MONEY Social Security

Here’s How to Avoid Making a Huge Social Security Mistake

Spousal benefits are a crucial Social Security option for millions of couples. But getting extra, and in some cases “free,” spousal benefits is not possible for couples that run afoul of the agency’s tricky “deeming” rules.

Spousal benefits are a crucial Social Security option for millions of couples. But getting extra, and in some cases “free,” spousal benefits is not possible for couples that run afoul of the agency’s tricky “deeming” rules.

To understand deeming, it helps first to understand the best-case scenario for spousal benefits. Take a couple where the wife is about to turn 66 and her husband is about to turn 70. For her, age 66 is considered “full retirement age”, when, among other things, she can claim benefits without any early retirement reductions. For him, age 70 is when he can claim the greatest possible benefit, assuming he has so far deferred filing.

In this example, if the husband files for his own retirement benefit at 70, his filing permits his wife to file only for her spousal benefit, which is equal to half of the benefit he was entitled to at his full retirement age — not, that is, half of the larger amount he can claim at age 70.

But if the wife files what’s called a restricted application for spousal benefits at 66, she can receive these benefits while deferring her own retirement benefit for up to four years until she turns 70. During this time she earns delayed retirement credits so she, too, can claim her highest-possible benefit at that time. During this period, she can receive what essentially are free spousal benefits – free in the sense that collecting them has no adverse effect on her own retirement benefits.

This claiming strategy has been so well-publicized that the Obama Administration has proposed ending it — reportedly because the maneuver is used predominantly by wealthier workers, who are most likely to be able to afford deferring their benefits to age 70. But let’s debate the fairness of this proposal another day.

The problem is that this maneurver doesn’t work at all when people file before reaching full retirement age. Say that our couple is instead aged 62 and 65. And remember that 62 is generally the earliest that people who are married can file for spousal benefits. So our couple figures that the 62-year-old wife will file for spousal benefits on the earnings record of her 65-year-old husband, while she defers her own retirement benefits. This may be a logical assumption based on the ideal claiming scenario of our first couple. But it won’t be allowed by Social Security.

Here’s where “deeming” comes in. Remember that for the wife to file for spousal benefits, her husband first has to file for his retirement benefits. And because she is younger than full retirement age, Social Security’s rules will “deem” her to be also filing for her own retirement benefit when she files for her spousal benefit. There is no way around this if she is younger than 66. And the benefit she will actually receive won’t be both of these benefits but in effect only the larger of either her retirement benefit or her spousal benefit. Further, because she’s filing before reaching full retirement age, both benefits will be subject to early claiming reductions.

And remember her hubby, who filed for his own retirement at 65 to enable her to file for spousal benefits? He will get a reduced early retirement benefit, not the benefit he could get by waiting until full retirement age, let alone the benefit he would get if he deferred retirement until age 70.

Unfortunately, very few people even know deeming exists, so many of them unknowingly file for both spousal and retirement benefits at the same time without realizing it.

In 2012, 6.8 million persons – nearly all of them women – were simultaneously receiving two benefits at the same time, according to Social Security records. But the agency says it has no idea how many of these people were affected by deeming and how many of them were aware their filing action had automatically triggered a claim for a second benefit at the same time.

The bottom line here: You can qualify for two Social Security benefits at the same time but you can only collect an amount that is equal to the greater of the two benefits. In practical terms, the second benefit is lost to you because of deeming. If you can defer one benefit instead, it might be possible to have the best of both benefits.

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 Pensions

Reasons to Hold Off on That Pension Buyout Offer

Lump-sum pension buyouts are a good deal for employers. But workers who take them could lose out if interest rates rise.

If you work for a company with a pension plan, don’t be surprised if you get an offer soon for a lump sum buyout—a deal where you accept a pile of cash in exchange for the promise of lifetime income when you retire.

The price tag for these offers is especially attractive right now, from the plan sponsor’s perspective. But workers might do better by holding out for a better deal, or by rejecting the buyout altogether.

A growing number of plan sponsors are trying to get out of the pension business, or lighten their obligations, by buying out workers. The number of buyout offers has accelerated in recent years, in part because of interest rate changes mandated by Congress that reduce their cost to plan sponsors.

