MONEY working in retirement

This Is the Toughest Threat to Boomers’ Retirement Plans

Most employers say they support older workers. But boomers don't see it, and age discrimination cases are on the rise.

As the oldest boomers begin to turn 70 in just over a year, an important workplace battleground already has been well defined: how to accommodate aging but productive workers who show few signs of calling it quits.

Millions of older workers want to stay on the job well past 65 or 68. Some are woefully under saved or need to keep their health insurance and must work; others cling to the identity their job gives them or see work as a way to remain vibrant and engaged. At some level, almost all of them worry about being pushed out.

Those worries are rooted in anecdotal evidence of workers past 50 being downsized out of jobs, but also in hard statistics. Age discrimination claims have been on the rise since 1997, when 15,785 reports were filed. Last year, 21,396 claims were recorded. Not every lawsuit is valid. But official claims represent only a fraction of incidents where older workers get pushed out, lawyers say.

One in five workers between 45 and 74 say they have been turned down for a job because of age, AARP reports. About one in 10 say they were passed up for a promotion, laid off or denied access to career development because of their age. Even those not held back professionally because of age may experience something called microaggressions, which are brief and frequent indignities launched their direction. Terms like “geezer” and “gramps” in the context of a work function “affect older workers” and erode self-esteem, write researchers at the Sloan Center.

These are serious issues in the context of a workforce where many don’t ever plan to retire. Some 65% of boomers plan to work past age 65, according new research from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. Some 52% plan to keep working at least part-time after they retire. In a positive sign, 88% of employers say they support those who want to stay on the job past 65.

But talk is cheap, many boomers might say. In the Transamerica survey, just 73% of boomers said their employer supports working past 65. One way this skepticism seems justified: only 48% of employers say they have practices in place to enable older workers to shift from full-time to part-time work, and just 37% say they enable shifting to a new position that may be less stressful. Boomers say the numbers are even more dismal. Only 21% say their employer will enable them to shift to part-time work, and just 12% say their employer will facilitate a move to a position that is less stressful.

These findings seem at odds with employers’ general perceptions about how effective older workers are. According to the survey:

  • 87% believe their older workers are a valuable resource for training and mentoring
  • 86% believe their older workers are an important source of institutional knowledge
  • 82% believe their older workers bring more knowledge, wisdom, and life experience
  • Just 4% believe their older workers are less productive than their younger counterparts

The reality is that most of us will work longer. The Society of Actuaries recently updated its mortality tables and concluded that, for the first time, a newborn is expected to live past 90 and a 65-year-old today should make it to 86 (men) or 88 (women). The longevity revolution is changing everything about the way we approach retirement.

Employers need to embrace an older workforce by creating programs that let them phase into retirement while keeping some income and their healthcare, by offering better financial education and planning services, and by declaring an age-friendly atmosphere as part of their commitment to diversity.

For their part, employees must take steps to remain employable. Most are staying healthy (65%); many are focused on performing well (54%), and a good number are keeping job skills up to date (41%), Transamerica found. But painfully few are keeping up their professional network (16%), staying current on the job market (14%) or going back to school for retraining (5%). Both sides, it seems, could do better.

Read next: How Your Earnings Record Affects Your Social Security

MONEY retirement planning

What Scrooge Can Teach You About Retirement Planning

Scrooge in A Christmas Carol
Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol" © Walt Disney Co.—Courtesy Everett Collection

Sure, he was tight-fisted. But Scrooge's money habits are a useful model for reaching your retirement goals.

I can hear the cries of outrage already. How can A Christmas Carol‘s Scrooge, the character Charles Dickens described as tight-fisted, squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching and covetous, possibly be a paragon of retirement planning? Bah humbug! If anything, he’s a role model for how not to live one’s life!

And I agree, up to a point. But if you’re willing to overlook a few of his, shall we say, flaws, good old Scrooge also possessed some qualities that make him a pretty decent role model for achieving a secure and meaningful retirement. Here are three we may well to emulate, albeit in moderation, to improve our retirement outlook.

