MONEY retirement planning

1 out of 3 of Workers Expect Their Living Standard to Fall in Retirement

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But you don't have to be among the disappointed. Here's how to get retirement saving right.

One third of workers expect their standard of living to decline in retirement—and the closer you are to retiring, the more likely you are to feel that way, new research shows.

That’s not too surprising, given the relatively modest amounts savers have stashed away. The median household savings for workers of all ages is just $63,000, according to the 16th Annual Transamerica Retirement Survey of Workers. The savings breakdown by age looks like this: for workers in their 20s, a median $16,000; 30s, $45,000; 40s, $63,000; 50s, $117,000; and 60s, $172,000.

Those on the cusp of retirement, workers ages 50 and older, have the most reason to feel dour—after all, they took the biggest hits to their account balances and have less time to make up for it. If you managed to hang on, you probably at least recovered your losses. But many had to sell, or were scared into doing so, while asset prices were depressed. And even you did not sell, you gave up half a decade of growth at a critical moment.

Despite holding student loans and having the least amount of faith in Social Security, workers under 40 are most optimistic, according to the survey. That’s probably because they began saving early. Among those in their 20s, 67% have begun saving—at a median age of 22. Among those in their 30s, 76% have begun saving at a median age of 25. Nearly a third are saving more than 10% of their income.

Workers in their 50s and 60s are also saving aggressively, the survey found. But they started later—at age 35. And with such a short period before retiring they are also more likely to say they will rely on Social Security and expect to work past age 65 or never stop working.

Interestingly, the younger you are the more likely you are to believe that you will need to support a family member (other than your spouse) in retirement. You are also more likely to believe you will require such financial support yourself. Some 40% of workers in their 20s expect to provide such support.

By contrast, that expectation was shared by only 34% of those in their 30s, 21% of those in their 40s, 16% of those in their 50s and 14% of those in their 60s. A similar pattern exists for those who expect to need support themselves—19% of workers in their 20s, but only 5% of those in their 60s.

Workers are also looking beyond the traditional three-legged stool of retirement security, which was based on the combination of Social Security, pension and personal savings. Those three resources are still ranked as the most important sources of retirement income, but workers now are also counting on continued employment (37%), home equity (13%), and an inheritance (11%), the survey found.

Asked how much they need save to retire comfortably, the median response was $1 million—a goal that’s out of reach for most, given current savings levels. Strikingly, though, more than half said that $1 million figure was just a guess. About a third said they’d need $2 million. Just one in 10 said they used a retirement calculator to come up with their number.

As those answers suggest, most workers (67%) say they don’t know as much as they should about investing. Indeed, only 26% have a basic understanding and 30% have no understanding of asset allocation principles—the right mix of stocks and bonds that will give you diversification across countries and industry sectors. Meanwhile, the youngest workers are the most likely to invest in conservative securities like bonds and money market accounts, even though they have the most time to ride out the bumps of the stock market and capture better long-term gains.

Across age groups, the most frequently cited retirement aspiration by a wide margin is travel, followed by spending time with family and pursuing hobbies. Among older workers, one in 10 say they love their work so much that their dream is to be able stay with it even in their retirement years. That’s twice the rate of younger workers who feel that way. Among workers of all ages, the most frequently cited fear is outliving savings, followed closely by declining health that requires expensive long-term care.

To boost your chances of retiring comfortably and achieving your goals, Transamerica suggests:

  • Start saving as early as possible and save consistently over time. Avoid taking loans and early withdrawals from retirement accounts.
  • In choosing a job, consider retirement benefits as part of total compensation.
  • Enroll in your employer-sponsored retirement plan. Take full advantage of the match and defer as much as possible.
  • Calculate retirement savings needs. Factor in living expenses, healthcare, government benefits and long-term care.
  • Make catch-up contributions to your 401(k) or IRA if you are past 50

Read next: Answer These 10 Questions to See If You’re on Track for Retirement

MONEY Social Security

This Little-Known Pension Rule May Slash Your Social Security Benefit

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If you are covered by a public sector pension, you may not get the Social Security payout you're expecting.