Now, revised projections for average American longevity are giving plan sponsors new reasons to accelerate buyout offers. New Internal Revenue Service actuarial tables that take effect in 2016 show average lifespans up by about four years each for men, to an average of 86.6 years, and women, to 88.8 years.

The new mortality tables will make lump sum offers 3% to 8% more expensive for sponsors, according to a recent analysis by Wilshire Consulting, which advises pension plan sponsors. Another implicit message here is that lump sum offers should be more valuable to workers who take them after the new mortality tables take effect.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in lump sum offers from plan sponsors,” says Jeff Leonard, managing director at Wilshire Consulting, and one of the experts who prepared the analysis. “But if it was one of my parents, I’m not sure if I’d encourage them to take the offer now or wait.”

The reason for his uncertainty is the future direction of interest rates. If rates were to rise over the next couple years from today’s historic low levels, that would reduce lump sum values enough to offset increases generated by the new mortality tables. Leonard estimates that a rate jump of just 50 basis points would eliminate any gain pensioners might see from the new tables.

Deciding whether to accept a lump sum offer is highly personal. A key factor is how healthy you think you are in relation to the rest of the population. If you think you’ll beat the averages, a lifetime of pension income will always beat the lump sum.

Another consideration is financial. Some people decide to take lump sum deals when they have other guaranteed income streams, such as a spouse’s pension or high Social Security benefits.

The size of the proposed buyout matters, too. If you’ve only worked for your employer a short time and the payout is small, it may be convenient to take the buyout and consolidate it with your other retirement assets.

Some people think they can do better by taking the lump sum and investing the proceeds. It’s possible, but there are always the risks of withdrawing too much, market setbacks or living far beyond the actuarial averages, meaning you would need to stretch that nest egg further.

And doing better on a risk-adjusted basis means you would have to consistently beat the rate used to calculate the lump sum by investing in nearly risk-free investments—certificates of deposit and Treasuries—since the pension income stream you would receive is guaranteed. Although the math here is complicated, it usually doesn’t work out in a pensioner’s favor.

Could you wait for a better deal? Lump sum buyouts are take-it-or-leave it propositions. But Leonard says workers who decline an offer may get additional opportunities over the next few years as plan sponsors keep working to reduce their pension obligations. “Candidly, I think we’ll see a continued series of windows of opportunity.”

MONEY retirement planning

How Today’s Workers Can Dodge the Retirement Crisis

For Millennials and Gen X-ers, it all depends on whether we can rein in spending after we stop working.

Trying to figure our whether mid-career folks like myself are adequately preparing for retirement can get a bit confusing. If you look at Boston College’s National Retirement Risk Index (NRRI), as of 2013 as many as 52% of households aged 30-59 are at risk of falling at least 10% short of being able to produce an adequate “replacement rate” of income.

That doesn’t sound too good, does it? But a discussion of the methodology of this survey and others at a recent meeting of the Retirement Research Consortium in Washington D.C., shows that things might not be so dire after all.

It turns out that the NRRI might be setting an unrealistically high bar for retirement income. The index’s replacement rate assumes that a household’s goal is to maintain a spending level in retirement that is equal to their pre-retirement living standard. It also includes investment returns on 401(k)s and IRAs in its calculation of pre-retirement income, even though those earnings are specifically earmarked for post-retirement. By including those investment gains, the NRRI may be targeting a replacement rate that is too high, causing more households to fall short, as Sarah Holden, director of retirement and investment research at the Investment Company Institute, pointed out in the meeting.

It’s already hard for someone in their 30s or 40s to figure out how much they need to be contributing today to replace the income they will have right before they retire. Adding to this guessing game is the debate over whether spending really goes down in retirement. You’ll pay less for work lunches, commuting expenses, and so on, but you might spend more for travel in the early years of retirement and, later on, more for health care costs.

In contrast to the NRRI calculations, many financial planners assume that would-be retirees will automatically cut spending when their children turn 21, and therefore only need to replace about 70% to 80% of their pre-retirement income. But as Frederick Miller of Sensible Financial Planning explained at the consortium’s meeting, that’s simply not the case anymore. He sees many clients continuing to support their adult children, helping them to pay for health insurance, rent, graduate school or a down payment on a home. While generous, this support obviously detracts from retirement savings.

