MONEY Longevity

The New Rules for Making Your Money Last in Retirement

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Murat Giray/Getty Images

In today's longevity economy, retirement as we know it is disappearing. Here's what to do now.

Are you ready to live to age 95—or beyond?

It’s a real possibility. For an upper-middle-class couple age 65 today, there’s a 43% chance that one or both will reach at least age 95, according to the latest data from the Society of Actuaries.

Living longer is a good thing, of course. But there’s a downside—increasing longevity may mean the end of retirement as we know it.

Problem is, a long lifetime in retirement is a huge financial challenge. As Laura Carstensen, head of Stanford Center on Longevity, said in a recent presentation, “Most people can’t save enough in 40 years of working to support themselves for 30 or more years of not working. Nor can society provide enough in terms of pensions to support nonworking people that long.” Instead, Carstensen argues, we need to move toward a longer, more flexible working life.

Carstensen is hardly alone here. Alicia Munnell, head of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College and a co-author of “Falling Short: The Coming Retirement Crisis and What to Do About It”, has long warned about the nation’s lack of retirement preparedness. Following the Great Recession, Munnell has pounded away at the reality that continuing to work is the only feasible strategy for many people if they wish to have any hope of affording even modestly comfortable retirements.

For many retiring Baby Boomers, the notion of working longer has appeal—not only for the additional income but as a way of staying involved and giving back. That’s what spurred Marc Freedman, founder of Encore.org, to encourage older workers to use their skills for social purpose. Chris Farrell, a Money contributor, captures this movement in his recent book, “Unretirement: How Baby Boomers are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and the Good Life.”

Still, to afford a longer life, Americans will have to rethink their savings and withdrawal methods too. Right now, most retirement calculators default to no more than a 30-year time horizon. What if you want to keep your retirement income going past age 95? Fidelity’s planners suggest three alternatives that can help:

*Stay on the job longer. Say you are a 65-year old woman who earned $100,000 a year, and you have a $1 million portfolio. You’ll also receive a $30,000 Social Security benefit ($2,500 a month) and you plan to withdraw an initial $50,000 a year from your portfolio. All told, you’ll have $80,000, or 80% of your pre-retirement income. If inflation averages 2%, and the portfolio grows by 4%, your savings will likely last for 25 years, or until age 90. After that, odds are the money will run out.

But if you instead work four more years, until age 69, and keep saving 15% of your income, your portfolio will grow to $1,240,000. That would be enough to provide income for eight more years—until age 98.

*Postpone Social Security. Another move is to work two more years and defer claiming Social Security till age 67, which means your monthly benefit will rise from $2,500 to $2,850. That would replace 35% of her income, instead of 30%, and her portfolio would need replace just 45% of your pre-retirement earnings vs 50%. By age 67, your portfolio will total $1,110,000, which will deliver retirement income till age 98.

*Consider an annuity. You could purchase an immediate annuity, which would give you a lifetime stream of income. The trade-off, of course, is that your money is locked up and payments will cease when you die (unless you add a joint-and-survivor option, which would reduce your payout). Many advisers suggest using only a portion of your portfolio to buy an annuity—you might aim to cover your essential expenses with a guaranteed income stream, which would include Social Security.

A 65-year-old woman who invested $200,000 in an immediate annuity with a 2% annual inflation adjustment would receive guaranteed monthly payments of about $870 a month, or $10,440 a year, according to Income Solutions. Added to Social Security, this income would replace roughly 40% of a $100,000 salary, which will allow the rest of the portfolio to keep growing longer.

But make no mistake. This is a big decision, and many investment experts oppose locking up money in an annuity, given today’s low interest rates. But longevity investing raises the appeal of guaranteed streams of income, and annuity payouts will become more attractive if and when interest rates slowly rise toward historical norms.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is the co-author of “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” and a research fellow at the Center for Aging & Work at Boston College. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: The Suddenly Hot Job Market for Workers Over 50

MONEY retirement planning

The Proven Way to Retire Richer

Looking for more money for your retirement? Who isn't? This study reveals that there is one sure-fire way to get it.

Last June, the National Bureau of Economic Research with professors from the University of Pennsylvania, George Washington University, and North Carolina State University, released a study entitled “Financial Knowledge and 401(k) Investment Performance”.

