MONEY retirement planning

22% of Workers Would Rather Die Early Than Run Out of Money

transparent piggy bank with one silver coin inside
Dimitri Vervitsiotis—Getty Images

Yet many of the same folks are hardly saving anything for retirement, study finds.

A large slice of middle-class Americans have all but given up on the retirement they may once have aspired to, new research shows—and their despair is both heartbreaking and frustrating. Most say saving for retirement is more difficult than they had expected and yet few are making the necessary adjustments.

Some 22% of workers say they would rather die early than run out of money, according to the Wells Fargo Middle Class Retirement survey. Yet 61% say they are not sacrificing a lot to save for their later years. Nearly three quarters acknowledge they should have started saving sooner.

The survey, released during National Retirement Savings Week, looks at the retirement planning of Americans with household incomes between $25,000 and $100,000, who held investable assets of less than $100,000. One third are contributing nothing—zero—to a 401(k) plan or an IRA, and half say they have no confidence that they will have enough to retire. Middle-class Americans have a median retirement balance of just $20,000 and say they expect to need $250,000 in retirement.

Still, Americans who have an employer-sponsored retirement plan, especially a 401(k), are doing much better than those without one. Those between the ages of 25 to 29 with access to a 401(k) have put away a median of $10,000, compared with no savings at all for those without access to a plan. Those ages 30 to 39 with a 401(k) plan have saved a median of $35,000, versus less than $1,000 for those without. And for those ages 40 to 49 with 401(k)s, the median is $50,000, while those with no plan have just $10,000.

Clearly, despite its many drawbacks, the venerable 401(k) remains our de facto national savings plan, and the best shot that the middle-class has at achieving retirement security. But only half of private-sector workers have access to a 401(k) or other employer-sponsored retirement plan, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Those without access would benefit from a direct-deposit Roth or traditional IRA or some other tax-favored account, but data show that most Americans fail to make new contributions to IRAs, with most of those assets coming from 401(k) rollovers. One exception: a growing number of Millennials are making Roth IRA contributions.

Most people do understand the need to save for retirement, but they don’t view it as an urgent goal requiring spending cutbacks, the survey found. Still, many clearly have room in their budget to boost their savings rates. Asked where they would cut spending if they decided to get serious about saving, 56% said they would give up indulgences like the spa and jewelry; 55% said they’d cut restaurant meals; and 51% even said they would give up a major purchase like a car or a home renovation. But only 38% said they would forgo a vacation. We all need a little R&R, for sure. But a few weeks of fun now in exchange for years of retirement security is a good trade.

Of course, the larger problem is that a sizeable percentage of middle-class Americans are struggling financially and simply don’t enough money to stash away for long-term goals like retirement. As economic data show, many workers haven’t had a real salary increase for 15 years, while the cost of essentials, such as health care and college tuition, continues to soar.

Given these economic headwinds, it’s important to do as much as you can, when you can, to build your retirement nest egg. If you have a 401(k), be sure to contribute at least enough to get the full company match. And if you lack a company retirement plan, opt for an IRA—the maximum contribution is $5,500 a year ($6,500 if you are 50 or older). Yes, freeing up money to put away for retirement is tough, but it will be a bit easier if you can get tax break on your savings.

Related:

How much of my income should I save for retirement?

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MONEY Investing

3 Steps Retirement Investors Must Take Now To Survive This Market

boats trying to ride out rough waves in ocean
Valentin Russanov—Getty Images/Vetta

No one knows if the recent stock market turmoil is over or just beginning. Either way, it's time to re-think your investing strategy.

Is the recent volatility a prelude to worse to come? Or just another scary bump in a near six-year bull market that still has legs? Neither I nor anyone else knows the answer. But I can tell you this: It would be foolish not to take the recent turmoil as an opportunity to re-evaluate your retirement investing strategy.

Stocks have given investors a wild ride lately: one-day swings in value up or down of 1% to 2% (or more) have become frighteningly common. And with both valuations and concerns about slowing global growth running high, we could easily be in for more of the same, if not worse. Or not.

And that’s the point. Since we just don’t know, the best you can do is take a step back, re-evaluate your investing goals and risk and make whatever changes, if any, you must to make sure you’d be comfortable with your portfolio whether the market nosedives from here, or recovers and moves to even higher ground. What follows are three steps that will help you make that assessment.

1. Assess your risk tolerance: If you’ve never completed a risk tolerance questionnaire to gauge your true appetite for risk, don’t put it off any longer. Do it now. If you don’t want to go through the process of completing a questionnaire, then at the very least tote up the value of your stock and bond holdings and estimate what size loss you might be facing if we see another downdraft like the 57% drop from October, 2007 to March, 2009. Should the market take a turn for the worse, you don’t to find that the mix of stocks vs. bonds in your portfolio is out of synch with the drop in the value of your portfolio that you can actually tolerate.

In fact, even if you have assessed your risk tolerance in the past, I recommend you do it again now. Why? Stocks have had a terrific run since it bottomed out during the financial crisis. Even after recent losses, the Standard & Poor’s 500 index was still up some 175% since March, 2009. It’s natural during such extended booms to become complacent. The fear and anxiety we felt during the last big market meltdown fades with time and we fall prey to overconfidence in two ways. First, we may begin to overestimate our real appetite for risk. Second, we begin to underestimate the actual risk we face in the market. Doing either of those alone isn’t good. The combination of both can wreak major havoc with your finances.