So which assumption is correct? Should we be saving with the expectation of spending less in retirement or not? In reality, we should certainly prepare for eventually reducing consumption since, in the long run, we may have no choice about doing so. When spending does decline after retirement, it is almost twice as likely due to inadequate financial resources rather than voluntary belt-tightening, as Anthony Webb of Boston College discovered in a small survey of households.

The question of how much is enough will vary greatly by household. But it’s clear that my generation, and those that follow, face stiff headwinds—longer life expectancy, a likely reduction in Social Security benefits, and low interest rates, which greatly reduce the ability to generate income. Cutting back on spending during retirement, as well as during our working years, may be the single greatest contributor to our financial security that we can control.

Konigsberg is the author of The Truth About Grief, a contributor to the anthology Money Changes Everything, and a director at Arden Asset Management. The views expressed are solely her own.

MONEY Investing

Do You Really Need Stocks When Investing For Retirement?

Senior man on rollercoaster
Joe McBride—Getty Images

You may want to skip the thrills and chills of equities. But if you stick with bonds, be ready to do serious saving to reach your goals.

Even when stocks are doing well—and they’ve been on an incredible run the past five years with 17% annualized gains—there’s always a looming threat that the bottom could fall out of the market as it did when stock values plummeted more than 50% from the market’s high in 2007 to its trough in 2009. So it’s understandable, especially now when doubts abound about the longevity of this bull market, that you might ask yourself: Should I just skip stocks altogether when investing for retirement?

But if you’re inclined to give stocks a pass—or even just considering that option—you should be aware of the drawbacks of that choice. And, yes, there are substantial drawbacks.

Despite their gut-wrenching volatility—or, more accurately, because of it—stocks tend to generate higher returns than other financial assets like bonds, CDs and Treasury bills by a wide margin over the long term. That superior performance isn’t guaranteed, but it’s been pretty persistent over the last 100 years or longer.

Those higher long-term gains give you a practical advantage when it comes to saving for retirement. For a given amount of savings, you are likely to end up with a much larger nest egg by investing in stocks than had you shunned them. Another way to look at it is that by investing in stocks you can build a large nest egg without having to devote as much of your current income to savings.

Just how much of an advantage can stocks bestow? Here’s an example based on some scenarios I ran using T. Rowe Price’s Retirement Income Calculator, which you can find in Real Deal Retirement’s Retirement Toolbox.

Let’s assume you’re 30, earn $40,000 a year and are just beginning to save for retirement. The calculator assumes you’ll want to retire on 75% of your salary, so the target retirement income you’re shooting for is $30,000 (This is in today’s dollars; the calculator takes into account that your income will be much higher 35 years from now.)

First, let’s see how much you would have to save if you invest in, say, a mix of 70% stocks and 30% bonds, certainly nothing too racy for a 30-year-old with 35 years until retirement. To have at least a 70% chance of retiring on 75% of your pre-retirement salary at age 65 from a combination of Social Security payments and draws from your nest egg, you would have to set aside roughly 15% of your salary each year. (Or, if you have an employer generous enough to match, say, 6% of your salary, you’d have to kick in only 9% to reach 15%.)

You could improve that 70% probability by saving more or homing in on low-cost investment options, but let’s stick with the scenario above as a baseline for comparison.

So how would you fare if you decide to skip stocks altogether and invest solely in bonds? Well, if you stick with a 15% savings rate, your chances of being able to generate 75% of your pre-retirement income would drop to less than 20%. Not very comforting. You can boost the odds in your favor by saving more. But to get your chances of generating 75% of pre-retirement income back up to the 70% level, you would have to save almost 25% of your income each year. That’s a standard most people would have trouble meeting.

And the percentage of salary you would have to save would be even higher if you decide to hunker down in cash equivalents like money funds and CDs: just under 30%, or almost a third of your income.

Even if you had the iron will and perseverance to meet such lofty savings targets, diverting so much income from current spending to saving could seriously diminish the standard of living you and your family could enjoy during your career.

