MONEY retirement planning

22% of Workers Would Rather Die Early Than Run Out of Money

transparent piggy bank with one silver coin inside
Dimitri Vervitsiotis—Getty Images

Yet many of the same folks are hardly saving anything for retirement, study finds.

A large slice of middle-class Americans have all but given up on the retirement they may once have aspired to, new research shows—and their despair is both heartbreaking and frustrating. Most say saving for retirement is more difficult than they had expected and yet few are making the necessary adjustments.

Some 22% of workers say they would rather die early than run out of money, according to the Wells Fargo Middle Class Retirement survey. Yet 61% say they are not sacrificing a lot to save for their later years. Nearly three quarters acknowledge they should have started saving sooner.

The survey, released during National Retirement Savings Week, looks at the retirement planning of Americans with household incomes between $25,000 and $100,000, who held investable assets of less than $100,000. One third are contributing nothing—zero—to a 401(k) plan or an IRA, and half say they have no confidence that they will have enough to retire. Middle-class Americans have a median retirement balance of just $20,000 and say they expect to need $250,000 in retirement.

Still, Americans who have an employer-sponsored retirement plan, especially a 401(k), are doing much better than those without one. Those between the ages of 25 to 29 with access to a 401(k) have put away a median of $10,000, compared with no savings at all for those without access to a plan. Those ages 30 to 39 with a 401(k) plan have saved a median of $35,000, versus less than $1,000 for those without. And for those ages 40 to 49 with 401(k)s, the median is $50,000, while those with no plan have just $10,000.

Clearly, despite its many drawbacks, the venerable 401(k) remains our de facto national savings plan, and the best shot that the middle-class has at achieving retirement security. But only half of private-sector workers have access to a 401(k) or other employer-sponsored retirement plan, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Those without access would benefit from a direct-deposit Roth or traditional IRA or some other tax-favored account, but data show that most Americans fail to make new contributions to IRAs, with most of those assets coming from 401(k) rollovers. One exception: a growing number of Millennials are making Roth IRA contributions.

Most people do understand the need to save for retirement, but they don’t view it as an urgent goal requiring spending cutbacks, the survey found. Still, many clearly have room in their budget to boost their savings rates. Asked where they would cut spending if they decided to get serious about saving, 56% said they would give up indulgences like the spa and jewelry; 55% said they’d cut restaurant meals; and 51% even said they would give up a major purchase like a car or a home renovation. But only 38% said they would forgo a vacation. We all need a little R&R, for sure. But a few weeks of fun now in exchange for years of retirement security is a good trade.

Of course, the larger problem is that a sizeable percentage of middle-class Americans are struggling financially and simply don’t enough money to stash away for long-term goals like retirement. As economic data show, many workers haven’t had a real salary increase for 15 years, while the cost of essentials, such as health care and college tuition, continues to soar.

Given these economic headwinds, it’s important to do as much as you can, when you can, to build your retirement nest egg. If you have a 401(k), be sure to contribute at least enough to get the full company match. And if you lack a company retirement plan, opt for an IRA—the maximum contribution is $5,500 a year ($6,500 if you are 50 or older). Yes, freeing up money to put away for retirement is tough, but it will be a bit easier if you can get tax break on your savings.

Related:

How much of my income should I save for retirement?

Why is a 401(k) such a good deal?

Which is better, a traditional or Roth IRA?

MONEY Ask the Expert

How To Find Out What You’re Paying For Your Retirement Account

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: How can I find out how much I am paying in fees in my 401(k) retirement plan?

A: It’s an important question to ask, and finding an answer should be a lot easier than it is right now. Studies show that high costs lead to worse performance for investors. So minimizing your expenses is one of the best ways to improve returns and reach your retirement goals.

Yet most people don’t pay attention to fees in their retirement plans—in fact, many don’t even realize they’re paying them. Nearly half of full-time employed Baby Boomers believe they pay zero investment costs in their retirement accounts, while 19% think their fees are less than 0.5%, according to a new survey by investment firm Rebalance IRA.

Truth is, everyone who has a 401(k), or an IRA, pays fees. The average 401(k) investor has 1.5% each year deducted from his or her account for various fees. But those expenses vary widely. If you work for a large company, which can spread costs over thousands of employees, you’ll likely pay just 1% or less. Smaller 401(k) plans, those with only a few hundred employees, tend to cost more—2.5% on average and as much as 3.86%.

