MONEY Social Security

What’s Missing in Your New Social Security Benefits Statement

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Many workers will start receiving Social Security benefits statements again. Just don't expect to see much discussion of inflation's impact on your payout.

The Social Security Administration will be mailing annual benefit statements for the first time in three years to some American workers. That’s good news, because the statements provide a useful projection of what you can expect to receive in benefits at various retirement ages, if you become widowed or suffer a disability that prevents you from working.

But if you do receive a statement next month, it is important to know how to interpret the benefit projections. They are likely somewhat smaller than the dollar amount you will receive when you actually claim benefits, because they are expressed in today’s dollars—before adjustment for inflation.

That is a good way to help future retirees understand their Social Security benefits in the context of today’s economy—both in terms of purchasing power, and how it compares with current take-home pay. “For someone who is 50 years old, this approach allows us to provide an illustration of their benefits that are in dollars comparable to people they might know today getting benefits,” says Stephen Goss, Social Security’s chief actuary. “It helps people understand their benefit relative to today’s standard of living.”

In part, the idea here is to keep Social Security out of the business of forecasting future inflation scenarios in the statement that might—or might not—pan out. The statement also provides a starting point for workers to consider the impact of delayed filing.

“It provides valuable information about how delaying when you start your benefit between 62 and 70 will increase the monthly amount for the rest of your life—an important fact for workers to consider,” says Virginia Reno, vice president for income security at the National Academy of Social Insurance.

Unfortunately, the annual statement is silent when it comes to putting context around the specific benefit amounts. The document’s only reference to inflation is a caveat that the benefit figures presented are estimates. The actual number, it explains, could be affected by changes in your earnings over time, any changes to benefits Congress might enact, and by cost-of-living increases after you start getting benefits.

And the unadjusted expression of benefits can create glitches in retirement plans if you do not put the right context around them. Financial planners don’t always get it right, says William Meyer, co-founder of Social Security Solutions, a company that trains advisers and markets a Social Security claiming decision software tool.

“Most advisers do a horrible job coming up with expected returns. They choose the wrong ones or over-estimate,” he says, adding that some financial planning software tools simply apply a single discount rate (the current value of a future sum of money) to all asset classes: stocks, bonds and Social Security. What’s needed, he says, is a differentiated calculation of how Social Security benefits are likely to grow in dollar terms by the time you retire, compared with other assets.

“Take someone who is 54 years old today—and her statement says she can expect a $1,500 monthly benefit 13 years from now when she is at her full retirement age of 67,” says William Reichenstein, Meyer’s partner and a professor of investment management at Baylor University. “If inflation runs 2% every year between now and then, that’s a cumulative inflation of 30%, so her benefit will be $1,950—but prices will be 30 percent higher, too.

“But if I show you that number, you might think ‘I don’t need to save anything—I’ll be rich.’ A much better approach for that person is to ask herself if she can live on $1,500 a month. If not, she better think about saving.”

About those annual benefit statements: the Social Security Administration stopped mailing most paper statements in 2011 in response to budget pressures, saving $70 million annually. Instead, the agency has been trying to get people to create “My Social Security” accounts at its website, which allows workers to download electronic versions of the statement. The move prompted an outcry from some critics, who argue that the mailed statement provides an invaluable reminder each year to workers of what they can expect to get back from payroll taxes in the future.

Hence the reversal. Social Security announced last spring that it is re-starting mailings in September at five-year intervals to workers who have not signed up for online accounts. The statements will be sent to workers at ages 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55 and 60.

MONEY retirement planning

Get These 4 Big Things Right to Retire in Comfort

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By focusing on a few essentials, you can keep your retirement strategy on track—and reduce stress too.

Take a look at financial websites or switch on a cable TV program and you get the impression that smart retirement planning requires you to stay constantly attuned to every wiggle in the economy and the stock market—and act on it: dump one investment, buy another, re-jigger your entire portfolio…do something, anything, to react to the latest buzz. This, of course, is nonsense.

