calculator or work with an adviser who knows the ins and outs of the Social Security program before you sign up for benefits.

2. Buy guaranteed lifetime income you can begin collecting immediately. If you decide you want more assured income than Social Security and any pensions alone might generate, you may want to consider devoting some of your savings to an immediate annuity. Essentially, you invest a lump sum with an insurer in return for monthly payments you’ll receive for as long as you live, even if the financial markets perform abysmally.

Today, for example, a 65-year-old man who puts $100,000 into an immediate annuity might receive about $550 a month for life, while a 65-year-old woman would would get roughly $515 a month and a 65-year-old couple (man and woman) would receive about $425 a month as long as either is alive. (This annuity calculator can estimate how you might receive for different amounts of money and different ages.)

The downside is that you agree to give up access to your money, so it’s not available for emergencies or to leave to heirs. (Some annuities provide various degrees of access to principal, but they typically pay less at least initially and often come with onerous fees.) Which is why even if you decide an immediate annuity is right for you, you want to be sure you have plenty of other savings invested in stocks, bonds and cash equivalents that can provide capital growth to maintain purchasing power and provide extra cash should you need it for emergencies and such.

3. Buy lifetime income you can collect in the future. If you don’t feel the need to turn savings into guaranteed income early in retirement but you worry you might run short of income late in life if your investments fare poorly or you simply overspend, you may be a candidate for a relatively new arrival on the annuity scene: a longevity, or deferred income, annuity. Like an immediate annuity, a longevity annuity provides income for life, except that you don’t start collecting payments until, say, 10 or 20 years down the road. So, for example, a 65-year-old man who invests $25,000 in a longevity annuity today, might receive $320 a month for life starting at 75 or $1,070 a month if he waits until age 85 to start taking payments. The idea is that you put up less money upfront than you would with an immediate annuity—leaving more of your savings for current spending—and by waiting to collect you receive a hefty payment in the future.

The rub? You could end up collecting nothing or very little if you die before the payments start or soon thereafter. (Some longevity annuities have a cash refund feature that gives your beneficiary any portion of your original investment you didn’t collect in payments before dying, but the payment is much lower.) This annuity calculator can show what size payment a longevity annuity might make based on the amount you invest, your age when you make the investment and the number of years you wait before collecting payments.

Buying a longevity annuity with money from a 401(k), IRA or similar account was pretty much a non-starter until recently because of regs generally requiring minimum distributions starting at age 70 1/2. But as long as the longevity annuity is designated a QLAC (Qualifying Longevity Annuity Contract) under new Treasury Department rules, you can invest up to $125,000 or 25% of your 401(k) or IRA account balance without having to worry about minimum withdrawals on that amount as long as your payments start no later than age 85. Just a handful of insurers offer QLACs today, but if the longevity annuity concept catches on, that number should grow.

There are other things you can and should do to make your savings last, ranging from smart lifestyle planning so you have a better idea of the expenses you’ll face in retirement to being more judicious about how much you pull from your nest egg each year. But the three steps above are certainly a good place to start.

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

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MONEY retirement income

Here’s the Retirement Income Mistake Most Americans Are Making

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Retirees want steady income yet few buy annuities—probably because they don't understand how they work. Here's a plain-English guide.

A recent TIAA-CREF survey found that 84% of Americans want guaranteed monthly income in retirement, yet only 14% have actually bought an annuity. One reason may be that most people don’t really understand how the damn things work. Here’s a plain-English explanation.

People preparing for retirement like the concept of an annuity: an investment that generates income you can count on as long as you live no matter how badly the financial markets are misbehaving. But they’re less than enthusiastic when it comes to purchasing them. Economists call this disconnect “the annuity puzzle.”

There are any number of possible explanations for this puzzle. Some people are turned off by the lofty fees some annuities charge. Others may simply prefer following the 4% rule or withdrawing money from their savings on an “as needed” basis. But I can’t help but think that some of the reluctance to “annuitize” is because many people don’t have a clue about how annuities work.

If you think you might want more assured income than Social Security alone will provide, but the blue fog that surrounds annuities is holding you back, here’s a (relatively) simple, (mostly) non-technical explanation of what goes on under the hood of an immediate annuity.