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting anyone should just load up on stocks willy-nilly. That would be foolish, especially as you near or enter retirement, when a stock-market meltdown could derail your retirement plans. Indeed, in another column, I specifically warn against relying too much on outsize returns (whether from stocks or any other investment) to build a nest egg. Smart investing can’t replace diligent saving.

The point, though, is that stocks should be part of your investing strategy prior to and even during retirement. The percentage of your savings that you devote to equities can vary depending on such factors as your age, how upset get when the market goes into a steep funk and how much you’re willing to entertain the possibility of not having enough money to retire comfortably or running short of dough during retirement. Some of the links in my Retirement Toolbox section can help you settle on a stocks-bonds mix that makes sense for you.

But if after considering the pros and cons, you decide stocks just aren’t for you, fine. You’d just better be prepared to save your you-know-what off during your career, and keep especially close tabs on withdrawals from your nest egg after you retire.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. He previously wrote the Ask the Expert column for MONEY and CNNMoney. You can reach him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

More From RealDealRetirement.com:

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What’s Your Number? Who Cares?

MONEY retirement planning

9 Steps to a Successful Retirement Plan

These time-tested moves can help you achieve a retirement that meets your financial goals and is emotionally satisfying too.

Your retirement will benefit from an informed understanding of key numbers, as I explained last week. How big is your nest egg? How much money will you need to live on? How much should you draw from your funds each year? How long do you expect to live?

Whether your retirement is successful, however, will depend not so much on these numbers but on whether your later years fulfill your emotional needs.

Money is important to happiness, of course. But there are other requirements here, including feeling secure about your future, not being exposed to investment risks you consider excessive, satisfying your concerns and goals for the legacy you wish to leave behind, and, when all is said and done, feeling you’ve run the best race of your life.

These are emotional and aspirational goals and you can’t put numbers to them. Yet, everyone has them, so it’s important to factor them into your retirement savings, investing and spending plans.

I’ve written gobs of stories about “can’t miss” and “best practices” retirement plans, speaking with retirement experts across the spectrum. From them, I’ve fashioned an approach to retirement that I like so well that I’ve adopted it for my own retirement plan. Here it is.

My advice to you, as with pretty much all financial advice, is to use this approach as a starting place. Adopt it, modify, or toss it out. But by all means, think about it and use it to help you make your own retirement plans.

My plan is shaped by my risk tolerances (low) and desire for financial security (high). It creates a 100% likelihood that I will not outlive my money. It is also a strategy that includes the needs of myself and my wife. We are willing to leave some money on the table in the interest of security. And we also are willing to defer some retirement income and thus “lose” money should we die earlier than we hope.

Step One: Add up sources of guaranteed retirement income—Social Security and pensions. In terms of longevity risk, the odds favor at least one member of a 65-year old couple living into their 90s. Therefore, give serious thought to deferring Social Security until age 70, when it has reached its maximum value.

Beyond being guaranteed, Social Security payments also increase each year to reflect the prior year’s inflation. They are, quite simply, the very best retirement dollars around. And I don’t buy all the gloom-and-doom stories about the program’s demise. Social Security will be here for a long, long time.

Step Two: Unless you know a shorter life is in the cards, opt for joint survivorship payments on any pension proceeds. They will be smaller than payments that would stop upon you or your spouse’s death. But both pensions will continue so long as either of you live. The goal here is to maximize security, not dollars.

Step Three: Tote up how much guaranteed money you will receive every month once you stop working. This could be a long time off or, depending on an adverse health or other life event, just around the corner.

Step Four: Build a detailed record of household spending, perhaps divided into major spending buckets—mortgage, utilities, good, cars, insurance, out-of-pocket healthcare, etc. Make note of required versus discretionary spending.

Step Five: Compare your projected guaranteed retirement payments with your current required spending needs. The goal here is for the two numbers to match. If they do, then in a worst-case world, you will always have enough money to keep a roof over your head and maintain a lifestyle that is close to the one you now have.

Step Six: If your fixed income today is projected to be smaller than your current fixed expenses, you will need to downsize. This might involve your home. Getting out from under mortgage and upkeep costs is the largest downsizing opportunity for most people.

Step Seven: If downsizing doesn’t get you there, consider using a portion of your nest egg to get more guaranteed lifetime income by purchasing an immediate annuity that will close the gap. This would reduce your savings, of course, but it scores very, very high on the “Sleep at Night” scale! Consider a longevity annuity as part of your solution.

