MONEY Social Security

This Letter Can Be Worth $1 Million

envelope with $100 bills
Steven Puetzer—Getty Images

Paper Social Security statements are back. Here’s how to use that information to plan smarter.

This fall the Social Security Administration began mailing out benefit statements for the first time since 2011. It’s crucial information, especially if you’re poised to move to your beach condo in Boca soon. “For many upper-middle-class couples, those benefits can be worth as much as $1 million over the course of your retirement,” says Chris Jones, chief investment officer of 401(k) adviser Financial Engines.

To save money, Social Security had been directing people to its website for benefits information. After a backlash, the agency resumed mailings to most workers reaching landmark birthdays—ages 40, 45, and so on. Of course, you don’t need to wait for a paper statement to find out how your benefit stacks up. For an estimate, simply sign up online.

YOURThat’s well worth doing if you’re within a few years of retirement. Your future Social Security income is key to determining if your financial strategy is on track. Then take these steps.

Proofread it. Make sure your earnings history is accurate. “If Social Security doesn’t have an earnings record for a particular year, there will be a zero, which may reduce your benefit,” says Boston University economics professor Laurence Kotlikoff, who heads MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com, an online benefits calculator.

Set your target. Your statement will have the income you can expect at three different retirement ages, assuming you keep working at your current salary. But you have far more options for when to start collecting benefits. If you are single, have never married, and don’t plan to work in retirement, your choice will be straightforward most of the time. Your main decision is whether to delay filing, which will boost your benefit by 6% to 8% a year up until the maximum at age 70. Financial Engines and AARP have free online tools that let you compare your annual and lifetime benefits based on the age you claim.

Plot the best strategy. If you’ve ever been married, your choices are more complex. “Your claiming strategy can be the biggest retirement decision you’ll make,” says Jones. Coordinating benefits with your spouse the right way can add as much as $250,000 to your lifetime Social Security income, according to Financial Engines. That’s why you may want to pay for a calculator that allows you to add more variables, such as working in retirement or a wide age gap in your marriage. MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com ($40) and SocialSecuritySolutions.com (starts at $20) both do that.

Get a reality check. Once you have a rough idea of your future benefit, plug that number into a retirement-income calculator, such as the tool at T. Rowe Price. You’ll see if your payouts, plus your portfolio withdrawals, are enough to ensure a comfortable retirement. If not, use the tool to see how saving more or working longer can help, or consult an adviser. Given the dollars at stake, devising a smart Social Security strategy can be well worth a fee.

MONEY retirement income

The Search for Income in Retirement

Why we may be focusing too much on our nest egg and not enough on cash flow.

There are three components to retirement planning: accumulation, investment, and managing for income. And while we are usually more fixated on “the number” on our balance sheet, the bigger challenge is ensuring that a retirement portfolio can generate enough steady money as we live out our days.

In a recent academic panel hosted by the Defined Contribution Institutional Investment Association (DCIIA), professors Michael Finke of Texas Tech and Stephen Zeldes of Columbia University illustrated the challenge of getting into an income mindset by discussing what’s known as the “annuity puzzle.”

If people were to take their 401(k)s and convert them into annuities, they would get a lifetime income stream. And yet very few people actually annuitize, in part because they don’t want to lose control over their hard-earned savings. “Getting people to start thinking about their retirement in an income stream instead of a lump sum is a big problem,” Finke told the audience.

Also at play is the phenomenon of present bias, whereby half a million dollars today sounds a lot better than, say, $2,500 a month for the rest of your life. This is a major knowledge gap that needs to be addressed. A new survey of more than 1,000 Americans aged 60-75 with at least $100,000 conducted for the American College of Financial Services found that of all of the issues of financial literacy, respondents were least informed about how to use annuities as an income strategy. When asked to choose between taking an annuity over a lump sum from a defined benefit plan in order to meet basic living expenses, less than half agreed that the annuity was the better choice.

Granted, annuities are complicated products. In the past, they got a bad rap for not having death benefits and otherwise misleading investors, but the industry has evolved, and there are now so many different options that it would be quite an undertaking to wade through and understand them all. And annuities aren’t the only way to generate income. Another option people might want to consider is a real estate investment that can throw off consistent revenues from rent. The point is to start thinking more not just about accumulating money but about how you can make that money work for you by turning it into an income-producing asset.

