MONEY retirement income

Retirees Risk Blowing IRA Deadline and Paying Huge Penalties

Egg timer
Esben Emborg—Getty Images

With just seven weeks left in the year, most IRA owners required to pull money out have not yet done so.

Two-thirds of IRA owners required to take money out of their account by Dec. 31 have yet to fulfill the obligation, new research by Fidelity shows. Now, with the year-end in sight, and thoughts pivoting to holiday shopping and get-togethers, legions of senior savers risk getting distracted–and socked with a punishing tax penalty.

IRA owners often wait until late in the year to pull out their required minimum distributions. Especially at a time when interest rates are low and the stock market has been rising, leaving your money in an IRA as long as possible makes sense. Some retirees may also be reluctant to take distributions for fear of spending the money and running short over time.

But blowing the annual deadline can be costly. The IRS sets a schedule of required minimum distributions, or RMDs, to keep savers from deferring taxes indefinitely. After reaching age 70 1/2, IRA owners must begin to take money out of their account each year and pay income tax on the amount. Failure to pull money out triggers a hefty penalty equal to 50% of the amount you were supposed to take out of the account.

Among 750,000 IRA accounts where distributions are required, 68% have yet to take the full amount and 56% have yet to take anything at all, Fidelity found. These IRA owners should begin the process now to avoid end-of-year distractions and potential mistakes like using the wrong form or providing the wrong mailing address, which can take weeks to find and correct.

A report by the Treasury Inspector General estimated that as many as 250,000 IRA owners each year miss the deadline, failing to take required minimum distributions totaling about $350 million. That generates potential tax penalties totaling $175 million. The vast majority of those who fail to take their minimum distributions are thought to do so as part of an honest mistake, and previously the IRS hasn’t always been eager to sock seniors with a penalty. But the IRS began a crackdown on missed distributions a few years ago. Don’t look for leniency if you miss the deadline without a good reason, like protracted illness or a natural disaster.

Early each year, your financial institution should notify you of any required distributions you must take by year-end. If this is the first year you are taking a required distribution, you have until April 1 to do so, but then only until Dec. 31 every subsequent year. Once notified, you still need to initiate a distribution. A lot of people simply do not read their mail and fail to initiate action in time.

Among other reasons IRA owners miss the deadline:

  • Switching their account Institutions that open an account during the year are not required to notify new account holders of required minimum distributions until the following year.
  • Death Often there is confusion about inherited IRAs. The beneficiary must complete the deceased IRA owner’s distributions in the year of death. Non-spousal beneficiaries of any age must begin taking distributions in the year following the year that the IRA owner died—and no notice of this is required.

With the penalties so stiff and the IRS cracking down on missed mandatory distributions, this is a subject that seniors and their adult children should talk about. In general, financial talk between the generations makes seniors feel less anxious and more prepared anyway. Required distributions can be especially confusing, and the penalties may have the effect of taking away money that heirs stand to receive. So it’s in everyone’s interest to get it right. Consider putting mandatory distributions on autopilot with a firm that will make the calculation and send you the money on a schedule you choose.

Related:

How will my IRAs be taxed in retirement?

Are there any exceptions to the traditional IRA withdrawal rules?

When can I take money out of my IRA without penalty?

MONEY retirement planning

What Are the Biggest Surprises in Retirement? The Experts Weigh In

141106_RET_Surprise
David Clapp—Getty Images

Retirement is a major transition—and not just financially. Here are some lifestyle changes you may not be planning for.

The Great Recession served up some nasty financial surprises to people approaching retirement—the housing crash, job loss and shrunken 401(k)s, for starters.

But retirement can bring lifestyle surprises, too. It’s one of life’s biggest transitions, and a major leap into the unknown. Hoping to lessen the guesswork for people who aren’t there yet, I asked experts who work with people transitioning to retirement about the surprises they hear about most often.

“Time freedom” is a shock for many, says Richard Leider, an executive career coach and co-author of Life Reimagined: Discovering Your New Life Possibilities (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013).

“Without the time structure of working, folks often go on autopilot, the default position of repeating old patterns,” he says. “However, there is no status in the status quo. So, at about the one-year mark, they realize that time is their most precious currency. Often a wake-up call—health, relationships, money or caregiving—forces reflection and helps them to say ‘no’ to the less important things that simply clutter up a life and ‘yes’ to the more important things that define a purposeful life. They choose fulfilling time.”

Wealth psychology expert Kathleen Burns Kingsbury also sees people struggling to structure their new lives. “One of the biggest surprises retirees face is the adjustment to not working full-time,” says Kingsbury, author of How to Give Financial Advice to Couples (McGraw-Hill, 2013). “While people typically fantasize about what life will be like without a job, the reality is sometimes it’s a bit of a shock to the system.