In it the authors found that individuals who had the most financial knowledge — as measured through five questions about personal finance principles — had investment returns that were on average 1.3% higher annually — 9.5% versus 8.2% — than those who had the least financial knowledge.

While this difference may not sound consequential, the authors noted that it “is a substantial difference, enhancing the retirement nest egg of the most knowledgeable by 25% over a 30-year work life.”

Yes, knowing the answers to five questions had a direct correlation to having 25% more money when you retire.

So what are those questions? For example, and for the sake of brevity, here are the first three:

Interest Rate: Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2% per year. After 5 years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow?

Answers: More than $110, Exactly $110, Less than $110.

Inflation: Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account was 1% per year and inflation was 2% per year. After 1 year, how much would you be able to buy with the money in this account?

Answers: More than today, Exactly the same, Less than today.

Risk: Is this statement True or False? Buying a single company’s stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.

While the questions aren’t complex, they’re tough. And few people can answer all three correctly (with the answers being: More than $110, Less Than Today, and False).

So what did those people who were able to answer those questions most accurately actually do to generate the highest returns? The authors found one of the biggest reasons was that the most financially literate had the greatest propensity to hold stocks (66% of their portfolio was in equity versus 49% for those who scored lowest). And while their portfolios were more volatile, over time, they had the best results.

This is critical because it underscores the utter importance of understanding asset allocation. This measures how much of your retirement savings should be put in stocks relative to bonds. A general guideline is the “Rule of 100,” which suggests your allocation of stocks to bonds should be 100 minus your age. So, a 25-year-old should have 75% of their retirement savings in stocks.

Some have suggested that rule should be revised to the rule of 110 or 120 — and my gut reaction is 110 sounds about right — but you get the general idea.

This vital distinction is important because over the long-term stocks outlandishly outperform bonds. If you’d invested $100 in both stocks and bonds in 1928, your $100 in bonds would be worth roughly $7,000 at the end of 2014. But that $100 investment in stocks would be worth more than 40 times more, at $290,000, as shown below:

Of course, between the end of 2007 and 2008, the stock investment fell from $178,000 to $113,000, whereas the bonds grew from $5,000 to $6,000, displaying why someone who needs the money sooner rather than later should stick to bonds. But a 40-year-old who won’t retire for another 20 (or more) years can weather that storm.

Whether it’s $100 or $1,000,000, watching an investment fall by nearly 40% in value is gut wrenching. But in investing, and in life, patience is key, and as Warren Buffett once said, “The stock market serves as a relocation center at which money is moved from the active to the patient.”

While everyone’s personal circumstances are different (my risk tolerance is vastly greater now than it will be in 30 years) knowing that you can be comfortable allocating a sizable amount of your retirement savings to stocks will yield dramatically better results over time.

MONEY portfolio

5 Ways to Invest Smarter at Any Age

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Comstock Images—Getty Images

The key is settling on the right stock/bond mix and sticking to your guns. Here's how.

Welcome to Day 4 of MONEY’s 10-day Financial Fitness program. So far, you’ve seen what shape you’re in, gotten yourself motivated, and checked your credit. Today, tackle your investment mix.

The key to lifetime fitness is a powerful core—strong and flexible abdominal and back muscles that help with everything else you do and protect against aches and injuries as you age. In your financial life, your core is your long-term savings, and strengthening it is simple: Settle on the right stock/bond mix, favor index funds to keep costs low, fine-tune your approach periodically, and steer clear of gimmicks such as “nontransparent ETFs” or “hedge funds for small investors”—Wall Street’s equivalent of workout fads like muscle-toning shoes.

Here’s the simple program:

1. Know Your Target

If you don’t already have a target allocation for your age and risk tolerance, steal one from the pie charts at T. Rowe Price’s Asset Allocation Planner. Or take one minute to fill out Vanguard’s mutual fund recommendation tool. You’ll get a list of Vanguard index funds, but you can use the categories to shop anywhere.

2. Push Yourself When You’re Young

Investors 35 and under seem to be so concerned about a market meltdown that they have almost half their portfolios in cash, a 2014 UBS report found. Being too conservative early on—putting 50% in stocks vs. 80%—reduces the likely value of your portfolio at age 65 by 30%, according to Vanguard research. For starting savers, 90% is a commonly recommended stock stake.