In the meantime, academics like Zeldes are working on how to make annuitization more appealing. In a paper published in the Journal of Public Economics in August 2014, Zeldes and colleagues suggest that people are more likely to annuitize if they can do so with only part of their nest egg, and even a partial annuity can be better than no annuity at all. Zeldes also found that people prefer an extra “bonus” payment during one month of the year, which means that they essentially want their annuity to seem less annuity-like. I’m all for product innovation, but in this case I think we’d be better off learning the value of a steady stream—especially over a fake “bonus.”

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.

Read more about annuities in the Ultimate Retirement Guide:
What is an immediate annuity?
What is a longevity annuity?
How do I know if buying an annuity is right for me?

MONEY retirement income

The Powerful (and Expensive) Allure of Guaranteed Retirement Income

141203_RET_Guaranteed
D. Hurst—Alamy

Workers may never regain their appetite for measured risk in the wake of the Great Recession, new research shows.

People have always loved a sure thing. But certainty has commanded a higher premium since the Great Recession. Five years into a recovery—and with stocks having tripled from the bottom—workers overwhelmingly say they prefer investments with a guarantee to those with higher growth potential and the possibility of losing value, new research shows.

Such is the lasting impact of a dramatic market downdraft. The S&P 500 plunged 53% in 2007-2009, among the sharpest declines in history. Housing collapsed as well. Yet the S&P 500 long ago regained all the ground it had lost. Housing has been recovering as well.

Still, in an Allianz poll of workers aged 18 to 55, 78% said they preferred lower certain returns than higher returns with risk. Specifically, they chose a hypothetical product with a 4% annual return and no risk of losing money over a product with an 8% annual return and the risk of losing money in a down market. Guarantees make retirees happy.

This reluctance to embrace risk, or at least the urge to dial it way back, may be appropriate for those on the cusp of retirement. But for the vast majority of workers, reaching retirement security without the superior long-term return of stocks would prove a tall order. Asked what would prevent them from putting new cash into a retirement savings account, 40% cited fear of market uncertainty and another 22% cited today’s low interest rates, suggesting that fixed income is the preferred investment of most workers. Here’s what workers would do with new cash, according to Allianz:

  • 39% would invest in a product that caps gains at 10% and limits losses to 10%.
  • 19% would invest in a product with 3% growth potential and no risk of loss.
  • 19% would invest in a savings account earning little or no interest.
  • 12% would hold their extra cash and wait for the market to correct before investing.
  • 11% would invest in a product with high growth potential and no protection from loss.

These results jibe with other findings in the poll, including the top two concerns of pre-retirees: fear of not being able to cover day-to-day expenses and outliving their money. These fears drive them to favor low-risk investments. One product line gaining favor is annuities. Some 41% in the poll said purchasing such an insurance product, locking in guaranteed lifetime income, was one of the smartest things they could do when they are five to 10 years away from retiring.

Lifetime income has become a hot topic. With the erosion of traditional pensions, Social Security is the only sure thing that most of today’s workers have in terms of a reliable income stream that will never run out. Against this backdrop, individuals have been more open to annuities and policymakers, asset managers and financial planners have been searching for ways to build annuities into employer-sponsored defined-contribution plans.

Doing so would address what may be our biggest need in the post defined-benefits world and one that workers want badly enough to forgo the stock market’s better long-run track record.

More from Money’s Ultimate Retirement Guide:

How do I know if buying an annuity is right for me?

What annuity payout options do I have?

How can I get rid of an annuity I no longer want?

MONEY retirement income

5 Retirement Investing Pitches You Should Ignore

Egg in cup tilted to look like fish swimming toward hook
Ramón Espelt Photography—Getty Images/Flickr

If a financial adviser tries to sell you on one of these investment vehicles, don't take the bait.

You’re probably already wise to many schemes designed to separate you from your money—emails from Nigerian princes, phishing scams, and the like. But does your BS detector go off when confronted with slick come-ons for perfectly legal but dubious investments? To see, check out these five pitches that are often targeted to people investing for retirement.

1. “What you need is a self-directed IRA.” If the people pushing self-directed IRAs recommended that you self-direct your IRA dough into low-cost index funds, I’d urge you to sign on. But the companies and advisers pushing self-directed IRAs typically tout them as a way to invest your retirement dollars in “alternative” or “nontraditional” investments that can range from cattle and fishing rights to restaurant franchises and bankruptcy claims, all in the name of diversification. “Di-worse-ification” is more likely. State securities regulators even warn that some promoters may step over the line into illicit investments or activities.

