MONEY retirement income

QUIZ: How Smart Are You About Retirement Income?

senior sitting in chair reading newspaper with beach view in background
Tom Merton—Getty Images

Only 4 in 10 Americans have seriously looked at their retirement income options.

Do you have a credible retirement income plan? A TIAA-CREF survey earlier this year found that only four in 10 Americans had seriously looked into how to convert their savings into post-career income. To see just how much you know about creating income that will support you throughout retirement, answer the 10 questions below—and see immediately if you got them right. You’ll find a full explanation of all the correct answers, plus a scoring guide, just below the quiz.

When $1.5 Million Isn’t Enough for Retirement

Scoring:

0-4: You really need to brush up on retirement income basics, preferably before you start collecting Social Security and drawing down your nest egg.

5-7: You understand the basics, but you’ll improve your retirement prospects immensely if you take a deeper dive into how to create a retirement income plan.

8-9: You clearly know your way around most retirement-income concepts. That doesn’t mean you couldn’t profit, however, from learning more about such topics as Social Security, different ways to get guaranteed income and how to set up a retirement income plan.

10: If the answers in this quiz weren’t so obvious, I’d say you’re a retirement income expert. Still, congratulations are in order if for no other reason than you actually read this story from top to bottom and got every answer right.

Explanation of Answers:

1. Based on projections in the Social Security trustees report released last week, the trust fund that helps pay Social Security retiree and disability benefits will run out of money in 2034. That means…
c. that payroll taxes coming into the system will still be able to pay about 79% of scheduled benefits.
d. that Congress needs to do something between now and 2034 to address this issue.

Both c and d are correct. Although the trust fund’s “exhaustion date”—2034 in the latest report—gets a lot of press attention, all it means is that we’ll have run through the surplus that accumulated over the years because more payroll taxes were collected than necessary to fund ongoing benefits. When that surplus is exhausted, enough payroll taxes will still flow in to pay about 79% of scheduled benefits. That said, I doubt the American public will stand for a system that eventually calls for them to take a 21% haircut on Social Security benefits. So at some point Congress will have to act—i.e., find some combination of new revenue and perhaps smaller or more targeted cuts—to deal with this looming shortfall, as it has addressed similar problems in the past.

2. Given the low investment returns expected in the future, what initial annual withdrawal rate subsequently increased by the inflation should you limit yourself to if you want your nest egg to last at least 30 years?
a. 3% to 4%

In eras of more generous stock and bond market returns, retirees who limited their initial withdrawal to 4% of savings and subsequently increased that draw for inflation had a roughly 90% or better chance of their nest egg lasting 30 or more years. Hence, the oft-cited “4% rule.” But later research that takes lower investment returns into account suggests that an initial withdrawal rate of 3% or so makes more sense if you want your money to last at least 30 years. Truth is, though, whatever initial withdrawal rate you start with, you should be prepared to adjust it in the future based on on market conditions and the size of your nest egg.

3. An immediate annuity can pay you a higher monthly income for life for a given sum of money than you could generate on your own by investing the same amount in very secure investments. That is due to…
c. mortality credits.

Some annuity owners will die sooner than others. The payments that would have gone to those who die early and that are essentially transferred to those who die later are called mortality credits. Thus, mortality credits are effectively an extra source of return an annuity offers that an individual investing on his own has no way of earning.

4. A Roth IRA or Roth 401(k) …
c. may or may not be a better deal depending on the particulars of your financial situation.

While it’s true in theory that a traditional 401(k) or IRA makes more sense if you expect to face a lower tax rate when you make withdrawals in retirement and you’re better off with a Roth 401(k) or Roth IRA if you expect to face a higher rate, in real life the decision is more complicated. The tax rate you pay during your career can vary significantly, which means sometimes it may go to go with a traditional account, other times the Roth may make more sense. It can also be difficult to predict what tax rate you’ll actually face in retirement, making it hard to know which is the better choice. Given the uncertainty due to these and other factors, I think it makes sense for most people to practice “tax diversification,” and try to have at least a bit of money in both types of accounts.

5. Starting at age 70 1/2, you must begin taking annual required minimum distributions (RMDs) from 401(k)s, IRAs and similar retirement accounts. If you miss taking your RMD in a given year, the IRS may charge a tax penalty equal to what percentage of the amount you should have withdrawn?
d. 50%

That’s right, there’s a 50% tax penalty for not taking your RMD—and that’s in addition to the regular tax you own on that RMD. (If you’re still working, you may be able to postpone RMDs from your current 401(k) until after you retire, if the plan allows). You can plead your case and ask the IRS to waive the penalty—and sometimes the IRS will. But clearly the better course is to make sure you take your RMD every year rather than putting yourself at the IRS’s mercy.