A percentage point or two in fees may appear trivial, but the impact is huge. “Over time, these seemingly small fees will compound and can easily consume one-third of investment returns,” says Mitch Tuchman, managing director of Rebalance IRA.

Translated into dollars, the numbers can be eye-opening. Consider this analysis by the Center for American Progress: a 401(k) investor earning a median $30,000 income, and who paid fund fees of just 0.25%, would accumulate $476,745 over a 40-year career. (That’s assuming a 10% savings rate and 6.8% average annual return.) But if that worker who paid 1.3% in fees, the nest egg would grow to only $380,649. To reach the same $476,745 nest egg, that worker would have to stay on the job four more years.

To help investors understand 401(k) costs, a U.S. Labor Department ruling in 2012 required 401(k) plan providers to disclose fees annually to participants—you should see that information in your statements. Still, even with these new rules, understanding the different categories of expenses can be difficult. You will typically be charged for fund management, record-keeping, as well as administrative and brokerage services. You can find more information on 401(k) fees here and here.

By contrast, if you’ve got an IRA invested directly with a no-load fund company, deciphering fees is fairly straightforward—you will pay a management expense and possibly an administrative charge. But if your IRA is invested with a broker or financial planner, you may be paying additional layers of costs for their services. “The disclosures can be made in fine print,” says Tuchman. “It’s not like you get an email clearly spelling it all out.”

To find out exactly what you’re paying, your first step is to check your fund or 401(k) plan’s website—the best-run companies will post clear fee information. But if you can’t find those disclosures, or if they don’t tell you what you want to know, you’ll have to ask. Those investing in a 401(k) can check with the human resources department. If you have an IRA, call the fund company or talk to your advisor. At Rebalance IRA, you can download templates that cover the specific questions to ask about your retirement account costs.

If your 401(k) charges more than you would like, you can minimize fees by opting for the lowest-cost funds available—typically index funds, which tend to be less expensive than actively managed funds. And if your IRA is too pricey, move it elsewhere. “You may not be able to control the markets but you do have some control over what you pay to invest,” says Tuchman. “That can make a big difference over time.”

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

More from Money’s Ultimate Retirement Guide:

How should I invest my 401(k)?

Are my IRA contributions tax-deductible?

Why is rolling over my 401(k) to an IRA such a big deal?

MONEY retirement age

How to Know When It’s Time to Retire

Birthday candles
Fuse—Getty Images

I’ve long argued that one’s quality of life should be a principal factor in deciding when to retire. At the same time, however, financial considerations can’t be ignored. With this in mind, here are three rules of thumb to help you decide whether you’ve reached the perfect age to retire.

1. Have you saved enough money?

The “multiply by-25″ rule is a popular tool that retirement experts encourage people to use to estimate whether they’ve saved enough money to stop working and, at least hopefully, begin a life of leisure.

Here’s how it works: Multiply your desired annual income in retirement, less projected annual Social Security benefits, by 25. If your savings are greater than that, then you’re in good shape. If not, then you may not be financially ready to retire.

For example, let’s say that Bob and Mary Jane estimate they’ll spend $40,000 a year in retirement. Using the rule of 25, they’ll need savings of $1 million.

A slightly different iteration of this is the “multiply by-300″ rule. This is the same thing, but it focuses on months instead of years — that is, take your average monthly expenditures, minus your monthly Social Security check, and multiply that by 300.

If your savings are greater than that, then you’re all set. If not, then you might want to continue working for a few more years.

2. Will you have enough income?

This question is related to the first one, but it attacks the issue from a slightly different angle. As such, it also has its own rule of thumb: the 4% rule.

This rule holds that you can safely withdraw 4% from your portfolio every year and still be confident it will last through retirement. Thus, to determine if you’ll have enough income in retirement, multiply your portfolio by 4% and then add in your projected annual Social Security benefits — to learn one potential problem with this rule, click here.

If the sum of these two numbers is enough to cover your expenses, then you’re ready to retire. If not, then it may behoove you to put off retirement for a while longer, as doing so should allow your portfolio to continue growing. It will also give your Social Security benefits time to accrue delayed retirement credits.