Steady Lifetime Payout

Imagine for a moment that you and a bunch of your friends, all age 65, would like at least some of your savings to generate steady income that you can rely on throughout retirement. So you all decide to kick in the same amount of money—say, $100,000—to an investment account. For monthly income, you then divide among the group whatever money your pooled funds earn that month.

You also agree, however, to return a portion of each group member’s original principal every month so that you have more than just investment earnings to spend. Since you want to be sure this money lasts even if you live beyond life expectancy, however, you’re careful not to tap into the principal too deeply each month.

Then you and your fellow retirees set one more condition: Each time someone in your little group dies, the monthly investment gains and share of principal that would have gone to that person is split among the remaining members. This amounts to an extra bit of income that no one in the group would have been able to get by investing on his or her own.

The scenario I’ve described pretty much explains how an immediate annuity—or an income or payout annuity as it’s sometimes known—works, with some important differences.

To begin with, people can’t create immediate annuities on their own. You need an insurance company to create an annuity (although you may end up buying the annuity from a broker, financial planner or other adviser, or from your bank.) Another difference: the example above involved a small group of people of the same age investing the same amount of money. In fact, insurers’ annuities are purchased by thousands of people of different ages (although they tend to be older) investing a range of sums.

And while the monthly payments the group received in the scenarios above could vary from month to month based on investment earnings and whether or not someone died, an insurer’s immediate annuity states in advance how much you’ll receive each month (although some immediate annuities may increase their payments based on the inflation rate or other factors). Insurers are able to tell you how much you’ll receive because they hire actuaries to project how many annuity owners will die each year, and the companies’ investment analysts forecast investment returns.

An Income Boost

But what really differentiates an immediate annuity from the example above is that no group of people pooling their assets can guarantee that they’ll receive a scheduled payment as long as they live. Investment returns could plummet. The group members could distribute too much principal early on, requiring a reduction in payments later to avoid running out of money. Or maybe enough hardy members live so long that the pool of assets simply runs dry while they’re still alive.

When insurers set payment levels for an immediate annuity, by contrast, state regulators require that they set aside reserves to assure they can make scheduled payments even if their actuaries’ and investment analysts’ projections are off.

That’s not to say that an insurer can’t fail. But such failures are rare. And you can largely protect yourself against that small possibility by diversifying—i.e., spreading your money among annuities from several insurers—sticking to insurers with high financial-strength ratings and limiting the amount you invest with any single insurance company to the maximum coverage provided by your state’s insurance guaranty association.

In short, an immediate, or payout, annuity gives you more current income than you could generate on your own taking comparable investing risk plus a very high level of assurance that the income will continue as long as you live. (You can also opt for payments to continue as long as either you or your spouse is alive.)

That assurance comes with a condition: You give up access to the money you invest in an immediate annuity. (Some annuities allow you to get at least some of your investment but you’ll receive a lower payment and erode the benefit of buying an annuity in the first place.) There’s simple way to deal with that condition, though: invest only a portion of your assets in an immediate annuity and leave the rest in a portfolio of stocks, bonds and cash.

Bottom line: If you would like to have a reliable source of lifetime income beyond what you’ll get from Social Security, it makes sense to at least think about putting some (but not all) of your savings in an immediate annuity. You can go to an annuity calculator like the one in RDR’s Retirement Toolbox to see how much income you might receive given your age, gender and the amount you’re willing to invest.

This explanation is probably more than any sane person wants to know about annuities. But if you for whatever reason have an appetite to delve even deeper into the world of annuities, I suggest you take a look at this paper by Wharton professor David Babbel and BYU prof Craig Merrill. And then consider whether a comprehensive retirement income plan that combines Social Security, an immediate annuity and a portfolio of stock and bond funds is right for you.

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

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For an upcoming story, MONEY wants to hear from Boomers about how they approach money in romantic relationships. We want to know when you and your partner had the money talk and what questions you both raised; if you’re not partnered up, we want to hear what financial criteria you think are important for people to consider as they approach a new relationship. We’ll be in touch for more information if we’re considering your story for publication.