If you’ve got a huge retirement stash and want to take a flier with a teensy-weensy percentage of it in legal-but-exotic alternatives, fine. Good luck with it. But if you’re dealing with money you’ll be relying on to get you through retirement, stick with a good old, if slightly boring, diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds.

2. “I can get you high yields safely!” Given today’s low interest rates, who wouldn’t take this bait? Problem is, the combination of high yields and low risk is an oxymoron. Fatter yields and higher returns always come with greater risk, even if that risk isn’t apparent or is being downplayed by the person peddling the investment. Which means pushing the envelope for more yield can backfire. Just think back to 2008, when investors got burned in auction-rate securities, bank loan funds. and other investments that were marketed as cash equivalents.

When it comes to the portion of your savings that you must have ready access to and don’t want to put at risk, you need to play it safe. So resist the siren song of tempting yields offered by private investment notes, promissory notes, commercial mortgage notes, and the like and limit yourself to top-paying FDIC-insured savings accounts and short-term CDs. Granted, they’re not yielding much, but at least you won’t be in for any nasty surprises.

3. “Don’t risk your money on the volatile stock market—buy gold.” The gold fanatics haven’t been out in force lately because the stock market has been doing so well, up an annualized 20% or so for the past three years. But the gold bugs will resurface big time once stocks hit an extended period of turbulence or experience a major 2008-style meltdown. That’s when you’ll hear phrases like “nothing holds its value like gold” and “gold provides a safe haven against stock market volatility.”

When you hear those lines, remember this. Gold can fluctuate just as wildly as stocks. Gold recently traded at around $1,200 an ounce. Which means anyone who bought gold three years ago at a price of $1,700 an ounce is sitting on a loss of almost 30%. There may be other reasons to put a bit of your savings in gold—diversification, a hedge against inflation, or a weak dollar (although I’m not a big gold fan even for these reasons). But if it’s stability of principal you seek, gold is not where you’ll find it.

4. “For retirement peace of mind, buy yourself guaranteed income.” There’s actually a lot of truth to this statement. Research shows that retirees who get a monthly check for life from a traditional pension are more content than those who have the same level of wealth but only a 401(k). The problem is that many of the people touting the virtues of guaranteed income are often peddling variable annuities with income riders that can carry bloated fees of 2% to 3% a year, and are devilishly complicated to boot.

If you would like more guaranteed lifetime income than Social Security alone will provide, consider putting a portion of your savings into a type of annuity that’s easier to understand, less costly, and that you can comparison shop for on your own: an immediate annuity. Then invest the remainder of your nest egg in a mix of stocks and bonds that can provide additional income, plus long-term growth.

5. Forget bonds—you can live off stock dividends! Unfortunately, it’s not just wrong-headed advisers who spout the line that dividend-paying stocks are a reasonable substitute these days to bonds. Many of my compadres in the financial press also create the impression that putting more money into dividend stocks is an acceptable way to generate extra income now that bond yields are so low. Granted, bond yields are anemic. And when interest rates rise (whenever that may be), bond prices will take a hit, with longer-maturity bonds getting whacked more than short- to intermediate-term issues.

But none of that means that dividend-paying stocks are less risky than bonds. Stocks that pay dividends are still stocks, and thus far more volatile than bonds. If you doubt that, consider this: From its high in May 2007 to its low in March 2009, the iShares Select Dividend ETF lost more than 60% of its value compared to just over 50% for the broad stock market. That’s an extreme case. But the point is that dividends or no, stocks have a much bigger downside potential than bonds.

So by all means include dividend stocks as part of the stock allocation in your portfolio. But don’t let anyone sell you on the idea that dividend stocks can be a substitute for bonds.

More From RealDealRetirement.com:

The Smart Way To Double Your Nest Egg in 10 Years
How Smart An Investor Are You? Take This Quiz
How To Build A $1 Million IRA

 

MONEY Social Security

Why Social Security Suddenly Changed Its Benefits Withdrawal Rule

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I retired in 2009 to care for an ailing parent who has since passed away. I took Social Security at age 62, when the law allowed claimants to pay back their Social Security and receive the highest benefits at age 70. Since that time the law has changed and repayment can only be made in the first year. Do you know of any proposal to change the current rules for those who signed up under the old law? —Sandra

A: As Sandra correctly notes, Social Security changed its benefits withdrawal policy in December 2010, after she had retired under its prior rules—and it’s one of the most unusual policy shifts that the agency has enacted. Consider that Social Security, which often gets dinged for slow response time, made this change lightning fast. What’s more, the new policy seems to have little to do with the needs of beneficiaries like Sandra and everything to do with the agency being surprised—and perhaps chagrined—that people were paying attention to its often arcane rules and actually taking advantage of them.