1. Scrooge had a phenomenal work ethic. When the novel opens, Scrooge is at work in his counting-house late in the afternoon on Christmas eve. He didn’t duck out early to do some last-minute shopping. He wasn’t posting Happy Holidays photos on Instagram. He was putting in a full day’s work.

Granted, in recent years millions of people who would like to do just that haven’t had the option. Perhaps the recent upbeat employment report signals a more vibrant jobs market ahead. But the fact remains that the commitment to work that Scrooge displays is crucial to a successful retirement for two reasons: you can’t build a nest egg without regular income; and the amount you earn and number of years on the job largely determine the size of a key source of retirement income: your Social Security benefit.

Note too that Scrooge was still working relatively late in life. Dickens doesn’t give Ebenezer’s age, but many people estimate he was in his late 50s or 60s, which is getting up there considering life expectancy in mid-19th century England was about 40. So we can take a cue from Scrooge on this score as well. For example, in their new book Falling Short: The Coming Retirement Crisis and What To Do About It, authors Alicia Munnell, Charles Ellis and Andrew Eschtruth point out that just a few extra years on the job can go a long way toward improving one’s retirement prospects. And if that doesn’t do the trick, you can always supplement your income by working in retirement.

2. The man was a prodigious saver. Scrooge definitely knew a thing or two about saving a buck. And he didn’t resort to gimmicks like apps that round up credit card purchases to the nearest dollar and deposit the difference in an investing account, giving you the impression you’re saving while encouraging spending. He did it the old-fashioned way by keeping his everyday living expenses down.

He went way, way too far, of course, what with living in the dark, keeping a very small fire and eating gruel from a saucepan. But he had the right idea—namely, if you live below your means by not splurging on over-the-top vacations, expensive cars and big houses with mortgage payments to match, you’ll have a better chance of saving the 15% a year that can lead to a comfy retirement. And while Dickens doesn’t get into Scrooge’s investing habits, my guess is that ol’ Ebenezer wouldn’t fall for pitches for dubious or expensive investments. I think he’d be an index-fund kinda guy who realizes that reducing investment fees boosts the size of your nest egg and the amount of income you can draw from it.

3. Scrooge (eventually) understood what really matters. This may very well be the most important lesson we can draw from Scrooge. Sure, it took visits from his dead business partner Marley and a few ghosts to transform him. But by the end of the novel, Scrooge has morphed from a pinched and selfish man into a generous and compassionate person who anonymously sends a turkey to the Cratchit home for Christmas dinner and becomes like a second father to Bob Cratchit’s son, Tiny Tim. In short, he realizes that wealth brings happiness only when we share it with our families and others in ways that improve all our lives.

So while it’s important to focus on making good financial decisions, we should never forget that retirement planning isn’t just about the bucks. Ultimately, it’s about creating a retirement lifestyle that has meaning and purpose as well as financial security.

So if your thoughts happen to stray to your retirement over this holiday season and you find yourself wondering how you might improve your planning, ask yourself WWSD—What Would Scrooge Do? Whether it’s the stingy Ebenezer or the more benevolent version, he just might provide the inspiration you need.

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

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MONEY Pensions

Congress’ No-Bailout Pension Plan Is No Solution for Retirees

The cuts to promised benefits for current retirees would roll back a landmark law protecting pensions—and opens the door to further cutbacks.

Wall Street banks, automakers and insurance giants got bailouts during the economic meltdown that started in 2008. But when it comes to the pensions of retired truck drivers, construction workers and mine workers, it seems that enough is enough.

The $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill moving through Congress this week adopts “Solutions Not Bailouts,” a plan to shore up struggling multiemployer pension funds—traditional defined benefit plans jointly funded by groups of employers in industries like construction, trucking, mining and food retailing.

A bailout, it is not. The centerpiece is a provision that would open the door to cutting current beneficiaries’ benefits, a retirement policy taboo and a potential disaster for retirees on fixed incomes.

Developed by the National Coordinating Committee for Multiemployer Plans (NCCMP), a coalition of multiemployer pension plan sponsors and some major unions, the plan addresses a looming implosion of multiemployer pension plans. Ten million workers are covered by these plans, with 1.5 million of them in roughly 200 plans that are in danger of failing over the next two decades. Two large plans are believed to be much closer to failure—the Teamsters’ Central States fund and the United Mine Workers of America fund.

