MONEY retirement income

Here’s the Retirement Income Mistake Most Americans Are Making

money with "guaranteed" stamps on it
Andrew Unangst—Getty Images

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.

More From RealDealRetirement.com

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Should You Take Social Security Early And Invest It—Or Claim Later For a Higher Benefit?

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

door opening with Franklin $100 staring through the crack
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.

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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.

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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

MONEY retirement income

Simple Steps to Avoid Outliving Your Money in Retirement

Nearly all workers say guaranteed lifetime income is important in retirement. Yet few are doing anything about it.

The slow switch from defined-benefit to defined-contribution retirement plans has been under way for three decades. But only now are workers starting to fully appreciate the impact.

The vast majority of Americans say that having a guaranteed monthly check for the rest of their lives is important, according to a TIAA-CREF lifetime income survey. Nearly half say securing enough guaranteed income to cover monthly expenses should be the top goal of their retirement plan.

Just a year ago, only one third believed guaranteed income should be their top priority. Meanwhile, more Americans now say they would accept bigger risks and smaller returns in exchange for guaranteed income, the survey found.

Few saw this coming in the 1980s, when companies began to abandon their traditional pensions in favor of 401(k) savings plans. The thought was that the 401(k) would complement the guaranteed income from a traditional pension—not supplant it. Today the only guaranteed income most Americans will enjoy in retirement comes from Social Security. Meanwhile, the majority of workers keep the bulk of their liquid savings in a 401(k) plan. And they must manage those distributions throughout retirement, while trying not to run out of money before they pass away.

This new reality is just now hitting a generation that figured their 401(k) plan would grow so big that making the money last in retirement would be fairly simple. But for most it didn’t work out that way—and now they are searching for answers. Guaranteed lifetime income, once a staple of old age for many Americans, has become an elusive grail.

One big problem is that workers typically do not understand how to convert savings into a lifetime stream of income, and they generally do not trust the annuity products available to them. While 84% say lifetime income is important only 14% have bought an annuity, TIAA-CREF found. Fixed annuities through a high-quality insurance company are among the simplest ways to purchase guaranteed lifetime income.

With this gap in mind, policymakers and employers have been taking steps to make it easier and more palatable for 401(k) plan participants to convert some or all of their plan assets to an income stream. Yet 44% of Americans have no idea if their plan offers a lifetime income option. Some 62% have never tried to calculate lifetime income from their current level of savings.

Fortunately, it’s getting easier to figure out the amount of income your 401(k) is likely to provide. For starters, check with your benefits department and ask if your employer has, or is considering, an option that will convert savings into a lifetime annuity. If so, and you’re close to retirement, you can get an estimate of the amount of income it may provide.

There are also online tools for do-it-yourself annuity shoppers.You can get quotes for immediate and deferred annuities at immediateannuites.com. And for pre-retirees, you can get an idea of how far your savings will go by plugging in your age and savings on BlackRock’s CoRi calculator. Currently, BlackRock estimates that a 58-year-old with $1 million in savings and who retires at 65 will be able to purchase $51,600 of annual guaranteed lifetime income.

Annuities come in many varieties—and some have a checkered past, while others may be linked to high fees and hard sales pitches. But immediate and deferred fixed annuities are fairly straightforward and offer the most direct way to secure lifetime income. Typically advisers recommend that you put only a portion of your income into one. (For more on annuities, click here.)

If an annuity sounds right for you, consider moving slowly. If interest rates move up the second half of the year, as many expect, you’ll get more income for your dollars by waiting.

Read next: The Right Way to Tap Income in Retirement

MONEY retirement planning

5 Secrets to a Happy Retirement

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Jason Hindley—Prop Styling by Keiko Tanaka Keep a smile on your face once your working years are over.

Sure, a fat nest egg and good health help. But there are less obvious ways to make sure your post-work life is a happy one.

Retirement ought to be a happy time. You can set your own schedule, take long vacations, and start spending all the money you’ve been saving.

And for many retirees that holds true. According to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, people tend to start life happy, only to see their sense of well-being decline in adulthood. No surprise there: Working long hours, raising a family, and saving for the future are high-stress pursuits.

Once you reach age 65, though, happiness picks up again, not peaking until age 85. In a recent survey of MONEY readers, 48% retirees reported being happier in retirement than expected; only 7% were disappointed.

How can you make sure you follow this blissful pattern? Financial security helps. And good health is crucial: In a recent survey 81% of retirees cited it as the most important ingredient for a happy retirement. Some of the other triggers are less obvious. Here’s what you can do to make your retirement a happy one.