6. Many retirees focus heavily on dividend stocks to provide steady and secure income throughout retirement. How did the popular iShares Dividend Select ETF perform during the financial crisis year 2008?
d. It lost 33%.

Tilting your retirement portfolio heavily toward dividend-paying stocks and funds can leave you too concentrated in a few industries. The main reason iShares Dividend Select ETF lost 33% in 2008 was because of its heavy weighting in financial stocks, which got hammered in the financial crisis. If you want to include dividend stocks and funds in your portfolio, that’s fine. But don’t overdo it. A better way to invest for retirement income is to build a portfolio that mirrors the weightings of the broad stock and bond markets and supplement dividends and interest payments by selling stock or fund shares to get the income you need.

7. To avoid running through your savings too soon, you should spend down your nest egg so that it will last as long as the remaining life expectancy for someone your age.
b. False

Life expectancy represents the number of years on average that people of a given age are expected to live. (This life expectancy calculator can help you calculate yours.) But many people will live beyond their life expectancy; some well beyond. So if arrange your spending so that your nest egg will carry you only to life expectancy, you may find yourself forced to stint in your dotage. To avoid that possibility, I generally recommend that you plan as if you’ll live at least to your early to mid-90s.

8. If your Social Security benefit at your full retirement age of 66 is $1,000 a month, roughly how much per month will you receive if you begin collecting benefits at age 62? How about if you wait until age 70?
c. $750/$1,320

For each year you delay taking Social Security between the age of 62 and 70, your benefit increases by roughly 7% to 8% (and that’s before cost-of-living adjustments). If you also work during the time you postpone taking benefits, your payment could rise even more. To see how much delaying benefits and other strategies might boost the amount of Social Security you (and your spouse, if you’re married) collect over your lifetime, check out the Financial Engines Social Security calculator.

9. With yields so low these days, bonds and bond funds, no longer deserve a place in retirement portfolios.
b. False

There’s no doubt that if interest rates continue to rise as they already have since the beginning of the year, that bonds and bond funds could post losses. But as long as you stick to a diversified portfolio of investment-grade bonds with short- to intermediate-term maturities, those losses aren’t likely to come anywhere close to the 50% or more declines stocks have suffered in past meltdowns. Which means that while bonds at current yields may not provide as much of a cushion as they have in past years, a portfolio that includes bonds will be much more stable than an all-stocks portfolio. In short, for diversification reasons alone, it still makes sense to include short- to intermediate-term bonds or bond funds in your retirement portfolio.

10. A new type of longevity annuity called a Qualified Longevity Annuity Contract, or QLAC (pronounced “Cue Lack”), allows you to invest a relatively small sum today within your 401(k) or IRA in return for a relatively high guaranteed lifetime payout in the future. For example, a 65-year-old man who invests $25,000 in a QLAC might receive $550 a month starting at age 80, or $1,030 a month starting at 85. Putting a portion of your nest egg into a QLAC also allows you to…
b. Worry less that overspending early in retirement will exhaust your nest egg since you can count on your QLAC payments kicking in later on.
c. postpone taking RMDs on value of the QLAC (and avoid the income tax that would be due on those RMDs) until it actually begins making payments.

Both b and c are correct. The main reason to consider a QLAC is to hedge against the possibility of running through your savings and finding yourself short of the income you need late in retirement. But the fact that you can postpone RMDs and the tax that would be due on them is an added bonus. To qualify for this bonus, however, you must be sure that the longevity annuity you buy with your 401(k) or IRA funds meets the Treasury Department’s criteria to be designated as a QLAC and that the amount you put into the QLAC doesn’t exceed the lesser of $125,000 or 25% of your account balance.

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.

Read next: Why the Right Kind of Annuity Can Boost Your Retirement Income

MONEY Savings

This Is The Biggest Threat to Your Retirement Number

141467898
Image Source—Getty Images

The one thing that can suddenly derail your retirement strategy altogether.

The idea of coming up with an exact number for how much you need to save for retirement is an attractive one for savers. By drawing a visible finish line for your retirement savings, a retirement number can be the foundation of your financial planning throughout your career.