MONEY 401k plans

The Secrets to Making a $1 Million Retirement Stash Last

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Sarina Finkelstein (photo illustration)—Getty Images (2)

More and more Americans are on target to save seven figures. The next challenge is managing that money once you reach retirement.

More than three decades after the creation of the 401(k), this workplace plan has become the No. 1 way for Americans to save for retirement. And save they have. The average plan balance has hit a record high, and the number of million-dollar-plus 401(k)s has more than doubled since 2012.

In the first part of this four-part series, we laid out what you need to do to build a $1 million 401(k) plan. We also shared lessons from 401(k) millionaires in the making. In this second installment, you’ll learn how to manage that enviable nest egg once you hit retirement.

Dial Back On Stocks

A bear market at the start of retirement could put a permanent dent in your income. Retiring with a 55% stock/45% bond portfolio in 2000, at the start of a bear market, meant reducing your withdrawals by 25% just to maintain your odds of not running out of money, according to research by T. Rowe Price.

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Money

That’s why financial adviser Rick Ferri, head of Portfolio Solutions, recommends shifting to a 30% stock and 70% bond portfolio at the outset of retirement. As the graphic below shows, that mix would have fallen far less during the 2007–09 bear market, while giving up just a little potential return. “The 30/70 allocation is the center of gravity between risk and return—it avoids big losses while still providing growth,” Ferri says.

Financial adviser Michael Kitces and American College professor of retirement income Wade Pfau go one step further. They suggest starting with a similar 30% stock/70% bond allocation and then gradually increasing your stock holdings. “This approach creates more sustainable income in retirement,” says Pfau.

That said, if you have a pension or other guaranteed source of income, or feel confident you can manage a market plunge, you may do fine with a larger stake in stocks.

Know When to Say Goodbye

You’re at the finish line with a seven-figure 401(k). Now you need to turn that lump sum into a lasting income, something that even dedicated do-it-yourselfers may want help with. When it comes to that kind of advice, your workplace plan may not be up to the task.

In fact, most retirees eventually roll over 401(k) money into an IRA—a 2013 report from the General Accountability Office found that 50% of savings from participants 60 and older remained in employer plans one year after leaving, but only 20% was there five years later.

Here’s how to do it:

Give your plan a shot. Even if your first instinct is to roll over your 401(k), you may find compelling reasons to leave your money where it is, such as low costs (no more than 0.5% of assets) and advice. “It can often make sense to stay with your 401(k) if it has good, low-fee options,” says Jim Ludwick, a financial adviser in Odenton, Md.

More than a third of 401(k)s have automatic withdrawal options, according to Aon Hewitt. The plan might transfer an amount you specify to your bank every month. A smaller percentage offer financial advice or other retirement income services. (For a managed account, you might pay 0.4% to 1% of your balance.) Especially if your finances aren’t complex, there’s no reason to rush for the exit.

Leave for something better. With an IRA, you have a wider array of investment choices, more options for getting advice, and perhaps lower fees. Plus, consolidating accounts in one place will make it easier to monitor your money.

But be cautious with your rollover, since many in the financial services industry are peddling costly investments, such as variable annuities or other insurance products, to new retirees. “Everyone and their uncle will want your IRA rollover,” says Brooklyn financial adviser Tom Fredrickson. You will most likely do best with a diversified portfolio at a low-fee brokerage or fund group. What’s more, new online services are making advice more affordable than ever.

Go Slow to Make It Last

A $1 million nest egg sounds like a lot of money—and it is. If you have stashed $1 million in your 401(k), you have amassed five times more than the average 60-year-old who has saved for 20 years.

But being a millionaire is no guarantee that you can live large in retirement. “These days the notion of a millionaire is actually kind of quaint,” says Fredrickson.

Why $1 million isn’t what it once was. Using a standard 4% withdrawal rate, your $1 million portfolio will give you an income of just $40,000 in your first year of retirement. (In following years you can adjust that for inflation.) Assuming you also receive $27,000 annually from Social Security (a typical amount for an upper-middle-class couple), you’ll end up with a total retirement income of $67,000.

In many areas of the country, you can live quite comfortably on that. But it may be a lot less than your pre-retirement salary. And as the graphic below shows, taking out more severely cuts your chances of seeing that $1 million last.