Under the old policy, people who had begun receiving benefits could, at any time, pay back everything they’d received and effectively wipe clean their benefit history. By resetting their benefit record this way, people who took reduced retirement benefits early would be able to file later for much higher monthly payments. For people born between 1943 and 1954, for example, retirement benefits at age 70 are 76% higher than those taken at age 62.

Few people paid much attention to this rule until a growing group of financial planners and Social Security experts began highlighting the possible gains of withdrawing benefits and delaying claiming. As the word spread, journalists began to write about these rules for an even wider audience.

Social Security, which previously had no problem with the rule when few were using it, changed its mind as more and more people began withdrawing their benefits. Suddenly, without an extended period for evaluation or debate, the agency issued a final rule limiting the benefit withdrawal option—and it took effect immediately. If the public wanted to comment, it would be able to do so only after the rule was changed. By comparison, the decision to raise the official retirement age in the program from 66 to 67 was enacted in 1983—37 years before it will take effect in the year 2020.

Here’s what the agency said at the time it changed its rules on withdrawing benefits:

“The agency is changing its withdrawal policy because recent media articles have promoted the use of the current policy as a means for retired beneficiaries to acquire an ‘interest-free loan.’ However, this ‘free loan’ costs the Social Security Trust Fund the use of money during the period the beneficiary is receiving benefits with the intent of later withdrawing the application and the interest earned on these funds. The processing of these withdrawal applications is also a poor use of the agency’s limited administrative resources in a time of fiscal austerity—resources that could be better used to serve the millions of Americans who need Social Security’s services.”

Further, in making the shift to a one-year withdrawal period, the agency explained that the policy was designed to reduce the value of the option so few people would use it. Today, by the way, the agency supports delaying retirement much more than it used to.

Of course, telling people to delay claiming is of little help to people like Sandra, who retired under the old rule and was caught by the sudden policy shift. Is there any likelihood that the rule could be changed to accommodate this group? Not really, says James Nesbitt, a Social Security claims representative for nearly 40 years who is now providing benefits expertise for High Falls Advisors in Rochester, NY. “Unfortunately,” he says, “this change did not contain any grandfathering provision. I am not aware of any pending actions within Congress or Social Security that would extend grandfather rights to those who were disadvantaged by this change.”

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His book, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” will be published in February by Simon & Schuster. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

More on Social Security:

How to protect your retirement income from Social Security mistakes

Here’s how Social Security will cut your benefits if you retire early

Will Social Security be enough to retire on?

Read next: Can I Collect Social Security From My Ex?

MONEY Second Career

Still Working After 75—and Loving It

Singer Willie Nelson performs during an “In Performance at the White House” series event
One of many working seniors, singer Willie Nelson, 81, is still on the road. Jacquelyn Martin—AP

Growing numbers of Americans in their 70s and 80s love their jobs and have no plans to retire. You might be one of them someday.

Willie Nelson is 81; Warren Buffett is 84; Mary Higgins Clark is 86 and David Hockney is 77. All are still working and going strong. So are more and more Americans 75 and older. You might be one of them someday—and glad of it.

In a recent interview, British painter David Hockney—one of the world’s greatest living artists—captured the joy, meaning and youthfulness he continues to draw from his profession. “When I’m working, I feel like Picasso, I feel I’m 30,” he told Tim Lewis of The London Observer. “When I stop I know I’m not, but when I paint, I stand up for six hours a day and yeah, I feel I’m 30.”

‘It’s What I Enjoy Doing’

I imagine that sentiment rings true for Mark Paper, age 81. He’s President of Lewis Bolt & Nut Company in Wayzata, Minn., a firm owned by his family since 1927. Paper took the helm from his father in 1962 and remains deeply involved in the company’s expanding operations. He gets daily and weekly reports, stays in touch with its executives and flies out to visit the manufacturing plant in La Junta, Colo. several times a month.

“Why not stop working?” I asked Paper. “You have money. You’re 81 years old. Haven’t you heard of retirement?” His answer: “It’s what I enjoy doing.”

Plenty of other septuagenarians and octogenarians feel the same way.