3. Is your portfolio properly allocated?

Finally, determining if you’re ready to retire isn’t just about how much you’ve saved, it’s also about how your savings are allocated into various asset classes — namely, stocks and bonds.

To be ready for retirement, you want to make sure that your assets are invested in as safe of a way as possible. To do so, it’s smart to steer your portfolio increasingly toward fixed-income investments like bonds as you approach your desired retirement age.

Experts use the following rule to determine the proper allocation: “The percentage of your portfolio invested in bonds should equal your age.” Thus, if you’re 60 years old, then 60% of your portfolio should be in bonds and 40% in stocks. If you’re 55, then the split is 55% to 45%, respectively.

While this may seem like it has less to do with the timing of retirement than the former two rules, the reality is that it’s of equal importance. As my colleague Morgan Housel has discussed in the past, one of investors’ biggest mistakes is to underestimate the volatility in the stock market. According to Morgan’s research, stocks fall by an average of 10% once every 11 months.

Suffice it to say, a drop of this magnitude would have a material impact on both of the preceding rules, as a 10% decline in your stock holdings would equate to a much smaller income under the 4% rule and, as a corollary, it would call for a delayed retirement date under the multiply by-25 rule.

And the impact of this would be even more exaggerated if the lions’ share of your assets were still in stocks as opposed to bonds. Consequently, the culmination of your strategy to bring your portfolio into accord with this final rule is a key step in determining the perfect age at which you’re ready to pull the trigger and actually retire.

MONEY Financial Planning

Here’s What Millennial Savers Still Haven’t Figured Out

Bank vault door
Lester Lefkowitz—Getty Images

Gen Y is taking saving seriously, a new survey shows. But they still don't know who to trust for financial advice.

The oldest millennials were toddlers in 1984, when a hit movie had even adults asking en masse “Who you gonna call?” Now this younger generation is asking the same question, though over a more real-world dilemma: where to get financial advice.

Millennials mistrust of financial institutions runs deep. One survey found they would rather go to the dentist than talk to a banker. They often turn to peers rather than a professional. One in four don’t trust anyone for sound money counseling, according to new research from Fidelity Investments.

Millennials’ most trusted source, Fidelity found, is their parents. A third look for financial advice at home, where at least they are confident that their own interests will be put first. Yet perhaps sensing that even Mom and Dad, to say nothing of peers, may have limited financial acumen, 39% of millennials say they worry about their financial future at least once a week.

Millennials aren’t necessarily looking for love in all the wrong places. Parents who have struggled with debt and budgets may have a lot of practical advice to offer. The school of hard knocks can be a valuable learning institution. And going it alone has gotten easier with things like auto enrollment and auto escalation of contributions, and defaulting to target-date funds in 401(k) plans.

Still, financial institutions increasingly understand that millennials are the next big wave of consumers and have their own views and needs as it relates to money. Bank branches are being re-envisioned as education centers. Mobile technology has surged front and center. There is a push to create the innovative investments millennials want to help change the world.

Eventually, millennials will build wealth and have to trust someone with their financial plan. They might start with the generally simple but competent information available at work through their 401(k) plan.

Clearly, today’s twentysomethings are taking this savings business seriously. Nearly half have begun saving, Fidelity found. Some 43% participate in a 401(k) plan and 23% have an IRA. Other surveys have found the generation to be even more committed to its financial future.

Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies found that 71% of millennials eligible for a 401(k) plan participate and that 70% of millennials began saving at an average age of 22. By way of comparison, Boomers started saving at an average age of 35. And more than half of millennials in the Fidelity survey said additional saving is a top priority. A lot of Boomers didn’t feel that way until they turned 50. They were too busy calling Ghostbusters.

MONEY mortgages

The Surprising Threat to Your Financial Security in Retirement

House made out of dollar bills with ominous shadow
iStock

More Americans could face a housing-related financial hardship in retirement, according to a new Harvard study.

America’s population is going to experience a dramatic shift during the next 15 years. More than 130 million Americans will be aged 50 or over, and the entire baby boomer generation will be in retirement age — making 20% of the country’s population older than 65. If recent trends continue, there will be a larger number of retirees renting and paying mortgages than ever before.

A recent study published by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies describes how this could lead an unprecedented number of America’s aging population to face a lower quality of life or even financial hardship. However, the same study also points out that there is time for many of those who could be affected to do something about it.

