MONEY Ask the Expert

How Late-Life Marriage Can Hurt Your Retirement Security

140605_AskExpert_illo
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I am 66 and my partner is 63. We are thinking of getting married. How long must we be married for her to be eligible for spousal benefits based on my earnings? Neither of us have filed for Social Security yet. – Mark Sander, Indianapolis, IN

A: It’s wonderful to find love at any age. But for older couples, the decision to marry can have a big impact on your retirement finances, particularly when it comes to Social Security. Some experts say that may be one reason why co-habitation among older people is on the rise. According to the U.S. Census, nearly three million people age 50 and older live together, up from 1.2 million in 2000. “Many seniors live together instead of getting married because of money issues,” says Steve Vernon, author of Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

The good news is that if you do tie the knot, you only need to be married for one year for your wife to collect Social Security spousal benefits.

Still, it may not be a good idea for your wife to apply for benefits right away, says Vernon. At age 66 you are what Social Security deems full retirement age. But for your wife to collect full spousal benefits (50% of your full Social Security monthly payment) she will need to be full retirement age too.

If your wife files for Social Security before she reaches 66, she will get less than she would receive than if she waited till full retirement age. How much less? If your wife files for spousal benefits at 63, she will get 37.5% of your Social Security. At 64, that rises to 42% and at 65, 46%.

Waiting to collect benefits also means a higher payout for you. You can boost your Social Security paycheck by 8% each year you wait until age 70. A method called file and suspend allows you to file for your Social Security benefits so your wife can start collecting spousal benefits but you suspend receiving your benefits till you are 70.

Also be aware that if either of you has been married before, remarrying could mean losing alimony or the survivor benefits of a pension. “You really need to think strategically about how to maximize your Social Security benefits,” says Vernon.

There are a number of calculators and advice services that can help you figure the claiming strategy that’s best for your situation. Earlier this year, 401(k) advice provider Financial Engines released a Social Security income calculator that’s free and easy to use. The calculator sifts through thousands of claiming strategies to come up with a recommended option. For $40, you can use the Maximize My Social Security online software to evaluate more detailed scenarios. You may also want to consult a financial planner who’s familiar with Social Security rules.

Marriage can have a hazardous effect on other parts of your financial life, says Vernon. You will legally be on the hook for your spouse’s medical bills, and there may be sticky issues when it comes to inheritance. In some cases, married couples also face higher taxes, depending on your income and tax bracket.

Whether you get married is a personal decision, but by choosing the right financial plan, you’re more likely to enjoy a happy retirement together.

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

More from Money’s Ultimate Retirement Guide:

How does working affect my Social Security benefits?

Will my spouse and kids receive Social Security benefits when I die?

Are my Social Security payouts taxed?

MONEY Social Security

This Little-Known Social Security Strategy Can Boost Your Retirement Income

woman flicking light switch
JGI/Jamie Grill—Getty Images

For retirees who need added income temporarily, turning your Social Security benefit on and off can be a smart move. It may also help your family over the long term.

Welcome to the Social Security claiming world of start-stop-start, a sophisticated strategy that can add big bucks to some people’s lifetime benefits if properly used.

By now, anyone who regularly reads about Social Security likely knows that delaying benefits until age 70 allows them to reach their highest level.

They also probably know that beginning to collect retirement benefits as early as age 62 will reduce them by 25% from what they would have been at age 66 (and 76% from their level at age 70 if claiming is deferred).

But it’s a whole lot less likely that they know about being able to begin taking benefits early, stopping them at age 66, and enjoying the benefits of delayed retirement credits until age 70. This is a potentially great option that can boost lifetime benefits, as well as help people who may be in a temporary financial bind in their early 60s—perhaps they have to take early retirement, but later end up earning more money in a second career.

Larry Kotlikoff, an economics professor (and co-author of my upcoming book on Social Security claiming), provides a useful and detailed explanation of the start-stop-start strategy. His analysis includes extensive computer simulations to determine how best to take advantage of these rules.