The central premise is that Congress won’t—and shouldn’t—prop up the multiemployer system.

“The bottom line is, we’ve been told since the start of this process that there isn’t going to be a bailout—Congress is tired of bailouts,” says Randy DeFrehn, executive director of the National Coordinating Committee for Multiemployer Plans (NCCMP).

The problem is partly structural. Multiemployer pension plans were thought to be safer than single employer plans, owing to the pooling of risk. As a result, the level of Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) insurance protection behind the multiemployer plans is lower. But many industries in the system have seen declining employment and have a growing proportion of retirees to workers paying into the pension funds. And many of the pension funds still have not fully recovered from the hits they took in the 2008-2009 market meltdown.

These problems pose a major threat to the PBGC. The agency reported recently that the deficit in its multiemployer program rose to $42.2 billion in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, up from $8.3 billion the previous year. If big plans fail, the entire multiemployer system would be at risk of collapse.

The fix moving through Congress would revise the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) to grant plan trustees broad powers to cut retired workers’ benefits if they can show that would prolong the life of the plan. That would mark a major change from current law, which calls for retirees to be paid full benefits unless plan assets are exhausted; then, the PBGC steps in to pay benefits, albeit at a much lower level. The bill also would increase PBGC premiums paid by sponsors, from $13 to $26 per year.

The legislation does prohibit benefit cuts for vested retirees over 80, and limited protections for retirees over 75—but that leaves plenty of younger retirees vulnerable to cuts. And although workers and retirees would get to vote on the changes, pension advocates worry that the interests of workers would overwhelm those of retirees. (Active workers rightly worry about the future of their plans, and many already are sacrificing through higher contributions and benefit cuts.)

The big problem here is that the plan fails to put retirees at the head of the line for protection. When changes of this type must be made, they should be phased in over a long period of time, giving workers time to adjust their plans before retirement. For example, the Social Security benefit cuts eneacted in 1983 were phased in over 20 years and didn’t start kicking in until 1990.

“It’s a cruel irony that in the year we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary year of ERISA, Congress is trying to reverse its most significant protections,” said Karen Friedman, executive vice president of the Pension Rights Center (PRC), an advocacy group that has been battling with NCCMP on some of the proposed changes to retired workers’ benefits.

Friedman’s organization, AARP and other advocates reject the idea that solvency problems 10 to 15 years away require such severe measures. They have pushed alternative approaches to the problem; one that is included in the deal, DeFrehn says, is an increase in PBGC premiums paid by sponsors, from $13 to $26 per year. Advocates also have called for other new revenue sources, such as low-interest loans to PBGC by the once-bailed-out big banks and investment firms.

There are no easy answers here. But cutting the benefits of today’s retirees should be the last solution we try—not the first.

Read next: 401(k)s Are Still a Problem, But They’re Getting Better

MONEY retirement planning

Retirement Calculators Are Wrong—But You Need One Anyway

child's hand moving an abacus
Cliff Parnell—Getty Images

To get the most from retirement calculators, it helps to understand their limitations.

Everyone knows it’s impossible to predict the future, but we seem to forget that truth when it comes to our personal finances. We save too little and hope there will be no emergency expenses. We look to financial advisers or media pundits to pick the most profitable stocks. And we think there is some magic formula or equation that will compute exactly when we can afford to retire.

But there just isn’t a precise answer to the question of whether or not you have enough money to retire. And that’s because retirement calculators aren’t evaluating a simple mathematical equation. Rather, they’re attempting to model the future. And that’s a very tough assignment.

You may have perfect knowledge of your personal situation: how much you’ll make, how much you’ll need to spend, how long your good health will last. But the world won’t stand still for you. How much will stocks and bonds return in the years ahead? What will inflation run? How will tax rates change? No person or tool can predict the trajectory of the economy, the markets, and government policy decades into the future.

When I used a simple retirement scenario to compare prominent free retirement calculators, I found a difference of nearly a factor of two in the final portfolio size between the most pessimistic and optimistic outcomes. That’s right, the answers varied by nearly 100%!