Although people working at age 75 and over are a distinct minority—comprising less than 1% of the total labor force—roughly 11% of American men 75 and older are still at it and 5% of women that age are. By contrast, in 1992, only about 7% of 75+ men and 3% of 75+ women worked.

Indeed, after declining sharply in the early postwar decades, the average age of retirement in America has risen over the past two decades, to 64 for men and 62 for women, calculates Alicia Munnell, head of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

While the labor force participation rate for men 75 and up is currently about double that of the rate for women, the gap is expected to shrink. Boomer and Gen X women are well educated and more attached to their jobs than previous generations.

‘I Can’t Imagine Not Being Employed’

Marilyn Tully, 75, loves working, too. She has been self-employed her entire working life in businesses mostly revolving around the home and interior design. “I can’t imagine not being employed,” she says. “Especially if you still have the energy, which I do and, like me, you have the creative urge.”

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been rough patches. In 2007, she and her husband had to shutter their Naples, Fla. furniture business, a casualty of the housing market implosion, and her interior design company suffered. These days, her design business is picking up, she represents a successful jewelry designer and consults on inventory management for high-end designers. (Her husband handles the administrative and IT sides of her firms.) When they aren’t working, they sail Florida’s gulf coast for two weeks at a time on the trimaran Tully’s husband built. “It’s a good life,” she says.

‘It Keeps Me Young’

Newspaper publisher Jerry Bellune of Lexington, S.C., 77, works at a pace that would leave many younger workers gasping. He says running the Lexington County Chronicle & Dispatch News with his wife, MacLeod, offers him “enjoyment, exhilaration, a strong sense of mission and purpose.” On top of that, says Bellune, “it keeps me young, working with younger people and helping them grow personally and professionally.”

And he has no plans to stop. “I’d like to work as long as I’m able and can still make a contribution,” Bellune told me.

Here’s a typical workweek for him: Mondays and Tuesdays, he’s usually at the office, writing, proofing pages and talking with the staff about coverage, and the rest of the week he’s mostly writing and helping with community endeavors. Weekends are busy, too, writing weekly and monthly articles for a business magazine and two trade magazines. (He’s also a consultant and manages a family investment fund. Tired yet?)

The Bellunes do take breaks, traveling abroad several weeks a year and spending time at their vacation home. “We have an excellent staff that permits us that leisure,” he says.

‘It Keeps Me Off the Streets’

Funeral assistant Jerry Beddow, 75, loves working, too. A year after retiring as a high school principal in 1994, Beddow began his current job at Patton-Schad Funeral and Cremation Services in Sauk Centre, Minn. He works about three to four hours a day, helping position caskets at the funeral home, carrying flowers, talking to grieving families and driving the hearse. “It keeps me off the streets,” he laughs.

After researching my new book, Unretirement, I’ve come to believe that the ranks of people 75+ earning a paycheck will expand in coming decades, especially among better educated employees and businesss owners. It isn’t inconceivable that the average retirement age when the youngest boomers reach their 70s in the early 2030s could approach 70.

“Public opinion in the aggregate may decree that the average person becomes old at age 68, but you won’t get too far trying to convince people that age that the threshold applies to them,” notes Pew Research in its report, Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality. “Even among those who are 75 and older, just 35% say they feel old.”

The ones who are able to keep working well into their 70s, I think, will find themselves leading richer lives, both financially and psychically.

Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor for American Public Media’s Marketplace and author of the new book Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and The Good Life. He writes about Unretirement twice a month, focusing on the personal finance and entrepreneurial start-up implications and the lessons people learn as they search for meaning and income. Send your queries to him at cfarrell@mpr.org. His twitter address is @cfarrellecon.

More from Next Avenue:

Why Professional Men Over 60 Keep Working

The Good News About Women Working After 60

What Older Workers Want, But Aren’t Getting

MONEY Retirement

The Surprising Reason Employers Want You to Save for Retirement

man fails to make a putt
PM Images—Getty Images

Companies have stepped up their game with better options and features. Still, savings lag.

Employers have come a long way in terms of helping workers save for retirement. They have beefed up financial education efforts, embraced automatic savings features, and moved toward relatively safe one-decision investment options like target-date mutual funds. Yet our retirement savings crisis persists and may be taking a toll on the economy.

Three in four large or mid-sized employers with a 401(k) plan say that insufficient personal savings is a top concern for their workforce, according to a report from Towers Watson. Four in five say poor savings will become an even bigger issue for their employees in the next three years, the report concludes.