How Start-Stop-Start Works

The flexibility to start and stop your benefit is yet another important aspect of the agency’s rules regarding what it calls Full Retirement Age (FRA). This is 66 for people born between 1943 and 1955. For people born later, it rises by two months a year before hitting 67 for anyone born in 1960 and later. (I wrote recently about how the FRA can affect claiming decisions.)

I recommend that people consider waiting until age 70 to begin Social Security. But there are lots of valid reasons to begin claiming as soon as 62, which normally is the soonest you can receive benefits (there are earlier claiming ages for people with disabilities and surviving spouses).

If you take reduced benefits early—with “early” meaning before your FRA—you generally are stuck at those reduced benefit levels until you reach your FRA. There is a provision that lets you withdraw your benefit decision within a year of making it, pay back everything you’ve received from Social Security (included Medicare premium payments, if applicable) and get a fresh start with your claiming record.

But most early claimers don’t do this. Once they file early, they are stuck with whatever reduced benefit they get until they hit their FRA. At that time, Social Security rules allow a person to suspend their benefits for as long as four years. This is the “stop” part of start-stop-start. And most people are not aware of this FRA-related rule.

During this “stop” period, their benefits will earn delayed retirement credits. If they suspend for the full four years before their second “start,” their benefit will be 32% higher than when they suspended it. That’s a real 32% gain, too, as the delayed credits include the program’s annual cost-of-living adjustments for inflation. Now, this person’s benefits at age 70 will still be less than if they had never claimed a reduced benefit. But they’ll still be much higher than if they had never suspended them at their FRA.

Here’s a simple example: Say you are due a $1,000 retirement benefit at your FRA of 66. It will rise 32% to $1,320 a month (in real, inflation-adjusted terms) if you wait to claim until you turn 70. It will be reduced 25% to $750 a month if you claim early at age 62. However, that $750 will rise by 32% to $990 a month if you suspend at age 66 (the “stop”) and resume (the second “start”) at age 70. That’s a lot more than $750, of course, but it’s still far short of the $1,320 you’d get if you never claimed benefits at all until you turned 70.

Who Benefits by Resetting Your Claim

Besides helping out those in a temporary financial bind, this strategy may also improve your spouse’s benefits. Under Social Security rules, one spouse has to first file for their retirement benefit before the second spouse can file for a spousal benefit. While filing for retirement early will reduce that filer’s benefits, it could increase your family’s overall income. That’s because your husband or wife can then collect spousal benefits, while his or her individual benefit will keep rising till age 70.

If there’s a big age difference between you and your spouse, or if your spouse has a work record to consider, it can make sense for one spouse to begin benefits early, then suspend them when the second spouse reaches an optimal claiming age. The benefits of start-stop-start can become particularly valuable in maximizing family benefits for a couple, especially if they have young children.

As you can see, calculations for how to maximize benefits using start-stop-start can be very complex. You will probably do best to get help from a financial adviser, or use a benefits claiming calculator (see some recommendations here and here), or both.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is an award-winning business journalist and a research fellow at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

MONEY

Here’s the Only State Where Retirees Have Enough Income

Just one state plus the District of Columbia have typical retirees with more than 70% of pre-retirement income. Traditional pensions and low cost of living make a difference.

The problems retirees encounter trying to secure lifetime income know no bounds: In 49 states those past the age of 65, on average, fall short of a widely accepted benchmark for minimum income in retirement, new research shows.

Financial advisers generally agree you need at least 70% of pre-retirement income to maintain your lifestyle after calling it quits. Many say 80% to 85% is a more appropriate target.

But even using the lower bar, Nevada is the only state where the typical retiree has sufficient income to live comfortably in retirement, according to a study from Interest.com, a division of Bankrate, a financial information provider. The District of Columbia also makes the cut. But every other jurisdiction in the nation falls short, underscoring the scope of the retirement income crisis in America.