Some U.S. workers who have paid into the Social Security system are in for a rude awakening when the checks start coming: Their benefits could be chopped up to $413 per month.

That is the maximum potential cut for 2015 stemming from the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP), a little-understood rule that was signed into law in 1983 to prevent double-dipping from both Social Security and public sector pensions. A sister rule called the Government Pension Offset (GPO) can result in even sharper cuts to spousal and survivor benefits.

WEP affected about 1.5 million Social Security beneficiaries in 2012, and another 568,000 were hit by the GPO, according to the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA). Most of those affected are teachers and employees of state and local government.

These two safeguards often come as big news to retirees. Until 2005, no law required that affected employees be informed by their employers. Even now, the law only requires employers to inform new workers of the possible impact on Social Security benefits earned in other jobs.

The Social Security Administration’s statement of benefits has included a generic description of the possible impact of WEP and GPO since 2007; for workers who are affected, the statement includes a link is included to an online tool where the impact on the individual can be calculated. People who have worked only in jobs not covered by Social Security get a letter indicating that they are not eligible.

Many retirees perceive the two rules as grossly unfair. Opponents have been pushing for repeal, so far to no effect.

Why WEP?

To understand the issue, you need to understand how Social Security benefits are distributed across the wealth spectrum of wage-earners.

The program uses a progressive formula that aims to return the highest amount to the lowest-earning workers—the same idea that drives our system of income tax brackets.

It is a complex formula, but here is the upshot: Without the WEP, a worker who had just 20 years of employment covered by Social Security, rather than 30, would be in position to get a much higher return because of those brackets.

Where is the double dip? The years in a job covered by a pension instead of Social Security.

“If you had worked in non-covered employment for a significant portion of your career, there should be a shared burden between the pension you receive from that period of your employment and from Social Security in providing your benefit,” says SSA Chief Actuary Stephen C. Goss. “Just because a person worked only a portion of their career with Social Security-covered employment, they should not be benefiting by getting a higher rate of return.”

If you are already receiving a qualifying pension when you file for Social Security, then the WEP formula kicks in immediately. The SSA asks a question about non-covered pensions when you file for benefits, and it also has access to the Internal Revenue Service Form 1099-R, which shows income from pensions and other retirement income.

If your pension payments start after you file, the adjustment will occur then.

If you have 30 years of Social Security-covered employment, no WEP is applied. From 30 to 20 years, a sliding WEP scale is applied. Below 20 years, your benefit would drop even more. (For more information, click here.)

How does this affect your checks? The SSA offers this example: A person whose annual Social Security statement projects a $1,400 monthly benefit could get just $1,000, due to the WEP.

Your maximum loss is set at 50% of whatever you receive from your separate pension, so if that is relatively small, the WEP effect will be minimal.

You can still earn credits for delayed filing, and you will still get Social Security’s annual cost-of-living adjustment for inflation, but the WEP will still affect your initial benefit.

The WEP formula also affects spousal and dependent benefits during your lifetime. However, if your spouse receives a survivor benefit after your death, it is reset to the original amount.

Can you do anything to avoid getting whacked by WEP? Working longer in a Social Security-covered job before retiring might help. Remember, you are immune to the provision if you have 30 years of what Social Security defines as “substantial earnings” in covered work. That amounts to $22,050 for 2015.

So if you have 25 years, try to work another five, says Jim Blankenship, a financial planner who specializes in Social Security benefits. “That’s money in your pocket.”

Read next: The Pitfalls of Claiming Social Security in a Common-Law Marriage

Update: This story was updated to reflect that Social Security Administration gives little advance warning to beneficiaries, instead of no advance warning, and a description of Social Security benefits statements was added.

MONEY Ask the Expert

The Pitfalls of Claiming Social Security in a Common-Law Marriage

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q. I lost my WWII husband on January 14, 2014. It was a common-law marriage. I worked for over 50 years in the fields of education and medicine. However, many of the places where I worked did not have Social Security. I have turned in all the evidence required to prove that we presented ourselves as husband and wife. Texas recognizes common-law marriages. I am confined to a wheelchair. I served our country, as a civilian commissioned as a 2nd Lt., in the Air Force and Army overseas. Please help me as I am going to be homeless. – Joan

A. In the six weeks since Joan wrote me this note, she found a place to live. But she is no closer to resolving her problems with Social Security. It is easy to paint the agency as a heartless bureaucracy preventing an impoverished, 80-year-old veteran from getting her widow’s benefit. But there’s nothing about Joan’s story that is easy, and her problem is one that is becoming all too common.