Housing debt and rent costs pose a big threat

According to the data Harvard researchers put together, homeowners tend to be in a much better financial position than renters. The majority of homeowners over 50 have retirement savings with a median value of $93,000, plus $10,000 in savings. More than three-quarters of renters, on the other hand, have no retirement and only $1,000 in savings on average.

While renters — who don’t have the benefit of home equity wealth — face the biggest challenges, a growing percentage of those 50 and older are carrying mortgage debt. Income levels tend to peak for most in their late 40s before declining in the 50s, and then comes retirement. The result? Housing costs consume a growing percentage of income as those over 50 get older and enter retirement.

How bad is it? Check out this table from the Harvard study:

Source: "Housing America's Older Adults," Harvard University.
Source: “Housing America’s Older Adults,” Harvard University.

More than 40% of those over 65 with a mortgage or rent payment are considered moderately or severely burdened, meaning that at least 30% of their income goes toward housing costs. The percentage drops below 15% when they own their home. If you pay rent or carry a mortgage into retirement, there’s a big chance it will take up a significant amount of your income. In 1992, it was estimated that just more than 60% of those between 50 and 64 had a mortgage, but by 2010, the number had jumped past 70%.

Even more concerning? The rate of those over 65 still paying a mortgage has almost doubled since 1992 to nearly 40%.

The impact of housing costs on retirees

The impact is felt most by those with the lowest incomes, and there is a clear relationship between high housing costs and hardship. Those who are 65 and older and are both in the lowest income quartile and moderately or severely burdened by housing costs spend up to 30% less on food than people in the same income bracket who do not have a housing-cost burden. Those who face a housing-cost burden also spend markedly less on healthcare, including preventative care.

In many cases, these burdens can become too much to bear, often leading retirees to live with a family member — if the option is available. While this is more common in some cultures, this isn’t an appealing option to most Americans, who generally view retirement as an opportunity to be independent. More than 70% of respondents in a recent AARP survey said they want to remain in their current residence as long as they can. Unfortunately, those who carry mortgage debt into retirement are more likely to have financial difficulties and limited choices, and they’re also more likely to have less money in retirement savings.

What to do?

Considering the data and the trends the Harvard study uncovered, more and more Americans could face a housing-related financial hardship in retirement. If you want to avoid that predicament, there are things you can do at any age.

  • Refinance or no? Refinancing typically only makes sense if it will reduce the total amount you pay for your home. Saving $200 per month doesn’t do you any good if you end up paying $3,000 more over the term of the loan. However, if a lower interest rate means you’ll spend less money than you do on your current loan, refinance.
  • Reverse mortgages. If you’re in retirement and have equity in your home, a reverse mortgage might make sense. There are a few different types based on whether you need financial support via monthly income, cash to pay for repairs or taxes on your home, or other needs. However, understand how a reverse mortgage works and what you are giving up before you choose this route. There are housing counseling agencies that can help you figure out the best options for your situation, and for some reverse mortgage programs you are required to meet with a counselor first. Check out the Federal Trade Commission’s website for more information.

All that said, avoiding financial hardship in retirement takes more than managing your mortgage. A big hedge is entering retirement with as much wealth as possible. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Max out your employee match. If your employer offers a match to retirement account contributions, make sure you’re getting all of it. Even if you’re only a few years from retiring, this is free money; don’t leave it on the table. Furthermore, your 401(k) contributions reduce your taxable income, meaning it will actually hit your paycheck by a smaller amount than your contribution.
  • Catching up. The IRS allows those over age 50 to contribute an extra $1,000 per year to personal IRAs, putting their total contribution limit at $6,500. And contributions to traditional IRAs can reduce your taxable income, just like 401(k) contributions. There are some limitations, so check with your tax pro to see how it affects your situation. Also, while contributions to a Roth IRA aren’t tax-deductible, distributions in retirement are tax-free.
  • Financial assistance and property tax breaks. Whether you’re a homeowner or a renter, there are assistance programs that can help bridge the housing-cost gap. Both state and federal government programs exist, but nobody is going to knock on your door and tell you about them. A good place to start is to contact your local housing authority. The available assistance can also include property tax credits, exemptions, and deferrals. Check with your local tax commissioner to find out what is available in your area.