Nationally, the median income for those who are 65 and older equals just 60% of the median income for those aged 45 to 64, the study found. In Nevada, median income for those past 65 is 71%. In Washington D.C., the figure is 74%. States that get close to the minimum retirement income level are Hawaii (69%), Arizona (68%) and Mississippi (68%). At the bottom are Massachusetts (49%) and North Dakota (49%).

The national rate represents a jump of 10 percentage points over the past decade. But that is not as encouraging as it may appear, reflecting trends where older Americans stay on the job longer and young workers fail to see significant wage gains. The share of Americans working past 65 has been increasing for 20 years and reached 18.9% this May, one of the highest levels in the last half century.

Washington D.C. tops the retirement income list in large measure because of its huge population of retired federal employees, many of who have generous traditional pension plans. Nevada (along with Arizona and Mississippi) benefits from a low cost of living; the costs of food, housing, utilities, transportation and medical care in Reno, Nev., are just 67% of such costs in Washington D.C.

Hawaii is one of the most expensive places on Earth to retire. But it measures up well in this study because the state has a strong traditional pension culture. It may also help that wealthy people choose it as their retirement destination. At the bottom, Massachusetts (like much of the Northeast) has long suffered from a high cost of living while North Dakota recently has seen its cost of living soar amid an oil boom in that state.

MONEY retirement age

How to Know When It’s Time to Retire

Birthday candles
Fuse—Getty Images

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

1. Have you saved enough money?

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

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

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

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

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

2. Will you have enough income?

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

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

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

3. Is your portfolio properly allocated?

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

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

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

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

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

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

MONEY mortgages

The Surprising Threat to Your Financial Security in Retirement

House made out of dollar bills with ominous shadow
iStock

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

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

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

Housing debt and rent costs pose a big threat

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

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

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

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

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

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

The impact of housing costs on retirees

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

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

What to do?

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

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

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

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

Stop putting it off

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

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

MONEY retirement planning

Smart Moves for Controlling Health Care Costs in Retirement

stethoscope with golf ball
pixhook—Getty Images

Planning for later-life medical costs is essential. These steps can keep you healthy longer and ease your worries.

It’s clear that planning for later-life health care costs is essential for a secure retirement—but figuring out what to do about them is a lot less clear. Out-of-pocket health expenses are not only a big-ticket item but are not predictable or controllable. No wonder few of us build financial strategies for future health needs, preferring the ever-popular ostrich plan: Place head in sand and hope for the best.

“Less than one out of six pre-retirees has ever attempted to estimate how much money they might need for health care and long-term care in retirement,” according to a report by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave, a consulting firm. Knowledge about Medicare is abysmal, the survey found, even among those already enrolled in the program.

And a recent health benefits survey by the Employee Benefits Research Institute, a non-profit retirement industry think tank, found that while nearly half of workers were confident about their ability to get the treatments they need today, only 30% were confident about that ability during the next 10 years, and just 19% are confident once they are eligible for Medicare.

Having a plan is a good way to build confidence. So start by taking a look at the mirror and asking yourself: How long do you think you’ll live and how healthy will you be in your later years?

“A 65-year-old male in excellent health can expect to live to age 87, while the same male in poor health has a life expectancy at age 65 of approximately 81 years,” said a recent study from the Insured Retirement Institute, a trade group that pushes annuity investments. A 65-year-old female in excellent health has a life expectancy of 89, or 84 in poor health. An average couple age 65 has a 40% chance that one or both will live to age 95.

While living to an old age may be better than what’s behind Door Number Two, it may prove costly. Old-age health expenses tend to be loaded into the last few years of life, often to deal with chronic illnesses, especially Alzheimer’s.

Average out-of-pocket health care expenses for that 65-year-old male will be an estimated $246,000 for the rest of his life if he is in poor health and dies at 81, the IRI study said. The lifetime bill rises to $345,000 for the healthy man who survives to an average age of 87.