Today more and more couples are living together without getting married, especially Millennials and Gen Xers. And many of them are having children and raising families. More than 3.3 million persons aged 50 and older were in such households in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

There can be sound reasons for avoiding legal marriage. But when it comes to Social Security, you and your family may pay a high price by opting for a common-law union. Quite simply, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to claim benefits. And that can damage the financial security of your partner, children and other dependents. If you are in a common-law marriage, here are the three basic requirements for claiming benefits:

1. Your state recognizes common-law marriage. And yours may not. Only 11 states plus the District of Columbia recognize these marriages—among them, Colorado, New Hampshire, and Texas, which is Joan’s state of residence.

For your partnership to qualify, these states generally require that you both agree that you are married, live together and present yourselves in public as husband and wife. But the specifics of these rules are different in many states and usually complicated.

Social Security rules follow state laws when determining eligibility for spousal and survivor benefits. (The same policy applies to same-sex marriage.) If you do qualify, you will be able to receive the same benefits as you would with a traditional marriage, including spousal or survivor benefits.

2. You’ve got plenty of documentation. Social Security requirements for claiming survivor benefits call for detailed proof of the union. For an 80-year old, wheelchair-bound person like Joan, that’s a challenge to provide, especially in the case of a deceased spouse. Among other documents, she must complete a special form, plus get similar forms filled out by one of her blood relatives and two blood relatives of her late partner, John.

3. You’re prepared to fight bureaucratic gridlock. Joan has had multiple meetings with Social Security postponed for reasons she does not understand. She has been told she does not qualify as a common-law spouse under Texas laws. But the reasons she has been given may be incorrect. She says, for example, a Social Security rep told her that she and John needed to own a home to qualify. This is not true. She needs only to document that they lived as husband and wife and held themselves out to be married. Beginning in 2003, Texas made it harder for couples to qualify as common-law spouses, which could complicate Joan’s case.

Making matters even more difficult, Social Security has other convoluted rules that can change or even invalidate her benefits. Joan, it turns out, took a lump-sum payment from her government pension decades ago. That triggers something called the Government Pension Offset rule, which may prevent her from receiving a survivor’s benefit based on John’s earnings record. (For more on that rule, click here.)

Clearly, older Americans need more help than we’re giving them to navigate Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other highly regulated and complicated safety-net programs. This is hard stuff even for experts. It is not possible for the rest of us to understand without more knowledgeable assistance.

Meanwhile, for those in common-law marriages it’s important to plan ahead now. If you can’t qualify for Social Security benefits, you will need to save more while you’re still working. If your state does recognize common-law marriage, find out what documentation you’ll need, so you’ll have it when you file your claim. The last thing you’ll want to do in retirement is struggle with the Social Security bureaucracy.

“I am pushing 80 and this has been going on now for two years,” said Joan, a former special-needs educator, in a recent email. “I hope my health holds up as I have no life. What a way to treat an American citizen in a wheelchair who can teach the deaf to talk, the dyslexic to read and the stuttering to talk. I am just useless living in a room.”

Joan has another Social Security appointment scheduled this week.

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 a research fellow at the Center for Aging & Work at Boston College. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: The One Investment You Most Need for a Successful Retirement

MONEY retirement income

Why Are States Leaving Billions in Retiree Income on the Table?

Many elderly can afford to pay more in taxes. And with a growing number of needy seniors to support, states can't afford to pass up that revenue.

Illinois is the national poster child for state budget messes. My home state faces a $7.4 billion general fund deficit and a $12 billion revenue shortfall. One proposed idea for plugging at least part of the horrific shortfall: tax retirement income. But our new governor, Republican Bruce Rauner, has rejected the idea.