Step Eight: Having balanced your fixed income and expenses, you can tap your investment portfolio to fund the gratifying things you want to do during your retirement years. If market returns are good, you will be able to do more. And during the inevitable periods of poor market performance, you can reduce discretionary spending without putting your basic standard of living at risk.

Step Nine: Set aside a portion of your savings against the day when one of you dies, so that it can compensate for the loss of one Social Security benefit. If you want to leave a financial legacy, set it aside here as well. If you still own a home after downsizing, use your equity as a piggy bank you hope never to break open. But it will be there for healthcare and other unforeseen emergencies.

That’s my plan. What’s yours?

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 Ask the Expert

Can Rental Income Save Your Retirement?

140605_AskExpert_illo
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: Is rental income a good way to diversify my retirement portfolio?

A: For some people, yes. “Rental property can provide another stream of income, a hedge against inflation if rental prices rise and an asset that hopefully will appreciate over time,” says Diann McChesney, a certified financial planner at Asset Strategies Inc. in Avon, Conn. But being a landlord isn’t for everyone and not all properties are a good investment, says McChesney.

To get the most out of a rental property, be judicious about where you buy. Like most things in real estate, location is critical. Buy in a place where there is strong demand for housing so you can command a good rent and you don’t have a hard time finding tenants. You may not want the hassle of owning it in your older retirement years, If you plan to sell it down the road, it’s important to own a property that will be attractive to other investors.

A good rental property has many of the same things you look for in a home: A nice neighborhood, well-regarded schools and jobs that attract people to the area. Be careful about buying a fixer-upper. Unless you are handy or have a lot of time to handle repairs, maintenance problems will eat into the income. Today’s low interest rates make taking on a mortgage reasonable but the real key is ensuring that the rental income generates positive cash flow. If you want an income from the property, rent should more than cover your mortgage, property taxes, maintenance and repairs, says McChesney.

Keep in mind that banks require a larger down payment for—20% to 25%—and charge higher rates. It’s also an illiquid asset, so you won’t be able to tap your investment as easily as you can money in, say, an IRA. While you can get a tax break writing off expenses while you hold the property, once you sell it you’ll pay taxes on that depreciation.

The bottom line: A rental property can be a good way to diversify your retirement portfolio and provide another source of income in your later years. But “there’s a lot more to it than collecting rent,” says McChesney.

MONEY Roth 401(k)

The Great Retirement Account You’re Not Using

diamond in dirty hands
RTimages—Getty Images

Roth 401(k)s are showing up in more workplaces, but only about 10% of eligible workers saved in one last year. That's a big mistake.

Since they were launched in 2006, Roth 401(k)s have been typecast as the ideal plan for millennials. Paying taxes on your contributions in exchange for tax-free withdrawals, the reasoning goes, is best when your tax rate is lower than it’s likely to be in retirement. It turns out Roth 401(k)s may be the better option for Gen Xers and baby boomers too.

That’s the conclusion of a recent study by T. Rowe Price, which found that Roth 401(k)s leave just about all workers, regardless of age or tax bracket, with more money to spend in retirement than pretax plans do. “The Roth 401(k) should be considered the default investment,” says T. Rowe Price senior financial planner Stuart Ritter.

Yet few workers of any age invest in Roth 401(k)s, which let you set aside $17,500 in after-tax money this year ($23,000 if you’re 50 or older), no matter your income. Just as with a Roth IRA, withdrawals are tax-free, as long as the money has been invested for five years and you are at least 59½. Some 50% of employers now offer a Roth 401(k), up from just 11% in 2007, according to benefits consultant Aon Hewitt. But only 11% of workers with access to a Roth 401(k) saved in one last year. Big mistake. Here’s why:

Higher income. Every dollar you save in a Roth 401(k) is worth more than a dollar you put in a pretax account. That’s because you’ll eventually pay income taxes on those pretax dollars, while you get to keep every penny in a Roth. Granted, you get an upfront tax break by saving in a traditional 401(k), and you can invest that savings. Even so, a Roth almost always overcomes that headstart, the T. Rowe Price study found.