In coming up with a good estimate for a retirement number, it’s crucial to understand how having a bad market in early retirement can have a huge impact on the viability of your entire long-term retirement strategy. If you don’t take this risk into account, it could pose a threat to the accuracy of the retirement number you’ve spent a lifetime seeking to reach.

How a bad market early in retirement can snare you
In coming up with a viable retirement number, the ideal situation is one in which you can weather the worst future conditions the financial markets can throw at you. Much of the time, planning for the worst will leave you in far better shape than you expected, as worst-case scenarios don’t occur very often. Yet if you truly want a retirement number that maximizes the probability that your money will outlast you, you can’t afford to ignore realistic future scenarios, no matter how improbable they might be.

In doing research on the retirement-number question, many experts have noticed that the most difficult situations retirees face occur when a major market correction occurs soon after a person retires. Even when overall average annual returns over the long run are similar, a retiree who suffers poor performance early in retirement has a much harder time preserving his assets than one who’s fortunate enough to avoid bad markets until later on. Indeed, in some cases, even a retiree who has ahigher average annual return in retirement still ends up worse off if the worst years come early on.

Experts call this problem sequence-of-return risk, and the problem stems from the fact that retirees need to take withdrawals from their savings in order to cover their living expenses in retirement. In simplest terms, bad performance early in retirement forces you to “sell low” by liquidating investments at fire-sale prices to cover your required withdrawals. If poor initial returns last long enough, then you won’t have enough money to enjoy the full benefit of any future rebound in the financial markets.

2 ways to protect against this retirement-number risk
In response to sequence-of-returns risk, financial analysts have come up with conservative rules of thumb such as the well-known 4% rule to help savers build more secure retirement nest eggs. Using historical data that suggests a typical balanced portfolio with stocks and bonds can make it through tough market conditions for a 30-year period as long as you start out taking no more than 4% of your initial portfolio value, coming up with a retirement number is simple: Just multiply your expected annual income needs in retirement by 25.

However, there are several problems with that approach. First, many people have a hard time saving 25 times their expected net spending in retirement. Also, some believe the 4% rule could be problematic in a low-interest rate environment, because low initial bond yields leave the income-generating side of the portfolio weaker than usual.

An alternative approach uses a different way of thinking about retirement. The benefit of the 4% rule is that it aims to provide exact expectations for what you can safely spend. Yet in reality, most retirees aren’t terribly comfortable continuing to spend at heightened levels when the markets move against them, and they instead look at ways to economize and spend less. Adapting the 4% rule to allow for reductions in withdrawals during lean return years is an idea that has been floating around for years, and research suggests that if a retiree can handle volatile markets by cutting spending, it can reduce the needed multiple of annual expenses from 25 down to 20 or lower.

Stay safe
With markets at high levels now, those who have recently retired are understandably nervous about the potential fallout from sequence-of-returns risk. Your best defense against this risk is to find ways to be more flexible with your financial needs. If you can build in some resiliency to changing future conditions, you’ll be much more likely to aim at a retirement number that will get the job done.

More From Motley Fool:

MONEY Pensions

The Trouble With Taking a Lump Sum Pension Payout

dropper squeezing out coins
Yasu+Junko

Tempted to trade your pension for a lump sum? Here's why you should think twice.

Congratulations! You’re one of the shrinking number of Americans who have earned the right to a pension—guaranteed income for life for you and maybe for your spouse as well. Just make sure you don’t give it up too easily.

That’s a real risk. Up to half of companies with pension plans, say experts, give workers the option of taking their pension as a lump sum. On top of that, 47% of corporate plans, including those from Boeing and Hewlett-Packard, either have just made or will soon make pension buyout offers to vested former employees, benefits firm Aon Hewitt reported earlier this year. Driving those offers are IRS rules expected to make buyouts less favorable for employers within a year or so.

Lump-sum checks, often in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, are tempting. Fifty-eight percent of employees take buyouts, and the share taking the lump-sum option at retirement is likely higher, says Aon Hewitt consultant Ari Jacobs.

Pension industry experts and consumer advocates, however, say that for most workers the traditional pension is a better deal. So before you decide, think this over:

When to Take Steady Payments

If you or your spouse is in good health and has a family history of longevity, lean toward taking the monthly pension. The advantages: The money lasts for life. If you make it to age 90—and 28% of 65-year-olds do—you’ll still be getting that check. And, in exchange for smaller benefits, your spouse can continue to receive half or often all of those monthly payments after your death. So if you’re a man and your wife survives you—on average, she will—she’ll get cash for life too. One downside: Unlike Social Security, most private pensions don’t adjust for inflation, so your purchasing power will diminish over time.