In a constantly shifting global economy, there are far too many things going on for any person—any organization for that matter—to keep tabs on, evaluate and integrate into a master retirement plan. And then do it over and over again as conditions inevitably shift. It’s just not realistic.

Even if you could stay on top of the overwhelming amount of financial information, it’s still not always clear how best to react to news. For example, a good GDP report can be a plus for stocks if investors take it as a sign that a recovery is gaining traction—or bad if it stirs fears that interest rates will rise causing stock prices to soften.

So given the complexity of today’s financial world, what can you do to better assure you’ll have a secure and comfortable retirement? My advice: Focus on getting these four Big Things right.

1. Set a target—but make sure it’s the correct one. Generally, you’ll do better at any activity—career, health, sports—if you have a goal. Retirement is no exception. The Employee Benefit Research Institute’s latest Retirement Confidence Survey notes that people who’ve tried to calculate their retirement savings needs are more likely to feel very confident about affording a comfortable retirement than those who don’t.

Over the years, however, the target of choice seems to have become Your Number—or the specific amount of money you’ll need to fund a comfortable retirement. But Your Number isn’t a very good benchmark. It gives a false sense of precision, and can often be so big and daunting that it discourages people from saving at all. (What’s the point if I have zero saved and need $1,378,050?)

A better barometer: Keep track of the percentage of your pre-retirement income you’re on pace to replace both from Social Security and draws from your retirement savings. Granted, this figure isn’t exact either. Experts generally say that to maintain your standard of living you should try to replace anywhere from 70% to 90% of your income just prior to retirement. But it’s a number you can more easily get your head around, and more easily translate to an actual lifestyle. Many 401(k) plans include tools that allow you to see how you’re doing on this metric. If yours doesn’t, try the Retirement Income Calculator in RDR’s Retirement Toolbox.

2. Save at a reasonable rate. If you’re still in career mode, setting aside a sufficient amount each year in a 401(k) or other retirement accounts is the single most important thing you can do to improve your retirement prospects. What’s sufficient? I’d say 15% of salary is a good target. But if you can’t manage that, try starting at 10% and working your way up. Employer matching funds count toward that savings figure, so be sure to take full advantage of any employer largesse.

Once you reach retirement, tending your nest egg and managing the amount you spend is key. You don’t want to spend so much that you delete your savings early on; nor do you want to be so miserly that you leave this mortal coil with a big pile of cash behind you.

3. Invest like a smart layman, not a dumb pro. I’m being a bit facetious here to make a point. Professional investors and money managers are not dumb. But many of them do things that I consider dumb, like jumping from one market sector to another in a vain attempt to outguess the market or trading so often that they rack up transaction costs that depress returns.

The smart layman, on the other hand, knows that the two best ways to invest retirement savings are to set an overall mix of stocks and bonds that best reflects your appetite for risk, and then stick to low-cost investments that allow you to pocket more of the returns your savings earn. For guidance on creating a stocks-bonds blend that will generate the returns you’ll need without subjecting you to more downside risk than you can handle, you can check out this Investor Questionnaire.

4. Monitor how you’re doing, but don’t obsess about it. Retirement planning is a long-term proposition. So while you definitely want to be sure you’re making progress toward accumulating the savings you’ll need—or, if you’ve already retired, that you’ll be able to maintain your standard of living—don’t over do it. Re-assessing your progress once or twice a year by going to a retirement income calculator like the one highlighted in RDR’s Retirement Toolbox is probably sufficient.

Constant check-ups may make you more likely to tinker with (or, worse yet, dramatically overhaul) your investments or your plans. This urge to make changes is especially strong during periods of upheaval in the economy and the markets. And changes made on the fly or precipitated by an emotional reaction to duress often do more harm than good.

That said, there can be times when adjustments are called for. But when they are, you’ll typically do better by making small changes and then later re-assessing whether you need to do more rather than going with a dramatic move that could knock you even farther off course.

MORE FROM REAL DEAL RETIREMENT

Why You Shouldn’t Obsess About A Market Crash

Why I Cried When Berkshire Hathaway Hit $200,000 a Share

5 Tips For Charting Your Retirement Lifestyle

MONEY Social Security

How to Claim Social Security Without Shortchanging Your Spouse

Deciding when to take Social Security can have a big impact on your family's income. Here's what you need to know.