Given slight changes in input, even the same calculator can report vastly different results, ranging from going broke to dying a multimillionaire. So we can’t approach retirement calculators with a “pass/fail” mindset. All a retirement calculator really provides is an opinion as to how long your assets would last, given current conditions and a certain set of guesses about the future.

Can you get more accuracy by choosing a “better” calculator? It depends on what you need. A more powerful calculator can guide you on tax moves, claiming Social Security, and sequencing retirement withdrawals. But don’t bother searching for a calculator that is somehow inherently better at predicting your future wealth. The major variables of market returns, inflation rate, and life expectancy will always preclude a perfect answer to that question.

Still, a retirement calculator can be invaluable for making one of the most important decisions of your life. So even if it’s impossible to find the one that will perfectly predict the future, how should you go about choosing one that’s good enough?

For starters, understand the calculator’s pedigree: Where is it coming from and why? Who is the individual or company behind it? Will they be available to support their tool now, and later? Beware calculators geared to computing your insurance or investment needs if the people behind it are standing ready to sell you those same products. You can also sidestep tools designed for professional advisers or researchers; there are plenty of other easy-to-use general-purpose retirement calculators available.

Next, consider the “fidelity” of the calculator, or how closely it can simulate reality. This will impact how much data it collects from you and how much time you need to spend on inputs. If you’re younger and just need a rough check on whether you’re saving enough, a quick, easy-to-use, low-fidelity calculator will be adequate. But if you’re older and want to analyze specific financial events in your future, or fine-tune a tax, income, or withdrawal strategy, you’ll need to choose a higher-fidelity calculator and invest more of your time.

The single most important variable in a retirement calculation is usually the real rate of return: how much your investments will grow above inflation. Broadly speaking, there are three methods for modeling return rates: average return, random Monte Carlo, and historical sequence. Experts argue over which is best, but most of the rest of us aren’t in a position to choose sides. My suggestion: Pick a calculator, or calculators, that cover all three approaches, then compare the results for yourself.

Fortunately, cost doesn’t need to be a factor when you’re selecting a retirement calculator. There are free offerings in all the major categories. But you may be able to winnow the field by platform. The easiest and friendliest calculators are generally web-based. But if you aren’t comfortable with sending your financial data across the Internet, there are good options that will run locally on your desktop, laptop, or tablet instead.

Finally, when you’re ready to choose a retirement calculator, check out my list of The Best Retirement Calculators. Out of a field of more than 75 tools, I’ve hand-picked solid choices in each category. You can sort and search by most of the parameters I’ve discussed above, plus other features. And there are links to each of the calculators, so you can try them out personally.

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.

For more help calculating your needs in retirement:
The One Retirement Question You Must Get Right
How to Figure Out Your Real Cost of Living in Retirement
4 Secrets of Financial Freedom

MONEY retirement planning

3 Predictions for 2015 You’re Sure to Hear—and Why You Should Ignore Them

Crystal ball predictions
Len DeLessio—Getty Images

Now's the time when market pundits pull out their crystal balls for the year ahead. Gaze if you must, but don't lose sight of your long-term goals.

Tis the season for…predictions! As the year draws to a close, pundits, journalists, and other gazers into the future will be spouting prognostications of what lies ahead for the economy and the financial markets. Should you act on them?

The short answer is no.

Although there are exceptions, most year-ahead forecasts and predictions are, well, the polite word is hogwash. But since now is the time when all upstanding financial journalists are expected to tell readers what’s in store for next year, I’ll oblige with my tongue-somewhat-in-cheek predictions of three predictions you’re likely to hear, if you haven’t already. I’ll then explain why you shouldn’t factor these or any other prognostications into your retirement planning, and recommend what you should do instead.

Prediction #1: Dozens of surveys will sound the alarm that Americans are headed for a retirement castastrophe, or worse. You know the type of surveys I’m talking about, the ones typically issued by financial services companies warning that Americans are woefully unprepared for post-career life and/or have no idea of the right way to plan for retirement. They’ve become a staple of the retirement-planning landscape, designed less to inform than grab headlines and send you scurrying into the arms of a financial adviser who, for a price, will help you avert the coming disaster.