1. Create a predictable paycheck. No doubt about it: More money makes you happier. Once you amass a comfortable nest egg, though, the effect weakens, says financial planner Wes Moss. For his recent book, You Can Retire Sooner Than You Think: The 5 Money Secrets of the Happiest Retirees, Moss surveyed 1,400 retirees in 46 states. The happiest ones had the highest net worths, but Moss found that money’s power to boost your mood diminished after $550,000.

“Once you reach a certain level, more money doesn’t buy a lot more happiness,” says Moss. Similar research based on the University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study found a dropoff in happiness with extreme wealth; after you’ve amassed some $3.5 million in riches, more money doesn’t increase your happiness as much.

Where your income comes from is just as important as how much savings you have, says Moss. Retirees with a predictable income—a pension, say, or rental properties—get more enjoyment from spending those dollars than they do using money from a 401(k) or an IRA.

Similarly, a Towers Watson happiness survey found that retirees who rely mostly on investments had the highest financial anxiety. Almost a third of retirees who get less than 25% of their income from a pension or annuity were worried about their financial future; of those who receive 50% or more of their income from such a predictable source, just under a quarter expressed the same anxiety.

You can engineer a steady income by buying an immediate fixed annuity. According to ImmediateAnnuities.com, a 65-year-old man who puts $100,000 into an immediate annuity today would collect about $500 a month throughout retirement.

2. Stick with what you know. People who work past 65 are happier than their fully retired peers—with a big asterisk. If you have no choice but to work, the results are the opposite. On a scale of 1 to 10, seniors who voluntarily pick up part-time work rate their happiness a 6.5 on average; that drops to 4.4 for those who are forced to take a part-time job.

The benefit of working isn’t just financial. It’s also a boon to your health—a key driver of retirement happiness. The physical activity and social connections a job provides are a good antidote to an unhealthy sedentary and lonely lifestyle, says medical doctor turned financial planner (and Money.com contributor) Carolyn McClanahan.

A 2009 study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that retirees with part-time or temporary jobs have fewer major diseases, including high blood pressure and heart disease, than those who stop working altogether, even after factoring in their pre-retirement health.

Switching careers in retirement, though, isn’t as beneficial. Retirees who take jobs in their field reported the best mental health, says lead researcher Yujie Zhan of Canada’s Laurier University, perhaps because adapting to a new work environment and duties is stressful.

3. Find four hobbies. Busy retirees tend to be happier. But just how active do you have to be? Moss has put a number on it. He found that the happiest retirees engage in three to four activities regularly; the least happy, only one or two. “The happy retiree group had extraordinarily busy schedules,” he says. “I call it hobbies on steroids.”

For the biggest boost to your happiness, pick a hobby that’s social. The top pursuits of the happiest retirees include volunteering, travel, and golf; for the unhappiest, they’re reading, hunting, fishing, and writing. “The happiest people don’t do things in isolation,” says Moss.

That’s no surprise when you consider that people 65 and older get far more enjoyment out of socializing than younger people do.

4. Rent late in life. In retirement, as in your working years, owning a home brings you more joy than renting does. But as time goes on, that changes. Michael Finke, a professor of retirement and personal financial planning at Texas Tech University, analyzed the satisfaction of homeowners vs. that of renters from age 20 to 90-plus and found a drop late in life, particularly after homeowners hit their eighties.

The hassles of homeownership build as you age, Finke notes, and a house can be isolating. Most people want to stay put in retirement. Yet, says Finke, “you need to plan for a transition to living in an environment with more social interaction and less home responsibility.”

5. Keep your kids at arm’s length. Once you suddenly have a lot more time on your hands, your closest relationships can have a big impact on your mood. According to an analysis by Finke and Texas Tech researcher Nhat Hoang Ho, married retirees, particularly those who retire around the same time, report higher satisfaction than nonmarrieds—but only if the couple get along well. A poor relationship more than erases the positive effects of being married.

Children don’t make much of a difference, with one twist. Living within 10 miles of their kids leaves retirees less happy. “People overestimate the amount of satisfaction they get from their kids,” says Finke. The reason is unclear—could being a too accessible babysitter be the problem?

MONEY retirement planning

3 Simple Steps to Crash-Proof Your Retirement Plan

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Thomas J. Peterson—Getty Images

The recent stock market slide is timely reminder to protect your retirement portfolio from outsized risks. Here's how.

At this point it’s anyone’s guess whether the recent turmoil in the market is just another a speed bump on the road to further gains or the start of a serious setback. But either way, now is an ideal time to ask: Would your retirement plans survive a crash?

The three-step crash-test below can give you a sense of how your retirement plans might fare during a major market downturn, and help you take steps to avert disaster. I recommend you do this stress-test now, while you can still make meaningful adjustments, rather than waiting until a crisis actually hits—and wishing you’d taken action beforehand.