2. Bring your portfolio in line with that risk assessment: Once you have a sense of what size loss you can handle without selling in a panic, you can then start making any adjustments, if necessary, to make sure your mix of stocks and bonds reflects the level of loss you can comfortably absorb. For example, if you feel that you would begin to freak out if you had to watch your portfolio decline any more than 20% but five-plus years of stock gains have bulked up the equity portion of your portfolio so that it represents 90% of your holdings while bonds have dwindled to just 10%, then Houston, you have a problem. A 90-10 mix in 2008 would have left you staring at a 33% loss. And that doesn’t count the decline that occurred at the end of 2007 and in the early months of 2009.

If you find that for whatever reason your portfolio is much more aggressive than you are, you need to scale it back—that is, sell off some of your stock holdings and reinvest the proceeds in bonds and/or cash. This sort of adjustment is especially important if you’re nearing retirement or have already retired, as a severe setback can seriously disrupt your retirement plans.

I’m sure you can come up with dozens of reasons to put off doing this. You’ll wait for the market to come back and then rebalance your portfolio. (News flash: The market doesn’t know—or care—that you’re waiting for it rebound.) Or you don’t want to sell because you’ll realize taxable gains. (Oh, you’ll feel better selling later for a smaller gain or even a loss. Besides, to the extent you can shift assets in 401(k)s, IRAs and other tax-advantaged retirement accounts, taxes aren’t an issue.)

Or maybe you’re one of those people who has a “feel” for the market, so you’ll wait until you sense the right vibe before making any adjustments. Fine. But at least check to see how well your ESP worked back in early 2000 when the dot-com era imploded and in late 2007 when stocks went into their prolonged tailspin. Unless your timing was spot on (and you’re willing to risk that you’ll be as lucky again), I suggest you revamp your portfolio so you’ll be able to live its performance in the event of a severe downturn.

3. Take a Xanax: I’m speaking figuratively here. Once you’ve gauged your risk tolerance and assured that your portfolio’s composition is aligned with it, you’ve done pretty much all you can do from an investing standpoint. So try to relax. By all means you can follow the market’s progress (or lack of it). But try not to obsess about the market’s dips and dives (although much of the financial press will do its best to try to get you to do just that).

What you definitely do not want to do, is react emotionally to the latest news (be it good or bad) and undo the changes you made during your re-evaluation. That would be counterproductive and, far from following a well-thought-out strategy, you would be winging it. Which is never a good idea, and a particularly bad one during tumultuous markets. If watching market news on cable TV or reading about the financial markets online makes you so nervous that you feel the need to do something, then step…away…from…the…screen.

If all else fails, comfort yourself with these two thoughts: Market downturns are a natural part of the investing cycle—always have been, always will be. And investment moves driven by emotion and made in haste rarely work out for the best.

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MONEY Ask the Expert

Here’s How Social Security Will Cut Your Benefits If You Retire Early

man holding calculator in front of his head
Oppenheim Bernhard—Getty Images

Whether you retire early or later, it's important to understand how Social Security calculates your benefits.

Q: I am 60 and planning on withdrawing Social Security when 62. Due to a medical condition, I am not making $16.00 an hour anymore but only making $9.00. Do you know how income level is calculated on early retirement? Thank you.

A. Social Security retirement benefits normally may be taken as early as age 62, but your income will be substantially higher if you can afford to wait. If you are entitled to, say, a $1,500 monthly benefit at age 66, you might get only $1,125 if you began benefits at age 62. Defer claiming until age 70, when benefits reach their maximum levels, and you might receive $1,980 a month.

Still, most older Americans are like you—they can’t afford to wait. Some 43% of women and 38% of men claimed benefits in 2012 at the age of 62, according to a Social Security report. Another 49% of women and 53% of men took benefits between ages 63 and 66. Just 3% of women and 4% of men took benefits at ages 67 and later, when payouts are highest.

Why are people taking Social Security early? The report didn’t ask people why they claimed benefits. But academic research suggests that the reasons are pretty much what you might expect—retirees need the money, and they also worry about leaving benefits on the table if they defer them. There is also strong evidence that most Americans are not fully aware of the advantage of delaying benefits. A study last June sponsored by Nationwide found that 40% of early claimants later regretted their decisions.

So before you quit working, it’s important to understand Social Security’s benefits formula. To calculate your payout, Social Security counts up to 35 of your highest earning years. It only includes what are called covered wages—salaries in jobs subject to Social Security payroll taxes. Generally, you must have covered earnings in at least 40 calendar quarters at any time during your working life to qualify for retirement benefits.

The agency adjusts each year of your covered earnings to reflect subsequent wage inflation. Without that adjustment, workers who earned most of their pay earlier in their careers would be shortchanged compared with those who earned more later, when wage inflation has caused salary levels to rise.

Once the agency adjusts all of your earnings, it adds up your 35 highest-paid years, then uses the monthly average of these earnings (after indexing for inflation) to determine your benefits. If you don’t have 35 years of covered earnings, Social Security will use a “zero” for any missing year, and this will drag down your benefits. On the flip side, if you keep working after you claim, the agency will automatically increase your benefits if you earn an annual salary high enough to qualify as one of your top 35 years.