When it comes to claiming Social Security, millions of people make this huge mistake: overlooking the impact on their family’s income.

Many people don’t realize that Social Security pays a host of benefits beyond your individual retirement income. The program may also pay so-called auxiliary benefits to your spouse, your children and even your parents. A separate program may provide auxiliary benefits if you become disabled, and, in some cases, if you are divorced or if you have passed away. The amount of these benefits is tied to your earnings record—the wages you’ve earned over a lifetime during which you’ve forked over Social Security payroll taxes—and your decision on when to file your claim.

To make the best choices about when to claim Social Security, anyone who is, or was, married, and especially those with children, needs to consider not only their own retirement benefits but also benefits that might be available to family members. This is especially true of survivor benefits.

Let me give you an example. (I wish it was simple but very little about Social Security is simple.) Say you’re 62 and your wife is 58. You’ve heard that delaying Social Security will raise your income but you want the benefits now, so you begin looking into the process of claiming them.

If you file for benefits at 62 (the earliest claiming age unless you’re disabled or a surviving spouse), they will be reduced by 25% from what you could get at full retirement age, which is 66 for people now approaching retirement. What’s more, that payout would be a whopping 76% less than if you waited until age 70 to file. To use convenient numbers, if your benefit at 66 would be $1,000 a month, you would get only $750 a month if you filed at age 62 but $1,320 a month if you waited until age 70.

Perhaps you’re okay with receiving lower income, if you start getting it sooner. But how about your family members? These reductions would also apply to their auxiliary benefits.

The most dramatic impact of early claiming decisions affects widows. Husbands are overwhelmingly likely to begin taking their retirement benefits before their full retirement age, according to Social Security data. Yet husbands are likely to die several years before their wives, statistics show, which leaves many widows struggling on small incomes.

Granted, many women have salary records of their own, and as their wages have increased over the past 30 years, so have Social Security benefits. But many women now reaching retirement age have not accumulated Social Security benefits equal to that earned by their husbands.

That inequality is a real problem for widows. While they both are alive, each spouse can collect his or her own Social Security benefit. But after one dies, the surviving spouse can only collect the greater of the two benefits. This is likely to be the husband’s benefit, even if it’s been reduced because he filed for it early.

As a result, millions of widows in this country are receiving reduced survivor benefits based on their late husband’s earnings record. Had he waited to file, their survivor benefits would have been higher—much higher in many cases.

The trend is so pronounced that the agency devised a special way of calculating benefits to try and ease its impact. It’s called the Retirement Insurance Benefit Limit, or RIB-LIM in the agency’s acronym-crazy jargon. It’s also known as the Widow(er)’s Limit.

When you make the decision when to claim Social Security, make sure it’s in the best interest of everyone in the family. To really understand this decision, you’ll need to know about Social Security’s family maximum benefits. Tune in next week to learn how they work.

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 retirement planning

3 Smart Moves for Retirement Investors from the Bogleheads

The Bogleheads Guide to Investing 2nd Edition
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A group of Vanguard enthusiasts offers sound financial advice to other ordinary investors. Here are three tips from one of their founders.

Wouldn’t be great to get advice on managing your money from a knowledgeable friend—one who isn’t trying to rake in a commission or push a bad investment?

That’s what the Bogleheads are all about. These ordinary investors, who follow the teachings of Vanguard founder Jack Bogle, offer guidance, encouragement and investing opinions at their website, Bogleheads.org. The group started back in 1998 as the Vanguard Diehards discussion board at Morningstar.com. As interest grew, the Bogleheads split off and launched an independent website. Today the Bogleheads have nearly 40,000 registered members, but millions more check into the site each month. (You don’t have to be member to read the posts but you must register to comment—it’s free.)