Stop putting it off

If you’re already in this situation, or know someone who is, then you know the emotional and financial strain it causes. If you’re afraid you might be on the path to be in those straits, then it’s up to you to take steps to change course.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a few months from 65 or a few months into your first job: Doing nothing gets you nowhere and wastes invaluable time that you can’t get back.

MONEY Ask the Expert

How Smart Savers Choose Between a 401(k) or Roth IRA

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: My husband and I are in our middle 30s and both have good jobs in a professional field. We each make $60,000 a year. Should we be saving in our 401(k) plans, or contributing to a Roth IRA?

A: The answer, of course, is that you should be doing both—but not necessarily in equal amounts, and much depends on your expenses and how much you are able to sock away. Let’s look at some of the variables.

The first consideration is making certain both of you get the full amount of your employer’s matching 401(k) plan contributions. “Fill up the 401(k) bucket first,” says IRA expert Ed Slott, founder of IRAhelp.com. “That is free money and you shouldn’t leave any of it on the table.” In many 401(k) plans, companies kick in 50 cents for every $1 you save up to 6% of pay. If both of you are in such plans, you should each contribute $7,200 per year to your 401(k) plans to collect the $3,600 your employers will match. But don’t contribute more than that, and if you get no match, skip it entirely—for now. It’s time to move on to a Roth IRA.

A Roth IRA is a far different savings vehicle than a 401(k) plan. Having one will give you more flexibility in retirement. Your 401(k) plan is funded with pre-tax dollars that grow tax-deferred. You pay tax when you start taking distributions no later than your 71st year. A Roth IRA is funded with after-tax dollars that grow tax-free for the rest of your life and that of your spouse, and they have tax advantages for your heirs as well. You can also take early distributions of the principal that you contribute, without penalty or tax, should you run into a cash crunch. So after you have each maxed out your 401(k) match, shift to a Roth IRA. Each of you can save up to the $5,500 annual limit.

The downside of a Roth IRA is that you lose the immediate tax deduction that you get with a 401(k) contribution. Still, “you eliminate the uncertainty of what future tax rates may do to your retirement income plan,” says Slott. If tax rates go up, as many believe they must in the years ahead, your 401(k) savings will become a little less valuable. But your Roth IRA savings will be unaffected.

Once you have each saved $7,200 to get the company match of $3,600, and have also fully funded a Roth IRA to the tune of $5,500—congratulate one another. That comes to $16,300 each of annual savings, or a Herculean savings rate of 27%. Most experts advise saving at a 15% rate, and even higher when possible. If you still have more free cash to sock away, you can begin to put more in your 401(k) to get the additional tax deferral. But you should first consider opening a taxable brokerage account where you invest in stocks and stock mutual funds. After a one-year holding period these get taxed as a capital gain, currently a lower rate (15% to 20%) than the ordinary income rate that applies to your 401(k) distributions.

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

MONEY Pensions

How To Be a Millionaire — and Not Even Know It

Book whose pages are hundred dollar bills
iStock

A financial adviser explains to two teachers why they don't need a lot of money in the bank to be rich.

Mr. and Mrs. Rodrigues, 65 and 66 years old, were in my office. Their plan was to retire later this year. But they were worried.

“Our friends are retiring with Social Security, lump sum rollovers, and large investment accounts,” said Mr. Rodrigues, a school teacher from the North Shore of Boston. “All my wife and I will get is a lousy pension.”

Mr. Rodrigues continued: “A teacher’s pay is mediocre compared to what our friends earn in the private sector. We know that when we start our career. But with retirement staring us in the face, and no more regular paycheck, I’m worried.”

Public school teachers are among the worst-paid professionals in America – if you look at their paycheck alone. But when it comes to retirement packages, they have some of the best financial security in the country.

For private sector employees, the responsibility of managing retirement income sits largely on their shoulders. Sure, Social Security will provide a portion of many people’s retirement income, but for most, it is up to the retiree to figure out how to pull money from IRAs, 401(k)s, investment accounts, and/or bank accounts to support their lifestyle each year. Throughout retirement, many worry about running out of money or the possibility of their investments’ losing value.

Teachers, on the other hand, have a much larger safety net.