The fund company’s analysis looked at savers of different ages and tax brackets, both before and after retirement. As the graphic shows, a Roth 401(k) pays more even if you face a lower tax rate in retirement than you did during your career. The only group that would do significantly better with a pretax plan: investors 55 and older whose tax rate falls by 10 percentage points or more, which would mean up to 6% less income.

roth edge

Greater flexibility. With a tax-free account, you can avoid required minimum withdrawals after age 70½ (as long as you roll over your Roth 401(k) to a Roth IRA). You can also pull out a large sum in an emergency, such as sudden medical bills, without fear of rising into a higher tax bracket.

Tax diversification. Having tax-free income can keep you from hitting costly cutoffs. For every dollar of income above upper levels, 50¢ or 85¢ of your Social Security benefits may be taxable. “Many retirees in the 15% bracket actually have a marginal tax rate of 22% or 27% when Social Security taxes are added in,” says CPA Michael Piper of ObliviousInvestor.com. And if you retire before you’re eligible for Medicare and buy your own health insurance, a lower taxable income makes it more likely you’ll qualify for a government subsidy. In short, when it comes to retirement, tax-free money is a valuable tool.

More from the Ultimate Retirement Guide:
What Is a Roth 401(k)?
Which Is Better for Me, Roth or Regular?
Why Is Rolling Over My 401(k) Such a Big Deal?

 

MONEY Social Security

Why Millennials and Gen Xers Shouldn’t Diss Social Security

Don't fall for the myth that Social Security runs dry after Baby Boomers retire. You'll still get most of the promised benefits.

Ask your average American born after 1964 what they think about Social Security and they will probably say something like, “I’ll never see any of it. When I get those statements in the mail I just throw them away.” For this we have to thank (among others) novelist Douglas Coupland, author of Generation X, who back in 1991 said in an interview, “I don’t think anyone honestly expects to collect a single penny they pay into Social Security…The day you want to go collect your money the system will have just gone bankrupt buying a jewelled stereo system for Jane Fonda’s walker.”

It is true that timing is terribly unkind to me and my peers—the Social Security trust fund reserves will be depleted in 2033, the same year I will be turning 65, according to the most recent board of trustees report.

And it is equally true that this depletion will be due to ballooning expenditures for Baby Boomer beneficiaries that will begin to create a steeply rising deficit in about 2019. But this does not mean that Social Security will not be there for me when I retire—which is what more than 80% of Millennials and Gen X-ers believe, according to a survey released last monthby the TransAmerica Center for Retirement Studies.

Social Security gets money to make payments to retirees in three ways: through taxes on current workers, through taxes on the benefit payments, and through interest income on a trust fund of about $2.6 trillion as of the end of 2013. (The Department of the Treasury invests the trust fund in special, non-marketable government securities, which may explain why it only made 3.75% last year—more on that later.) As the program begins to run a larger and larger deficit, the shortfall will be made up by eating into the reserve fund itself. That’s what will be depleted by 2033, but not the entire program, which anticipates being able to pay approximately 75% of scheduled benefits between 2033 and 2088.

75% isn’t as good as 100%, but I’ll take it. (I’m not as sure about deferring benefits to age 70, even though the economic advantages of doing so make Michael Kitces describe deferral as “the best annuity money can buy.”)

According to projections done by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, between 73% and 76 % of people in 401(k) plans will still have a “successful” retirement (defined as being able to replace between 60% to 80% of pre-retirement income) even with reduced Social Security benefits, compared to between 83% and 86% of people reaching “successful” retirement at current Social Security benefit amounts.

Those projections assume a retirement at age 65. They also assume that nothing will be done to “fix” the projected shortfall, such as raising taxes or more actively managing the trust fund investment to get a higher return, both of which would be extremely controversial solutions. Something must be done, if only, as the trustees warn, to avoid the increasing strain that the trust fund deficit will also put on the unified Federal budget. If there’s one fiscal issue Millenials and Gen Xers could both rally around, this should be it, and yet the problem seems to be met with apathy, perhaps owing to the misunderstanding that we no longer have anything at stake.

I used to like getting those statements of estimated benefits, the ones called “what Social Security means to you.” After suspending those mailings due to financial cutbacks, Social Security will once again send estimates but only at five-year intervals (you can also get them online.) Don’t disregard them. Social Security will still mean an awful lot.