As you would expect given their name, the Bogleheads favor the investing principles advocated by Bogle and the Vanguard fund family: low costs, indexing (mostly), and buy-and-hold investing—though the members disagree on many details. The Bogleheads are led by a core group of active members, who have also published books, helped establish local chapters around the country, and put together an annual conference. Their ranks of regular commenters include respected financial pros such as Rick Ferri, Larry Swedroe, William Bernstein, Wade Pfau, and Michael Piper.

For investors who prefer their advice in a handy, non-virtual format, a new edition of “The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing,” a best-seller originally published in 2006, is coming out this week. Below, Mel Lindauer, who co-wrote the book with fellow Bogleheads Taylor Larimore and Michael LeBoeuf, shares three of the most important moves that retirement investors need to make.

Choose the right risk level. Figuring out which asset allocation you can live with over the long term is essential—and that means knowing how much you can comfortably invest in stocks. Consider the 37% plunge in the stock market in 2008 during the financial crisis. Did you hold on your stock funds or sell? If you panicked, you should probably keep a smaller allocation to equities. Whatever your risk tolerance, it helps to tune out the market noise and stay focused on the long term. “That’s one of the main advantages of being a Boglehead—we remind people to stay the course,” says Lindauer.

Keep it simple with a target-date fund. These portfolios give you an asset mix that shifts to become more conservative as you near retirement. Some investing pros argue that a one-size-fits-all approaches has drawbacks, but Lindauer sees it differently, saying “These funds are an ideal way for investors to get a good asset mix in one fund.” He also likes the simplicity—having to track fewer funds makes it easier to monitor your portfolio and stay on track to your goals.

Another advantage of target-dates is that holding a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds masks the ups and downs of the market. “If the stock market falls more than 10%, your fund may only fall 5%, which won’t make you panic and sell,” says Lindauer. But before you opt for a fund, check under hood and be sure the asset mix is geared to your risk level—not all target-date funds invest in the same way, with some holding more aggressive or more conservative asset mixes. If the fund with your retirement date doesn’t suit your taste for risk, choose one with a different retirement date.

Don’t overlook inflation protection. Given the low rates that investors have experienced for the past five years—the CPI is still hovering around 2%—inflation may seem remote right now. But rising prices remain one of the biggest threats to retirement investors, Lindauer points out. If you start out with a $1,000, and inflation averages 3% over the next 30 years, you would need $2,427 to buy the same basket of goods and services you could buy today.

That’s why Lindauer recommends that pre-retirees keep a stake in inflation-protected bonds, such as TIPs (Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities) and I Bonds, which provide a rate of return that tracks the CPI. Given that inflation is low, so are recent returns on these bonds. Still, I Bonds “are the best of a bad lot,” Lindauer says. Recently these bonds paid 1.94%, which beats the average 0.90% yield on one-year CDs. If rates rise, after one year you can redeem the I Bond; you’ll lose three months of interest, but you can then buy a higher-yielding bond, Lindauer notes. Consider them insurance against future spikes in inflation.

More investing advice from our Ultimate Retirement Guide:
What’s the Right Mix of Stocks and Bonds?
How Often Should I Check on My Retirement Investments?
How Much Money Will I Need to Save?

MONEY

These New Programs Help Workers Retire at Their Own Pace

The federal government will allow employees to phase in their retirement by working part-time. But private companies are slower to offer this benefit.

Gwendolyn Ross will turn 66 in November, but she isn’t ready to retire. A deputy comptroller for the U.S. Coast Guard in Miami Beach, Florida, she hopes to work until she’s 70—but she would like to cut back her hours.

“I have some health issues that require a lot of visits to the doctor, and I’d love to have more time to visit my family in Michigan,” she says. At the same time, she needs to keep working to prepare for retirement. “As I get closer to it, I realize I’m not as financially ready as I thought I would be when I was younger. The time went by really quickly.”

Ross is a great candidate for a new federal government program that will allow workers to opt for a phased retirement. Participants in the program, which launches this fall, will be able to work half-time while collecting half their pensions after they reach the eligible retirement age.

For the government, the program is expected to be a money saver. The Congressional Budget Office estimated recently that 1,000 employees might take advantage of phased retirement annually, and would continue work for three years. That would cut required contributions to the government’s pension system by $427 million from 2013 to 2022, and boost worker contributions by $24 million.