1. Confirm your asset allocation. The idea here is to divide your portfolio into two broad categories: stocks and bonds. (You can create a third category, cash equivalents, if you wish, or throw cash into the bond category. For the purposes of this kind of review, either way is fine.)

For most of your holdings this exercise should be fairly simple. Stocks as well as mutual funds and ETFs that invest in stocks (dividend stocks, preferred shares, REITs and the like) go into the stock category. All bonds, bond funds and bond ETFs go into the bond category. If you own funds or ETFs that include both stocks and bonds—target-date funds, balanced funds, equity-income funds, etc.—plug their name or ticker symbol into Morningstar’s Instant X-Ray tool and you’ll get a stocks-bonds breakdown. Once you’ve divvied up your holdings this way, you can easily calculate the percentage of your nest egg that’s invested in stocks and in bonds.

2. Estimate the downside. It’s impossible to know exactly how your investments will perform in a major meltdown. But you can at least estimate the potential hit based on how your portfolio would have fared in past severe setbacks.

In the financial crisis year of 2008, for example, the Standard & Poor’s 500 index lost 37% of its value, while the broad bond market gained just over 5%. So if you’ve got 70% of your retirement portfolio in stocks and 30% in bonds, you can figure that in a comparable downturn your nest egg would lose roughly 25% of its value (70% of -37% plus 30% of 5% equals 24.4%—we’ll call it 25%). If your portfolio consists of a 50-50 mix of stocks and bonds, its value would drop about 15%.

Remember, you’re not trying to predict precisely how the market will perform during the next crash. You just want to make a reasonable estimate of what kind of hit your retirement savings might take so you can get an idea of what size nest egg you may end up with when things get ugly.

3. Assess the impact on your retirement. Go to a retirement income calculator that uses Monte Carlo simulations and enter your nest egg’s current value as well as such information as your age, income, when you plan retire, how your savings are invested and how much you’re saving each year (or spending, if you’re already retired). You’ll come away with the percentage chance that you’ll be able to generate the income you’ll need throughout retirement based on things as they stand now. Consider this your “before crash” estimate. Then, get an “after crash” estimate by plugging in the same info, but substituting your nest egg’s projected value after a downturn from step 2 above.

You’ll now be able to gauge the potential impact of a market crash on your retirement prospects. For example, if you’re 45, earn $80,000 a year, contribute 10% of pay to a 401(k) 70% in stocks and 30% in bonds that has a current balance of $350,000, you have roughly a 70% chance of being able to retire on 75% of pre-retirement salary, according to T. Rowe Price’s Retirement Income Calculator. Were your portfolio’s value were to drop 25% to $262,500 in a crash, your probability of retirement success would fall to 55% or so.

Once you see how a major setback might affect your retirement prospects, you can consider ways to protect yourself. For someone like our fictional 45-year-old above, switching to a more conservative portfolio probably isn’t the answer since doing so would also lower long-term returns, perhaps reducing the odds of success even more. Rather, a better course would be to consider saving more. And, in fact, by boosting the savings rate from 10% to 15%, the level recommended by many pros as a reasonable target, the post-crash probability of success rises almost to where it was originally.

If you’re closer to or already in retirement, however, the proper response to a precipitous drop in the odds of retirement success could be to invest more cautiously, perhaps by devoting a portion of your nest egg to an annuity that can generate steady, assured income. Or you may want to maintain your current investing strategy and focus instead on ways you can cut spending, should it become necessary, so you can withdraw less from your portfolio until the markets recover.

Truth is, there’s a whole range of actions you might take—or at least consider—that could put you in a better position to weather a market crash (or, for that matter, provide a measure of protection against other setbacks, such as job loss or health problems). But unless you go through this sort of stress test, you can’t really know what effect a big market setback might have on your retirement plans, or what steps might be most effective.

So run a scenario or two (or three) now to see how you fare, assuming different magnitudes of losses and different responses. Or you can just wait until the you know what hits the fan, and then scramble as best you can.

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 best of 2014

6 New Ideas That Could Help You Retire Better

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MONEY (photo illustration)—Getty Images (2)

A great new retirement account, the case for an overlooked workplace savings plan, a push to make your town more retiree-friendly, and more good news from 2014.

Every year, there are innovators who come up with fresh solutions to nagging problems. Companies roll out new products or services, or improve on old ones. Researchers propose better theories to explain the world. Or stuff that’s been flying under the radar finally captivates a wide audience. For MONEY’s annual Best New Ideas list, our writers searched the world of money for the most compelling products, strategies, and insights of 2014. To make the list, these ideas—which cover the world of investing, technology, health care, real estate, college, and more—have to be more than novel. They have to help you save money, make money, or improve the way you spend it, like these six retirement innovations.