“Work provides structure, social connections and a sense of purpose. It is important for pre-retirees who are not going to work in retirement to consider how they will meet these needs outside of a work environment,” she adds.

Sometimes, that leads to greater spirituality, says Carol Orsborn, editor-in-chief of FiercewithAge.com and author of 21 books about the baby boomer generation.

“The heightened search for meaning in the face of mortality comes as no surprise,” she says. “The bigger surprise is that as it turns out, many of the things we most fear—loss of identity, erosion of ego, increased marginalization—hold the potential to transform aging into a spiritual path.

“Many retirees report that they are achieving levels of fulfillment, peace and joy not despite the things that happen to them as they age, but because of them. This transcends individual experience, with sufficient mass to constitute what is being termed ‘the conscious aging movement.’ “

Not that there aren’t earth-bound worries. “The biggest surprise is about money,” says Helen Dennis, a specialist in aging, employment and retirement. “This is true particularly among women who have earned a good income and find that eight or 10 years into retirement, they fear running short and need to change their lifestyle, all within an uncertain economy. Add to this their surprising initial discomfort in spending their retirement income without depositing a work-earned check.”

Changing housing needs also can surprise, especially for single retirees. “For single retirees, recognizing that their current home or location no longer ‘works’ is a common surprise,” says Jan Cullinane, author of The Single Woman’s Guide to Retirement (AARP/John Wiley, 2012). “Upon leaving a primary career, the daily social support built into a job is yanked away. Pairing that with becoming suddenly single through divorce or widowhood, the home that served them well may no longer be appropriate.”

For married couples, the surprise might be a desire to get away from one another. “Many retirees end up bored with too much free time and often discover, if they’re in a relationship, that they get on each other’s nerves and want some space and time apart,” says Dorian Mintzer, a coach and co-author of The Couple’s Retirement Puzzle: 10 Must-Have Conversations for Creating an Amazing New Life Together (Lincoln Street Press, 2012).

“They often haven’t thought about the role work played—providing structure, self-esteem, time together and time apart from a partner as well as connection engagement and purpose and meaning. Each partner may experience the transition differently, and they may be ‘out of sync’ with each other. For example, one may want to travel and the other wants to start an encore career.”

I received many more comments about retirement surprises than fit here. You can find thoughts from a broader array of experts on my website.

More on retirement:

Can I afford to retire?

Should I delay my retirement?

Should I work in retirement?

MONEY retirement income

Retirement Withdrawal Strategies That Can Pay Off Big

To figure out the right pace for your retirement withdrawals—and to avoid ending up in higher tax brackets—start planning before you stop working.

Having your own tax-deferred retirement account is a bit like having one of those self-titrating morphine buttons that hospitals use: Press it whenever you need quick relief.

But once you’re retired and able to tap your 401(k) or individual retirement account (IRA), it’s not easy to titrate your own doses of cash. Withdraw too much, and you use up your nest egg too quickly; too little, and you might unnecessarily crimp your retirement lifestyle.

Overlaying the how-much-is-enough question are several finer points of tax planning. Because you can decide how much money to pull out of a 401(k) or individual retirement account, and because those withdrawals are added to your taxable income, there are strategies that can help or hurt your bottom line.

That’s especially true for early retirees trying to decide when to start Social Security, how to pay for health care and more. Here are some money-saving withdrawal tips.

CURB TAXABLE INCOME

If you are buying your own health insurance via the Obamacare exchanges, keep your taxable income low to qualify for big subsidies, advises Neil Krishnaswamy, financial planner with Exencial Wealth Advisors in Plano, Texas.

“It’s a pretty substantial savings on premiums,” said Krishnaswamy.

Here’s an example using national averages from the calculator on the Kaiser Family Foundation web page. Two 62-year-old spouses with annual taxable income of $62,000 would receive a subsidy of $8,677 a year, against a national average premium of $14,567. If they took another $1,000 out of their tax-deferred account and raised their taxable income to $63,000, they would be disqualified from receiving a subsidy.

Not every case may be that dramatic, but it’s worth checking the income limits and available subsidies in your own state.

DELAY BENEFITS

If you retired early, consider taking out extra money to live on and delaying Social Security benefits until you are older. Withdrawing money from retirement savings hurts. You not only lose the savings, you lose future earnings on those savings. And in most cases, you have to pay income taxes on withdrawals from those tax-deferred accounts.