Both of the Rodrigueses worked as high school teachers for more than 30 years. Each was due a life-only pension of $60,000 upon retirement. That totaled a guaranteed lifetime income of $10,000 per month, or $120,000 per year. When one of them dies, the decedent’s pension will end, but the survivor will continue receiving his or her own $60,000 income.

The Rodrigueses told me they needed about $85,000 a year.

Surely their pension would cover their income needs.* And since the two both teach and live in Massachusetts, their pension will be exempt from state tax.

As for their balance sheet, they had no mortgage, no credit card debts, and no car payments. They had a $350,000 home, $18,000 cash in the bank, and a $134,000 investment account.

But as far as the Rodrigueses were concerned, they hadn’t saved enough.

“All my friends boast about the size of the 401(k)s they rolled over to IRAs,” Mr. Rodrigues said. “Some of them say they have more than $1 million for retirement.”

It was time to show the couple that their retirement situation wasn’t so gloomy – especially considering what their private-sector friends would need in assets to create the same income stream.

“What if I told you that your financial situation is better than most Americans?” I asked.

They thought I was joking.

Their friends, I explained, would need about $1.7 million to match their $120,000 pension income for life.

To explain my case, I pulled out a report on annuities that addressed the question of how much money a person would need at age 65 to generate a certain number of dollars in annual income.

Here’s an abbreviated version of the answer:

Annual Pension Lump Sum Needed
$48,000 $700,539
$60,000 $876,886
$75,000 $1,100,736

If you work in the private sector, are you a little jealous? If you’re a teacher, do you feel a little richer?

The Rodrigues were shocked. Soon Mr. Rodrigues calmed down and Mrs. Rodrigues smiled. Their jealousy was replaced with a renewed appreciation for the decades of service they provided to the local community.

Whether your pension is $30,000, $60,000 or $90,000, consider the amount of money that’s needed to guarantee your income. It’s probably far more than you think. And it’s not impacted by the stock market, interest rates, and world economic issues.

With a guaranteed income and the likelihood of state tax exemption on their pension, Mr. and Mrs. Rodrigues felt like royalty. After all, they had just learned that they were millionaires.

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* The survivor’s $60,000 pension, of course, would be less than the $85,000 annual income the two of them say they’ll need. A few strategies to address this: (1) Expect a reduced spending need in a one-person household. (2) Draw income from the couple’s other assets. (3) Downsize and use the net proceeds from the house’s sale to supplement spending needs. (4) Select the survivor option for their pensions, rather than the life-only option. They would have a reduced monthly income check while they are both living, yet upon one of their deaths the survivor would receive a reduced survivor monthly pension benefit along with his or her own pension.
—————————————-

Marc S. Freedman, CFP, is president and CEO of Freedman Financial in Peabody, Mass. He has been delivering financial planning advice to mass affluent Baby Boomers for more than two decades. He is the author of Retiring for the GENIUS, and he is host of “Dollars & Sense,” a weekly radio show on North Shore 104.9 in Beverly, Mass.

MONEY Ask the Expert

How To Tap Your IRA When You Really Need the Money

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MONEY retirement planning

How Today’s Workers Can Dodge the Retirement Crisis

For Millennials and Gen X-ers, it all depends on whether we can rein in spending after we stop working.

Trying to figure our whether mid-career folks like myself are adequately preparing for retirement can get a bit confusing. If you look at Boston College’s National Retirement Risk Index (NRRI), as of 2013 as many as 52% of households aged 30-59 are at risk of falling at least 10% short of being able to produce an adequate “replacement rate” of income.

That doesn’t sound too good, does it? But a discussion of the methodology of this survey and others at a recent meeting of the Retirement Research Consortium in Washington D.C., shows that things might not be so dire after all.

It turns out that the NRRI might be setting an unrealistically high bar for retirement income. The index’s replacement rate assumes that a household’s goal is to maintain a spending level in retirement that is equal to their pre-retirement living standard. It also includes investment returns on 401(k)s and IRAs in its calculation of pre-retirement income, even though those earnings are specifically earmarked for post-retirement. By including those investment gains, the NRRI may be targeting a replacement rate that is too high, causing more households to fall short, as Sarah Holden, director of retirement and investment research at the Investment Company Institute, pointed out in the meeting.