Konigsberg is the author of The Truth About Grief, a contributor to the anthology Money Changes Everything, and a director at Arden Asset Management.

More on Social Security:

 

MONEY Pensions

Why Some Private-Sector Workers Are Facing Big Pension Cuts

Multi-employer pensions are in financial trouble—and any solution is likely to mean workers end up with smaller retirement benefits.

The window is closing on our last best chance to protect the pensions of 10 million American workers and retirees.

These workers are in multi-employer plans—traditional defined benefit pension plans jointly funded by groups of employers in industries like construction, trucking, mining and food retailing. Although many of the country’s 1,400 multi-employer plans are healthy, 1.5 million workers are in plans that are failing. And that threatens the broader system.

Losses during the crash of 2008-2009 left those plans badly underfunded. In many cases, the problems have been compounded by declining employment in their industries, which leaves sponsors with a growing proportion of retirees to current workers paying into the pensions funds.

The plans are insured by the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, the federally sponsored agency funded through insurance premiums paid by plan sponsors. But the level of PBGC protection for workers in multi-employer plans is—by design—much lower than for single-employer plans. Multi-employer plans historically have been stable, so policymakers set premiums, and benefits, at a lower level than for single-employer pension plans.

But the PBGC projects that about 200 plans will become insolvent over the next two decades. If it has to fund benefits for those plans, many beneficiaries will suffer. That’s because the maximum benefit for these retirees is much lower than for those in single-employer plans—it’s capped this year at $12,870 for a worker retiring at age 65, compared with $59,318 for workers in single-employer plans. PBGC estimates that multi-employer workers with 30 years or more of service would lose an average of $4,000 in annual benefits.

Policymakers, legislators, business and labor groups have debated the issue for two years. Now we’re at a key turning point, argues Josh Gotbaum, the PBGC’s director. “If Congress doesn’t act this year, it is very likely that major plans will fail and the multi-employer system will collapse,” he told me in an interview this week.

It’s not that plans will run out of money this year or next, Gotbaum says. Instead, he says employers could start scrambling off a sinking ship, accelerating pressures on the system. Under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), one employer departing a multi-employer plan must make an exit contribution capped at two years of annual contributions. With a mass exodus, each employer pays a full proportionate share of the plan’s underfunded liability.

“We have a prisoner’s dilemma going on,” Gotbaum says. “Employers are looking at the other employers and thinking that they want to beat the rush—they don’t want to be the last one standing.”

Fixes would require revisions to ERISA, which governs private sector pension plans. Gotbaum says that needs to happen this year because “virtually all the congressional talent that has focused on this issue for the last year is leaving.”

Representative John Kline (R-Minnesota), chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, will rotate out of that position next year. Two others aren’t seeking re-election—House Ways and Means Chairman David Camp (R-Michigan) and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

If Congress doesn’t act this year, employers may be encouraged to quit the system, Gotbaum says, because they’ll conclude that change will be postponed until after the 2016 presidential elections.

Gotbaum hopes a reform package will include a mix of higher multi-employer insurance premiums, to beef up the agency’s ability to backstop plans that fail, and ERISA reforms that help other plans restructure so they can remain solvent. But he won’t be on the scene to help craft a solution; he leaves next month after four years at the PBGC to return to the private sector.

A coalition of employers and labor unions has been pushing for changes that would let healthy plans adopt more flexible plan designs aimed at keeping them in the system. But one controversial element has drawn strong pushback from pension advocates; it would give plan trustees wide latitude to cut the benefits of current retirees—albeit at levels slightly higher than PBGC guarantees.

Gotbaum is optimistic that an agreement could be forged after this year’s midterm elections. “Congress is taking this seriously,” he says. “It’s been difficult for them to reach agreement, but they clearly are trying. Democrats and Republicans both know something needs to be done.”

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MONEY Social Security

The 5 Key Things to Know About Social Security and Medicare

No need to panic, but both Social Security and Medicare face long-term financial challenges, this year's trustees report finds. There's still time to make fixes.