But Social Security benefits go up roughly 8% a year for every year you don’t claim them. And even after you claim them, they rise with the cost of living and are guaranteed for life. When you draw down your own savings to protect a bigger Social Security payment, tell yourself you are buying the cheapest and best annuity you can get.

PLAN IN ADVANCE

Plan ahead for mandatory withdrawals. In the year you turn 70 1/2, you have to begin drawing down your tax-deferred IRAs and 401(k) accounts and paying income taxes on those withdrawals. Unless you expect to be in the lowest tax bracket at the time, it makes sense to start withdrawing at least enough every year before then to “use up” the lower tax brackets.

For single people in 2014, you’re in a 10% or 15% marginal tax bracket until you make more than $36,000 a year. For married people filing jointly, that 15% bracket goes up to $73,800. It’s a lot better to pull out that money in your 60s and use up other savings to live on, than it is to save it all until you are 70 and then withdraw large chunks at higher interest rates.

GET A GOOD ACCOUNTANT

You may want to use early years of retirement to take the tax hit required to move money from a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA that will free you of future taxes on that money and its earnings.

You may pull a lot of money out of your account in one year and spend it over two or three years, to keep yourself qualified for subsidies in most years.

You may titrate your withdrawals to keep your Medicare premiums (also income linked) as low as possible.

The best way to optimize it all? Get an adviser or accountant who is comfortable with a spreadsheet and can pull all of these different considerations together.

Related:

When do I have to take money out of my 401(k)?

How will my IRA withdrawals be taxed in retirement?

Are my Social Security payouts taxed?

MONEY retirement income

The Creepy Truth About Life Settlements

Actress Betty White presents the late producer Bob Stewart with a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award during the 40th annual Daytime Emmy Awards in Beverly Hills, California June 16, 2013.
Actress Betty White has pitched life settlements to seniors. Danny Moloshok—Reuters

A new novel revolves around a murderous life settlements investor. That's fiction. But these products have very real risks for buyers and sellers.

Selling your life insurance policy is right up there with taking out a reverse mortgage when it comes to retirement income sources that most people would be better off not tapping. But folks do it anyway, while paying little attention to the costs and, as a new novel points out, the risks of a policy landing in the wrong hands.

Selling a life policy for a relatively large sum—known as a life settlement—has gotten easier over the last decade. Hedge funds, private equity funds, insurers and pension funds dominate the market, which totals around $35 billion, up from $2 billion in 2002. Individuals are investing in them too, through securities that represent a fraction of a bundle of life settlements, sometimes called death bonds.

How Life Settlements Work

Those most likely to be offered a life settlement, formerly known as a viatical, are individuals with a universal life insurance policy they no longer need or can’t afford—or who simply don’t want to pay the premiums. A term life policy that converts to a universal policy may also have value. Policyholders sell their insurance for more than they’d get by surrendering the policy to their insurer. If you have a death benefit of $1 million, you might have $100,000 cash surrender value but manage to get $250,000 from a third-party investor. The investor assumes future premium payments and collects $1 million at your death.

Not a bad deal, assuming you’re comfortable with the fact that someone out there has a financial interest in your demise. You get a bigger payout for a policy you were going to give up anyway. Life policies with total face value in the tens of billions of dollars lapse every year, according to industry estimates. Many of those policies have value in the secondary market.

As part of their ad campaign, the life settlement industry has enlisted actress Betty White, who pitches these deals for “savvy senior citizens needing cash.” Heck, she’s more persuasive than Fred Thompson is about reverse mortgages. But don’t be easily swayed. Aging celebrities from Henry Winkler to Sally Field are pitching all sorts of elder products these days in what amounts to an encore career—not a genuine endorsement.

The Privacy Risk

Okay, so what are the downsides to life settlements? For policyholders seeking to raise money, the creepiest risk by far is that you sell your policy to Tony Soprano, who understands that the quicker you die, the greater his rate of return. This is the extreme case explored in a new novel by Ben Lieberman, The Carnage Account. The lead character is a Wall Street high roller who buys up life settlements and dispatches the people with the biggest policies. “Very few products on Wall Street have been immune to exploitation,” says Lieberman, noting the wave of subprime mortgages that blew up in the financial crisis. “The abuse can now hurt more than your property. Instead of losing your house you can lose your life.”

Of course, Lieberman is a novelist with an active imagination. Life settlements have been around since the AIDS crisis, and there has never been a known case of murder for quick payoff, says Darwin Bayston, CEO and president of the Life Insurance Settlement Association. There have been only three formal complaints of any kind about life settlements to national regulators in the last three years, he says.