Don’t waste your time reading this pap. Spend it instead on practical steps to improve your retirement prospects, starting with a year-end retirement-planning check-up. You can do that in about 15 minutes or so by plugging info about your income, savings, and investments into this retirement income calculator. You’ll immediately get an estimate of your chances of being able to maintain your standard of living if you continue along your current path. If the odds look uncomfortably slim, you can easily see how saving more, investing differently, or putting off retirement a few years might improve them.

Prediction #2: Wall Street sages will predict that stock prices will climb to new highs in 2015…and other market seers will assure us that prices will fall. Such predictions are already coming in. For example, go to Research Magazine‘s December issue and you’ll find First Pacific Advisors’ Bob Rodriguez warning that the market could easily be 20% or 30% lower next year and AFAM Capital’s John Buckingham saying stocks will be higher, perhaps 10% to 12%, if not more. Who’ll be right? Who knows? Maybe the market will collapse and rebound sharply and they’ll both be right. Or perhaps it will remain flat and they’ll both be wrong.

The point is that such forecasts should not figure into your retirement investing strategy. Rather, you should create a mix of stocks and bonds based on your risk tolerance and goals and, aside from periodic rebalancing, largely stick to it regardless of what the market is doing or what investment advisers are saying it will do.

Prediction #3: The bond market will flop. No, seriously, this time for real. Pundits and investment pros alike have been predicting a bond-market crash since at least 2010. And, on the face of it, the gloomy outlook makes sense. Yields have been extraordinarily low for years and remain depressed, with 10-year Treasurys recently yielding just 2.3%. When yields rise, bond prices will fall.

The problem is we don’t know when yields will climb, nor how high. Past predictions of bond bubble trouble haven’t panned out very well. With the exception of last year, when the broad bond market lost 2%, bonds have posted 4%-or-better gains every calendar year since 2009. As of early December, the broad bond market was up nearly 6% year to date. If recent strong job gains kick the economy into overdrive, we could see higher rates next year. But as a recent Vanguard analysis shows, despite their low yields, bonds remain an effective way to diversify and hedge against stock-market risk.

So by all means check out what the various seers, sages, and soothsayers have to say about the year ahead. You might glean the stray insight or at least get a few laughs. But don’t take them too seriously—or, most important, let them divert you from your long-term plan.

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

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MONEY retirement planning

You’ll Never Guess Who’s Saving the Most For Retirement

rhinestone studded piggy bank
Robert George Young—Getty Images

As Americans delay retirement, they are saving more for their later years.

Americans with investment accounts grew a lot richer last year thanks to the booming stock market—but the 65-plus crowd enjoyed the biggest increase in savings for retirement of any age group.

Total U.S. household investable assets (liquid net worth, not including housing wealth) surged 16% to $41.2 trillion in 2013, according to a report published Wednesday by financial research firm Hearts & Wallets. That far exceeded annual gains that ranged from 5% to 12% in the post-Recession years of 2009 to 2012.

But when it came to retirement savings, older investors saw the biggest gains in IRA and 401(k) assets: Retirement assets for people age 65-74 rose from $2.3 trillion to $3.5 trillion in 2014, a new high.

What’s fueling the growth? Well, a lot of people 65 and older aren’t retiring. So they’re still socking away money for their nonworking years. Meanwhile, others who have quit work are finding they don’t need as much as they thought, so they continue to save, according to Lynn Walters from Hearts & Wallets.

As attitudes about working later in life change, so does the terminology of what people are saving for, Walters says. Rather than retirement, Americans are saving for a “lifestyle choice” in their later years. According to the study, most households ages 55-64 do not consider retirement a near-term option. Four out of five have not stopped full-time work. Says Walters: “The goal is to have enough money for the lifestyle you want when you’re older, not just quitting work.”