3. Do a U-turn at Retirement

According to Wade Pfau of the American College and Michael Kitces of the Pinnacle Advisory Group, you have a better shot at a secure retirement if you hold lots of stocks when you’re young, lots of bonds at retirement, and then gradually shift back to stocks. Their studies found that starting retirement with 20% to 30% in stocks and raising that by two percentage points a year for 15 years helps your money last, especially if you run into a bear market early on.

4. Be Alert for Hidden Risks

Once you’ve been investing for several years and have multiple accounts, perfecting your investment mix gets trickier. Here’s a simple way to get the full picture of your portfolio.

Dig out statements for all your investment accounts—401(k), IRA, spouse’s 401(k), old 401(k), any brokerage accounts. At Morningstar.com, find “Instant X-Ray” under Portfolio Tools. Enter the ticker symbol of each fund you own, along with the dollar value. (Oops. Your 401(k) has separately managed funds that lack tickers? Use the index fund that’s most similar to your fund’s benchmark.)

Clicking “Show Instant X-Ray” will give you a full analysis, including a detailed stock/bond allocation, a geographic breakdown of your holdings, and your portfolio’s overall dividend yield and price/earnings ratio. Look deeper to see how concentrated you are in cyclical stocks, say, or tech companies—a sign you might not be as diversified as you think or taking risks you didn’t even know about.

5. Don’t Weigh Yourself Every Day

Closely monitoring your progress may help with an actual fitness plan. For financial fitness, it’s better to lay off looking at how you’re doing. A growing body of research finds that well-diversified investors who check their balances infrequently are more likely to end up with bigger portfolios, says Michaela Pagel, a finance professor at Columbia Business School. One reason: Pagel says savers who train themselves not to peek are more likely to invest in stocks. And research by Dalbar finds that investors’ tendency to panic sell in bear markets has cut their average annual returns to 5% over the past 20 years, while the S&P 500 earned 9.2%.

When you have the urge to sell, remind yourself that your time horizon is at least 20 years, says Eric Toya, a financial planner in Redondo Beach, Calif. “Outcome-oriented investors agonize over every up-and-down whim of the market and make poor timing decisions,” he says. “If your process is sound, you don’t need to panic.”

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MONEY retirement planning

How to Balance Spending and Safety in Retirement

piggy banks shot in an aerial view with "+" and "-" slots on top of them
Roberto A. Sanchez—Getty Images

Every retirement withdrawal method has its pros and cons. Understanding the differences will help you tap your assets in the way that's best for you.

You’ve saved for years. You’ve built a sizable nest egg. And, finally, you’ve retired. Now, how do you withdraw from your savings so your money lasts as long as you do? Is there a technique, a procedure, a product that will keep you safe?

Unfortunately, there is no perfect answer to this question. Every available solution has its strengths and its weaknesses. Only by understanding the possible approaches, then mixing them together into a personal solution, will you be able to move forward with an enjoyable retirement that balances both spending and safety.

Let’s start with one of the simplest and most popular withdrawal approaches: spending a fixed amount from your portfolio annually. Typically this is adjusted for inflation, so the nominal amount grows over time but sustains the same lifestyle from year to year. If the amount you start with, in year one of your retirement, is 4% of your portfolio, then this is the classic 4% rule.

The advantages of this withdrawal method are that it is relatively simple to implement, and it has been researched extensively. Statistics for the survival probabilities of your portfolio, given a certain time span and asset allocation, are readily available. This strategy seems reliable—you know exactly how much you can spend each year. Until your money runs out. Studies based on historical data show your savings might last for 30 years. But history may not repeat. And fixed withdrawals are inflexible; what if your spending needs change from year to year?

Instead, you could withdraw a fixed percentage of your portfolio annually, say 5%. This is often called an “endowment” approach. The advantage of this is that it automatically builds some flexibility into your withdrawals based on market performance. If the market goes up, your fixed percentage will be a larger sum. If the market goes down, it will be smaller. Even better, you will never run out of money! Because you are withdrawing only a percent of your portfolio, it can never be wiped out. But it could get very small! And your available income will fluctuate, perhaps dramatically, from year to year.

Another approach to variable withdrawals is to base the amount on your life expectancy. (One source for this data is the IRS RMD tables.) Each year you could withdraw the inverse of your life expectancy in years. So if your life expectancy is 30 years, you’d withdraw 1/30, or about 3.3%, in the current year. You will never run out of money, but, again, there is no guarantee exactly how much money you’ll have in your final years. It’s possible you’ll wind up with smaller withdrawals in early retirement and larger withdrawals later, when you aren’t as able to enjoy them.