Yet Lieberman, who has a long Wall Street background, finds the entry of cutthroat hedge fund managers more than a little unsettling. Policies with insurers or held by pension funds remain largely anonymous inside huge portfolios. Institutions base their settlement offers on average life expectancies, knowing some policies will pay early and some will pay late.

But in smaller and more actively managed pools investors may pick and choose life policies that promise a quicker payoff, based on things like depression and mental illness, or clues from medical staff as to the most “valuable” policies. Life settlement investors are also targeting an estimated $40 billion of death benefits that policyholders might sell to fund long-term care needs, spinning it as socially conscious investing. How else will these seniors pay for end-of-life care? “Instead of credit risk or prepayment risk we now evaluate longevity risk,” Lieberman says. “This began as a way to help terminally ill patients. Now it incorporates perfectly healthy people and presents a way to bet against human life.”

One former life settlements investor told me he has seen third-party portfolios of life policies fully disclosing the names of the insured parties, which is the basis for the success of Lieberman’s fictional Carnage Account. In his novel, a murderous hedge fund manager gets this information and speeds up the whole process. Again, that’s fiction. But even Bayston concedes that a determined life settlements investor could get the identities of the insured people whose long lives are bad for investment returns.

The Financial Risks

Now, let’s look at the non-fiction risks with life settlements. For sellers, they are considerable, and include giving up your policy too cheaply and paying dearly for the transaction, and possibly becoming ineligible to buy another policy. Always check the cash surrender value first. Do not be swayed by brokers putting on a hard sale. They stand to collect commissions of up to 30% of the settlement. If you are determined to quit paying premiums, rather than sell the policy consider letting the cash value fund future premiums until the cash is exhausted. That’s a much better deal for heirs if you pass away in the interim. You can sell the policy when the cash value has been depleted—and get more for it then.

For buyers, settlements are complex and illiquid, and they may not pay out for many years. Given these hidden risks, they generally do not make sense for individual investors. Wall Street, meanwhile, benefits from their huge fees and expected long-run annual returns of 12% or more. Perhaps more important, settlements offer returns with no correlation to the financial market, which can be attractive to sophisticated investors and institutions, such as pension funds.

The life settlements industry has leveled off since the financial crisis, in large part because policies are taking longer to pay, thanks to increasing longevity. That drives down returns. Underscoring this risk to investors: the Society of Actuaries recently published revised mortality rates showing that a 65-year-old can now expect to live two years longer than someone that age just 14 years ago. But investors have been edging back into the market the last couple years, drawn by more realistic return assumptions and an anticipated flood of life policies held by boomers who will need cash to pay for assisted living.

Only in a novel do life settlements investors manage longevity risk with a hit man. But there are good reasons to be careful nonetheless.

MONEY Social Security

Here’s a Quick Guide to Fixing Social Security

Band-Aid on Social Security card
John Kuczala—Getty Images

These changes could easily balance the program for the next 75 years. But reaching consensus on the mix of reforms is the real challenge.

Social Security likely will move back to center stage after this week’s elections. The program’s finances have eroded bit by bit for years, drawing calls for change every year. But nothing has been done. Now Congress could continue kicking this can down the road. Or it could decide to actually tackle the problem and change things, most likely as part of a broader look that also includes Medicare and Medicaid.

With favorable prospects for a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, stories already abound about raising the retirement age, changing the annual cost-of-living adjustment or raising the ceiling on earnings subject to the payroll tax.

AARP, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare and other Social Security support groups have gone on the offensive. Far from just defending the program from cuts, they are speaking out aggressively about the merits of raising benefits

All of which makes a recent report from the Social Security Administration particularly timely. It reviews more than 120 ideas for changing Social Security and calculates how each would affect the program’s future finances. The report was overseen by Stephen C. Goss, chief actuary of the Social Security Administration. If any source is both informed and free from political spin, it is this one.

Within this list are enough changes to balance the program several times over during the next 75 years. But then, this has never been the issue. Rather, the contentious debate has been over the “right” mix of changes. And people have not been able to agree on that.

Here’s a quick guide to the reforms that would have the biggest impact, according to the report. It is tempting to just add up the financial impact of each change to see if they erase the Social Security shortfall. But, as the report notes, some reforms would affect others. So although the sum of impact of the changes will give you a ballpark estimate, the actual results are likely to be a bit different.

Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA). The annual cost-of-living adjustment to Social Security benefits (1.7% for 2015) has received lots of attention, primarily from a proposal to substitute a less-generous “chained” Consumer Price Index for the current inflation measure used to set the yearly change. Using the chained CPI would close 19% of the program’s projected shortfall. A more draconian measure—reducing the COLA by a percentage point from what it would otherwise be—would cut 61% of the shortfall all by itself. However, senior’s groups think the COLA should be increased to more accurately reflect the larger weight of health costs for older consumers. This proposal would raise the shortfall by 13%.