The figures below show how Social Security calculated average retirement benefits as of the end of 2012 for four categories of worker pay: minimum wage, 75% of the average wage, average wage, and 150% of the average wage. (The agency pulls average wages each year from W-2 tax forms and uses this information in the indexing process that helps determine benefits.)

  • Worker at minimum wage: The monthly benefit at 62 is $686 and, at age 66 is $915.50. The maximum monthly family benefits based on this worker’s earnings record (including spousal and other auxiliary benefits) is $1,396.50.
  • Worker at 75% of average wage: The monthly benefit at 62 is $975 and, at age 66 is $1,300.40. The maximum monthly family benefits based on this worker’s earnings record (including spousal and other auxiliary benefits) is $2,381.20.
  • Worker at average wage: The monthly benefit at 62 is $1,187 and, at age 66 is $1,583.20. The maximum monthly family benefits based on this worker’s earnings record (including spousal and other auxiliary benefits) is $2,927.40.
  • Worker at 150% of average wage: The monthly benefit at 62 is $1,535 and, at age 66 is $2,047. The maximum monthly family benefits based on this worker’s earnings record (including spousal and other auxiliary benefits) is $3.582.80.

In short, claiming at age 62 means you’ll receive lower benefits compared with waiting till full retirement age. But given a lifetime earnings history and Social Security’s wage indexing, receiving a lower wage for your last few working years will not make a big difference to your retirement income.

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

Related:

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MONEY Ask the Expert

How To Find Out What You’re Paying For Your Retirement Account

140605_AskExpert_illo
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: How can I find out how much I am paying in fees in my 401(k) retirement plan?

A: It’s an important question to ask, and finding an answer should be a lot easier than it is right now. Studies show that high costs lead to worse performance for investors. So minimizing your expenses is one of the best ways to improve returns and reach your retirement goals.

Yet most people don’t pay attention to fees in their retirement plans—in fact, many don’t even realize they’re paying them. Nearly half of full-time employed Baby Boomers believe they pay zero investment costs in their retirement accounts, while 19% think their fees are less than 0.5%, according to a new survey by investment firm Rebalance IRA.

Truth is, everyone who has a 401(k), or an IRA, pays fees. The average 401(k) investor has 1.5% each year deducted from his or her account for various fees. But those expenses vary widely. If you work for a large company, which can spread costs over thousands of employees, you’ll likely pay just 1% or less. Smaller 401(k) plans, those with only a few hundred employees, tend to cost more—2.5% on average and as much as 3.86%.

A percentage point or two in fees may appear trivial, but the impact is huge. “Over time, these seemingly small fees will compound and can easily consume one-third of investment returns,” says Mitch Tuchman, managing director of Rebalance IRA.

Translated into dollars, the numbers can be eye-opening. Consider this analysis by the Center for American Progress: a 401(k) investor earning a median $30,000 income, and who paid fund fees of just 0.25%, would accumulate $476,745 over a 40-year career. (That’s assuming a 10% savings rate and 6.8% average annual return.) But if that worker who paid 1.3% in fees, the nest egg would grow to only $380,649. To reach the same $476,745 nest egg, that worker would have to stay on the job four more years.

To help investors understand 401(k) costs, a U.S. Labor Department ruling in 2012 required 401(k) plan providers to disclose fees annually to participants—you should see that information in your statements. Still, even with these new rules, understanding the different categories of expenses can be difficult. You will typically be charged for fund management, record-keeping, as well as administrative and brokerage services. You can find more information on 401(k) fees here and here.

By contrast, if you’ve got an IRA invested directly with a no-load fund company, deciphering fees is fairly straightforward—you will pay a management expense and possibly an administrative charge. But if your IRA is invested with a broker or financial planner, you may be paying additional layers of costs for their services. “The disclosures can be made in fine print,” says Tuchman. “It’s not like you get an email clearly spelling it all out.”

To find out exactly what you’re paying, your first step is to check your fund or 401(k) plan’s website—the best-run companies will post clear fee information. But if you can’t find those disclosures, or if they don’t tell you what you want to know, you’ll have to ask. Those investing in a 401(k) can check with the human resources department. If you have an IRA, call the fund company or talk to your advisor. At Rebalance IRA, you can download templates that cover the specific questions to ask about your retirement account costs.

If your 401(k) charges more than you would like, you can minimize fees by opting for the lowest-cost funds available—typically index funds, which tend to be less expensive than actively managed funds. And if your IRA is too pricey, move it elsewhere. “You may not be able to control the markets but you do have some control over what you pay to invest,” says Tuchman. “That can make a big difference over time.”

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write toAskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

More from Money’s Ultimate Retirement Guide:

How should I invest my 401(k)?

Are my IRA contributions tax-deductible?

Why is rolling over my 401(k) to an IRA such a big deal?

MONEY Investing

Why I Won’t Own Bond Funds in My Retirement Portfolio

Trays of eggs
James Jackson—Alamy

Owning a mix of stocks and bonds is supposed to help protect your portfolio from losses. But bonds aren't the safe asset they once were.