But phased retirement also will help the government retain talent and expertise at a time when the “brain drain” from an aging workforce is a major concern. About 600,000 people, or 31% of the federal civilian workforce, will be eligible for retirement by September 2017, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Phased retirees will be required to spend at least 20% of their time mentoring younger employees.

“It can help people who want to phase out over time, but it makes sense for the whole workforce,” says Kevin E. Cahill, a research economist at Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging and Work. “Younger workers can tap into the knowledge that the older crowd has, and make sure it doesn’t get lost lost.”

Worker interest in a flexible glide path to retirement is strong, and it’s not limited to the federal payroll. A survey this year by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies found that 64% of workers—of all ages—envision a phased retirement involving continued work with reduced hours. For workers closest to retirement, frequently cited reasons for continued work included financial need (34%) and a desire for income (19%). But 34% had a desire to “stay involved” or said they enjoyed their work.

Employers have been slow to respond. Just 21% of respondents to the Transamerica survey said their employers offer phased retirement—and that figure may be too optimistic.

The Society for Human Resource Management reports that 11% of employers provide some version of phased retirement, with only 4% having formal programs. Cahill’s research shows similar employer disinterest in phased retirement programs.

“Sometimes there are institutional or administrative restrictions,” he says. “And some employers may have good reasons not to offer flexible hours.”

Much more common, he found, are workers who find what they need by changing jobs. “These are bridge jobs that carry people through from their careers to withdrawal later on from the labor force,” he says.

Some experts think phased retirement options will become more popular as the economy improves and labor markets tighten, particularly as demand for specialized skills rises. And the federal government’s move could be a catalyst for change in the private sector.

Each federal agency will write its own eligibility rules, and phased retirement won’t be a guaranteed right for all workers. But basic eligibility will depend on which of the two major federal retirement programs covers an employee.

The government has a legacy Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS), a traditional defined-benefit system, and the newer Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), a defined-contribution program with a small traditional pension component.

CSRS employees will be eligible for phased retirement at age 55 with 30 years of service, or at 60 with 20 years of service. FERS employees must be 60 with 20 years of service, or have 30 years of service and have reached their minimum retirement-eligible age.

Interest in the program is strong, according to Jessica Klement, legislative director of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association.

“The number of phone calls we get from members tells me there are a lot of people waiting for this,” she says. “Many of them are ready to take a step back, but they don’t really want to quit yet.”

MONEY retirement planning

The One Retirement Question You Must Get Right

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Figuring out how big a nest egg you need is a huge financial planning challenge. Here are some helpful tips from an expert who retired at 50.

How much money do you need to retire? This is one of the most difficult questions in all of financial planning. Countless words are written, endless fees are charged, and plenty of sleep is lost, just trying to answer it!

But I’ll tell you a secret—a truth that none in financial services and few in the financial media will admit. We don’t know how much you need to retire! Beyond some broad ranges that have worked in the past, it’s practically impossible to calculate the precise amount of money needed to carry you through a retirement lasting decades or more into the future.

Why? Because, in addition to predicting a host of smaller factors, computing how much you need to retire requires pinning down two huge and essentially unknowable variables: the length of your life, and the real return on your investments. (That’s the actual return, after inflation.)

If you misjudge your life expectancy by even a few years, you could potentially die broke, or with tens of thousands of unspent dollars on the table. If you misgauge your real rate of return by just 1% (and the pros miss it by more than that, all the time), the error in a half-million dollar portfolio over a 30-year retirement will be about $175,000—one-third of the starting value, and a lot of money to go missing!

So there can be no precise answer to this question. And, yet, you must answer it, in some fashion, if you don’t want to go on working forever. So where do you begin?

As I’ve written before, knowing your expenses is an essential first step to retirement planning. You simply must know what it costs you to live each month, in order to get any sense for what you must save to retire.

From that monthly expense number you can subtract any guaranteed, inflation-adjusted income that you are certain to receive in retirement: Social Security for many of us, pensions for a fortunate few, and annuities for those who buy them.