Monthly Benefits. Adjusting the complex formulas used to calculate benefits could make big dents in the shortfall. Right now, benefit increases are tied to changes in average wages. Linking them instead to general price inflation could cut as much as 90% of the system’s shortfall. That’s because wages historically have risen by more than the rate of inflation, so this change would effectively reduce the size of future benefit increases. There also are a slew of suggested sweeteners that would reduce the pain of smaller increases, although they tend not to add much to the shortfall.

Retirement Age. The normal retirement age for benefits is now 66 and set to rise to 67 in the year 2027. Raising it to 68 over a six-year period would shave 15% from the shortfall, while increasing it to 69 over 12 years would cut 35% off the long-term deficit. Raising the age to 70 over a shorter time period, and automatically adjusting it to reflect expected longevity gains, would cut the shortfall by an even larger 48%—but that’s only if the hike is combined with an increase in the earliest age for claiming benefits from 62 to 64. Reducing benefits to early retirees is strongly opposed by senior and labor groups who argue that workers in physically demanding jobs are often forced to retire early for health reasons.

Payroll Taxes and Covered Earnings. The system could be balanced by raising the payroll tax rate from its current level of 12.4% (paid half and half by employees and employers). There is a separate payroll tax for Medicare. Other proposals would raise the wage ceiling subject to payment taxes, which will rise to $118,500 in 2015. These suggestions would have large effects on program shortfalls. Simply eliminating the wage ceiling for employer payments would cut 50% from the projected 75-year deficit. Raising the ceiling so that 90% of earned wages are subject to Social Security taxes would cut 48% of the deficit. The stiffest medicine – raising the tax rate from 12.4% to 15.5%—would balance the program all by itself, and then some. On the flip side, a proposal to exempt people with more than 45 years of earnings from payroll taxes would widen the deficit by 11%. Such a change, advocates say, would improve retiree incomes and stop penalizing older workers, who must continue payroll taxes even thought their benefits do not rise as a result.

Trust Fund Investments. Social Security reserves are now invested in a special issue of U.S. Treasury Securities. Putting some of these funds into the stock market has long been a high priority of many conservatives, and strongly opposed by liberal groups. If 40% of trust funds were invested in stocks, and if they earned an annual return of 6.4%, after calculating the effects of inflation, this would close 21% of the program’s long-term funding shortfall. For comparison, the report assumed the long-term returns of the special issue of Treasury securities would be 2.9% a year, after inflation.

Getting the “right” mix of changes would be terrific, but enacting even a mediocre compromises next year would be far, far better. Think about a series of trade-offs. One side might get a later retirement age and reductions in the rate of future benefit growth, from changes to the COLA and annual wage base. The other side could get hefty hikes in payroll taxes for wealthier workers and more protection for lower-income, early retirees. Now if we could only get Congress to start the negotiations.

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

More on Social Security:

3 Smart Fixes for Social Security and Medicare

Social Security is the Best Deal

Can We Save Social Security?

MONEY Second Career

Finding the Perfect Balance Between Work and Fun in Retirement

Ranger with snowmobile, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Ranger with snowmobile, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Blickwinkel—Alamy

These retirees found a way to spend all their time on pursuits they love.

“Damn the submarine. We’re the men of the Merchant Marine!” That singsong phrase woke me up every morning for seven months on my first ship, the SS San Francisco. I went to sea after graduating from college. For four years, I worked on ships, mostly tankers, steaming through the Suez and Panama canals, past the Rock of Gibraltar at midnight under a full moon, stopping in ports like Athens, Dubai, and Yokosuka. A number of my peers had similar adventures after college, including leading wilderness trips, tending bar, teaching English overseas and traveling around Europe picking up odd jobs. Ah, those were adventurous days before the desire for a career and family responsibilities took over.

Peter Millon is living the adventure, too—in his Unretirement, at age 69. Last year, he spent about 70 days skiing the slopes in Park City, Utah, when he wasn’t working four days a week for ‎Rennstall World Class Ski Preparation, repairing skis and waxing skis for racers. Essentially, he split his retirement time 50/50: working half-time and pursuing his passion the other half. In the off-season, Millon plays golf with his oldest son who lives in Salt Lake, fishes and takes target practice. Not bad.

Leading a Wealthy Life

A wealthy industrialist? A Wall Street master of the universe? A high-tech titan of business? Hardly. Millon isn’t wealthy, but he leads a wealthy life. “Do something you love, something for you,” he says. “Don’t do it for anyone else.”