When stocks took a tumble last week, financial pundits were quick to call it a “potent reminder” to investors of the importance of having some bonds in your portfolio for their perceived safety and yield. The classic mix is supposed to contain 60% stocks and 40% bonds, with bonds supposedly cushioning the risk of equities. In the eyes of most investment experts, I would be considered foolish to be 100% in stocks, as I have been ever since I started investing.

But I’m not sure what bonds they’re talking about. Yes, last week the yield on a 10-year U.S. Treasury note surprised everyone by falling sharply to 1.85%, as bond prices soared—when bond prices rise, bond yields fall, and vice versa. Treasury yields edged back up to 2% the next day, as stocks rebounded. Wall Street experts are still trying to determine the reasons behind the 10-year Treasury note’s plunge, which stunned investors and traders.

But that was a one-day event. When you look at the decline in bond yields over the last three decades, I don’t understand how it is mathematically possible for Treasuries—known as the safest bond possible—to protect a stock portfolio against major shocks over the next 20 years.

No question, falling interest rates have been a boon to fixed-income investors over the last three decades. The yield on a 10-year bond has fallen from 14% in 1984 to 8% in 1994 to 4% in 2004 to about 2% today. The decline hasn’t been non-stop—bonds have rallied along the way—but the overall downward trend has most certainly pushed up fixed-income returns. As a result, bond funds have both made money and helped lower risk in a portfolio. This chart created by Vanguard, based on market data between 1926 and 2011, shows the impact of adding bonds to dampen volatility (as measured by standard deviation), while not drastically reducing returns.

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 10.04.52 AM

But those conditions, and that steady decline in rates, no longer exist. Today we have an environment where rates have very little room to fall and at some point will go up (we just don’t know when). Once rates finally rise, bond prices will fall, which means investors will lose money. So when someone recommends diversifying one’s portfolio with bonds these days, I wonder: is there some kind of bond that’s immune to interest rate rises that I don’t know about?

Junk, or high-yield, bonds certainly don’t fit the bill as they are also vulnerable to rate hikes. Moreover, there have been warnings that the accumulation of high-risk corporate and emerging markets bonds by mutual fund companies such as Pimco and Franklin Templeton could create a liquidity crisis in the future. Investors have been pouring money into these funds, but shocks could turn into even larger debacles when investors look to liquidate and the large amounts held by fund companies become hard to sell.

Short-duration bond mutual funds might be less affected by rising interest rates. Fidelity has a whole suite of such funds, which the fund group says “can help investors in a low and/or rising rate period.”

There are also mutual funds that “ladder” bonds with staggered durations so that a portion of the portfolio will mature every year. The goal of these laddered bond funds is also to achieve a return with less risk over all interest rate cycles.

The problem for investors saving for retirement is that the returns on such funds are so low that it’s hard to justify allocating anything to them other than savings you will need in three to five years.

I won’t be retiring for another several decades, so at this point, a market crash isn’t really my greatest risk. My greatest risk is not growing my retirement account as much as humanly possible over the next ten to 15 years. To meet that goal, I think I should stick with equities and use any future crashes as buying opportunities. I’m not 100% comfortable with that decision, but I don’t feel I have much choice. I would love to find a bond fund that could be both a safe haven and could provide steady returns, but I just don’t think that exists anymore.

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.

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Should I invest in bonds or bond mutual funds?

What is the right mix of stocks and bonds for me?

How often should I check my retirement investments?

Read next: Why Americans Can’t Answer the Most Basic Retirement Question

MONEY Second Career

How to Find the Right Match for Your Second Career

Signing up with an encore career matchmaker can be a smart way to find fulfilling, paid work in retirement.

WANTED: Retirees looking for flexible, paid part-time work in their field of expertise.

Now, that’s a help-wanted ad many boomers dream of running across in their Unretirement years, isn’t it? Well, for Harry Coleman of Cincinnati, Ohio, that’s pretty much what happened, thanks to a “matchmaking” service.

Coleman worked for Procter & Gamble (P&G) for 30 years, mostly in product development, and decided to grab P&G’s juicy retirement package at age 51 in 2008. “The last nine years at P&G were a blast,” he says. “But I wanted more of a work and life balance and you can’t do that if you’re working 50 to 60 hours a week.”

A Three-Bucket Approach

These days, Coleman, now 57, embraces a “three bucket” approach to life.

The first two buckets are for volunteering and charitable activities (mostly through his church) and for “goofing off”—golfing, traveling and taking on projects around the house.

The third bucket relates to that ideal help-wanted ad. In this bucket, Coleman takes on flexible, fulfilling, paid part-time consulting positions he has found since he retired mostly through a firm called YourEncore. “The jobs keep me engaged mentally on the work side; I can pick and choose projects,” he says. “Yet I have the capacity to be more involved in other things.”

YourEncore, based in Indianapolis, Ind., is essentially a matchmaker between large corporate customers around the country looking for experienced brainpower to address a pressing business problem (typically for about 10 weeks) and seasoned, skilled Unretirees who are eager for a challenge and part-time income.

YourEncore was created in 2003 when P&G and Eli Lilly, the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical giant, asked consultant John Barnard for a way management could draw on the knowledge and expertise of retired employees. Boeing quickly joined the venture to recruit “retired engineers for urgent and complex technical projects,” as an internal company online newsletter put it.