Personal money problems are a big and growing distraction at the office. The Society for Human Resources Management found that 83% of HR professionals report that workers’ money issues are having a negative impact on productivity, showing up in absenteeism rates, stress, and diminished ability to focus.

This fallout is one reason more employers are stepping up their game and making it easier to save smart. Today, 25% of 401(k) plans have an automatic enrollment feature, up from 17% five years ago, Fidelity found. And about a third of annual employee contribution hikes come from auto increase. Meanwhile, Fidelity clients with all their savings in a target-date mutual fund have soared to 35% of plan participants from just 3% a decade ago.

Yet companies know they must do more. Only 12% in the Towers report said their employees know how much they need for a secure retirement; only 20% said employees are comfortable making investment decisions. In addition, 53% of employers are concerned that older workers will have to delay retirement. That presents its own set of workplace challenges as employers are left with fewer slots to reward and retain their best younger workers.

Further innovation in investment options may help. The big missing piece today is a plan choice that converts into simple and cost-efficient guaranteed lifetime income. For a lot of reasons, annuities and other potential solutions have been slow to catch on inside of defined-contribution plans. But the push is on.

Another approach may be educational efforts that reach employees where they want to be found. The vast majority of employers continue to lean on traditional and passive methods of education, including sending out confusing account statements and newsletters, holding boring group meetings, and hosting webcasts. Less than 10% of employers incorporate mobile technology or have tried games designed to motivate employees to save.

These approaches have proved especially useful among young workers, who as a group have begun to save far earlier than previous generations. Still, some important lessons are not getting through. About half of all employers offer tax-free growth through a Roth savings option in their plan, yet only 11% of workers take advantage of the feature, Towers found. This is where better financial education could help.

 

 

MONEY retirement planning

Why Detroit’s Pension Deal Is a Warning to Retirement Savers

The Renaissance Center city skyline and the Detroit River viewed from Milliken State Park, Detroit, Michigan.
In Detroit retirees face steep pension cuts, which raises big questions about the financial security of workers elsewhere. Ian Dagnall—Alamy

The Motor City is counting on the market to keep its pension promises—a lot like under-saved 401(k) plan participants.

Guaranteed lifetime income has become the obsession of retirees, policymakers and the financial industry. Yet as the public pension debacle in bankrupt Detroit shows, we may never find a solution that completely eliminates the risk of your money running out.

The judge in Detroit’s closely watched proceedings said the recent deal the city cut with its retirees bordered on “miraculous,” as reported in The New York Times. That may be. But the deal still left the city’s 32,000 current and future retirees with diminished benefits and no certainty that they won’t be asked to give up more down the road. Their fate is largely in the hands of the markets—as is the case for millions of workers saving in 401(k) plans, and even many of those still covered by a private pension.

The problem is that there is only so much money we are willing to throw at the retirement savings crisis, an issue that has been exacerbated by an economy that until recently was growing far below potential. Every leg of the retirement stool is underfunded, including private pensions, though they are in the best shape. Many public pensions are in deep trouble. Social Security is on course for a funding shortfall. Personal savings are abysmal.

When government revenue or corporate profits or personal income are too low to allow for setting aside enough money for the future, we can only hope that the markets bail us out. In Detroit’s case, pension managers are counting on average annual returns of 6.75% for the next 10 years. That might happen, and it’s a lower expected rate of return than many public pensions are counting on. But given that stocks have already had a nice run, and that the bond portion of any portfolio will almost certainly come up far short of that mark, it’s probably an optimistic target. That means the city will likely have to raise taxes or cut pension benefits at some later date.

Private pensions face similar math, which is why many companies have frozen their plans or dropped them. Still, those that remain are generally on more solid footing. Profits have been strong and regulators hold companies to a higher funding standard. But by some estimates such stalwarts as IBM, Caterpillar and Dow Chemical will need to pay extra attention to their pension funding in coming years. The equation became more difficult recently, now that the Society of Actuaries has updated its mortality tables, which added a couple years to the life expectancy of both men and women at age 65.

Individuals in self-directed savings plans, such as 401(k)s, face their own funding problems. Workers may not have done the retirement income math but, like many pension managers, they haven’t been putting away the money they’ll need, while hoping for strong market returns to make it all work out. If they stay invested, and stocks keep chugging higher, they may be fine. Otherwise they will have to save more going forward or plan on spending less later—the do-it-yourself equivalent of raising taxes or having their benefits cut.