Adopting healthy lifestyle habits may significantly reduce older-age health expenses. Just as important, it’s the best investment you can make in a higher quality of life during your later years.

The Merrill Lynch-Age Wave study recommends these proactive planning steps:

  1. Map out future out-of-pocket health expenses, including estimating future Medicare premiums and co-pays.
  2. Learn how Medicare and long-term insurance work.
  3. Develop contingency plans, for you and other family members, should illness cause lost income from an extended work disability.
  4. Broaden your planning to include those family members most likely to comprise your caregiving and financial support network.

The IRI report, not surprisingly, sings the virtues of using annuities to provide guaranteed lifetime streams of income to deal with long-running health care expenses. Many financial advisers prefer other investments. But you should at least look at annuity options as part of your long-term financial planning anyway.

If you’re especially worried about running out of money in your 80s— and, God willing, your 90s—then you should explore deferred annuities. Often called longevity insurance, a deferred annuity can be designed to not begin payouts until old age. If you buy one of these products in your 50s or 60s, the insurance company will provide very attractive payment terms. And it should, of course, because it will have the use of your annuity purchase money for 20 or even 30 years, with a good chance you’ll die before they have to pay you a cent.

The other insurance product worth a close look is long-term care insurance. Increasingly, this product is being linked with annuities to provide purchasers with choices—receive annuity payments or use the money for a qualifying long-term care needs. Generally, such hybrid products provide less bang for the buck than a pure annuity or long-term care policy. Also, keep in mind that your goal here should be to protect you and your family from ruinous health care bills. This is primarily an insurance product, not an investment.

Finally, the best annuity around is Social Security. It offers lifetime payments, annual inflation protection and government payment guarantees. That’s why I pound the drum of deferring Social Security until age 70, if it makes sense for your financial, family and longevity profile.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is an award-winning business journalist and a research fellow at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

MONEY 401(k)s

Here’s the Least Understood Cost of a 401(k) Loan

401(k) loans aren't always a terrible choice. But make sure you keep saving at the same rate during the loan payback period.

A loan from your 401(k) plan has well-known drawbacks, among them the taxes and penalties that may be due if you lose your job and can’t pay off the loan in a timely way. But there is a subtler issue too: millions of borrowers cut their contribution rate during the loan repayment period and end up losing hundreds of dollars each month in retirement income, new research shows.

Academics and policymakers have long fixated on the costs of money leaking out of tax-deferred accounts through hardship withdrawals, cash-outs when workers switch jobs, and loans that do not get repaid. The problem is big. Some want more curbs on early distributions and believe that funds borrowed from a 401(k) should be insured and that the payback period after a job loss should be much longer.

Yet most people who borrow from their 401(k) plan manage to pay back the loan in full, says Jeanne Thompson, vice president of thought leadership at Fidelity Investments. A more widespread problem is the lost savings—and decades of lost growth on those savings—that result when plan borrowers cut their contribution rate. About 40% of those with a 401(k) loan reduce contributions, and of those a third quit contributing altogether, Fidelity found.

To gauge the impact, Fidelity looked at two 401(k) investors making $50,000 a year and starting at age 25 to save 6% of pay with a 4% company match. Fidelity assumed that at age 35 one investor stopped saving and resumed 10 years later. At the same age, the other investor cut saving in half and resumed five years later. Both employees earned inflation-like raises and the same rate of return (3.2 percentage points above inflation). At age 67 they began drawing down the balance to zero by age 93.

The investor who stopped saving for 10 years wound up with $1,960 of monthly income; the investor who cut saving in half for five years wound up with $2,470 of monthly income. Had they maintained their savings uninterrupted each would have wound up with $2,650 of monthly income. So the annual toll on retirement income came to $2,160 to $8,280.

Nearly one million workers in a Fidelity administered 401(k) plan initiated a loan in the year ending June 30, the company said. That’s about 11% of all its participants and part of rising trend, the company says. The typical loan amount is $9,100 unless the loan is to help with the purchase of home—in that case the typical amount borrowed is $23,500.