Companies using YourEncore are largely in the food, consumer product and life sciences industries. So far, more than 8,000 people have found work through the matchmaker; 65 percent of them have advanced degrees. The pay is good, although the exact amount depends on the person’s experience, the company, the difficulty of the project and the time commitment.

Encore Career Matchmaking Services Are Sprouting

YourEncore is just one example of the growing number of matchmaking services targeted at retiring boomers. It focuses on private sector work, but many others specialize in the social venture space, creating bridges between for-profit careers and nonprofit encores for the greater good. Some are regional, such as Experience Matters in Maricopa County, Ariz. ESC of New England runs an Encore Fellows program in greater Boston. Other matchmakers like ReServe, headquartered in New York City, have national and international ambitions.

Though the Unretiree matchmaking business is pretty new, it’s already starting to puncture a common stereotype: that the idea of gray hair and creativity is an oxymoron. For example, YourEncore workers have earned a reputation for creative problem solving, says Peter Kleinhenz, manager of the its P&G office. “You can be really productive when you don’t have a career that needs to be advanced or turf to protect,” says Kleinhenz.

New York City-based ReServe offers a very different business model, but it, too, acts as an encore career matchmaker.

ReServe connects 55-plus professionals with local nonprofits, public institutions and government agencies. Aside from its New York operations, ReServe also places candidates — typically former lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers, accountants, corporate recruiters and the like — in Baltimore, Md.; Miami, Fla.; Newark, N.J.: Boston, Mass.; southeast Wisconsin and New York’s Westchester County. ReServe has placed more than 3,300 workers at more than 350 organizations.

ReServists work for a $10-an-hour stipend, well below their market value during their earlier career. (Another $5-an-hour is split between the company managing payroll for the person and ReServe.) The job is between 10 and 20 hours a week and the average ReServe contract lasts nine months to a year.

“A good proportion—50%—are not really looking to do what they have done before. They want to use their skills in a brand new setting. The common denominator is transferable skills,” says Lorrie Lutz, chief strategy officer at Fedcap, a New York-based nonprofit that combined with the smaller ReServe in 2012.

For example, Lutz says, an accountant with a passion working with kids might spend a stint as a math tutor. A marketing professional might employ her skills at a government agency struggling to get its policy message out.

Giving Back for Your Next Career

ReServe plans on operating in every state and taking its program overseas. “We think we have a great idea here. There’s a generation of talent here and abroad. Boomers are the most-educated generation,” says Lutz. “They have so much to give back.”

That’s certainly the case with Scott Kariya, an IT recruiter for 23 years who “retired” at 52 in 2006. Quickly bored, Kariya reached out to ReServe. He didn’t find an open position at the time, but in 2008 talked his way into a job at ReServe’s main office.

He worked there three days a week using his recruiting skills, spending the rest of his time volunteering at the local Red Cross, managing his investment portfolio and doing other things. “Everyone wants to stay busy,” says Kariya. “But I think a lot of people get tired of the 50-hour workweek.” Today, he heads up ReServe’s information technology operations.

A common denominator among encore career matchmakers is the amount of effort they put into finding the right people for clients’ needs. YourEncore gains an understanding of the proposed project from P&G, Lilly or another corporate customer, and then uses that to find the right experts. ReServe learns about the skills and passions of its applicants so the client partnerships are fruitful.

I’ve witnessed the same matchmaking ethos at Experience Matters in Phoenix and with the national Encore Fellowships Network. Although the infrastructure is still being built, the future looks bright because corporate America and nonprofits seem more aware of the talents and skills of available boomers.

Locating a Local Matchmaker

To find an encore career matchmaker in your area, you might start at the Encore.org site. But you may need to take a more indirect route, by networking locally. For example, in Portland, Ore., Life By Design NW serves as an information clearinghouse. JV EnCorps (part of the Jesuit Volunteer Network) recruits people 50 and older in Portland and Bend, Ore. and Seattle, Wash. In Kansas City, you could check out Next Chapter Kansas City, a grassroots networking group for boomers.

At the moment, the supply of people eager to keep using their accumulated knowledge and creative insights exceeds the demand for their services. But organizations like YourEncore and ReServe point the way toward a model that allows for engagement and compensation for people who’d otherwise have lots of time on their hands.

It’s a model that may well end up defining Unretirement the way Sun City symbolized retirement for a different generation in the 1960s.

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

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Manual for an Encore Career

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MONEY Medicare

Some Medicare Advantage Plans Have Hidden Risks—Here’s How to Avoid Them

hands using measuring tape
Nils Kahle

Although they promise quality care at lower cost, some Medicare Advantage plans fall short. Before you enroll, here are key questions to ask.

Seniors have flocked to Medicare Advantage in recent years, attracted by savings on premiums and the convenience of one-stop shopping. But as the annual Medicare enrollment season began this week, a memorandum from federal officials to plan providers surfaced that serves as a big red warning flag.

The upshot: Assess the quality of any Advantage plan before you sign up.