Read next: Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda: What You Can Learn From the Top 3 Pre-Retirement Mistakes

MONEY Social Security

The Hidden Pitfalls of Collecting Social Security Benefits from Your Ex

Q. I have spoken with seven people at the Social Security Administration and gotten five different answers to my question. I want to draw Social Security from my ex-husband of 30 years at my present age, 62. I know that is not my full retirement age, and I would receive a reduced benefit. I also want to wait until full retirement age, 66, to draw from my Social Security benefit and receive it in full without reduction. Can I do this? —Sandra

A. This sounds like a sensible plan but unfortunately, when it comes to Social Security rules, logic doesn’t always carry the day. In this case, your plan conflicts with the agency’s so-called “deeming” rules, which apply to people who apply for spousal benefits—whether they are married or divorced—before they reach full retirement age.

Before we get to the problems with deeming, let’s quickly review the basics. If you were 66 and filed a divorce spousal claim, you would collect the highest possible spousal benefit—50% of the amount your ex-husband is entitled to at his full retirement age. It isn’t necessary for your ex to have filed for his own benefits at 66 for you to receive half of this amount. In fact, he doesn’t even need to have reached age 66. That’s just the reference point for determining spousal benefits.

Since you’re filing early, however, you won’t get half of his benefits. The percentages can be confusing, so here’s an example from the agency’s explanation of benefit reductions for early retirement. If your ex-husband’s benefit at full retirement age was $1,000 a month, your “full” divorce spousal payout at age 66 would be 50%, or $500. If you file at age 62, that amount will be reduced by 30% of $500, or $150. The payout you get, therefore, comes to $350 ($500 minus $150), or 35% of his benefit.

There are a few other rules for receiving divorce spousal benefits. You cannot be married to someone else. And if your former husband has not yet filed for his own Social Security retirement benefit, you must be divorced for at least two years to claim an ex-spousal benefit.

Now for the deeming pitfalls. If you meet these tests and file for a divorce spousal benefit before reaching full retirement age, Social Security deems you to be simultaneously filing for a reduced retirement benefit based on your own earnings record. The agency will look at the amount of each award and will pay you an amount that is equal to the greater of the two.

Since your spousal filing has also triggered a claim based on your own work history, you cannot then wait until full retirement age to file for your own benefits. In other words, your own retirement benefit will be reduced for the rest of your life. Logical or not, those are the rules.

There’s no simple solution to the deeming problem, but you do have some choices. Figuring out the best option depends on many factors, including the levels of Social Security benefits that you and your ex-husband can receive, as well as your overall financial situation. Do you absolutely need to begin collecting some Social Security benefits at age 62, or can you afford to wait? You should also consider whether you’re in good health and how long you think you may live.

Your first choice is to do nothing until you turn 66, which is the full retirement age for someone who is now 62. Once you hit that milestone, deeming no longer applies. At that time, you could collect your unreduced divorce spousal benefit and suspend your own benefit for up to four years till age 70. Thanks to delayed retirement credits, your benefit will rise by 8% a year, plus the rate of inflation, each year between age 66 and 70. (Your spousal benefit remains the same, except for the inflation increase.) So, even if your divorce spousal benefit is greater than your retirement benefit at age 66, this may no longer be the case when you turn 70.

But if you need the money now, your best choice may be to file for reduced benefits. If your reduced divorce spousal benefit is higher than your own reduced retirement benefit, you have another option. At 66, you could suspend your own benefit and receive only your excess divorce spousal benefit—the amount by which your ex-spousal benefit exceeds your retirement benefit. It probably won’t be much. Still, suspending your benefit will allow it to rise until age 70, though it will be lower than you would have otherwise received because of early claiming. If these increases provide more income than your divorce spousal benefit, this move may be worth considering.

Variation of these choices include filing early at age 63, 64, or 65. You can also consider how delayed retirement credits would affect your decision if you filed at age 67, 68, or 69. In the end, you’ll need to do the math to compare the potential benefits of delaying vs. claiming now. Or you may want to get help from a financial adviser.

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 in February by Simon & Schuster. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: This New Retirement Income Solution May Be Headed for Your 401(k)

MONEY Savings

Why a New Year’s Resolution to Save More May Actually Work

piggy bank in confetti
Benne Ochs—Getty Images

The economy is up, and New Year's Resolutions are on the decline. Too bad, because making a financial commitment can really help you reach your goals.

Most New Year’s resolutions are pointless. Only one in 10 people stick with them for a year, and many folks don’t last much more than a month. But as 2015 approaches, you might consider a financial New Year’s resolution anyway. Those who resolve to improve their money behavior at the start of the year get ahead at a faster rate than those who do not, new research shows.