Now, you could invest the lump sum (set by a complex IRS formula) and use it to fund a monthly stipend. But even if you’re the next Warren Buffett, you’d likely get less each month than you would from a pension. Say you’re due $1,500 a month, or $1,295 if you opt for a 100% survivor’s benefit. If you took the roughly $240,000 you’d receive instead and sought to have it last a 65-year-old’s average life span of about 20 years (see chart), you’d pay yourself only $1,213, calculates David Blanchett, Morningstar’s director of retirement research. And this strategy would have only an 80% chance of success. To be safe, you’d have to cut your allowance to $1,000 a month—or $855 to last until you’re 90.

Why is the lump-sum income so low? Flying solo, you have to make sure your money lasts a full 20 or 25 years. But in a group plan, a lot of people will live shorter lives, so less money has to be reserved for them. The result is more generous monthly payouts for everyone, says Robert Goldbloom, a principal at pension consultant Penbridge Advisors. “People who don’t live as long subsidize those who live longer,” he says. That makes pensions a particularly good deal for women, given that they generally live longer than men.

When to Take the Lump Sum

If you’re in poor health and don’t have to provide for a spouse, the math favors the lump sum. Given a life expectancy of a decade or less, you’d have more than enough to duplicate a pension. In the above example, you could pay yourself $1,500 a month over 10 years, not invest a dime, and still have $60,000 left over.

A lump sum also makes sense if you have no cash in the bank or investments you can tap for emergencies. You could keep part of that money in the bank for urgent needs, and live off the rest.

Should you be lucky enough to live comfortably off other sources of income, you could take the money and invest it aggressively to maximize a possible inheritance for your beneficiaries.

Finally, take into account your pension plan’s health. Most private-sector plans with at least 26 workers are backstopped by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.—up to about $5,000 a month for a single-employer plan, but far less for a multi-employer plan. Check on your plan’s “funded status”—a measure of its assets and liabilities. If the number, which the plan has to report to you annually, is falling toward 80%, that’s worrisome; you might take the bird in the hand if you’d lose much of your benefits from a failed plan.

In any case, your best bet is to roll the money into a traditional IRA; otherwise, you’ll get a big tax bill. Smaller withdrawals from the IRA, on the other hand, will likely be taxed at a lower rate.


 

150722_RET_CashDrain
MONEY Social Security

How Reading Your Social Security Statement Can Make You Richer

senior reading bills
Getty Images

Making smart use of the information in your benefits statement can save your retirement.

The Social Security Administration is learning what financial educators have known for decades: good information is helpful but does not always lead to useful action. Now, in a bid to help individuals make smarter decisions about their benefits and retirement income overall, a push is on to broaden the regular Social Security statements that all taxpayers receive.

Social Security is the nation’s most important source of retirement security, providing half the monthly income of half of all retirees. Yet the system is so complicated that many puzzle over when to take monthly benefits, which may vary widely depending on the age at which you begin. You can start at age 62. But your check is about 8% higher for each year you delay until age 70.

As traditional pensions disappear, Social Security is the only source of guaranteed lifetime income that many future retirees will have. Making the most of it is critical—and it may be as simple as just reading your statement, now available online, in order to understand your options. (To find yours, go to ssa.gov/myaccount.)

The government began mailing a regular benefits statement in 1995, but stopped in 2011 as a cost-cutting measure and tried to direct people to the Social Security website instead. Last fall, however, the agency began mailing out paper statements again to recipients every few years.

This statement shows your expected monthly Social Security benefit at various retirement dates. Studies show that 40% of taxpayers use these calculations in their planning, according to a new study from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. But individuals do not use this information as a prod to change the date that they intend to start taking benefits, the CRR’s researchers found.

This is a familiar disconnect that lurks in money behavior at many levels. Proponents of financial education have had a difficult time proving that kids or adults who are taught about things like budgets and retirement saving put this knowledge to good use and make smarter money decisions because of the knowledge they have gained. They understand. They can pass a test. But does this knowledge change behavior for the better? Some encouraging signs are surfacing. But the lasting impact of financial education remains an open question.