It’s already hard for someone in their 30s or 40s to figure out how much they need to be contributing today to replace the income they will have right before they retire. Adding to this guessing game is the debate over whether spending really goes down in retirement. You’ll pay less for work lunches, commuting expenses, and so on, but you might spend more for travel in the early years of retirement and, later on, more for health care costs.

In contrast to the NRRI calculations, many financial planners assume that would-be retirees will automatically cut spending when their children turn 21, and therefore only need to replace about 70% to 80% of their pre-retirement income. But as Frederick Miller of Sensible Financial Planning explained at the consortium’s meeting, that’s simply not the case anymore. He sees many clients continuing to support their adult children, helping them to pay for health insurance, rent, graduate school or a down payment on a home. While generous, this support obviously detracts from retirement savings.

So which assumption is correct? Should we be saving with the expectation of spending less in retirement or not? In reality, we should certainly prepare for eventually reducing consumption since, in the long run, we may have no choice about doing so. When spending does decline after retirement, it is almost twice as likely due to inadequate financial resources rather than voluntary belt-tightening, as Anthony Webb of Boston College discovered in a small survey of households.

The question of how much is enough will vary greatly by household. But it’s clear that my generation, and those that follow, face stiff headwinds—longer life expectancy, a likely reduction in Social Security benefits, and low interest rates, which greatly reduce the ability to generate income. Cutting back on spending during retirement, as well as during our working years, may be the single greatest contributor to our financial security that we can control.

Konigsberg is the author of The Truth About Grief, a contributor to the anthology Money Changes Everything, and a director at Arden Asset Management. The views expressed are solely her own.

MONEY Savings

How to Thrive in Retirement After Falling Short of Goals

Turns out, many retirees don't need as much in savings as they once thought. They are surprisingly delighted with their downsized life and embrace a flexible budget.

Maybe the experts are wrong. Retirement planners say you will need at least 70% of pre-retirement income to enjoy your golden years. Some target as much as 80% or even 85%. Yet recent retirees with less say they are doing just fine, thank you.

Three years into retirement, the average replacement income of people with an IRA or 401(k) plan is just 66% of final pay, mutual fund company T. Rowe Price found. Yet more than half say they are living as well or better than when they were working, and 89% say they are somewhat or very satisfied with retirement so far.

Such findings belie our widely accepted retirement savings crisis. In aggregate, we are way under saved. The average 50-year-old has put away just $44,000. But clearly a large subset—those with either a 401(k) plan or IRA, or both—are doing pretty well. This is the group that T. Rowe Price surveyed by filtering for those retired less than five years or over 50 and still working.

This particular group of savers may want to let up on the handwringing. As recent research by EBRI and ICI show, consistent 401(k) investors (those who held accounts between 2007 and 2012) had balances 67% higher than overall plan participants, reaching an average $107,000.

For years a small band of economists led by Lawrence Kotlikoff, the Boston University economics professor, have been making the case that many people are over saving. Kotlikoff argues that the financial services industry is essentially scaring people into over saving in order to collect fees. The fright factor is evident in the T. Rowe Price survey, where those still at work expressed far more anxiety than those who have reached retirement and found it to be less financially challenging than they may have been led to believe.

Half of workers believe they will have to reduce their standard of living in retirement, compared to just 35% of recent retirees who think that way. More workers also believe they will run out of money (22% vs. 14%), and workers are much less likely to believe they will be able to afford health care (49% vs. 70%), the survey shows.

Recent retirees in this survey have median assets of $473,000. That includes investable assets plus home equity minus debt. Home equity is a big part of their holdings at $191,000. They have just 52% of investable assets in stocks and asset allocation mutual funds, and are playing it fairly safe with 31% in cash.

How are they managing on pre-retirement income that falls short of most planners’ models? A third are working at something or looking for work, and to augment Social Security and pension income they are drawing down their savings by an average of 4% a year, which is a rate that many planners consider reasonable.

But the real source of new retiree satisfaction may be their genuine appreciation for a downsized life: 85% say they do not need to spend as much in order to be happy and 65% feel relieved to no longer be trying to keep up with the Joneses. In addition, they embrace flexibility with 60% saying they would rather adjust their spending to maintain their portfolio than maintain their spending at the expense of their portfolio. With that attitude, almost any retiree can feel good about their life.

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