150320_MIL_Withdrawals
Money

What your real goal should be. To avoid a sharp decline in your standard of living, focus on hitting the right multiple of your pre-retirement income. A useful rule of thumb is to put away 12 times your salary by the time you stop working. Check your progress with an online tool, such as the retirement income calculator at T. Rowe Price.

Why high earners need to aim higher. Anyone earning more will need to save even more, since Social Security will make up less of your income, says Wharton finance professor Richard Marston. A couple earning $200,000 should put away 15.5 times salary. At that level, $3 million is the new $1 million.

MONEY 401(k)s

How to Build a $1 Million Retirement Plan

$100 bricks and mortar
Money (photo illustration)—Getty Images(2)

The number of savers with seven-figure workplace retirement plans has doubled over the past two years. Here's how you can become one of them.

The 401(k) was born in 1981 as an obscure IRS regulation that let workers set aside pretax money to supplement their pensions. More than three decades later, this workplace plan has become America’s No. 1 way to save. According to a 2013 Gallup survey, 65% of those earning $75,000 or more expect their 401(k)s, IRAs, and other savings to be a major source of income in retirement. Only 34% say the same for a pension.

Thirty-plus years is also roughly how long you’ll prep for retirement (assuming you don’t get serious until you’ve been on the job a few years). So we’re finally seeing how the first generation of savers with access to a 401(k) throughout their careers is making out. For an elite few, the answer is “very well.” The stock market’s recent winning streak has not only pushed the average 401(k) plan balance to a record high, but also boosted the ranks of a new breed of retirement investor: the 401(k) millionaire.

Seven-figure 401(k)s are still rare—less than 1% of today’s 52 million 401(k) savers have one, reports the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI)—but growing fast. At Fidelity Investments, one of the largest 401(k) plan providers, the number of million-dollar-plus 401(k)s has more than doubled since 2012, topping 72,000 at the end of 2014. Schwab reports a similar trend. And those tallies don’t count the two-career couples whose combined 401(k)s are worth $1 million.

Workers with high salaries have a leg up, for sure. But not all members of the seven-figure club are in because they make big bucks. At Fidelity thousands earning less than $150,000 a year have passed the million-dollar mark. “You don’t have to make a million to save a million in your 401(k),” says Meghan Murphy, a director at Fidelity.

You do have to do all the little things right, from setting and sticking to a high savings rate to picking a suitable stock and bond allocation as you go along. To join this exclusive club, you need to study the masters: folks who have made it, as well as savers who are poised to do the same. What you’ll learn are these secrets for building a $1 million 401(k).

1) Play the Long Game

Fidelity’s crop of 401(k) millionaires have contributed an above-average 14% of their pay to a 401(k) over their careers, and they’ve been at it for a long time. Most are over 50, with the average age 60.

Those habits are crucial with a 401(k), and here’s why: Compounding—earning money on your reinvested earnings as well as on your original savings—is the “secret sauce” to make it to a million. “Compounding gives you a big boost toward the end that can carry you to the finish line,” says Catherine Golladay, head of Schwab’s 401(k) participant services. And with a 401(k), you pay no taxes on your investment income until you make withdrawals, putting even more money to work.

You can save $18,000 in a 401(k) in 2015; $24,000 if you’re 50 or older. While generous, those caps make playing catch-up tough to do in a plan alone. You need years of steady saving to build up the kind of balance that will get a big boost from compounding in the home stretch.

Here’s how to do it:

Make time your ally. Someone who earns $50,000 a year at age 30, gets 2% raises, and puts away 14% of pay on average will have $547,000 by age 55—a hefty sum that with continued contributions will double to $1.1 million by 65, assuming 6% annualized returns. Do the same starting at age 35, and you’ll reach $812,000 at 65.

Yet saving aggressively from the get-go is a tall order. You may need several years to get your savings rate up to the max. Stick with it. Increase your contribution rate with every raise. And picking up part-time or freelance work and earmarking the money for retirement can push you over the top.

Milk your employer. For Fidelity 401(k) millionaires, employer matches accounted for a third of total plan contributions. You should squirrel away as much of the boss’s cash as you can.