Looking at a set of studies centered on awareness of the regular Social Security statements, researchers at CRR found that more Americans have been delaying benefits since the statements began arriving in mailboxes 20 years ago. But they attribute this entirely to outside forces, including a higher rate of college graduates, greater longevity and longer careers. “The information contained in the statement is not sufficient to improve their retirement behavior,” the authors note.

The upshot: a more “comprehensive” Social Security statement would lead more taxpayers to better optimize their benefit, CRR asserts. That might mean including instruction on how to place Social Security benefits in context with other assets and income sources, and how to determine the amount of monthly income you are likely to need.

Meanwhile, to make sure you are making the right claiming decision, gather the information in your statements and plug those numbers into one or more Social Security calculators; you can find several listed here. As a study last year by Financial Engines found, many individuals are leaving $100,000 or more in income on the table—as much as $250,000 for married couples—by choosing the wrong claiming strategy. That money could make your retirement a whole lot more comfortable.

Read next: This Is the Maximum Benefit You Can Get from Social Security

MONEY retirement income

This Is the Top Secret of Wealthy Retirees

yacht in front of Miami mansions
Barry Winiker—Getty Images

Successful retirees still save nearly a third of income from their pension and 401(k) distributions.

Individuals that have saved successfully for retirement evidently cannot kick the habit. Even after they have reached retirement age they continue to save, on average, 31% of income, new research shows.

In many cases this continued saving comes from income streams guaranteed for life, such as a traditional pension, certain annuities, or Social Security. So further saving may have little to do with financial security—and much to do with a routine that has served them well over the years. If you are looking for the top secret of affluent retirees, it may be just that simple.

Retiree income flows from five primary sources, according to the research from fund company Vanguard. Guaranteed lifetime income is the biggest cut at 42%. Withdrawals from tax-advantaged accounts like IRAs and 401(k) plans are the second biggest source (20%), followed by pay from a part-time job (12%), withdrawals from savings accounts (7%) and from specialty accounts like a cash-value life insurance policy (4%).

The income source matters. Those who mainly get by on withdrawals from a 401(k) or other financial accounts reinvest about a third of what they take out due, say, to required minimum distribution rules. Those collecting guaranteed monthly income save only 25%.

This makes perfect sense. Lifetime income, by definition, never runs out. Those who get most of their income this way are under far less pressure to save anything at all. Meanwhile, those living off withdrawals from financial accounts, which can run dry, show a predictable concern with that possibility.

These are findings worthy of some study in government and pension circles. In coming years, a greater share of retirees will rely more heavily on their own savings, which could undermine spending in general and take a bite out of economic growth. On the other hand, those who get most of their income from withdrawals from financial accounts are more likely to work longer or part-time in retirement, which contributes to the economy and probably the individual health of those doing so.

The Vanguard study looked at households where the head was 60 to 79 years old, had at least $100,000 of investable assets, and at least one member of the household was fully or partially retired. This is an affluent, though not rich, group that continues to save and, in some ways may be doing so inappropriately.

Two-thirds of the money saved from income that comes from financial accounts goes into low-yielding savings vehicles. That might be by design—a desire to lower risk or save for a big purchase. But it might also be the result of inertia—required distributions left unattended. If such distributions are not needed for spending they might be better reinvested in growth or higher income accounts.

It’s tempting to assume that affluent retirees keep saving simply because they have the means to live as they wish and still have income left over. But that probably sells them short. They had to save or work hard for their pension to get there. It’s the habit that made it happen—and once established it’s tough to kick.

Read next: How Being a Boring Investor Can Make You Rich

MONEY retirement income

Why the Right Kind of Annuity Can Boost Your Retirement Income

Senior Man Hands Holding Money
Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MONEY Social Security

Here’s What You Can Really Expect from Social Security

Senior Couple
Getty Images

The projected Social Security shortfall is likely to hit younger workers hardest.

Social Security turns 80 next month and, as always, one of big unknowns for this octogenarian program is how much longer it will be around—at least in its present form.

Social Security has two trust funds: the Old-Age and Survivors (OAS) fund, and its smaller sibling, the Disability Insurance ( DI) fund. Most people lump the funds together as the OASDI retirement program. But they operate separately. Out of the 6.2% payroll tax that workers and their employers each must pay into Social Security, 5.3% goes into the OAS fund and 0.9% to the DI fund.

The bigger OAS fund is what most people focus on when they worry about Social Security’s long-term sustainability. Every year program trustees issue an report that includes the latest projections about how long the fund will last.