The good news for individuals is that you can act now on your own—you don’t have to stand by while a committee of actuaries and accountants blows smoke around the issue and kicks the problem further down the road. Steps you can take immediately include saving at least 10% of everything you make. Aim for 15% if your kids are gone and the mortgage is paid. Make sure you get the full company match in your 401(k) and automatically escalate contributions each year.

Young workers, especially, need to act now. Those just starting out are far less likely to have a private pension and more likely to suffer from future Social Security cuts. Many seem to have got the message. Millennials expect employment income and personal savings to account for 58% of their retirement income, Bank of America Merrill Lynch found. That compares to just 35% for boomers.

But even with greater savings, guaranteed lifetime income can remain elusive. As life expectancies have stretched, and interest rates have remained low for nearly a generation, fixed-income annuities have become relatively expensive. Even the so-called safe withdrawal rate of 4% per year now strikes some experts as too high for peace of mind. The push is on to make 401(k) savings more easily convertible into lifetime income. That would help because the big insurers that stand behind the promise of lifetime income are a lot more reliable than a city like Detroit.

Read Next: Retirees Risk Blowing IRA Deadline and Paying Huge Penalties

MONEY Savings

Is Outliving Your Savings a Fate Worse Than Death?

Most people are worried about running short of cash in retirement, surveys show. But with a little planning, and a bit more saving, you can ease those anxieties.

When faced with the prospect of outliving their money, most people might toss and turn at night or obsess about where to slash their budgets.

Others have a more extreme reaction: wishing for early death.

“I can always put a bag over my head when the money runs out” was what Jeannine Hines’ husband told her when she asked what he planned to do if their cash ran out before they died.

“He would rather die than be left penniless,” says Hines, a 58-year-old piano teacher from Maryville, Tennessee.

Her husband has company. A new survey from Wells Fargo shows 22% of people say they would rather die early than not have enough cash to live comfortably in retirement.

Other surveys bear those numbers out. One by financial-services company Allianz of people in their late 40s found 77% worried more about outliving their money in retirement than death itself.

Of that survey’s respondents, those who are married with dependents are even more terrified, with 82% saying that running out of cash is a more chilling prospect than death.

“These are pretty sobering statistics,” says Joe Ready, director of Wells Fargo Institutional Retirement in Charlotte, North Carolina. “It speaks to the overwhelming stress people have about money.”

Financial planners like Rose Swanger of Advise Finance in Knoxville, Tennessee, hear about these extreme money fears all the time.

But Swanger says she does not believe people have an actual death wish; they just do not know what they will do if they outlive their cash. “So they get scared, and freeze up, and become irrational,” she says.

In one respect, collective despair is simply an acknowledgement of how much—or rather, how little—we are saving.

The Wells Fargo survey also discovered that 41% of those in their 50s are not putting anything aside for retirement, and 48% admit they will not have enough money to survive in their golden years.

Experts suggest taking a deep breath and refusing to let money fears overwhelm you. Social Security awaits in old age, and friends and family to help get you through lean times. And you can deploy multiple strategies to help prevent a penniless future.

SETTING GOALS

Instead of throwing up your hands, set a goal that is actually achievable

“Save a small amount, then a little more, and once it starts to add up, you will see your levels of stress and worry start to lower,” says Michael Norton, a Harvard Business School professor and co-author of the book “Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending.”

There are other ways to gain control of the situation.

“You may have to delay retirement by a couple of years, you may have to find ways to supplement your income, and you may have to reduce your standard of living both now and in retirement,” says Wells Fargo’s Ready. “All of those are ways of focusing on the reality of where you’re at, instead of just giving in to despair.”

But is this death wish that emerges in surveys really about us? Dig a little deeper into people’s anxieties about outliving their money, and you often find out it is all about the kids.

Parents feel like failures if they cannot leave an inheritance, and they certainly do not want to become financial burdens on their adult children.

“To a lot of people that’s a fate worse than dying,” says Norton.

So instead of worrying yourself into paralysis, let go of all that parental stress and anxiety.

You do not have to leave behind a huge estate; the kids will be fine. And if you have to lean on your family in old age? Hey, it is what humans have done for eons.

Our retirement challenges may be formidable, but they are certainly no reason to hope that death arrives any sooner than it has to.

More about retirement:

How much money will I need to save for retirement?

Can I afford to retire?

How should I invest my retirement money?