Illinois exempts all retirement income from state taxes—Social Security, private and public pensions, and annuities. We’re leaving $2 billion on the table annually, according to the state’s estimates. And we’re hardly alone: 36 states that have an income tax allow some exemption for private or public pension benefits, and 32 exempt all Social Security benefits from tax, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP). States currently considering wider income tax exemptions for seniors include Rhode Island and Maryland.

With the April 15 tax day just around the corner, it’s a timely moment to ask: What are these politicians thinking?

Income tax exemptions date back to a time when elderly poverty rates were much higher than they are today (federal taxation of Social Security began in the 1980s). As recently as 1970, almost 25% of Americans older than 65 lived in poverty, according to the Census Bureau; now it’s around 9%. Today, it still makes sense to tread lightly on vulnerable lower-income seniors, many of whom live hand to mouth trying to meet basic expenses. And the number of vulnerable seniors is on the rise.

MORE SENIORS

But much of the benefit of state retirement income exemptions goes to affluent elderly households. The cost of these exemptions is high, and it’s going to get higher as our population ages. In llinois, the number of senior citizens is projected to grow from 1.7 million in 2010 to 2.7 million by 2030. That points to a demographic shift that will mean a shrinking pool of workers will be funding tax breaks for a growing group of retirees.

So there’s a real need for states to target these tax breaks to seniors who really need them. Yet one of the plans floated in Rhode Island would exempt all state, local and federal retirement income, including Social Security benefits—from the state’s personal income tax. The Social Security proposal is an especially good example of a poorly targeted break.

Currently, Rhode Island uses the federal formula for taxing Social Security, which already protects low-income seniors from taxes. Under the federal formula, beneficiaries with income lower than $25,000 ($32,000 for couples) are exempt from any tax (income here is defined as adjusted gross plus half of your Social Security benefit). Up to 50% of benefits are taxed for beneficiaries with income from $25,000 to $34,000 ($32,000 to $44,000 for married couples). For seniors with incomes above those levels, up to 85% of benefits are taxed.

If Rhode Island decides to exempt all Social Security income from taxation, more than half of the benefit will flow to the wealthiest 20 percent of taxpayers, according to an ITEP analysis.

“The poorest seniors in Rhode Island wouldn’t get a dime from this change, because they already don’t pay state taxes on Social Security,” says Meg Wiehe, ITEP’s state tax policy director.

WORKING LONGER

Another tax fairness issue is inequitable treatment of older workers and retirees. The percentage of older workers staying in the labor force beyond traditional retirement age is rising—and many of them are sticking around just to make ends meet. Those workers are bearing the full state income tax burden, effectively subsidizing more affluent retired counterparts.

Some tax-cut advocates might argue that breaks for seniors will help retain or attract residents to their states. But numerous studies show that few seniors move around the country for any reason at all. Just 50% of Americans age 50 to 64 say they hope to retire in a different location, according to a recent survey by Bankrate.com, and the rate drops to 20% for people over 65.

For those who do move, taxes are a consideration—but not the only one.

“A lot of factors go into the decision,” says Rocky Mengle, senior state analyst at Wolters Kluwer, Tax & Accounting US. “Climate, proximity to family and friends are all very important, along with the overall cost of living. But I’d certainly throw taxes into the mix as a consideration.”

Smart tax policy makers and politicians should take all these factors into consideration—especially in states that are facing crushing deficits and debt burdens. Targeted exemptions for vulnerable seniors make sense, but the breaks should be affluence-tested.

“The scales would vary state to state,” says Wiehe. “But a test that makes sure taxation isn’t a blanket giveaway with most of it going to the most affluent households.”

Indeed. In the golden years, not all the gold needs to go to the rich.

Read next: 1 in 3 Older Workers Likely to Be Poor, or Near Poor, in Retirement

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Max Out Social Security Benefits for Your Family

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

Q. Does the family maximum benefit (FMB) apply only to one spouse’s individual’s work history or to both spouses in a family? That is, assume two high-earning spouses both delay claiming a benefit till, say, 70. Would the FMB rules limit their overall family benefits? Or does the FMB include just the overall family benefits derived from the earnings record of one particular worker? —Steve

A: Kudos to Steve for not only knowing about the family maximum benefit but having the savvy to ask how it applies to two-earner households. The short answer here is that Social Security tends to favor, not penalize, two-earner households in terms of their FMBs.