The memorandum, first reported by the New York Times, described ongoing compliance problems uncovered in federal audits of Advantage and prescription drug plans. These include inadequate rationales for denial of coverage, failure to consider clinical information from doctors and failure to notify patients of their rights to appeal decisions. The audits also uncovered problems with inappropriate rejection of prescription drug claims.

Advantage is a managed care alternative to traditional fee-for-service Medicare. It rolls together coverage for hospitalization, outpatient services and, usually, prescription drugs. Advantage plans also cap your out-of-pocket expenses, making Medigap supplemental plans unnecessary.

The savings can be substantial. Medigap plan premiums can cost $200 monthly or more, and stand-alone drug plans will average $39 a month next year. Enrollees have been voting with their wallets: 30% are in Advantage plans this year, up from 13% in 2005, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Advantage plans are subject to strict rules and regulations, and must cover all services offered in original Medicare, with the exception of hospice services. Some offer extra coverage, such as vision, hearing, dental and wellness programs.

And there is evidence that the quality of these plans is rising. Medicare uses a five-star rating system to grade plan quality, and plans can earn bonus payments based on their ratings. Average enrollment-weighted star ratings increased to 3.92 for 2015, from 3.86 in 2013 and 3.71 in 2013, according to Avalere Health, an industry research and consulting firm. Avalere projects that 60% of Advantage enrollment will be in four- or five-star plans next year, up from 52% this year.

But the Medicare memorandum focuses on problems outside the rating system. “It’s about basic blocking and tackling and whether a plan adheres to the program’s technical specs,” says Dan Mendelson, Avalere’s chief executive officer. “These are the basic functions that every plan should be able to handle.”

Nevertheless, consumer advocates say they deal with these compliance problems regularly, and more often with enrollees in Advantage than in traditional Medicare.

“The most typical problems have to do with plans that are making it difficult or impossible for people to get their medications,” says Jocelyn Watrous, an advocate for patients at the Center for Medicare Advocacy. “They impose prior authorizations or other utilization management rules that they make up out of whole cloth.”

Consumer advocates urge Medicare enrollees to restrict their shopping this fall to four- and five-rated plans, of which plenty are available in most parts of the country. “If a plan consistently gets four or five stars, all other things being equal it will be a high performer,” says Joe Baker, president of the Medicare Rights Center.

Few Medicare enrollees roll up their sleeves to shop, however. A study by Kaiser found that, on average, just 13% of enrollees voluntarily switched their Advantage or drug plans over four recent enrollment periods. And focus groups with seniors conducted by the foundation last May found that few pay attention to the star ratings.

“Seniors said they don’t use the ratings because they don’t feel they reflect their experiences with plans,” said Gretchen Jacobson, associate director of the foundation’s Medicare program. “Even when we told them that their plan only has two stars, many just wanted to stay in that plan.”

Advocates say the star ratings are just a starting point for smart shoppers.

They say you should check to make sure health providers you want to see are in a plan’s network. You should also consider how you would react if any of those providers disappeared during the 12 months that you are locked into the plan. Advantage plans can—and do—drop providers. UnitedHealth Group, the industry’s largest player, made headlines last year when it dropped thousands of doctors in 10 states. Advantage plans in Florida, Pennsylvania, California and Delaware also terminated provider relationships.

Also be sure to examine the prescription drug “formularies” in your plan—the rules under which your medications are covered. And talk with your doctors about any plan you are considering, especially if you see specialists for a chronic condition.

The Medicare memorandum to plans also underscores the importance of appealing denied claims, Baker says. “Appeal, appeal, appeal—it’s like ‘location, location, location’ in real estate.”

MONEY early retirement

The Most Important Move to Make If You Want to Retire Early

Small birdhouse
Michael Blann—Getty Images

Housing is the most dangerous expense for those seeking financial freedom. Here's what you can do to control those costs.

Looking to achieve financial independence and retire sooner? A top priority should be to control expenses—especially your major living expenses like housing, food, transportation, health care, and recreation. We’ll focus on the rest of these spending categories in future columns, but for now let’s take a look at housing—the single largest expense for many, and one that can all too easily sabotage your journey to financial freedom.

Housing-related decisions will impact your financial independence by years, if not decades. Homes are a downright dangerous expense variable, because price tags are high, leverage (borrowing) is usually required, and various financial “experts” with their own agendas are usually involved. And houses expose our vanities, tempting us to spend for the approval of others, instead of in our own best interests. Losses of tens of thousands of dollars are routine in real estate, and can completely derail your savings plan.

Even when you don’t suffer an outright loss, changing homes is expensive. I moved around in my 20’s, had few possessions, and rented, so the cost of relocating was minimal. Then I married, we bought our first house, and had a child. Our next move was punishing: We were forced to sell our house at a steep loss, and, because of all our new stuff, we had to hire professional movers for the first time. When we finally bought a house again, we stayed put for nearly 17 years. In retrospect, that long time in one place was an enormous help in growing our assets and retiring early.

How much does it cost to change homes? By the time you add up the costs of selling, relocating, buying again, and settling in, you can easily spend $20,000, or more. According to Zillow, closing costs to a home buyer run from 2% to 5% of the purchase price. The seller doesn’t have mortgage-related costs but is likely paying a realtor commission as high as 6% or 7%. Then there are moving costs, and the inevitable shakedown costs with any new home: painting, carpets and curtains, repairs, supplies and furnishings, and basic improvements to suit your lifestyle.