Money Running Out

Last year’s report said the combined reserves of both funds would be exhausted in the year 2033, at which time it could pay only 77¢ on the dollar of its benefit obligations. The DI fund, however, faces a more immediate crisis. It will run out of money in 2016—as in next year—and its 0.9% payroll tax levy will then collect only enough to pay 81% of its benefit obligations.

The DI fund has faced shortfalls before, and Congress has papered over the problem by transferring money into it from the larger OAS fund. When the Republicans assumed control of both houses of Congress this year, however, they rejected this short-term fix and said they would be seeking a longer-term solution before DI funds ran out. Expecting anything more before next year’s elections than a last-minute bailout from the OAS fund is a long shot.

Regardless of the DI fund situation, the biggest concern for future retirees remains the OAS fund. On paper, there are loads of reasonable ways to return the fund to long-term sustainability. But there is no sign yet that Congress is any more willing to tackle this issue than it has been during the many years since it became a well-known problem. If anything, Democrats have seized on rising income inequality to mount a campaign that Social Security benefits should be increased, not reduced.

Future Benefit Cuts

All of which raises the big question: What should current workers and near-retirees expect from Social Security now?

For anyone 55 or older, relax—it’s highly unlikely that your Social Security benefits will change substantially. Even the reform proposals with the steepest benefit cuts tend to leave this age group alone.

Younger generations, however, have more reason to be concerned. Opinion polls regularly find that many younger workers think Social Security will not be there for them when they retire.

While I think Social Security certainly will be around for another 80 years, I do think it makes sense for people younger than 50 to build a contingency in their retirement plans that would allow for, say, a 10% haircut in benefits for those ages 45 to 55, and a 20% trim for those who are younger.

Personally, I do not think these cuts will occur. But even under existing Social Security rules, Social Security’s so-called replacement rate—benefits as a percentage of pre-retirement incomes—has been slowly declining and is projected to continue doing so.

Lifting the Wage Ceiling

Younger high-income earners, in particular, should plan for smaller Social Security benefits. That’s because one of the most likely ways to improve system finances, as well as one of the most politically popular, is to substantially increase the level of annual wage income on which payroll taxes are levied. It stands at $118,500 this year but could easily be doubled and then some under many proposals. And some progressive reformers would remove the wage ceiling entirely, exposing all wage income to Social Security taxes.

However, more drastic benefit reductions are unlikely. Why?

More than half of couples aged 65 and older depend on Social Security for more than half of their total household income. For single beneficiaries, nearly 75% are reliant on Social Security for most of their income.

These figures will be cited with increasingly frequency as the 2016 Presidential campaign picks up steam. So will the reality these older Americans tend to show up to vote at a higher-than-average rate. There is a reason Social Security is called the “third rail” of American politics—and it hasn’t lost that juice at all.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is co-author of The New York Times bestseller, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” and is working on a companion book about Medicare. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: This Is the Maximum Benefit You Can Get from Social Security

MONEY Opinion

4 Agenda Items Missing From Monday’s White House Conference on Aging

536989529
Getty Images

The agenda for the July 13th conference overlooks some of the most pressing issues facing seniors today.

When presidents call Americans together to talk about aging, major change is possible. The first White House Conference on Aging in 1961 played a midwife’s role in the birth of Medicare; the 1971 conference led to creation of the automatic cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security, which has been in place since 1975.

This year’s conference, set for Monday, July 13, could have similar impact in a country facing the challenges of a rapidly aging population.

Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic that this year’s summit will be as productive as past ones have been. While I’d love to be proven wrong, the agenda overlooks too many important issues: rapid diversification of our older population, retirement inequality and assigning a bigger role to Social Security, and finding a way to protect pensions and Medicare.

Also, a failure by Congress to fund the event forced a sharp downsizing, limiting the number of voices that will be heard.

All in all, it’s shaping up as a missed opportunity at a time when aging in America is a growing challenge. In 2050, the 65-and-older population will be 83.7 million, almost double what it was in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Four broad topics will be considered: retirement security, healthy aging, preventing elder financial exploitation and abuse, and long-term services and supports. All are important, but much of the agenda reads like a rehash of ideas the Obama administration has been promoting for years, especially in the area of retirement security.

“The White House can always get a bunch of people together to talk about its own initiatives, but that isn’t the idea behind the conference on aging,” said Paul Kleyman, a longtime observer of trends in aging who was a delegate to the 1995 aging conference hosted by President Bill Clinton. “They’re using a talking points format to say ‘Here’s what we think and want to do,’ without really taking in and assessing what an aging nation is saying needs to be done.”