These figures are generally in line with data from the Employee Benefit Research Institute, which found that the typical unpaid loan balance in 2012 was $7,153 and that 21% of participants eligible for a loan had one outstanding. The loans were relatively modest, representing just 13% of the remaining 401(k) balance.

Workers change their contribution rate for many reasons, including financial setbacks and a big new commitment like payments on a car or mortgage. But cutting contributions to make loan payback easier may be the most common reason—and the least understood cost of a 401(k) loan.

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Live Well on Less by Retiring Overseas

140605_AskExpert_illo
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I hear a lot about people retiring overseas to make their retirement savings go further. My wife and I are pretty adventurous. But can we really save money retiring in another country?

A: Retiring abroad isn’t for everyone—but more and more people are doing it. Nearly 550,000 Americans receive their Social Security benefits abroad, up from nearly 400,000 in 2000, according to the Social Security Administration. That’s a small number compared to the 43 million people over 65 receiving Social Security benefits. Still, 3.3 million of America’s 78 million Baby Boomers say they are interested in retiring abroad, according to Travel Market Report.

The growing interest in overseas living isn’t all that surprising, considering the worries of many pre-retirees about making their money last. There’s no question that you can live well on less in many countries. But to make that happen, you’ll need to plan carefully, says Dan Prescher, an editor at International Living, which publishes guides on the best places to retire overseas.

For most Americans, the biggest savings are a result of the lower prices for health care and housing overseas, says Prescher, who lives in Ecuador with his wife Suzan Haskins. The couple co-authored a book. The International Living Guide To Retiring Overseas On A Budget.

Most countries have a national healthcare system that cover all residents, and monthly premiums are often less than $100. It’s relatively easy to become a resident of another country, which typically involve proving you’ll have at least a modest amount of income, perhaps $1,000 a month.

But quality of health services varies, so research carefully, especially if you have medical problems. Even in countries with well-rated health care systems, the best services are centered around metropolitan areas. “Larger cities have more hospitals and doctors. The farther out you go, the quicker the quality falls off,” says Prescher.

Though Medicare doesn’t cover you if you live abroad, it’s still an option, and one that you should probably keep open. If you sign up—you’re eligible at age 65—and keep paying your premiums, you can use Medicare when you are back in the U.S.

Home prices, property taxes and utilities can be significantly lower in Mexico and countries in Central and South America, which are popular with U.S. retirees. In Mexico, you can find a nice three-bedroom villa near the beach for as little as $150,000, says Prescher.

But you’ll pay a premium for many other needs. Gas and utilities can cost a lot more than in the U.S. And you will also pay far more for anything that needs to be imported, such as computers and electronics or American food and clothing. “A can of Campbell soup can easily cost $4.50,” says Prescher. “You have to ruthlessly profile yourself, and see what you can or can’t live without, when you are figuring out your spending in retirement.”

Then there are taxes. As long as you’re a U.S. citizen, you have to pay income taxes to the IRS, no matter where you live or where your assets are located. Even if you don’t owe taxes, you must file a return. If you have financial accounts with more than $10,000 in a foreign bank, you must file forms on those holdings. In addition, the new Foreign Accounts and Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), which requires foreign banks to file U.S. paperwork for ex-pat accounts, has made many of them wary of working with Americans. You may also need to pay taxes in the country where you reside if you own assets there.

Check out safety issues too. Use the State Department’s Retirement Abroad advisory for information for country-specific reports on crimes, infrastructure problems and even scams that target Americans abroad.

The best way to find out if retiring abroad is for you is to spend as much time in your favorite city or village before you commit. Go during the off-season, when it may be rainy or super hot. See how difficult it is to get the things you want and what’s available at the grocery store. Read the local papers and check out online resources. In addition to International Living’s annual Best Places to Retire Overseas rankings, AARP writes about retiring abroad and Expatinfodesk.com publishes relocation guides.