If you worry about the future of Social Security and Medicare, this is the week to get answers to your questions. The most authoritative annual reports on the long-term health of both programs were issued on Monday, and while the news was mixed, there are reasons to be encouraged about our two most important retirement programs.

Under the Social Security Act, a board of trustees reports annually to Congress on the status and long-term financial prospects of Social Security and Medicare. The reports are prepared by the professional actuaries who have made careers out of managing the numbers and are signed by three cabinet secretaries, the commissioner of Social Security and two publicly appointed trustees—one Republican, one Democrat.

Here are my five key takeaways from this year’s final word on our social insurance programs.

* Imminent collapse nowhere in sight. Social Security and Medicare face long-term financial problems, but there’s no cause for panic about either program.

Social Security’s retirement program is fully funded for the next 19 years. It has $2.8 trillion in reserves, and that figure will rise to $2.9 trillion in 2019, when the surplus funds will begin depleting rapidly as baby boomer retirements accelerate. Although you’ll often hear that Social Security spends more annually than it receives in taxes, the program actually took in $32 billion more than it spent last year, when interest on bond holdings and taxation of benefits are included.

The retirement trust fund will be depleted in 2034, at which point current revenue would be sufficient to pay only 77% of benefits—unless Congress enacts reforms to put the program back into long-term balance.

Medicare’s financial outlook improved a bit compared with last year’s report because of continued low healthcare inflation. The program’s Hospital Insurance trust fund – which finances Medicare Part A— is projected to run dry in 2030, four years later than last year’s forecast and 13 years later than forecast before passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

In 2030, the hospital fund would have enough resources to cover just 85 percent of its expenditures. (Medicare’s other parts—outpatient and prescription drug services—are funded through beneficiary premiums and general revenue, so they don’t have trust funds at risk of running dry.)

Could healthcare inflation take off again? Certainly. Some analysts—and the White House – chalk up the recent cost-containment success to features of the ACA. But clouds on the horizon include higher utilization of healthcare, new medical technology and a doubling of enrollment by 2030 as boomers age.

* Medicare is delivering good pocketbook news. The monthly premium for Medicare Part B (outpatient services) is forecast to stay put at $104.90 for the third consecutive year in 2015. That means the premium won’t take a larger bite out of Social Security checks, and that retirees likely will be able to keep most— if not all—of the expected 1.5% cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) in benefits projected for next year. (Final numbers on Part B premiums and the Social Security COLA won’t be announced until this fall.)

* Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) requires immediate attention. The program faces a severe imbalance, and only has resources to pay full benefits only until 2016; if a fix isn’t implemented soon, benefits would be cut by 20 percent for nine million disabled people.

That can be avoided through a reallocation of a small portion of payroll tax revenues from the retirement to the disability program – just enough to keep SSDI going through 2033 while longer-range fixes to both programs are considered. Reallocations have been made at least six times in the past. Let’s get it done.

*Aging Americans aren’t gobbling up the economic pie. Social Security outlays equalled 4.9% of gross domestic product last year and will rise to 6.2% in 2035, when the last baby boomer is retired. Medicare accounted for 3.5% of GDP in 2013; it will be 3.7% of GDP in 2020 and 6.9% in 2088.

* Kicking the can is costly. There’s still time for reasonable fixes for Social Security and Medicare, but the fixes get tougher as we get closer to exhausting the programs’ trust funds. Social Security will need new revenue. Public opinion polls show solid support for gradually eliminating the cap on income subject to payroll taxes (currently $117,000) and gradually raising payroll tax rates on employers and workers, to 7.2% from 6.2%. There’s also strong public support for bolstering benefits for low-income households and beefing up COLAs.

Medicare spending can be reduced without resorting to drastic reforms such as vouchers or higher eligibility ages. Billions could be saved by letting the federal government negotiate discounts on prescription drugs, and stepping up fraud prevention efforts. And an investigative series published earlier this summer by the Center for Public Integrity uncovered needed reforms of the Medicare Advantage program, pointing to “tens of billions of dollars in overcharges and other suspect billings.”

Your move, Congress.

Related stories:

How to Fix Social Security—and What It Will Mean for Your Taxes

Why Taxing the Rich Is the Wrong Way to Fix Social Security

3 Smart Fixes for Social Security and Medicare

 

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