Millon began his career working at a small ski maker in St. Peter, Minn. He then spent decades as a technical director at Salomon North America and its various competitors. During the real estate bubble years, Millon was selling high end appliances for the home, living in a townhouse in Massachusetts. Business tanked when the bubble burst, and he took advantage of an early retirement package. Three years ago, he sold the townhouse and moved to Utah where he was known in the ski community, picking up a condo on the cheap. These days, Millon lives comfortably off Social Security, some investments and the income from his part-time job.

The ‘World’s Oldest Intern’

John Kerr is living the 50/50 life in his Unretirement, too, working as park ranger in Yellowstone between May and September. He didn’t plan on becoming a ranger, though. Kerr had a four-decade career at WGBH as a marketing and fund raising executive, retiring at 65. “It took the shock of the change to rattle my bones a bit,” says John Kerr. “I had way too much energy and experience to sit around.”

His exploration took him out to Jackson Hole, Wyo., where Kerr has a small condo. While walking around Bozeman, Mont., he saw a sign for the Yellowstone National Foundation, which supports Yellowstone National Park. He walked in unannounced and from an off-hand remark during a conversation with the organization’s head, he learned it had an internship opening. Kerr applied and for the next year he was “world’s oldest intern,” talking to visitors about wolves.

Kerr became a Yellowstone ranger five months a year for the next nine years, living close to Jackson in the winters and using his time off to visit family. Now 76, he recently moved back to New England to be near family. Still, he expects next season he’ll return to Yellowstone. “It has been a great adventure,” he says.

Advice for Your Unretirement

When I asked Kerr and Millon what advice they’d give to others in their 60s and 70s eager for adventure, Kerr emphasized the importance of an open mind. “You have to have your eyes open and your ears flapping,” he chuckled. Millon suggested drawing on the relationships you’ve made over the years and the skills you’ve developed without trying to compete for the kind of job you had earlier in your career.

What I took away from both men is that the financial penalty of working fewer hours and doing more of what you love can be much less than you might think.

“The key is that when your interests align with your work, there is nothing from which to retire,” says Ross Levin, a certified financial planner and head of Accredited Investors in Edina, Minn. “We save money to ultimately create a lifestyle. If that lifestyle doesn’t need much money, then we need to save less.”

Think of it this way, says Levin: You earn $10,000 a year in your fulfilling work on a ski slope or in national park or down in the Florida Keys. That’s the equivalent of having $250,000 in investment assets, assuming the 4% withdrawal rule (a standard guideline for safely taking money out of retirement savings). A $20,000 income is the equivalent of $500,000 in assets, and so on.

Much of the conversation about prospects in the traditional retirement years often forgets how creative people are at coming up with solutions. Many Unretirees I’ve interviewed over the years have found they made significant cuts in expenses without slashing their standard of living.

So, if your career didn’t leave you with the kind of portfolio that pushes you into the ranks of the wealthy, that doesn’t mean you can’t construct a comparable lifestyle. The question is: What’s your adventure?

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

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Doing Great Work After 60

Shifting From Full-Time to Part-Time Work

12 Takeaways From a Mini-Retirement

MONEY Second Career

The Secrets to Launching a Successful Encore Career

These prize-winning social entrepreneurs built non-profits that make a difference.

“You must do the thing you cannot do,” Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote. It’s the only way to overcome the fears we all face in doing something new, she thought, and take a leap into the unknown.

Kate Williams quoted Roosevelt earlier this week here when she accepted a $25,000 Purpose Prize, one of the awards given annually by Encore.org, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that works to engage baby boomers in “encore careers” with a social impact. The awards, now in their ninth year, recognize trailblazers over age 60 who have tackled social problems creatively and effectively. Cash prizes range from $25,000 to $100,000.

Williams, 72, lost her eyesight to a rare degenerative disease after a long career as a corporate human resources professional. She overcame her own fears, first by moving away from friends and family in Southern California to start over in San Francisco and later by starting an employment training program for the blind. Today, she runs a similar, larger program for the national non-profit organization Lighthouse for the Blind.

Encore.org’s mission is to promote a game-changing idea: Greater longevity and the graying of America present opportunities, not problems. This year’s Purpose Prize winners underscore that point. They’re rock stars in the world of social entrepreneurship, having started organizations that work on issues like sex trafficking, disaster relief, autism and education in impoverished neighborhoods.

The idea of second careers with social purpose has broad appeal. Millions of older Americans want to stay engaged and work longer, sometimes out of economic need but often out of a deep motivation to give back. An Encore.org survey this year found that 55% of Americans view their later years as a time to use their experience and skills to make a difference, though just 28% say they are ready to make it happen.