To get everyone else up to speed, the FMB limits the amount of Social Security benefits that can be paid on a person’s earnings record to family members—a spouse, survivors, children, even parents. (Benefits paid to a divorced spouse do not fall under the FMB rules.) The amount may include your individual retirement benefit plus any auxiliary benefits (payouts to those family members) that are based on that earnings record.

Fair warning: the FMB is far from user-friendly. Few Social Security rules are as mind-bendingly complex as the FMB and its cousin, the combined family maximum (CFM). And Social Security has a lot of complex rules. Unfortunately, you need to do your homework to claim all the family benefits you are entitled to receive.

To address Steve’s question, these FMB calculations may be based on the combined earnings records of both spouses. More about this in a bit, but first, here are the basics for an individual beneficiary.

The ABCs of the FMB

The FMB usually ranges from 150% to 187% of what’s called the worker’s primary insurance amount (PIA). This is the retirement benefit a person would be entitled to receive at his or her full retirement age. Even if you wait until 70 to claim your benefit, it won’t increase the FMB based on your earnings record.

Now, I try to explain Social Security’s rules as simply as possible—but there are times when the system’s complexity needs to be seen to be believed. So, here is the four-part formula used in 2015 to determine the FMB for an individual worker:

(a) 150% of the first $1,056 of the worker’s PIA, plus

(b) 272% of the worker’s PIA over $1,056 through $1,524, plus

(c) 134% of the worker’s PIA over $1,524 through $1,987, plus

(d) 175% of the worker’s PIA over $1,987.

Let’s use these rules for determining the FMB of a worker with a PIA of $2,000. It will be $3,500, which equals (a) $1,584 plus (b) $1,273 plus (c) $620 plus (d) $23. The difference between $3,500 and $2,000 is $1,500—that’s the amount of auxiliary benefits that can go to your family. Got that?

And here’s a key point that trips up many people: Even if the worker claimed Social Security early, which means his benefits were lower than the value of his PIA, it would not change the $1,500 limit on auxiliary benefits. However, when the worker dies, the entire $3,500, which includes the PIA amount, becomes available in auxiliary benefits.

It’s quite common for family claims to exceed the FMB cap. When this happens, anyone claiming on his record (except the worker) would see their benefits proportionately reduced until the total no longer exceeded the FMB. If, say, those claimed auxiliary benefits actually totaled $3,000, or double the allowable $1,500, all auxiliary beneficiaries would see their benefits cut in half.

How CFM Can Boosts Benefits

Enter the combined family maximum (CFM). This formula can substantially increase auxiliary benefits to dependents of married couples who both have work records—typically multiple children of retired or deceased beneficiaries.

The children can be up to 19 years old if they are still in elementary or secondary school (and older if they are disabled and became so before age 22). Because each child is eligible for a benefit of 50% or even 75% percent of a parent’s work PIA, even having only two qualifying auxiliary beneficiaries—say a spouse and a child, or two children—can bring the FMB into play.

But with the CFM, the FMBs of each earner in the household can be combined to effectively raise the benefits to children that might otherwise would be limited by the FMB of just one parent. Under its rules, Social Security is charged with determining the claiming situation that produces the most cumulative benefits to all auxiliary beneficiaries.

Using our earlier example, let’s assume we now have two workers, each with PIAs of $2,000 and FMB’s of $3,500. A qualifying child would still be limited to a benefit linked to the FMB of a single parent. But the CFM used to determine the size of the family’s benefits “pool” has now doubled to $7,000 a month, permitting total auxiliary benefits of up to $3,000.

Well, they would have totaled this much—except there’s another Social Security rule that puts a cap on the CFM. For 2015, that cap is $4,912. Subtracting one of the $2,000 PIAs from this amount leaves us with up to $2,912 in auxiliary benefits for this family. That’s not $3,000 but almost.