What if you want more certainty? Annuities appear to solve most of the problems with fixed or variable withdrawals. With an annuity, you give an insurance company some or all of your assets, and, in exchange, they pay you a monthly amount for life. Assuming the company stays solvent, this eliminates the possibility of outliving your assets.

Annuities are good for consistent income. But that’s also their chief drawback: they’re inflexible. If you die early, you will leave a lot of money on the table. If you have an emergency and need a lump sum, you probably can’t get it. Finally, many annuities are not adjusted for inflation. Those that are tend to be very expensive. And inflation can be a large variable over long time spans.

What about income for early retirement? It’s unwise to draw down your assets in the beginning years, when there are decades of uncertainty looming ahead. The goal should be to preserve net worth until you are farther down the road. If your assets are large enough, or the markets are strong enough, you can live off the annual interest, dividends, and growth. If not, you may need to work part-time, supplementing your investment income.

Every retirement withdrawal technique has drawbacks. Some require active management. Some can run out of money. Some don’t maintain your lifestyle. Some can’t handle emergency expenses or preserve principal for heirs. Some may be eroded by inflation.

That’s why I believe most of us are going to construct a flexible, “hybrid” system for living off our assets in retirement. We’ll pick and choose from the available options, combining the benefits, while trying to minimize the liabilities and preserve our flexibility.

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

What Women Can Do to Increase their Retirement Confidence

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Izabela Habur—Getty Images

Knowing how much to save and how to invest can help women feel more secure. Here's a cheat sheet.

Half of women report feeling worried about having enough money to last through retirement, according to a new survey from Fidelity Investments of 1,542 women with retirement plans.

Those anxieties aren’t necessarily misplaced either.

Women have longer projected lifespans than men and even if married, are likely to spend at least a portion of their older years alone due to widowhood.

“So they need larger pots of money to ensure they won’t outlive their savings,” says Kathy Murphy, president of personal investing at Fidelity.

Earlier research by the company found that while women save more on average for retirement (socking away an average 8.3% of their salary in 401(k)s vs. 7.9% for men) they typically earn two-thirds of what men do and thus have smaller retirement account balances ($63,700 versus $95,800 for men).

Also, while women are more disciplined long term investors who are less likely than men to time the market, women are also more reluctant to take risk with their portfolios, says Murphy.

“And if you invest too conservatively for your age and your time horizon, that money isn’t working hard enough for you,” she adds.

How Women Can Increase their Confidence

Financial education can help women reduce the confidence gap, and get to the finish line better prepared, says Murphy.

According to the Fidelity survey, some 92% of women say they want to learn more about financial planning. And there’s a lot you can do for free to educate yourself, notes Murphy. As an example, she notes that many employers now offer investing webinars and workshops for 401(k) participants.

You might also start by reading Money’s Ultimate Guide to Retirement for the least you need to know about retirement planning, in digestible chunks of plain English. In particular, you might check out the piece on figuring out the right mix of stocks and bonds, to help you determine if you’re being too risk averse.

Also, simply calculating how much you need to save for the retirement you want—using tools like T. Rowe Price’s Retirement Income Planner—can help you make plans and feel more secure.

The 10-minute exercise can have a powerful payoff: The Employee Benefit Research Institute regularly finds in its annual Retirement Confidence Index that people who even do a quick estimate have a much better handle on how much they need to save and are more confident about their money situation. Also, according to research by Georgetown University econ professor Annamaria Lusardi, who is also academic director of the university’s Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center, people who plan for retirement end up with three times the amount of wealth as non-planners.

Says Murphy, “We need to let women in on the secret that investing isn’t that hard.”

More from Money.com’s Ultimate Guide to Retirement:

MONEY IRAs

The Retirement Investing Mistake You Don’t Know You’re Making

The investor rush to beat the April 15 deadline for IRA contributions often leads to bad decisions. Here's how to keep your investments growing.

It happens every year around this time: the rush by investors to make 11th-hour contributions to their IRAs before the April 15 tax deadline.

If you’ve recently managed to send in your contribution, congrats. But next time around, plan ahead—turns out, this beat-the-clock strategy comes at a cost, or a “procrastination penalty,” according to Vanguard.