According to HR association WorldatWork, at a third of companies 50% of workers don’t contribute enough to the company 401(k) plans to get the full match. That’s a missed opportunity to collect free money. A full 80% of 401(k) plans offer a match, most commonly 50¢ for each $1 you contribute, up to 6% of your salary, but dollar-for-dollar matches are a close second.

Broaden your horizons. As the graphic below shows, power-saving in your forties or fifties may bump you up against your 401(k)’s annual limits. “If you get a late start, in order to hit the $1 million mark, you will need to contribute extra savings into a brokerage account,” says Dirk Quayle, president of NextCapital, which provides portfolio-management software to 401(k) plans.

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Money

2) Act Like a Company Lifer

The Fidelity 401(k) millionaires have spent an average of 34 years with the same employer. That kind of staying power is nearly unheard-of these days. The average job tenure with the same employer is five years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only half of workers over age 55 have logged 10 or more years with the same company. But even if you can’t spend your career at one place—and job switching is often the best way to boost your pay—you can mimic the ways steady employment builds up your retirement plan.

Here’s how to do it:

Consider your 401(k) untouchable. A fifth of 401(k) savers borrowed against their plan in 2013, according to EBRI. It’s tempting to tap your 401(k) for a big-ticket expense, such as buying a home. Trouble is, you may shortchange your future. According to a Fidelity survey, five years after taking a loan, 40% of 401(k) borrowers were saving less; 15% had stopped altogether. “There are no do-overs in retirement,” says Donna Nadler, a certified financial planner at Capital Management Group in New York.

Even worse is cashing out your 401(k) when you leave your job; that triggers income taxes as well as a 10% penalty if you’re under age 59½. A survey by benefits consultant Aon Hewitt found that 42% of workers who left their jobs in 2011 took their 401(k) in cash. Young workers were even more likely to do so. As you can see in the graphic below, siphoning off a chunk of your savings shaves off years of growth. “If you pocket the money, it means starting your retirement saving all over again,” says Nadler.

150320_MIL_PlugLeaks
Money

Resist the urge to borrow and roll your old plan into your new 401(k) or an IRA when you switch jobs. Or let inertia work in your favor. As long as your 401(k) is worth $5,000 or more, you can leave it behind at your old plan.

Fill in the gaps. Another problem with switching jobs is that you may have to wait to get into the 401(k). Waiting periods have shrunk: Today two-thirds of plans allow you to enroll in a 401(k) on day one, up from 57% five years ago, according to the Plan Sponsor Council of America. Still, the rest make you cool your heels for three months to a year. Meanwhile, 40% of plans require you to be on the job six months or more before you get matching contributions.

When you face a gap, keep saving, either in a taxable account or in a traditional or Roth IRA (if you qualify). Also, keep in mind that more than 60% of plans don’t allow you to keep the company match until you’ve been on the job for a specific number of years, typically three to five. If you’re close to vesting, sticking around can add thousands to your retirement savings.

Put a price on your benefits. A generous 401(k) match and friendly vesting can be a lucrative part of your compensation. The match added about $4,600 a year to Fidelity’s 401(k) millionaire accounts. All else being equal, seek out a generous retirement plan when you’re looking for a new job. In the absence of one, negotiate higher pay to make up for the missing match. If you face a long waiting period, ask for a signing bonus.

3) Keep Faith in Stocks

Research into millionaires by the Spectrem Group finds a greater willingness to take reasonable risks in stocks. True to form, Fidelity’s supersavers have 75% of their assets in stocks on average, vs. 66% for the typical 401(k) saver. That hefty equity stake has helped 401(k) millionaires hit seven figures, especially during the bull market that began in 2009.

What’s right for you will depend in part on your risk tolerance and what else you own outside your 401(k) plan. What’s more, you may not get the recent bull market turbo-boost that today’s 401(k) millionaires enjoyed. With rising interest rates expected to weigh on financial markets, analysts are projecting single-digit stock gains over the next decade. Still, those returns should beat what you’ll get from bonds and cash. And that commitment to stocks is crucial for making it to the million-dollar mark.