On the plus side, the agenda highlights the need to eliminate conflicted financial advice, and includes questions about how to better promote healthy aging.

Also up for discussion is how to help people age in place. A recent report from the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a) found that the biggest challenges seniors face concern inadequate transportation, living independently and finding affordable housing.

“The most frequent calls for help that we hear concern aging at home and staying in the community,” said Sandy Markwood, n4a’s chief executive officer. “That is the goal of most individuals. Rarely do we hear anyone saying, ‘I just can’t wait to go into an institutional setting.’ ”

But so much is missing. For starters, the rising importance of ethnic, non-white and LGBT elders. Kleyman, who directs coverage of ethnic elders at New America Media, noted that the percentage of ethnic and non-white elderly in the 65-plus population will double by 2050, to 42 percent. LGBT seniors, while smaller in total numbers, face discrimination in housing and healthcare.

Longevity Inequality

Another omitted topic: the pressing moral issue of inequality in longevity. White men with 16 or more years of schooling live an average of 14 years longer than black men with fewer than 12 years of education, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Racial and gender and racial disparities also are evident in wealth and retirement income, another issue that gets short shrift. Instead, we get a rehash of ideas the Obama Administration has been hawking for years now: auto-IRAs at the federal and state levels, better access to workplace saving plan enrollment and simplified requirement minimum distribution rules.

The discussion of Social Security looks like it will be especially disappointing. The policy brief embraces generalities about “strengthening Social Security” without mentioning the boldest, smartest idea being advanced by the left flank of the President’s own party: expansion of benefits focused on low- and middle-class households. Finding ways to protect traditional pensions? Preserving Medicare as a defined benefit, and defending it against voucherization? Those are nowhere to be found.

The conference should be talking about the upside of aging, along with ways to encourage trends such as encore careers by fighting age discrimination in hiring, getting more employers to support phased retirement and re-thinking how higher education can serve older adults.

Plenty of advocates would like to raise these issues, but most won’t be present due to the funding constraints. Actual delegates will be replaced by an audience of hand-picked dignitaries; everyone else will be relegated to watch parties and submitting questions via social media.

So, let’s get the party started: @whitehouse. Take a wider, more inclusive view of aging in America.

MONEY mutual funds

Why Over Diversifying Your Investments Is Dangerous

151081267
Dimitri Vervitsiotis—Getty Images

Owning too many funds can make investing more complicated than it needs to be.

Do you collect mutual funds? Unlike hobbyists who collect stamps, art or rare coins, investors who own a multitude of funds are not better off.

While diversification is important to any portfolio, owning too many funds can make investing more complicated that necessary.

One of my clients owned 16 different accounts, including an array of stock and bond mutual funds. In all, he had 56 mutual fund positions. Everyone should be well-diversified, but this client had missed that mark. He had a cluttered collection of investments that didn’t serve him well.

A lot of folks are in the same situation: Their finances are a hodgepodge. Good financial advisors bring order to that mess, and adopt a common-sense strategy for the long term.

Five years ago, the client, a doctor, came to me because he wanted to retire. His portfolio was sizeable, yet he had no idea what he owned or why. “I simply don’t understand what I have,” he said. “Will I have enough cash flow in retirement?”

I told him his concern was spot-on. I helped consolidate his holdings while greatly improving his diversification.

Here’s what’s wrong with owning too many funds and other investments:

Tracking them all is difficult. You should review all your monthly statements. Following 16 accounts can be a nightmare. Rebalancing when your circumstances change or funds shift in value is a challenge. Evaluating performance is nearly impossible. Fewer funds and accounts are much easier to handle.

Duplication is common. With so many funds aggregated haphazardly with no plan, you get a lot of overlap. My client had some funds that matched his Standard & Poor’s 500 index fund, except they cost more in annual fees. There’s no sense in paying for more of the same thing.

There’s little diversification, and risk isn’t reduced. Ideally, a portfolio is sufficiently balanced so that if one asset suffers, others offset its losses. A study by Morningstar, the investment research firm, shows that owning more than four randomly selected funds decreases risk very little. Only a small difference exists between holding four funds and 30.

Figuring out where to get cash in retirement is a chore. Once retirement begins, you need to decide which accounts should provide your cash flow. Consolidated accounts made this process much easier.