Over 30 years, a last-minute IRA investor will wind up with $15,500 less than someone who invests at the start of the tax year, assuming identical contributions and returns, Vanguard calculations show. The reason for the procrastinator’s shortfall, of course, is the lost compounding of that money, which has less time to grow.

Granted, missing out on $15,500 over 30 years may not sound like an enormous penalty, though anyone who wants to send me a check for this amount is more than welcome to do so. But lost earnings aren’t the only cost of the IRA rush—last-minute contributions also lead to poor investment decisions, which may further erode your portfolio.

Many hurried IRA investors simply stash their new contributions in money-market funds—a move Vanguard calls a “parking lot” strategy. Unfortunately, nearly two-thirds of such contributions are still stashed in money funds a full 120 days later, where they have been earning zero returns. So what seems like a reasonable short-term decision often ends up being a bad long-term choice, says Vanguard retirement expert Maria Bruno.

Why are so many people fumbling their IRA strategy? All too often, investors focus mainly on their 401(k) plan, while IRAs are an after-thought. But fact is, most of your money will likely end up in an IRA, when you roll out of your 401(k). Overall, IRAs collectively hold some $7.3 trillion, the Investment Company Institute (ICI) found, fueled by 401(k) rollovers—that’s more than the money held in 401(k)s ($4.5 trillion) and other defined-contribution accounts ($2.2 trillion) combined.

Clearly, having a smart IRA plan can go a long way toward improving your retirement security. To get the most out of your IRA—and avoid mistakes—Bruno lays out five guidelines for investors:

  • Set up your contribution schedule. If you can’t stash away a large amount at the start of the year, establish a dollar-cost averaging program at your brokerage. That way, your money flows into your IRA throughout the year.
  • Invest the max. You can save as much as $5,500 in an IRA account in 2015. But for those 50 and older, you can make an additional tax-deferred “catch up” contribution of $1,000. A survey of IRA account holders by the ICI found that just 14% of investors take advantage of this savings opportunity. (You can find details on IRS contribution limits here.)
  • Select a go-to fund. Skip the money fund, and choose a target-date retirement fund or a balanced fund as the default choice for your IRA contributions. You can always change your investment choice later, but meantime you will get the benefits—and the potential growth—of a diversified portfolio.
  • Invest in a Roth IRA. Unlike traditional IRAs, which hold pre-tax dollars, Roths are designed to hold after tax money, but their investment gains and later payouts escape federal income taxes. With Roths, you also avoid RMDs (required minimum distributions) when you turn 70 ½, which gives you more flexibility. Vanguard says nine out of every 10 dollars contributed to IRAs by its younger customers under age 30 are flowing into Roths. Here are the IRS rules for 2015 Roth contributions.
  • Consider a Roth conversion. High-income earners who do not qualify for tax-deferred Roth contributions can still make post-tax contributions to an IRA and then convert this account to a Roth. The Obama Administration’s proposed 2016 federal budget would end these so-called backdoor Roth conversions, which have become very popular. Of course, it’s far from clear if that proposal will be enacted.

Once you have your IRA set up, resist tapping it until retirement. The longer you can let that money ride, the more growth you’re likely to get. Raiding your IRA for anything less than real emergency would be the worst mistake of all.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His latest book is “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.” Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: 25 Ways to Get Smarter About Money Right Now

MONEY Social Security

Why We Make Irrational Decisions About Social Security Benefits

piggy bank and hourglass
iStock

Everyone tends to over-weigh a sure gain compared with a slightly riskier gain, even if the expected value of the certain gain is lower.

Financial professionals often recommend that you wait until full retirement or even later before applying for social security benefits. An individual who’d receive $1,000 per month at full retirement age would get a mere $750 by claiming early at age 62. And that same person could get as much as $1,320 per month by waiting until age 70. For many Americans, it appears to make a lot of sense to wait.

As a general rule of thumb, if you expect to live beyond your late 70s, waiting until at least full retirement might be the smart choice. According to the Social Security Administration, a man reaching 65 today can expect to live until 84.3. And a woman turning 65 can expect to live until age 86.6. Given that one out of every four 65-year olds today lives past age 90, you’d assume that most folks would hang on until full retirement before applying for benefits.