In short, changing homes is frightfully expensive, and will probably eat up most of the average family’s potential savings for several years running.

Of course there are scenarios like career moves, where you don’t have the luxury of staying in place. But anytime the choice to move is yours, stop and consider the expenses. The worst possible choice would be an optional move into a larger house that you don’t really need. You are taking on a big one-time expense, plus a bigger ongoing mortgage and maintenance obligation. If more space is truly necessary, consider instead modifying your current home: When our son reached the later teen years, we renovated a larger downstairs room so he could have more space.

Once you’re in your home, be smart about home improvement projects, especially those you can’t do cheaply yourself. Trying to create the “perfect” home is an uphill battle, at best. Borrowing to improve your home is an especially bad idea, in my opinion. You can spend vast sums of money without measurably improving your quality of life. And old assumptions about getting that money back when you sell are outdated. For 2014, Remodeling Magazine reports that the average cost-value ratio for 35 representative home improvement projects stood at just about 66%. In other words, you don’t make money when you sell: rather, you only get about two-thirds of your money back! Financially speaking, that’s a lousy investment.

Lastly, while there are situations where it makes sense, on paper, to hold a mortgage, for those truly dedicated to financial independence, the disadvantages of debt often outweigh the benefits. In general, pay off your mortgage as soon as possible. Using extra income to pay down a mortgage loan can be a solid investment in today’s low-return environment. We paid off our mortgage years before retiring, and the peace of mind was invaluable. Now, in retirement, we rent instead of own. It’s a flexible, economical, and low-hassle lifestyle.

In short, maintaining a home will be one of your largest life expenses. Pay careful attention to your housing decisions if you’re serious about financial freedom!

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.

More from Darrow Kirkpatrick:

The Single Most Important Thing You Can Do to Achieve Financial Success

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MONEY retirement planning

3 Little Mistakes That Can Sink Your Retirement

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Cultura RM/Korbey—Getty Images/Collection Mix

Big mistakes are easy to catch, but even a small miscalculation may jeopardize your retirement portfolio. Here are three common missteps to avoid.

We think it’s the big mistakes that cost us in retirement, like hiring an unscrupulous adviser or funneling savings into a risky investment that goes belly up. Major errors can certainly hurt. But the smaller seemingly sensible decisions we make without really examining the rationale behind them can also come back to bite us in the…

Assiduous planning is key to a secure retirement, but the effectiveness of plans we make depends on the assumptions behind them. And when you’re making a plan that extends well into the future, as is the case with retirement, even a small miscalculation can take you way off course. Below are three mistakes that may seem minor, but that can seriously erode your odds of achieving a successful retirement. Make sure you’re not incorporating these errors of judgment into your retirement planning.

1. Relying on an unrealistic rate of return. Clearly, the higher the return you earn on the money in 401(k)s, IRAs and other retirement accounts, the less you’ll have to stash away in savings each month to build a sizable nest egg. For example, if you start saving $600 a month at age 30 and earn a 7% annual rate of return, you’ll have $1 million by age 65. Bump up that rate of return to 8% a year, however, and you have to put away only $480 a month to hit the $1 million mark by 65, leaving you an extra $120 month to spend. Earn 9% annually, and the monthly savings required to get to $1 million shrinks to just $385 a month, freeing up even more for spending.

Problem is, just because a retirement calculator lets you plug in a higher rate of return or a more aggressive stocks-bonds mix, doesn’t mean that loftier gains will actually materialize. Shooting for higher returns always involves taking on more risk, which raises the possibility that your aggressive investing strategy could backfire and leave you with a smaller nest egg than you expected. That can be especially dangerous when you’re on the verge of retirement.

For example, just prior to the financial crisis, nearly one in four pre-retirees had more than 90% of their 401(k)s in stocks. A pre-retiree with a $1 million retirement account invested 90% in stocks and 10% in bonds would have suffered a loss in 2008 of roughly 33%, reducing its value to $670,000—enough of a drop to require seriously scaling back retirement plans if not postponing them altogether. No one knows whether recent market turbulence will be a prelude to a similar meltdown. But anyone who has his retirement savings invested in a high-octane stocks-bonds mix, clearly runs the risk of a experiencing a significant setback.

A better strategy when creating your retirement plan is to keep your return assumptions modest and focus instead on saving as much as you can. That way, you’re not as dependent on investment returns to build an adequate nest egg. To see how different savings rates and stocks-bonds mixes can affect your chances of achieving a secure retirement, check out the Retirement Income Calculator in RDR’s Retirement Toolbox.

2. Factoring pay from a retirement job into your planning. It’s almost become a cliche. Virtually every survey asking pre-retirees what they plan to do in retirement shows that the overwhelming majority plan to work. Indeed, a recent Merrill Lynch survey found that nearly three out of four people over 50 said their ideal retirement would include working. Which is fine. Staying connected to the work world in some way can not only offer financial benefits, it can also keep retirees more active and socially engaged.

It would be a mistake, however, to factor the earnings you expect to receive while working in retirement into your estimate of how much you have to save. Or, to put it more bluntly, you’re taking a big risk if you assume that you can skimp on saving because you’ll be make up for a stunted nest egg with money from a retirement job.