So it’s quite possible that three, four, or possibly more children would get their full child benefits in this household. Even if they totaled 200% of one parent’s FMB, they would add up to a smaller percentage of the household’s CFM, and either wouldn’t trigger benefit reductions, or at least much small ones.

And if eligible children live in a household where one or both of their parents also has a divorced or deceased spouse, even more work records can come into play. This is complicated stuff, as borne out in some thought-twisting illustrations provided by the agency.

Before moving ahead with family benefit claims, I recommend making a face-to-face appointment at your local Social Security office. Bring printouts of your own earnings records, which you can obtain by opening an online account for each person whose earnings record is involved. I’d also print out the contents of the Social Security rules, which are linked in today’s answer, or at the very least, write down their web addresses so the Social Security representative can access them.

Good luck!

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 a research fellow at the Center for Aging & Work at Boston College. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: Why Social Security Rules Are Making Inequality Worse

MONEY Ask the Expert

The Surefire Way Not to Lose Money on Your Bond Investments

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

Q: I am leaning toward buying individual bonds and creating a bond ladder instead of a bond fund for my retirement portfolio. What are the pros and cons?—Roy Johnson, Troy, N.Y.

A: If you’re worried about interest rates rising—and many people are—buying individual bonds instead of putting some of your retirement money into a bond fund has some definite advantages, says Ryan Wibberley, CEO of CIC Wealth in Gaithersburg, Maryland. There are also some drawbacks, which we’ll get to in a moment.

First, some bond background. Rising interest rates are bad for fixed-income investments. That’s because when rates rise, the prices of bonds fall. That can cause short-term damage to bond funds. If rates spike and investors start pulling their money out of the fund, the manager may need to sell bonds at lower prices to raise cash. That would cause the net asset value of the fund to drop and erode returns.

By contrast, if you buy individual bonds and hold them to maturity, you won’t see those daily price moves. And you’ll collect your interest payments and get the bond’s face value when it comes due (assuming no credit problems), even if rates go up. So you never lose your principal. “You are guaranteed to get your money back,” says Wibberley. But with individual bonds, you will need to figure out how to reinvest that money.

One solution is to create a laddered portfolio. With this strategy, you simply buy bonds of different maturities. As each one matures, you can reinvest in a bond with a similar maturity and capture the higher yield if interest rates are rising (or accept lower yield if rates fall). All in all, it’s a sound option for retirees who seek steady income and want to protect their bond investments from higher rates.

The simplest and cheapest way to create a bond ladder is through government bonds. You can buy Treasury securities for free at TreasuryDirect.gov. You can also buy Treasuries through your bank or broker, but you’ll likely be charged fees for the transaction.

Now for the downside of bond ladders: To get the diversification you need, you should hold a mix of not only Treasuries but corporate bonds, which can be more costly to buy as a retail investor. Generally you must purchase bonds in minimum denominations, often $1,000. So to make this strategy cost-effective, you should have a portfolio of $100,000 or more.

With corporates, however, you’ll find higher yields than Treasuries offer. For safety, stick with corporate bonds that carry the highest ratings. And don’t chase yields. “Bonds with very high yields are often a sign of trouble,” says Jay Sommariva, senior portfolio manager at Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh.

An easier option, and one that requires less cash, may be to build a bond ladder with exchange-traded bond funds. Two big ETF providers, Guggenheim and BlackRock’s iShares, now offer so-called defined-maturity or target-maturity ETFs that can be used to build a bond ladder using Treasury, corporate, high-yield or municipal bonds.

Of course, bond funds have advantages too. You don’t need a big sum to invest. And a bond fund gives you professional management and instant diversification, since it holds hundreds of different securities that mature at different dates.

Funds also provide liquidity because you can redeem shares at any time. With individual bonds, you also can sell when you want, but if you do it before maturity, you may get not get back the full value of your original investment.

There’s no one-size-fits all strategy for bond investing in retirement. A low-cost bond fund is a good option for those who prefer to avoid the hassle of managing individual bonds and who may not have a large sum to invest. “But if you want a predictable income stream and protection from rising rates, a bond ladder is a more prudent choice,” Sommariva says.