That assumption would be wrong, however. In practice, many Americans seem to be ignoring the data. According to The New York Times, 41% of men and 46% of women choose to take their benefits at 62 — the earliest age possible. Why aren’t they listening to the experts?

Your Social Security and your brain

Obviously, there are some very rational reasons for claiming your benefits at 62. For example, you might have some serious health concerns. Or you may just really need the money. Sometimes real life is more complicated than insurance data and actuarial tables.

There might be another powerful reason that people aren’t even aware of, however. According to psychological research, we are all hardwired to lock in certain gains, even if such a decision has a lower expected value. In other words, our psychology could be leading us to make suboptimal financial choices when it comes to social security.

The price of certainty

The underlying principle involved here, which was highlighted in the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, is called the “certainty effect.” This idea is actually quite easy to understand. Essentially, everyone tends to over-weigh a sure gain compared with a slightly riskier gain, even if the expected value of the certain gain is lower.

Here’s an illustration of how it works. Suppose there are two options. Option 1 gives you a chance to win $9,500 with 100% certainty. Option 2, on the other hand, provides you with the opportunity to win $10,000 with 97% certainty, though there’s a 3% chance you will win nothing.

Even though the expected value of Option 2 is higher ($9,700 compared to $9,500), the “certainty effect” would predict that more individuals would choose Option 1 than Option 2. According to Kahneman:

People are averse to risk when they consider prospects with a substantial chance to achieve a large gain. They are willing to accept less than the expected value of a gamble to lock in a sure gain.

A team of academics recently tested this theory, and reported their findings in a paper titled “Risk preferences and aging: The ‘Certainty Effect’ in older adults’ decision making“. They discovered that “older adults were more likely than younger adults to select the sure-thing option when it was available — even if it had a lower expect value.” In other words, they not only found evidence supporting the “certainty effect,” they found that older adults were moresusceptible to it than younger ones. The overall conclusion of the study is very instructive:

… [W]hen it comes to the important decision whether to claim social security benefits at the earliest retirement age (i.e., 62 years old) and receive a sure but lower-dollar payout (i.e., up to 20% less) versus a higher-dollar payout a few years later at full (between 65–67 years old) or after full retirement age (at 70 years age at the latest, with a benefit increase between 4% and 8% for each year after full retirement age until age 70) at the risk of not being alive, older adults might sub-optimally go for the sure payout at the earliest possible age rather than delaying their retirement benefits; thus, permanently reducing their benefits.

Clearly, our instincts can inadvertently lead us astray on financial matters. As Jason Zweig notes in his classic book Your Money and Your Brain, “[I]nvestors habitually are their own worst enemies, even when they know better.” When deciding when to apply for social security benefits, it might be wise to remember how our brains are wired. Otherwise, you could be leaving a lot of money on the table.

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MONEY long term care

Why Long-term Care Insurance May Be a Better Deal Than You Think

The costs of long-term care insurance keep rising. But the coverage is still well worth considering.

Long-term care costs are the black hole of retirement planning.

With the fees for nursing home care averaging $212 a day, an extended stay can devastate the retirement savings of a typical household. Children of aging parents can see their own finances, and even their own children’s futures, undermined by their natural desire to help out Mom and Dad.

Private long-term care insurance can help, but only about one in eight Americans buy it, since the costs are high. Even so, I would argue that this coverage is well worth considering—especially if you have assets to protect, but can’t afford to pay for years of long-term care out of pocket.

Of course, it’s not an easy decision. Here are two key points to help you decide:

It’s Insurance, not an Investment

You’ve probably been hearing that buying long-term care coverage is a bad financial move for most people. Recently a study from the well-regarded Center for Retirement Research at Boston College found that fewer people will need long-term care— some 44% of men and 58% of women will need long-term care vs. estimates of 70%—and that those expenses may be less than previously thought.

One key reason for the lower costs, according to the Center, is that half of men and 39% women who enter nursing homes stay for less than three months—relatively short periods that are potentially covered by Medicare. (Contrary to what many people believe, Medicare does not cover long-term care expenses but will pay for up to 100 days of institutional care following a qualifying hospital stay.) Most Americans end up relying on Medicaid to pay for longer stays, although that program kicks in only after families have mostly spent down their savings.