In my client’s case, around 80% of his portfolio was in stocks or equity funds. His portfolio looked like that of a 30-year-old, not a 70-year-old. All that stock exposure was too risky for a man his age. You need to safeguard the value of your assets to see yourself through retirement.

We switched him to a 50%-50% split between stocks and bonds. This gave the client the ballast of a solid fixed-income allocation, and also allowed him enough stock exposure to keep his net worth growing – thus increasing his chance of leaving a substantial bequest for his heirs. Stocks’ growth usually offsets inflation, which eats away at bonds.

Before he came to us, my client was driving with no road map. In assisting him, we dramatically simplified his financial life.

As with most things, in the world of financial planning, simpler is better.

Jason Lina, CFA, CFP is Lead Advisor at Resource Planning Group Ltd. in Atlanta.

More From AdviceIQ:

MONEY retirement income

3 Retirement Loopholes That Are Likely to Close

77867394
Design Pics/Darren Greenwood—Getty Images

The government has a knack for catching on to the most popular loopholes.

There are plenty of tips and tricks to maximizing your retirement benefits, and more than a few are considered “loopholes” that taxpayers have been able to use to circumvent the letter of the law in order to pay less to the government.

But as often happens when too many people make use of such shortcuts, the government may move to close three retirement loopholes that have become increasingly popular as financial advisers have learned how to exploit kinks in the law.

1. Back-door Roth IRA conversions
The U.S. Congress created this particular loophole by lifting income restrictions from conversions from a traditional Individual Retirement Account (IRA) to a Roth IRA, but not listing these restrictions from the contributions to the accounts.

People whose incomes are too high to put after-tax money directly into a Roth, where the growth is tax-free, can instead fund a traditional IRA with a nondeductible contribution and shortly thereafter convert the IRA to a Roth.

Taxes are typically due in a Roth conversion, but this technique will not trigger much, if any, tax bill if the contributor does not have other money in an IRA.
President Obama’s 2016 budget proposal suggests that future Roth conversions be limited to pre-tax money only, effectively killing most back-door Roths.

Congressional gridlock, though, means action is not likely until the next administration takes over, said financial planner and enrolled agent Francis St. Onge with Total Financial Planning in Brighton, Michigan. He doubts any tax change would be retroactive, which means the window for doing back-door Roths is likely to remain open for awhile.

“It would create too much turmoil if they forced people to undo them,” says St. Onge.

2. The stretch IRA
People who inherit an IRA have the option of taking distributions over their lifetimes. Wealthy families that convert IRAs to Roths can potentially provide tax-free income to their heirs for decades, since Roth withdrawals are typically
not taxed.

That bothers lawmakers across the political spectrum who think retirement funds should be for retirement – not a bonanza for inheritors.

“Congress never imagined the IRA to be an estate-planning vehicle,” said Ed Slott, a certified public accountant and author of “Ed Slott’s 2015 Retirement Decisions Guide.”

Most recent tax-related bills have included a provision to kill the stretch IRA and replace it with a law requiring beneficiaries other than spouses to withdraw the money within five years.

Anyone contemplating a Roth conversion for the benefit of heirs should evaluate whether the strategy makes sense if those heirs have to withdraw the money within five years, Slott said.

3. “Aggressive” strategies for Social Security
Obama’s budget also proposed to eliminate “aggressive” Social Security claiming strategies, which it said allow upper-income beneficiaries to manipulate the timing of collection of Social Security benefits in order to maximize delayed retirement credits.

Obama did not specify which strategies, but retirement experts said he is likely referring to the “file and suspend” and “claim now, claim more later” techniques.

Married people can claim a benefit based on their own work record or a spousal benefit of up to half their partner’s benefit. Dual-earner couples may profit by doing both.

People who choose a spousal benefit at full retirement age (currently 66) can later switch to their own benefit when it maxes out at age 70 – known as the “claim now, claim more later” approach that can boost a couple’s lifetime Social Security payout by tens of thousands of dollars.

The “file and suspend” technique can be used in conjunction with this strategy or on its own. Typically one member of a couple has to file for retirement benefits for the other partner to get a spousal benefit.

Someone who reaches full retirement age also has the option of applying for Social Security and then immediately suspending the application so that the benefit continues to grow, while allowing a spouse to claim a spousal benefit.

People close to retirement need not worry, said Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff, who wrote the bestseller “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Social Security.”

“I don’t see them ever taking anything away that they’ve already given,” Kotlikoff said. “If they do something, they’ll have to phase it in.”

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com