The most valuable information will come from talking to other ex-pats when you’re visiting the country, as well a through message boards and online communities. “You’ll find that ex-pats have to have a sense of adventure and patience to understand that things are done differently,” says Prescher. “For many people, it’s a retirement dream come true.”

MONEY Social Security

How Student Loans Are Jeopardizing Seniors’ Retirements

Senior overwhelmed with debt
Chris Fertnig—Getty Images

Old debts are haunting retirees, as the federal government goes after their Social Security checks for repayment.

It’s a rude awakening for a growing number of seniors: They file for Social Security, then discover that the federal government plans to take part of their benefit to pay off delinquent student loans, tax bills, child support or alimony.

This month the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released findings on the problem of rising student debt burdens among retirees—and how the government goes after delinquent borrowers by going after wages, tax refunds and Social Security checks.

Under federal law, benefits can be attached and seized to pay child support and alimony obligations, collection of overdue federal taxes and court-ordered restitution to victims of crimes. Benefits also can be attached for any federal non-tax debt, including student loans.

It seems the student loan crisis isn’t just for young people. The GAO found that 706,000 of households headed by those aged 65 or older have outstanding student debts. That’s just 3% of all households, but the debt they hold has ballooned from $2.8 billion in 2005 to about $18.2 billion last year. Some 27% of those loans are in default.

If you’re among the 191,000 households that GAO estimates have defaulted, your Social Security benefits can be attached and seized.

“When that happens, the federal government pays off the creditor, and now it’s a debt to the federal government,” says Avram L. Sacks, an attorney who specializes in Social Security law. “So they can go after you for the loans—and now that students are reaching retirement age, long-forgotten debts are coming back to haunt them.”

The amounts that can be seized are limited, and the maximum amounts vary. In the case of any federal non-tax debt, including student loan debt, the government can take up to 15% of your monthly Social Security check. That’s a painful bite for low-income seniors living primarily on their benefits.

The law prohibits any attachment due to a federal non-tax debt that reduces a monthly benefit below $750. (Federal tax debt is not subject to this limitation.) Retirement and disability checks can be attached, but Supplemental Security Income—a program of benefits for low-income people administered by the Social Security Administration—is exempt.

In alimony or child support situations, garnishment is limited to the lesser of whatever maximums are set by states or the federal limit. The federal limits vary from 50% to 65% depending on how much the debt is in arrears and on whether the debtor is supporting a spouse or child. In victim restitution cases, the limit is 25% of the benefit.

Benefits can be deducted through an “administrative offset” against the amount the government sends you or through garnishment. In the case of garnishment, banks are required to protect the two most recent months of benefits that have been paid into your account, and the bank must notify you within five days that benefits have been attached.

Sacks advises people who have had benefits attached to establish stand-alone bank accounts for their Social Security deposits. “It’s much more simple and safe, and makes it much easier to trace funds,” he says.

Sacks says the government has been going after benefits more often because of changes in federal law and court rulings that have widened its powers. He urges people in their pre-retirement years to make every effort to pay off delinquent debts.

“It can be painful, but consider going to legal aid or finding a non-profit debt counselor who can help negotiate repayment. The worst thing is to ignore it.”

The government can go after delinquent debt while you’re working—but that requires a court judgment. ” are a known asset over which the federal government has total control,” says Sacks.

He adds that people sometimes are blindsided by garnishment for unpaid debts they had forgotten about. If you’re not sure about a federal debt, contact the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Bureau of the Fiscal Service (800 304-3107), which serves as a clearinghouse for debts.

If the bureau shows a debt that you dispute, contact the agency that is owed. Do the same if your benefits already have been tapped. “Don’t try to deal with the Social Security Administration,” says Sacks. “They don’t have direct responsibility for the attachment.”