Given these shorter stays and the availability of those safety nets, only 20% to 30% Americans were found to be economically better off buying long-term care coverage. “Few individuals would choose to buy insurance even if they were rational, far-sighted, and well-informed,” the Center concluded

These findings may very well be true, but they miss a bigger point. Insurance is not about optimizing your finances—it’s about protection against a catastrophic event. The odds of your house burning down are very, very small, but you have home insurance nonetheless. And even if your mortgage lender didn’t require it, I bet you’d still have home insurance.

The same case could be made for owning long-term care insurance. It offers valuable coverage that preserves choice and financial resources in the event you can no longer manage on your own.

Smart Shopping Lowers Costs

Of course, more people would probably own these policies if the premiums weren’t so steep and price hikes so frequent. Rates jumped another 8.6% last year, according to a recent report from the American Association for Long-Term Care Insurance, largely due to unexpectedly high claim expenses, which caused several insurers to leave the market.

Today a 60-year old couple buying coverage with a lifetime benefits cap of $328,000 might pay an annual premium of $2,170 a year, the association said. And if they bought inflation protection that boosted the value of their coverage to $730,000 at age 85, their annual premium would rise to $3,930.

Even so, wide price variances have become more common. “In some situations the difference between the lowest-cost policy and the highest-cost was 34%, but it could be as much as 119%,” association director Jesse Slome said. (The state of Texas has a helpful range of premiums for different coverage situations; your state insurance department may offer similar information.)

Clearly, smart shopping is crucial. Here’s what will influence the price you pay:

  • Your age. It’s the biggest determinant of costs. Younger buyers get lower premiums because their insurers usually have many years to invest that money before paying out any claims.
  • The level of coverage. The variables include the amount of allowable daily benefits, the number of years the coverage will last, and the number of days that expenses must be self-insured before benefits kick in (the so-called the elimination period). You can also add inflation protection to maintain the real value of coverage limits.
  • Your health. Expect to get grilled about your physical condition. Bluntly put, insurers prefer really healthy customers for long-term care insurance. And it’s not just your health being reviewed here, but the health of your parents and siblings as well, since family history is used to forecast future claims.

Look to see how adjusting the major coverage variables will affect your premiums. Choosing a longer elimination period than the standard 90 days, for example, can bring down the cost.

In the end, you’ll have to weigh the costs against your own assessment of the risks. Personally, I have long-term care insurance to protect my family from catastrophic health care expenses in my later years. And, yes, it is more expensive than I’d like. But if I never use it, and wind up paying more than $100,000 in premiums during my lifetime, I will have one reaction:

Whew!

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: Simple Steps to Avoid Outliving Your Money in Retirement

MONEY Aging

Are You Mentally Fit Enough to Plan for Retirement?

Book with money in it
iStock

People's ability to make sound financial decisions declines with age—even as their confidence about it doesn't.

In this era of “self-directed” retirement (no pensions, you make all the investment choices) postponing making a real plan poses a particular risk to future security. Not only are the logistics of planning hard enough—when to collect Social Security, how to budget for expenses, what to do with savings—but the decline in cognition that accompanies normal aging has a measurable negative impact on the ability to make sound financial decisions.

In 2010, researchers at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College tested the financial literacy of a group of older people in the Chicago area by asking them questions such as the relationship between bond prices and interest rates, the value of paying off credit card debt, and the historical differences between stock and bond returns. They then retested the group every year and found that, among some participants, even while their knowledge of personal finance and investing was eroding, they remained just as confident about managing “day to day financial matters.” And perhaps because they remained so confident, more than half of them retained primary responsibility for handling their finances as their ability to do so was becoming increasingly compromised. (Other studies have shown that financial literacy scores decline by about 1 percentage point a year after age 60. )

One particular area of concern, and one that is often overlooked when discussing the future income of retirees, is the level of debt that older Americans are taking on near or at retirement. Debt later in life is problematic for obvious reasons: Payments can strain your income at a point where active earning years are ending; debt offsets asset accumulation, which you may be forced to reduce in order to service the debt; and finally, leveraging large housing debt in particular may leave older Americans with less resources to finance an adequate retirement.

Recent data from the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) shows that the percentage of American families with heads ages 55 or older that had debt increased from 63.2% in 2010 to 65.4% in 2013, with housing debt as the major component. Moreover, the percentage of families with debt payments greater than 40% of their income also increased, from 8.5% in 2010 to 9.2% in 2013.