Best Kick-Start for Newbies: The MyRA

Half of all workers—and three-quarters of part-timers—don’t have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan like a 401(k). The new MyRA, highlighted in President Obama’s State of the Union address in January, will fill in the gap, helping millions start socking away money for retirement. Even if you are already well on your way to establishing your retirement nest egg, you could learn something from this beginner’s savings account.

The idea: The MyRA, rolling out in late 2014, is targeted at workers without employer plans. Like a Roth IRA, the contributions aren’t tax-deductible, but the money grows tax-free. Savers fund a MyRA via payroll deductions, with no minimum investment and no fees.

What’s to like about this baby ira: The MyRA’s investments, modeled after the federal government’s 401(k)-like Thrift Savings Plan, emphasize safety, simplicity, and low costs. Those are principles more corporate plans—and individual savers—should embrace.

Best Workplace Plan That’s Finally Come of Age: The Roth 401(k)

With a 401(k), you sock away pretax money for retirement and then pay taxes when you withdraw the funds. With a Roth 401(k), you do the opposite: take a tax hit upfront but never owe the IRS a penny again. Few workers take advantage of this option. Now that could be changing.

This year Aon Hewitt reported that for the first time, 50% of large firms offer a Roth 401(k), up from 11% that did so in 2007. Adoption levels—still only 11%—tend to pick up once plans have a Roth on the menu for several years and new hires start signing up, Aon Hewitt reports.

A recent T. Rowe Price study found that even though young workers who expect to pay higher taxes in the future reap the greatest benefit, savers of almost every age collect more income in retirement with a Roth 401(k). A 45-year-old whose taxes remain the same at age 65 would see a 13% income boost, for example. And, notes ­Stuart Ritter, senior financial planner at T. Rowe Price, “the ­money in a Roth is all yours.”

Best New Defense Against Running Out of Money

When the only retirement plan you have at work is a 401(k), you may yearn for the security you would have gotten from monthly pension checks. Pensions aren’t coming back, but the government is letting 401(k) plans be more pension-like. A rule tweak by the Department of Labor and the IRS should make it easier for employers to incorporate deferred annuities into a 401(k)’s target-date fund, the default retirement option for many. Instead of a portfolio of just stocks and bonds that grows more conservative, target-date savers would have a portion of their funds socked into a deferred annuity, which they could cash out or convert to a monthly check in retirement. Done right, the system could re-create a long-missed pension perk, says Steve Shepherd, a partner at the consulting firm Hewitt EnnisKnupp. “They are making it easier and more cost-effective to lock in lifetime income.”

Best Supreme Court Ruling

In June the Supreme Court issued a ruling that makes it easier for Fifth Third employees to sue the bank over losses they suffered from holding company stock in their 401(k)s. The share price fell nearly 70% during the financial crisis. By discouraging companies from offering stock in plans in the first place, the unanimous decision could help 401(k) savers everywhere.

For years—and especially since the 2001 Enron meltdown—experts have advised against holding much, if any, company stock in your retirement plan. Still, not everyone has gotten the memo. About 6% of employees have more than 90% of their 401(k)s in company stock, the Employee Benefit Research Institute reports. About one in 10 employers still require 401(k) matching contributions to be in company shares, according to Aon Hewitt, a benefits consulting company.

With heightened legal liability, that could finally change. The upshot, according benefits lawyer Marcia Wagner, is that fewer employers will offer their own stock in their 401(k)s. “It’s risky for them now,” she says. That’s “a tectonic shift.”

Best New Book on Retirement

You may think you’ve heard a lot the looming retirement crisis. Well, it’s worse than you think. That’s the message of a new book, Falling Short, written by retirement experts Charles Ellis, Alicia Munnell, and Andrew Eschtruth.

One of their main targets is the 401(k), whose success depends on an unlikely combo of investor savvy, disciplined saving and great market returns. As things stand now half of Americans may not be able to maintain their standard of living in retirement. Their prescription? Don’t wait for Washington to fix things. Save as much as you can, work longer, and delay Social Security to increase your benefits.

Best New Idea About Where to Retire

Whether you can stay in your home after you retire is as much about where you live as it is about your house. Yes, there are inexpensive changes you can make to age-proof your home, but is your town a good place to age? AARP is helping people answer that question. Through its Network of Age-Friendly Communities, AARP is working with dozens of cities and towns to help them adopt features that will make their communities great places for older adults. Those include public transportation, senior services, walkable streets, housing, community activities, job opportunities for older workers, and health services.

Nearly half of the 41 places that have joined the network signed on in 2014, including biggies such as San Francisco, Boston, Atlanta, and Denver. Membership requires a commitment by the community’s mayor or chief executive, and communities are evaluated in a rigorous program that is affiliated with the World Health Organization’s Age Friendly Cities and Communities program and is guided by state AARP offices. This spring, AARP will launch an online index rating livability data about every community in the U.S.

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