MONEY withdrawal strategy

Which Generates More Retirement Income—Annuities or Portfolio Withdrawals?

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People's overconfidence in their investing ability makes them less likely to opt for guaranteed income.

New research by Mark Warshawsky, the retirement income guru who’s now a visiting scholar at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, suggests more retirees should consider making an immediate annuity part of their retirement portfolio—and also highlights a reason why many people may simply ignore this advice.

When it comes to turning retirement savings into lifetime retirement income, many retirees and advisers rely on the 4% rule—that is, withdraw 4% of savings the first year of retirement and increase that amount by inflation each year to maintain purchasing power (although in a concession to today’s low yields and expected returns, some are reducing that initial draw to 3% or even lower to assure they don’t deplete their savings too soon).

But is a systematic withdrawal strategy likely to provide more income over retirement than simply purchasing an immediate annuity? To see, Warshawsky looked at how a variety of hypothetical retirees of different ages retiring in different years would have fared with an immediate annuity vs. the 4% rule and some variants. The study is too long and complicated to go into the particulars here. (You can read it yourself by going to the link to it in my Retirement Toolbox section.) The upshot, though, is Warshawsky concluded that while an annuity didn’t always outperform systematic withdrawal, an annuity provided more inflation-adjusted income throughout retirement often enough (with little risk of ever running out) that “it is hard to argue against a significant and widespread role for immediate life annuities in the production of retirement income.”

Now, does this mean all retirees should own an immediate annuity? Of course not. There are plenty of reasons an annuity might not be the right choice for a given individual. If Social Security and pensions already provide enough guaranteed income, an annuity may be superfluous. Similarly, if you’ve got such a large nest egg that it’s unlikely you’ll ever go through it, you may not need or want an annuity. And if you have severe health problems or believe for some other reason you’ll have a short lifespan, then an annuity probably isn’t for you.

Even if you do decide to buy an annuity, you wouldn’t want to devote all your assets to one. The study notes the advantage of combining an annuity with a portfolio of financial assets that can provide liquidity and long-term growth, and suggests “laddering” annuities rather than purchasing all at once as a way to get a better feel for how much guaranteed income you’ll actually need and to avoid putting all one’s money in when rates are at a low.

But there’s another part of the paper that I found at least as interesting as the comparison of systematic withdrawals and annuities. That’s where Warshawsky says he worries whether the “lump sum culture” of 401(k)s and IRAs will interfere with people seriously considering annuities. I couldn’t agree more. Too many people laser in on their retirement account balance—the whole, “What’s Your Number?” thing—rather than thinking about what percentage of their current income they’ll be able to replace after retiring. And when choosing between, say, a traditional check-a-month pension vs. a lump-sum cash out, many people still tend to put too little value on assured lifetime monthly checks.

Although the paper didn’t mention this specifically, I think there’s a related problem of people’s overconfidence in their investing ability that makes them less likely to opt for guaranteed income. I can’t tell you the number of times after doing an annuity story that I’ve gotten feedback from people who essentially say they would never buy annuity because they think they can do better investing on their own—never mind that that’s difficult-to-impossible to do without taking on greater risk because annuities have what amounts to an extra return called a “mortality credit” that individuals can’t duplicate on their own.

Along the same lines I’m always surprised by the number of people who pooh-pooh the notion of delaying Social Security for a higher benefit because they’re convinced they can come out ahead by taking their benefits as soon as possible and investing them at a 6% to 8% annual return (although why anyone should feel confident about earning such gains consistently given today’s low rates and forecasts for low returns is puzzling).

Clearly, we all have to make our own decisions based on our particular circumstances about the best way to turn savings into income that we can count on throughout retirement, while also assuring we have a stash of assets we can tap for emergencies and unexpected expenses. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. That said, I think it’s a good idea for anyone nearing or already in retirement to at least consider an annuity as a possibility. If you rule it out, that’s fine. Annuities aren’t for everyone. Just be sure that if you’re nixing an annuity, you’re doing it for valid reasons, not because of a misplaced faith in your ability to earn outsize returns or because you’re unduly swayed by lump-sum culture.

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

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MONEY

Something Very Significant Just Happened to 401(k) Plans

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We've reached a tipping point

For decades, legions of American workers dutifully poured money into their 401(k) retirement plans. Overall contributions to these plans easily outnumbered withdrawals from the accounts of retirees ready to start using the money saved up to enjoy their golden years.

Now, however, data cited by the Wall Street Journal indicates that withdrawals from 401(k) plans are exceeding contributions. We’ve reached a tipping point largely due to the combination of retiring baby boomers and younger workers who are incapable or less interested in saving.

“Millennials haven’t moved into a higher savings rate yet,” Douglas Fisher, the head of policy development on workplace retirement for Fidelity Investment, which manages millions of 401(k) plans. “We need to start getting them to the right level.”

The most immediate implications of withdrawals exceeding contributions will be felt by the retirement industry—the companies that manage all of those 401(k)s and collect fees from them. As for the average retiree, or the average worker who one day hopes to retire, it’s unclear what effects, if any, this turn of events will have. In one likely scenario, some money-management firms are expected to lower their fees in order to increase market share in the increasingly competitive retirement plan space.