Just because you have debt does not in and of itself mean you’re in financial danger. Nor does growing older automatically throw you into the kind of cognitive decline that could seriously impair your financial decision-making. But now that individuals are fully responsible for their own retirement security, part of that responsibility must certainly include the possibility that time may leave you less rather than more equipped to make the right decisions. As the saying goes: hope for the best but plan for the worst.

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 retirement planning

How to Save More for Retirement Without Saving an Extra Cent

fingers holding penny
Roy Hsu—Getty Images

Think you can't set aside any more dough than you're already saving? Here's a simple way to grow your nest egg without putting a squeeze on your budget.

If I said you could significantly boost the size of your nest egg without setting aside even a single penny more than you already are and do so without taking on a scintilla of extra investing risk, you’d be skeptical, right? Well, you can. Here’s how.

It’s no secret that the best way to increase your chances of achieving a secure retirement is to boost the amount you save. Problem is, given all the other demands on your paycheck (mortgage, car payments, child expenses, the occasional night out, etc.) how do you find ways to free up more dough for saving?

Actually, there’s an easy way boost your retirement account balances without further squeezing your budget: Stash whatever money you do manage to save in the lowest-cost investments you can find. This simple tactic has the same effect as contributing more to your retirement accounts, making it the financial equivalent of upping your savings rate.

How big a jump in your effective savings rate are we talking about? That depends on how much you cut investment fees and how long you reap the benefits of those lower costs. But over time the increase in your effective savings rate can be quite meaningful, as this example shows.

Let’s say you’re 35, earn $50,000 a year, receive 2% annual raises, and contribute 10% of your salary to a 401(k) that earns a 7% a year before fees. If you shell out 1.5% annually in investment expenses, by the time you’re 65 your 401(k) balance will total just under $465,000.

Reduce your annual investment costs from 1.5% to just 1%—hardly a heroic effort—and you’re looking at a nest egg worth roughly $505,000. To end up with that amount while still paying 1.5% in annual fees, you would have to boost your annual 401(k) contribution to 10.8%. Which means that lowering expenses by a half percentage point in this case is essentially the same as saving nearly a full percentage point more each year, except you don’t have to reduce your spending to do it.

And what if you take an even sharper knife to investing costs?

Well, cutting expenses from 1.5% to 0.5% a year would give our hypothetical 35-year-old a 401(k) balance of just under $550,000 at age 65, or the equivalent of saving 11.8% a year instead of 10%. And if you’re able to really cut investment fees to the bone—say, to 0.25%—that nest egg’s value would balloon to just over $573,000. To reach that size while paying 1.5% annually in investing costs, our 35-year-old would have to contribute 12.3% of pay.

By the way, lowering investment costs can also have a big payoff after you’ve stopped saving and have begun tapping your nest egg for retirement income. For example, a 65 year-old with a $1 million nest egg split equally between stocks and bonds who wants an 80% chance that his savings will sustain him for at least 30 years would have to limit himself to an initial draw (that would subsequently rise with inflation) of just under 3.5%, or a bit less than $35,000, assuming annual expenses of 1.5%.

Cut that levy from 1.5% to 0.5%, and he would be able to boost that inflation-adjusted withdrawal to almost 4%, or $40,000, while maintaining the same 80% probability of savings lasting 30 or more years.

Of course, the results you get may vary for any number of reasons. For example, if you’re doing most of your saving through a 401(k) and your plan lacks good low-cost investment options, your ability to turn lower expenses into a higher account balance will necessarily be limited. And even if you are able to home in on investments with rock-bottom costs, there’s no guarantee that every dollar of cost savings will translate to an extra dollar in your account.

That said, unless every cent of your savings is locked into an account that offers only high-expense investments, you should be able to get some money into cost-efficient options. At the very least you can steer savings in IRAs and taxable accounts into low-fee index funds and ETFs (some of which charge as little as 0.05%). And while cutting investing costs can’t guarantee a larger nest egg, Morningstar research shows that funds with the lowest expense ratios tend to outperform their higher-fee counterparts.

One final note. While targeting low-expense investment options is certainly an effective and painless way to boost the size of your nest egg, you shouldn’t let low costs do all the work. Indeed, if you focus on low-fee investments and increase your contributions to 401(k)s, IRAs and other retirement accounts, that’s when you’ll see your savings balances really take off.

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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