Why? Well for one thing, what people say they plan to do in 10 or 20 years and what they end up doing can be very different things. You may find that the eagerness you feel in your 50s to continue to working may fade as you hit your 60s and 70s. Or even if you wish to work—and actively seek it through sites like RetiredBrains.com and Retirementjobs.com, it may not be as easy as you think to land a job you like. Maybe that’s why the Employee Benefit Research Institute’s Retirement Confidence Survey finds year after year that the percentage of workers who say they plan to work after retiring (65% in the 2014 RCS) is much higher than the percentage of retirees who say they have actually worked for pay since retiring (27%).

So when you’re making projections about income sources in retirement, keep work earnings on the modest side, if you factor them in at all. And don’t fall into the trap of believing you can get by with saving less today because you’ll stay in the workforce longer or rejoin it whenever you need some extra cash in retirement. Or you may find yourself working some type of job in retirement whether you like it or not.

3. Taking Social Security sooner rather than later. Although a recent GAO report found that the percentage of people claiming Social Security at age 62 has declined in recent years, 62 remains the single most popular age to begin taking benefits, and a large majority still claim benefits before their full retirement age. But unless you have no choice but to grab benefits early on, doing so can be a costly mistake.

One reason is that for each year you delay between 62 and 70, you boost the size of your benefit roughly 7% to 8%. You’re not going to find a low-risk-high-return option like that anywhere else in today’s financial markets. More important, waiting for a higher monthly check can often dramatically increase the amount of money you receive over your lifetime. That’s especially true for married couples, who can take advantage of a variety of claiming strategies to maximize their expected benefit.

For example, if a 65-year-old husband earning $90,00 a year and his 62-year-old wife who earns $60,00 claim Social Security at 65 and 62 respectively, they might receive just over $1.1 million in today’s dollars in joint benefits over their expected lifetimes, according 401(k) advice firm Financial Engines.

But they can boost their estimated joint lifetime benefit by roughly $177,000, according to the Social Security calculator on Financial Engines’ site, if the wife files for her own benefit based on her work record at age 63, the husband files a restricted application for spousal benefits at 66 and then switches to his own benefit based on his work record at age 70.

Although you may not think of it this way, Social Security is, if not your biggest, certainly one of your biggest and most valuable retirement assets. And chances are you’ll get more out of it by taking it later rather than sooner and, if you’re married, coordinating the timing with your spouse.

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 retirement planning

Why Americans Can’t Answer the Most Basic Retirement Question

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marvinh—Getty Images/Vetta

Workers are confused by the unknowns of retirement planning. No wonder so few are trying to do it.

Planning for retirement is the most difficult part of managing your money—and it’s getting tougher, new research shows. The findings come even as rising markets have buoyed retirement savings accounts, and vast resources have been poured into things like financial education and simplified investment choices meant to ease the planning process.

Some 64% of households at least five years from retirement are having difficulty with retirement planning, according to a study from Hearts and Wallets, a financial research firm. That’s up from 54% of households two years ago and 50% in 2010. Americans rate retirement planning as the most difficult of 24 financial tasks presented in the study.

How can this be? Jobs and wages have been slowly improving. Stocks have doubled from their lows, even after the recent market tumble. The housing market is rebounding. Online tools and instruction through 401(k) plans have greatly improved. We have one-decision target-date mutual funds that make asset allocation a breeze. Yet retirement planning is perceived as more difficult.

The explanation lies at least partly in an increasingly evident quandary: few of us know exactly when we will retire and none of us know when we will die. But retirement planning is built around choosing some kind of reasonable estimate for those two variables. But that’s something few people are prepared to do. As the study found, 61% of households between the ages of 21 to 64 say they can’t answer the following basic retirement question: When will I stop full-time work?

Even the more straightforward retirement planning issues are challenging for many workers. Among the top sources of difficulty: estimating required minimum distributions from retirement accounts (57%), deciding where to keep their money (54%), and getting started saving (51%).

Those near or already in retirement have considerably less financial angst, the study found. Their most difficult task, cited by 33%, is estimating appropriate levels of spending, followed by choosing the right health insurance (31%) and a sustainable drawdown rate on their savings accounts (28%).

For younger generations, planning a precise retirement date has become far more difficult, in part because of the Great Recession. Undersaved Baby Boomers have been forced to work longer, and that has contributed to stalled careers among younger generations. The final date is now a moving target that depends on one’s health, the markets, how much you can save, and whether you will be downsized out of a job. Americans have moved a long way from the traditional goal of retirement at age 65, and the uncertainty can be crippling.

Nowhere does the study mention the difficulty of estimating how long we will live. Maybe the subject is simply one we don’t like to think about, but the fact is, many Americans are living longer and are at greater risk of running out of money in retirement. This is another critical input that individuals have trouble accounting for.

In the days of traditional pensions, many Americans could rely on professional money managers to grapple with these problems. Left on their own, without a reliable source of lifetime income (other than Social Security), workers don’t know where to start. The best response is to save as much as you can, work as long you can—and remember that retirees tend to be happy, however much they have saved.

Related:

How should I start saving for retirement?

How much of my income should I save for retirement?

Can I afford to retire?

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