Many people have trouble figuring out where to start—which brings us back to Roosevelt. Fear of the unknown is a key hurdle in starting down a new path later in life, and I had the chance to ask some of the encore experts gathered for the awards about how they would advise others seeking to begin.

The juices get flowing when people connect their experiences and knowledge with a problem they are passionate about. But first they have to make the leap.

“I had been in the corporate world, not part of the blind community,” Williams says. “I was frightened, but what I thought would be overwhelming turned out to be a beautiful thing. As soon as we started our training classes, I was hooked.”

Accurate, real-time salaries for thousands of careers.

The Lighthouse for the Blind program has worked with 100 blind job seekers over the past three years, and has placed 40% of them.

David Campbell, winner of a $100,000 prize this year, wanted to help after the Indian Ocean tsunami that devastated parts of Southeast Asia in 2004. A senior executive at several software and Internet technology companies, he figured he could help by creating a Web-based tool to organize volunteer tsunami relief efforts. That led him to start All Hands Volunteers, which has worked on 45 disaster relief projects in six countries and dozens of U.S. locations. The non-profit uses the Internet to route volunteers to places where they can be put to work effectively.

“People just want to know that if they go, they’ll have a place to sleep that won’t be a burden to the local people, and a contact to start with,” he says. “We give you exact instructions on how to get there, and assure that you’ll have a bunk bed, food and someone will have organized work and that you’ll have the right tools to be productive.”

Campbell talks often with people looking to get started on encores. “I always advise people to start by volunteering with some organization with social purpose – it’s an easy, great way to start. But the question many people have is, ‘Which one, and what might I do?’ “

Campbell suggests people consider geography and the focus of the work. “Do you want to work locally, nationally or internationally? Do you care about health, education or some other thing? That starts the conversation and helps people narrow it down.”

Then, he says, visit a non-profit that interests you, and take the time to understand its needs.

“Be willing to help understand the mission, and do whatever it is they need help with. And don’t treat volunteering as a casual activity. You need to commit to a certain number of hours of work a week as though it were a paying job, and take responsibility for it.”

To paraphrase another famous Roosevelt, the only thing you have to fear is fear itself.

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MONEY Longevity

Americans Are Living Longer Than Ever. And That May Kill Your Pension

With more workers likely to reach age 90, employers will have to step up their pension funding. Or, more likely, hand you a lump sum instead.

For the first time, both boys and girls born today can expect to see at least 90 years of age, according to revised mortality tables published on Monday by the Society of Actuaries. This represents a staggering extension of life over the past century. In 1900, newborns could not expect to see what is now the relatively youthful age of 50. But a big question looms: how we will pay for all these years?

In the last 100 years, the drumbeat of extended life expectancies has been interrupted during World War I and again during the Great Depression, but only fleetingly in any other period. Medical science and greater attention to health and nutrition have stretched lifetimes by a year or more every decade. In the new tables, newborn boys are expected to reach exactly 90 years of age—up from 87 in the last published tables in 2000. Girls are now expected to reach 92.8—up from 87.3.

This extraordinary expansion has changed every phase of human life. Only a few generations ago childhood came to an abrupt halt at ages 13 or 14, when boys went to work and girls married and started families. As lifetimes expanded, the teen years emerged and kids were kids longer. They went to high school and then to college. Today, the years of dependence have stretched even longer to 28 or 30 in a period recently defined as emerging adulthood.

Middle age and old age have also stretched out. Half a century ago reaching age 65 meant automatic retirement and imminent infirmity. Today, millions of 65-year-olds aren’t just in the workforce—they are reinventing themselves and looking for new pursuits, knowing they have many good years ahead.

According to the revised tables, which measure the longevity of those who hold pensions or buy annuities, a man at 65 can expect to live to 86.6—up from 84.6 in 2000. A woman at 65 can expect to live to 88.8—up from 86.4 in 2000. In another 15 years the typical 65-year-old will be expected to reach 90. And these are not necessarily years of old age; for many, most of these extra years will be lived in relatively good health.

What is good news for humanity, though, sends tremors through the pension world. Every few extra years of life expectancy come with a price tag. Already, many private and public pension funds are woefully underfunded—and the new tables essentially mean they are even further behind. Aon Hewitt, a benefits consultant, estimates that the new figures add about 7 percentage points to the amount a typical corporate pension must set aside.