Finally, Sacks notes funds not in the bank can’t be garnished. Most people don’t hang on to Social Security benefits for long—they’re used to meet living expenses. “I hate to urge people to keep money under the mattress, but money that’s been sitting in a bank account for more than two months is exposed to attachment.”

MONEY housing

How the Financial Crisis Put Up Two More Barriers to a Secure Retirement

Two new studies underline housing and income challenges facing older Americans.

Monday marks the sixth anniversary of the bankruptcy filing of Lehman Brothers, a key event in the Wall Street meltdown that led to the Great Recession. The recession wreaked havoc on the retirement plans of millions of Americans, and two studies released last week suggest that most of us haven’t recovered well.

To be more precise: Middle- and lower-income Americans haven’t recovered at all, while the wealthiest households have done fine.

The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University (JCHS) issued its findings on the challenges we face meeting the housing needs of an aging population in the years ahead. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Board released its triennial Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF), a highly regarded resource for understanding American households’ finances.

The Harvard study found that our existing housing stock is ill-suited to meet seniors’ needs, including affordability, accessibility, social connectivity and support services. And high housing costs are eating into the ability of low-income older adults to pay for necessities like food and healthcare.

Housing is the largest expenditure in most household budgets, and so is a linchpin of financial security and well-being. “It’s really at the nexus of your financial health, physical health and healthcare,” says Jennifer Molinsky, research associate at the JCHS and principal author of the study.

Harvard found that a third of adults over age 50 pay more than 30% of their income for housing—including 37% of people over age 80. Harvard defines that group as “housing cost burdened.” Another group of “severely burdened” older Americans spend more than 50% of income on housing. That group spends 43% less on food, and 59% less on healthcare, compared with households that can afford their housing.

Homeowners are much less likely to be cost-burdened than renters, the study found. But more homeowners are carrying mortgages well into retirement. More than 70% of homeowners aged 50 to 64 were still paying off mortgages in 2010.

The Federal Reserve findings on middle-class retirement prospects are equally troubling. Despite the economy’s gradual mending, the SCF found a widening gap in income and net worth. The top 10% of households was the only income band registering rising income (up 2% since 2010). Households between the 40th and 90th percentiles of income saw little change in average real incomes from 2010 to 2013. And the rate of homeownership was 65%, down from 69% in 2004 and 67% in 2010.

Ownership of retirement plan accounts also fell sharply. In the bottom half of income distribution, just 40% of households owned any type of account—IRA, 401(k) or traditional pension—in 2013, down from 48% in the 2007 survey. The Fed attributes the drop mainly to declining IRA and 401(k) coverage, since defined benefit coverage remained flat. Meanwhile, coverage in the top half of income distribution was much higher. In the top 10%, 95% of families are covered.

Overall, the average value of retirement accounts jumped a substantial 10% from 2010 to 2013, to $201,300. The Fed attributed that to the strong stock market and larger contributions. But for the lowest-income group that owned accounts, the average combined IRA and 401(k) value was just $39,100—and that is down more than 20% from 2007.

Considering the stock market’s strong performance in the intervening years, that suggests many of these households either sold while the market was depressed, drew down savings—or both. Meanwhile, upper-middle-income households saw a gain of 20% since 2007.

In Washington, lobbyists and policymakers have been debating about whether a retirement crisis really is looming. The various sides typically filter the data to support their viewpoints and agendas. But it’s difficult to think of two sources aligned than the Federal Reserve Board and Harvard. The SCF, in particular, is widely viewed as a gold standard survey that will be relied on for many economic reports in the months ahead. It includes information on the household balance sheets, pensions, income and demographic characteristics of about 6,500 families.

The JCHS study was funded by the AARP Foundation and The Hartford insurance company, so there’s a possible agenda there, if you doubt Harvard’s independence as researchers. (I don’t.)

Taken together, the studies paint the portrait of a widening divide in the retirement prospects of working Americans. No matter how the data is sliced, we’ve got problems that need to be addressed.

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