Among those who made a financial resolution last year, 51% report feeling better about their money now, according to a new survey from Fidelity Investments. By contrast, only 38% of those who did not make a money resolution said they felt better.

Meanwhile, New Year’s financial resolutions seem to be easier to stay with: 42% find it easier to pay down debt and save more for retirement than, say, lose weight or give up smoking. Among those who made a financial resolution last year, 29% reached their goal and 73% got at least half way there, Fidelity found. Only 12% of resolutions having to do with things like fitness and health do not end in failure, other research shows.

So it is discouraging to note that the rate of people considering a New Year’s financial resolution is on the decline: just 31% plan to make one this year, down from 43% last year. A fall financial pulse survey from Charles Schwab is slightly more encouraging: 36% say they want to get their finances in order and that working with a financial planner would most improve their life. But a bigger share say they are most concerned with losing weight (37%) and would like to work with a trainer (38%). Topping the financial resolutions list in the Fidelity survey, as is the case nearly every year, are saving more (55%), paying off debt (20%) and spending less (17%)—all of which are closely connected. The median savings goal is an additional $200 a month.

Why are financial resolutions on the decline? The stock market has been hitting record highs, unemployment has dipped below 6% and the economy is growing at its fastest pace in years. So the urgency to tighten our belts felt during the Great Recession and immediate aftermath may be lifting.

But no matter how much the economic climate has improved, Americans remain woefully under saved for retirement and paying off debt is almost always a smart strategy. In the Schwab survey, 53% said if they were given an unexpected gift this year their top choice would be cash to pay down credit cards. One key to sticking to your New Year’s pledge: track progress and check in often. Two-thirds of those who set a goal find progress to be motivating, Fidelity found. That’s true whether you are trying to lose 20 pounds or save $20 a week.

More on saving and budgeting from Money 101:

How can I make it easier to save?

How do I set a budget I can stick to?

Should I save or pay off debt?

MONEY retirement planning

Flunking Retirement Readiness, and What to Do About It

red pencil writing "F" failing grade
Thomas J. Peterson—Alamy

Americans don't get the basics of retirement planning. Automating 401(k)s and expanding benefits for lower-income workers may be the best solution.

Imagine boarding a jet and heading for your seat, only to be told you’re needed in the cockpit to fly the plane.

Investing expert William Bernstein argued in a recent interview that what has happened in our workplace retirement system over the past 30 years is analogous. We’ve shifted from defined benefit pension plans managed by professional financial pilots to 401(k) plans controlled by passengers.

Once, employers made the contributions, investment pros handled the investments and the income part was simple: You retired, the checks started arriving and continued until you died. Now, you decide how much to invest, where to invest it and how to draw it down. In other words, you fuel the plane, you pilot the plane and you land it.

It’s no surprise that many of us, especially middle- and lower-income households, crash. The Federal Reserve’s latest Survey of Consumer Finances, released in September, found that ownership of retirement plans has fallen sharply in recent years, and that low-income households have almost no savings.

But even wealthier households seem to be failing retirement flight school.

Eighty percent of Americans with nest eggs of at least $100,000 got an “F” on a test about managing retirement savings put together recently by the American College of Financial Services. The college, which trains financial planners, asked over 1,000 60- to 75-year-olds about topics like safe retirement withdrawal rates, investment and longevity risk.

Seven in 10 had never heard of the “4% rule,” which holds that you can safely withdraw that amount annually in retirement.

Very few understood the risk of investing in bonds. Only 39% knew that a bond’s value falls when interest rates rise—a key risk for bondholders in this ultra-low-rate environment.

“We thought the grades would have been better, because there’s been so much talk about these subjects in the media lately,” said David Littell, who directs a program focused on retirement income at the college. “We wanted to see if any of it is sinking in.”

Many 401(k) plans have added features in recent years that aim to put the plane back on autopilot: automatic enrollment, auto-escalation of contributions and target date funds that adjust your level of risk as retirement approaches.