MONEY Longevity

The New Rules for Making Your Money Last in Retirement

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Murat Giray/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MONEY retirement planning

How to Balance Spending and Safety in Retirement

piggy banks shot in an aerial view with "+" and "-" slots on top of them
Roberto A. Sanchez—Getty Images

Every retirement withdrawal method has its pros and cons. Understanding the differences will help you tap your assets in the way that's best for you.

You’ve saved for years. You’ve built a sizable nest egg. And, finally, you’ve retired. Now, how do you withdraw from your savings so your money lasts as long as you do? Is there a technique, a procedure, a product that will keep you safe?

Unfortunately, there is no perfect answer to this question. Every available solution has its strengths and its weaknesses. Only by understanding the possible approaches, then mixing them together into a personal solution, will you be able to move forward with an enjoyable retirement that balances both spending and safety.

Let’s start with one of the simplest and most popular withdrawal approaches: spending a fixed amount from your portfolio annually. Typically this is adjusted for inflation, so the nominal amount grows over time but sustains the same lifestyle from year to year. If the amount you start with, in year one of your retirement, is 4% of your portfolio, then this is the classic 4% rule.

The advantages of this withdrawal method are that it is relatively simple to implement, and it has been researched extensively. Statistics for the survival probabilities of your portfolio, given a certain time span and asset allocation, are readily available. This strategy seems reliable—you know exactly how much you can spend each year. Until your money runs out. Studies based on historical data show your savings might last for 30 years. But history may not repeat. And fixed withdrawals are inflexible; what if your spending needs change from year to year?

Instead, you could withdraw a fixed percentage of your portfolio annually, say 5%. This is often called an “endowment” approach. The advantage of this is that it automatically builds some flexibility into your withdrawals based on market performance. If the market goes up, your fixed percentage will be a larger sum. If the market goes down, it will be smaller. Even better, you will never run out of money! Because you are withdrawing only a percent of your portfolio, it can never be wiped out. But it could get very small! And your available income will fluctuate, perhaps dramatically, from year to year.

Another approach to variable withdrawals is to base the amount on your life expectancy. (One source for this data is the IRS RMD tables.) Each year you could withdraw the inverse of your life expectancy in years. So if your life expectancy is 30 years, you’d withdraw 1/30, or about 3.3%, in the current year. You will never run out of money, but, again, there is no guarantee exactly how much money you’ll have in your final years. It’s possible you’ll wind up with smaller withdrawals in early retirement and larger withdrawals later, when you aren’t as able to enjoy them.

What if you want more certainty? Annuities appear to solve most of the problems with fixed or variable withdrawals. With an annuity, you give an insurance company some or all of your assets, and, in exchange, they pay you a monthly amount for life. Assuming the company stays solvent, this eliminates the possibility of outliving your assets.

Annuities are good for consistent income. But that’s also their chief drawback: they’re inflexible. If you die early, you will leave a lot of money on the table. If you have an emergency and need a lump sum, you probably can’t get it. Finally, many annuities are not adjusted for inflation. Those that are tend to be very expensive. And inflation can be a large variable over long time spans.

What about income for early retirement? It’s unwise to draw down your assets in the beginning years, when there are decades of uncertainty looming ahead. The goal should be to preserve net worth until you are farther down the road. If your assets are large enough, or the markets are strong enough, you can live off the annual interest, dividends, and growth. If not, you may need to work part-time, supplementing your investment income.

Every retirement withdrawal technique has drawbacks. Some require active management. Some can run out of money. Some don’t maintain your lifestyle. Some can’t handle emergency expenses or preserve principal for heirs. Some may be eroded by inflation.

That’s why I believe most of us are going to construct a flexible, “hybrid” system for living off our assets in retirement. We’ll pick and choose from the available options, combining the benefits, while trying to minimize the liabilities and preserve our flexibility.

Darrow Kirkpatrick is a software engineer and author who lived frugally, invested successfully, and retired in 2011 at age 50. He writes regularly about saving, investing and retiring on his blog CanIRetireYet.com.

For more help calculating your needs in retirement:
The One Retirement Question You Must Get Right
How to Figure Out Your Real Cost of Living in Retirement
4 Secrets of Financial Freedom

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