So a typical pension that has only 85% of the funds it needs based on the old mortality rates now has only 78% of what it needs based on the new rates. This will almost certainly lead to a further erosion of individuals’ financial safety nets as pension managers try to figure out how to fill the holes. Already the majority of large companies have frozen or changed their pension plans in order to reduce their financial risk, while shifting workers to 401(k)s. Look for more employers to abolish their traditional pensions and to offer workers a lump sum settlement rather than remain on the hook for unknown years of providing guaranteed income.

“As individuals receive lump sum offers, they need to understand that their life expectancy is now longer,” says Rick Jones, senior partner at Aon Hewitt. “They need to be able to make the money last.”

Companies probably will have until 2017 before regulators require them to account for the new mortality rates, Jones says. That means, all things being equal, lump sum payments will be higher in a few years. For those on the verge of taking their benefits, it might make sense to wait. Public pensions, which generally are in worse shape than private pensions, will have to account for longer lives as well, though they are not subject to the same regulations and the adjustments will come slower.

The new figures also promise to speed changes in the 401(k) world, where both plan sponsors and plan participants have been slow to embrace annuities, which are insurance products that turn savings into guaranteed lifetime income. Savers have generally avoided certain annuities because they are seen as expensive and leave nothing for heirs. Lacking demand and facing legal hurdles, employers have also shied away.

Yet policymakers and academics have been arguing for a decade that 401(k) plans need to provide a guaranteed income option. The U.S. Treasury has been pushing the use of longevity annuities in 401(k)s, recently issuing guidelines for their use in target-date retirement funds. With a longevity annuity, also known as a deferred income annuity, you can buy lifetime guaranteed payout for a relatively small amount and have it kick in at a future date—say, age 80 or 85. And these days, even that’s not all that old.

Read next: You May Live Longer Than You Think. Here’s How to Afford It

MONEY retirement planning

Millennials Feel Guilty About This Common Financial Decision—But They Shouldn’t

Sad millennials leaning on desks
Paul Burns—Getty Images

Young adults aren't saving as much as they think they should for retirement. But paying off debts is just as important.

Millennials are pretty stressed out about their long-term finances, according to Bank of America’s latest Merrill Edge Report. Some 80% of millennials say they think about their future whenever they pay bills. Almost two-thirds contemplate their financial security while making daily purchases. And almost a third report that they often ponder their long-term finances even while showering.

What’s eating millennials? Student loan debt. Even the very affluent millennials surveyed by Bank of America feel held back by student debt—and these are 18-to-34 year-olds with $50,000 to $250,000 in assets, or $20,000 to $50,000 in assets and salaries over $50,000. Three-quarters of these financially successful Millennials say they are still paying off their college loans.

Among investors carrying student debt, 65% say they won’t ramp up their retirement savings until they’ve paid off all their loans. But with that choice comes a lot of guilt: 45% say they regret not investing more in 2014.

Contrary to popular wisdom, millennials are committed to investing for retirement. Bank of America found that the millennials surveyed were actually more focused on investing than their elders. More than half of millennials plan to invest more for retirement in 2015. But 73% of millennials define financial success as not having any debt—and by that measure, even relatively wealthy millennials are feeling uneasy.

Fear not, millennial investors. You’re doing just fine. First off, you’re saving more — and earlier — than your parents’ generation did. A recent Transamerica study found that 70% of millennials started saving for retirement at age 22, while the average Baby Boomer didn’t start until age 35. On average, millennials with 401(k)s are contributing 8% of their salaries, and 27% of millennials say they’ve increased their contribution amount in the past year. Even if you can only put away a small amount at first, you can expect to ramp up your savings rate during your peak earning years.

For now, here are your priorities:

Save enough to build up an emergency fund. You could be the biggest threat to your retirement savings. A recent Fidelity survey found that 44% of 20-somethings who change jobs pull money out of their 401(k)s. (That’s partly because some employers require former workers with low 401(k) balances to move their money.) Fidelity estimates that a 30-year-old who withdraws $16,000 from a 401(k) could lose $471 a month in retirement income—and that’s not even considering the taxes and penalties you’d owe for cashing out early. If you have to make the choice between saving and paying off debt, at least save enough to get through several months of unexpected unemployment without draining your retirement accounts.

Pay off any high-interest debt first. When you pay off debt, think of it this way: You’re making an investment with a guaranteed return. Over the long term, you might expect a 8% return in the stock market. But if you have a loan with an interest rate of 10%, you know for certain that you’ll earn 10% by paying it off early.

Save enough to get your employer’s full 401(k) match. The 401(k) match is another investment with a guaranteed return. Invest at least as much as you need to get the match—typically 6%—with the goal of increasing your savings rate once you’ve paid off the rest of your debt.

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