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

Read next: Here’s the Retirement Income Mistake Most Americans Are Making

MONEY retirement income

Here’s the Retirement Income Mistake Most Americans Are Making

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steady Lifetime Payout

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Income Boost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MONEY 401k plans

The Secrets to Making a $1 Million Retirement Stash Last

door opening with Franklin $100 staring through the crack
Sarina Finkelstein (photo illustration)—Getty Images (2)

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

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

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

Dial Back On Stocks

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

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

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

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

Know When to Say Goodbye

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

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

Here’s how to do it:

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

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

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

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

Go Slow to Make It Last

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

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

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

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

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

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

MONEY 401(k)s

How to Build a $1 Million Retirement Plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) Play the Long Game

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

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

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

Here’s how to do it:

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

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

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

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

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

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2) Act Like a Company Lifer

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

Here’s how to do it:

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

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

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Money

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

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

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

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

3) Keep Faith in Stocks

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

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

MONEY retirement planning

The Growing Divide Between the Retirement Elite and Everyone Else

empty and full transparent piggy banks
iStock

Americans are on track to replace 60% of income, but only one in five pre-retirees report good health. That's likely to prove costly.

There’s a growing retirement savings gap between workers with 401(k)s and those without.

Overall the typical American worker is on track to replace about 58% of current pay through savings at retirement. That’s according to a new Lifetime Income Score study, by Empower Retirement, which calculated the income workers are on track to receive from retirement plans and other financial assets, as well as Social Security benefits.

“Those who have workplace plans like 401(k)s aren’t doing too badly, but there’s a big savings deficit for those who don’t have them,” says Empower president Ed Murphy. (Formed through a recent merger, Empower combines the retirement services of Putnam, Great-West and J.P. Morgan.)

Those with access to a 401(k) or other retirement plan had lifetime income scores of 74%, while those lacked plans had an average score of just 42%. It’s one reason this year’s overall score of 58% is a slight dip from last year’s score of 61% .

Living well on just 58% of current income is certainly possible—many retirees are doing just fine at that level. But financial planners typical suggest aiming for a 75% to 80% replacement rate to leave room for unexpected costs. And for many workers, it’s possible to close the savings gap by stepping up 401(k) contributions by staying on the job longer.

But truth is, most workers end up retiring well before age 65, and few have enough saved by that point. The least prepared workers, some 32% of those surveyed, were on track to receive just 38% of their income in retirement, which would be largely Social Security benefits.

By contrast, an elite group of workers, some 20%, are on track to replace 143% of their current income, Empower found. And it’s not just those pulling down high salaries. “The key success factors were access to a 401(k) and consistently saving 10% of pay, not income,” Murphy says.

Access to a financial adviser also made a big difference in whether workers were on track to a comfortable retirement income. Those who worked with a pro were on track to replace 82% of income vs 55% for those without. And for those with a formal retirement plan, their lifetime income score hit 87% vs the average 58%.

For all retirement savers, however, health care costs are a looming problem. Only 21% of those ages 60 to 65 reported having none of six major medical issues, such as diabetes or tobacco use. For the typical 65-year-old couple, health care expenses, including Medicare premiums and out-of-pocket costs, might reach $220,000 over the course of retirement, according to a Fidelity analysis. Those in worse health can expect to pay far higher costs, which means you should plan to save even more.

Here are other key findings from the Empower study:

  • Nearly two-thirds of workers lack confidence about their ability to cover health care costs in retirement
  • Some 75% say they have little or no concern about job security, vs. 60% in 2012.
  • Some 72% of workers are somewhat interested or very interested in guaranteed income options, such as annuities.
  • The percentage of workers considering delaying retirement is falling—some 30% now vs. 41% from a peak in 2012.
  • Many are hoarding cash, which accounts for 35% of retirement plan assets. For those without advisers, that allocation is a steep 55%.

Clearly, estimating your retirement income is crucial to achieving your financial goals—and studies have shown that going through that exercise can help spur saving. More 401(k) plans are offering tools and other guidance to help savers estimate their retirement income and help you choose the right stock and bond allocation. For those who aren’t participating in a 401(k) plan, try the T. Rowe Price retirement income calculator, which is free.

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