Your remaining expenses must be funded from your investment portfolio. The traditional approach has been the 4% Rule, which states that you can withdraw 4% of your portfolio in the first year, then adjust that withdrawal amount for inflation each year, without fear of running out over the course of a 30-year retirement. However, some experts say this rule is too optimistic for the current difficult economic times, with low interest rates and high market valuations. On the other hand, if you retire in better economic times, or if you choose to annuitize your assets, the rule might be too conservative. (You can find online tools that will let you see the impact of using different economic assumptions—I mention three of the best retirement calculators in this article.)

Boiling down all the research papers, case studies, and opinions that I have read on this topic—and I read about it nearly every day—I can tell you this: The safe withdrawal rates from your retirement savings probably range from about 5% on the optimistic side to about 3% on the conservative side.

That means, for example, if your living expenses not covered by guaranteed inflation-adjusted income were $3,000 a month in retirement, then you would need between $720,000 in savings on the optimistic side, to $1.2 million on the conservative side, to provide for your lifestyle over a several-decade retirement.

Thus if your savings were in that range you could consider retiring. But there is more to it than that, especially for an early retiree. You would also need to factor in the risk that you would run low, and your ability to do something about it. That risk would be a function of the economic environment you retire into, and the longevity factors in your family. The ability to do something about it would be a function of your age and health at retirement, your professional skills, and your lifestyle flexibility.

In the end, there is no simple answer to the question “Do I have enough to retire?” But, there is a range of possibilities, based on historical data and your own risks and capabilities. And, even after you’ve made the retirement decision, you still need to assess and drive your retirement, especially in the early years. So, once you’ve started on the retirement journey, don’t fall asleep at the wheel!

Darrow Kirkpatrick is a software engineer and author who lived frugally, invested successfully, and retired in 2011 at age 50. He writes regularly about saving, investing and retiring on his blog CanIRetireYet.com. This column appears monthly.

MONEY 401(k)s

Ignore This Savings Plan at Your Peril

Workers often think signing up for their 401(k) is all they need to do. But millions fail to enroll right away or raise their contributions, and they'll pay a heavy price.

Call them victims of inertia. These are folks who are slow to sign up for their employer-sponsored savings plan or who, once enrolled, don’t check back for years. Their numbers are legion, and new research paints a grim picture for their financial future.

More than a third of 401(k) plan participants have never raised the percentage of their salary that they contribute to their plan, and another 26% have not made such a change in more than a year, asset manager TIAA-CREF found. The typical saver stashes away just 8% of income—about half what financial planners recommend. Without escalating contributions, these workers will never save enough.

More than half of plan participants have not changed the way their money is invested in more than a year—including a quarter that have never changed investments, the research shows. This suggests many are not rebalancing yearly, as is generally advised, and that many others are not paying attention to their changing risk profile as they age.

At companies without automatic enrollment, a quarter of workers fail to enroll in their 401(k) for at least a year and a third wait at least six months, TIAA-CREF found. These delays may not seem like a big deal. But the lost returns over a lifetime of growth add up. Based on annual average returns of 6% and a like contribution rate over 30 years, a worker who enrolls immediately will accumulate nearly double that of a worker who starts two years later. Even a mere six-month delay is the difference between, say, $100,000 and $94,000, according to the research.

Employer-sponsored 401(k) and similar plans have emerged as most people’s primary retirement savings accounts: 42% of workers say it is their only savings pool and a similar percentage say the plans are so critical they would take a pay cut to get a higher company match, according to a Fidelity survey. So any level of mismanagement is troublesome.

There is a bright spot, however—younger workers have been quicker to catch on. Millennials are the most likely group to boost their percentage contribution after each pay raise, and among millennials who do not boost the percentage, 23% say it is because they already contribute the maximum. Millennials are also most likely to check back in and adjust their investment mix.

That’s not entirely good news. In general, millennials are not investing enough in stocks, which have the highest long-term growth potential. But it reinforces the emerging picture of a generation that understands what Baby Boomers and Gen Xers were slow to grasp: financial security is not a birthright. Millennials will need to save early and often—on their own—and pay attention for 30 or 40 years to enjoy a happy ending.