But none of that seems to be moving the needle much. A survey of 401(k) plan sponsors released last month by Towers Watson, the employee benefit consulting firm, found rising levels of worry about employee retirement readiness. Just 12% of respondents say workers know how much they need for retirement; 20% said their employees are comfortable making investment decisions.

The study calls for redoubled efforts to educate workers, but there’s little evidence that that works. “I hate to be anti-education, but I just don’t think it’s the way to go,” says Alicia Munnell, director of Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research. “You have to get people at just the right time when they want to pay attention—just sending education out there doesn’t produce any change at all.”

What’s more, calls for greater financial literacy efforts carry a subtle blame-the-victim message that I consider dead wrong. People shouldn’t have to learn concepts like safe withdrawal rates or the interaction of interest rates and bond prices to retire with security.

Just as important, many middle- and lower-income households don’t earn enough to accumulate meaningful savings. “We’ve had stagnant wage growth for a long time—a lot of people can’t save and cover their living expenses,” says Munnell, co-author of “Falling Short: The Coming Retirement Crisis and What to Do About It” (Oxford University Press, December 2014).

Since the defined contribution system is here to stay, she says, we should focus on improving it. “We have to auto-enroll everyone, and auto-escalate their contributions. Otherwise, we’re doing more harm than good.”

Munnell acknowledges that a better 401(k) system mainly benefits upper-income households with the capacity to save. For everyone else, it’s important that no cuts be made to Social Security. And she says proposals to expand benefits at the lower end of the income distribution make sense.

“Given all the difficulty we’re having expanding coverage with employer-sponsored plans, that is the most efficient way to provide income to lower-paid workers.”

Read next: The Big Flaws in Your 401(k) and How to Fix Them

MONEY retirement income

The Search for Income in Retirement

Why we may be focusing too much on our nest egg and not enough on cash flow.

There are three components to retirement planning: accumulation, investment, and managing for income. And while we are usually more fixated on “the number” on our balance sheet, the bigger challenge is ensuring that a retirement portfolio can generate enough steady money as we live out our days.

In a recent academic panel hosted by the Defined Contribution Institutional Investment Association (DCIIA), professors Michael Finke of Texas Tech and Stephen Zeldes of Columbia University illustrated the challenge of getting into an income mindset by discussing what’s known as the “annuity puzzle.”

If people were to take their 401(k)s and convert them into annuities, they would get a lifetime income stream. And yet very few people actually annuitize, in part because they don’t want to lose control over their hard-earned savings. “Getting people to start thinking about their retirement in an income stream instead of a lump sum is a big problem,” Finke told the audience.

Also at play is the phenomenon of present bias, whereby half a million dollars today sounds a lot better than, say, $2,500 a month for the rest of your life. This is a major knowledge gap that needs to be addressed. A new survey of more than 1,000 Americans aged 60-75 with at least $100,000 conducted for the American College of Financial Services found that of all of the issues of financial literacy, respondents were least informed about how to use annuities as an income strategy. When asked to choose between taking an annuity over a lump sum from a defined benefit plan in order to meet basic living expenses, less than half agreed that the annuity was the better choice.

Granted, annuities are complicated products. In the past, they got a bad rap for not having death benefits and otherwise misleading investors, but the industry has evolved, and there are now so many different options that it would be quite an undertaking to wade through and understand them all. And annuities aren’t the only way to generate income. Another option people might want to consider is a real estate investment that can throw off consistent revenues from rent. The point is to start thinking more not just about accumulating money but about how you can make that money work for you by turning it into an income-producing asset.

In the meantime, academics like Zeldes are working on how to make annuitization more appealing. In a paper published in the Journal of Public Economics in August 2014, Zeldes and colleagues suggest that people are more likely to annuitize if they can do so with only part of their nest egg, and even a partial annuity can be better than no annuity at all. Zeldes also found that people prefer an extra “bonus” payment during one month of the year, which means that they essentially want their annuity to seem less annuity-like. I’m all for product innovation, but in this case I think we’d be better off learning the value of a steady stream—especially over a fake “bonus.”

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.

Read more about annuities in the Ultimate Retirement Guide:
What is an immediate annuity?
What is a longevity annuity?
How do I know if buying an annuity is right for me?

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