MONEY Social Security

How to Protect Your Retirement Income from Social Security Mistakes

pencil eraser
Ryan McVay—Getty Images

At the budget-strapped agency, reps may hand out incorrect information. Here's how our Social Security expert helped readers get the right answers.

Suspending your Social Security benefits as a way of boosting your retirement income can make sense in certain situations. But some readers who tried to follow this strategy say they have encountered problems from an unexpected source—Social Security representatives who either don’t understand how suspending benefits works or actually claim it can’t be done.

People who begin taking benefits between age 62 and their full retirement age (FRA)—66 for those born in 1943, rising to 67 for those born in 1960 or later—have the option of suspending benefits at their FRA. They can resume them at any time until benefits reach their peak at age 70. For those who defer Social Security benefits until age 70, your benefit will be 76% higher than if taken at 62, the earliest age that most people can begin claiming retirement benefits. Still, most people decide to take Social Security early because they need the money or cannot continue to work for medical reasons.

Even so, circumstances may change. Maybe a private pension kicks in, reducing the need for Social Security. Or your kids move out on their own, reducing household expenditures and the need for current income. Or maybe you simply want to walk back your decision to claim early, given the higher income you might receive by delaying—a survey last summer sponsored by Nationwide Financial found that nearly 40% of those who filed early for Social Security later regretted their move and wished they had waited. If so, suspending your benefits can be a smart strategy.

If you want to pursue this option, however, your first step is to become well informed—especially given the possibility you’ll encounter opposing views from Social Security representatives. That’s the problem one reader wrote me about:

“The agent at our Social Security office said he didn’t know anything about this and that I could check online at socialsecurity.gov and if I found out any additional information on this I could contact him and he would advise me someone I could call and get more information on this. I was shocked that he (a paid official Social Security agent) told me if I found out any additional information on this to come back to the office.”

As I told her, all the agent had to do was check his own web site to become informed. That doesn’t sound like too much to ask, does it?

While this agent did not know about suspending benefits, at least he didn’t provide the wrong information. Here’s an agent who did, according to another reader:

“We both are retired. I am 71 years old. My wife is 67 years old. I started taking Social Security benefits at 66 (my FRA) and my wife started taking early (reduced) benefits at 62 on her own income. We went to the Social Security Administration office today to sign up to stop my wife’s benefits for the next three years and start taking benefits at the age of 70. The SSA office says that we can do that but you have to pay back the total (large) amount that she received from the day she started taking benefits at 62. Without paying that large amount, they said, we cannot do that. We showed them the copy of your article and requested them to review it. We also requested that we would like the office supervisor also to review our case and your article. After reviewing your article, the SSA office supervisor told us that information in your article is incorrect.”

Now, I admit that being infallible is above my pay grade. But the right of this woman to suspend her benefits is not in question. And she doesn’t need to repay Social Security one penny of her earlier benefits. I urged the couple to do some homework and go back to their SSA office and try again:

Your wife can SUSPEND her benefit at any time between her FRA (age 66 in her case) and age 70. She does not have to repay anything that she had received in the past. But she will have to make sure she pays for any future Medicare premiums that had been deducted from her Social Security. The only time that repayment of prior benefits is required is if she WITHDREW her benefits entirely. However, this is only permitted within 12 months of when she began taking benefits, and this is not the case with her. Often, people get confused about whether they’re talking about SUSPENDING or WITHDRAWING benefits.

Here are the official descriptions of the suspension rules from the Social Security Program Operating Manual System (POMS):

GN 0249.100: Voluntary Suspensions

GN 0249.110: Conditions for Voluntary Suspension

Everyone makes mistakes, and Social Security’s rules are very complicated. Further, the Social Security Administration has been hammered by budget cuts, forced to reduce staff, and close many offices around the country, as a Senate report last summer documented. That’s still no excuse for providing people with wrong or misleading information. But it further reinforces the need for people to learn the agency’s basic rules so they can look out for themselves.

Social Security, by the way, agrees. “If the situations you described are indeed accurate, they are unacceptable and we apologize for providing any misinformation,” agency spokeswoman Dorothy Clark said. “While our programs are complex, the vast majority of our employees provide accurate information. However, when we learn of these situations, we take action to correct the errors and provide further employee training.”

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His book, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” will be published in February by Simon & Schuster. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

More on Social Security:

Here’s a quick guide to fixing Social Security

How Social Security will cut your benefits if you retire early

This little-known Social Security strategy can boost your retirement income

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