MONEY retirement planning

3 Easy Moves That Can Boost Your Nest Egg By 60%

201412_RET_NESTEGG
Brad Wilson—Getty Images

These relatively painless investing tweaks can put you on the path to a secure retirement, even if you just do one or two of them.

Think you’ve got to come up with a big score or magnificent coup to boost the size of your nest egg and dramatically improve your retirement prospects? You don’t. A few simple tweaks can often make the difference between scraping by and living large after you retire.

In fact, you can put yourself on the path to a much more enjoyable and secure retirement with just three relatively easy moves: saving a little more, paring investment expenses and delaying retirement a bit. Here’s an example.

Let’s say you’re 30 years old, earn $45,000 a year, get annual raises of 2% and contribute 10% of your pay to a 401(k) or similar plan. And let’s further assume that your retirement savings earn a 7% annual return before expenses, for a net return of 5.5% after investment fees of 1.5% a year. Based on that scenario, by age 65 you would have a nest egg valued at just under $600,000.

Not bad, and certainly more than what most people age 65 have accumulated today. But you can put yourself in a much better position at retirement time if you make the three adjustments I mentioned.

First, let’s see how much saving more can help. If you increase your savings rate from 10% a year to 12%, that move alone would boost the age-65 value of your nest egg from just under $600,000 to nearly $715,000. That’s a gain of roughly $115,000, or almost 20%, right there.

Next up: investment fees. With the multitude of index funds, ETFs and other low-cost choices that are around these days, paring annual investment expenses is eminently doable. So, for the sake of this example, let’s assume you cut annual fees by just 0.5% a year from 1.5% to 1%, for an after-expense return of 6% instead of 5.5%. That reduction in expenses alone would add another 10% or so to the age-65 401(k) balance, pushing it from a little under $715,000 to nearly $790,000.

Now for the third move: delaying retirement a few years. This single adjustment has a two-barreled effect on your nest egg. Postponing gives you a chance to throw more savings into your retirement accounts and it gives the money in those accounts more time to grow before you start drawing on it. Waiting three more years to exit the workforce in the scenario above would bump the age-65 value of your nest egg from just under $790,000 to just over $975,000, just short of seven-figure territory.

By the way, postponing your job-exit date can also improve your retirement outlook in another way: Each year between the ages of 62 and 70 that you delay claiming benefits, the size of your Social Security check increases roughly 7% to 8%, and that’s before annual adjustments for inflation. To see how different claiming ages might affect your Social Security benefit (and your spouse’s, if you’re married), check out the calculators in RealDealRetirement’s Retirement Toolbox.

In short, making these three moves combined would have boosted the value of your nest egg in this scenario from a little less than $600,000 to almost $1 million, an increase of some 60%. That’s pretty impressive.

Of course, you may not be able to replicate these results exactly. If you’re getting a late start in your savings regimen, increasing your savings rate may not translate to as sizeable an increase in your eventual balance. Similarly, if you do most of your saving through a 401(k) plan that doesn’t include low-cost index funds and such–although most plans do these days—you may not be able to cut investment expenses as much as you’d like. Even if you’re able to pare expenses, there’s no guarantee that each percentage point reduction will mean a percentage-point increase in return, although there’s plenty of evidence that funds with lower costs do generally perform better.

And while many people may want to work a few extra years to fatten retirement accounts, health problems or company downsizing efforts may not allow you the choice of staying on the job a few extra years.

Still, the point is that these three moves, individually or combined, can likely improve your retirement outlook at least to some extent. And they’re much more effective at enhancing your retirement prospects than the move that many mistakenly gravitate to: investing more aggressively, which is a tactic that can backfire and leave you worse off.

So re-assess your retirement planning to see which of these moves makes the most sense for you. If doing just one gives you the boost you need to assure a secure retirement, fine. But if just one won’t do it, try to do two, or all three. Come retirement time, you’ll be glad you made these tweaks.

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.

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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.”

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