Read next: The Risky Money Assumption Millennials Should Stop Making Now

MONEY Kids and Money

The 3 Most Important Money Lessons My Dad Taught Me

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Monashee Frantz—Getty Images

Many of our financial dos and don'ts are instilled by parents at an early age. Here's what my father passed along to me.

One of the responses I often hear from clients toward the end of a financial planning meeting is, “This sounds good. I’m going to talk to my dad about it.”

For many of us, our mothers and fathers have played a profound role in shaping our financial habits—so much so that we still discuss our plans with our parents well into our adult lives. Whether it’s deciding where to invest retirement savings, how much to pay for a first home, or how much of each paycheck to invest in a 401(k), we sometimes go to our parents to help make decisions and to doublecheck we’re on the right path.

These conversations with many of my clients have me thinking about the values and habits my father instilled in me at a young age. Three very powerful lessons come to mind:

Live Within Your Means

On my eighth birthday, my father began to teach me how to live within my means. As I write those words, it sounds funny, even to me. He sat me down and taught me about an allowance. He was going to provide me with a weekly stipend that I would later come to realize was my means. I was going to have a set amount of money that I could spend on anything I’d like. The only catch was that once I spent it all, I couldn’t buy anything else until the following Friday when I received my next allowance. At the age of 8, I began to learn how to budget, how to save, and how to spend wisely.

Plan For the Future

At 14, my father took me to his bank’s local branch to open my first savings account. We sat down at the desk with the bank manager and I shared that I had saved $370 and I needed a place to keep it so it would grow. Entering high school, I knew I wanted two things on the day I turned 16: a driver’s license and a car. If I was going to make them both happen, I was going to need a plan. Dad and I worked out a savings plan to help me save the money I earned from a part-time tutoring job. It took me a bit longer to save up for my first car than I anticipated, but planning and saving to reach a future goal is a valuable life lesson—one I share with my clients every day..

Start Today

When I was 16, I sat down again with Dad to learn about a Roth IRA, retirement planning and perhaps, most importantly, compound interest. I learned that by starting early and investing, my money could grow. By opening an investment account and saving into my Roth IRA with the possibility to earn compound returns, I could potentially become a millionaire when I was older—a crazy thought for a 16-year-old. We charted out a simple savings plan to invest a portion of each paycheck I earned—a savings and investing program I follow to this day.

On the occasion of Father’s Day, I thank you, Dad, for instilling many of my financial values and habits at a young age—habits that will continue to shape the decisions I make for years to come.

Read next: 3 Financial Lessons For Dads on Father’s Day

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Joe O’Boyle is a financial adviser with Voya Financial Advisors. Based in Beverly Hills, Calif., O’Boyle provides personalized, full service financial and retirement planning to individual and corporate clients. O’Boyle focuses on the entertainment, legal and medical industries, with a particular interest in educating Gen Xers and Millennials about the benefits of early retirement planning.

MONEY 401(k)s

The Painless Way New Grads Can Reach Financial Security

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Steve Debenport—Getty Images

You don’t need to be sophisticated. You don’t need to pick stocks. You don’t need to understand diversification or the economy. You just need to do this one simple thing—now.

A newly minted class of college graduates enters the work world this summer in what remains a tough environment for young job seekers. Half of last year’s graduates remain underemployed, according to an Accenture report. Yet hiring is up this year, and as young people land their first real job they might keep in mind a critical advantage they possess: time, which they have more of than virtually everyone else and can use to build financial security.

Saving early is a powerful force. But it loses impact with each year that passes without getting started. You don’t need to be sophisticated. You don’t need to pick stocks. You don’t need to understand diversification or the economy. You just need to begin putting away 10% of everything you make, right away. And 15% would be even better.

Consider a worker who saves $5,000 a year from age 25 to 65 and earns 7% a year. Not allowing for expenses and taxes, this person would have $1.1 million at age 65. Compare that to a worker who starts saving at the same pace at age 35. This worker would amass half that total, just $511,000. And now for the clincher: If the worker that started at age 25 suddenly stopped saving at age 35, but left her savings alone to grow through age 65, she would enjoy a nest egg of $589,000—more than the procrastinator who started at age 35 and saved for 30 more years.

That is the power of compounding, and it is the most important thing about money that a young worker must understand. Those first 10 years of a career fly by quickly and soon you will have lost the precious early years of saving opportunity and squandered your advantage. That’s why, if possible, I advise parents to get their children started even before college.

Once you start working, your employer will almost certainly offer a 401(k) plan. More than 80% of full-time workers have access to one. This is the easiest and most effective way to get started saving immediately. Here are some thoughts on how to proceed:

  • Enroll ASAP Some companies will allow you to enroll on your first day while others require you to be employed for six months or a year. Find out and get started as soon as possible. Most people barely feel the payroll deductions; they quickly get used to making ends meet on what is left.
  • Have you been auto enrolled? Increasingly, employers automatically sign you up for a 401(k) as soon as you are eligible. Some also automatically increase your contributions each year. Do not opt out of these programs. But look at how much of your pay is being deferred and where it is invested. Many plans defer just 3% and put it in a super safe, low-yielding money market fund. You likely are eligible to save much more than that and want to be invested in a fund that holds stocks for long-term growth.
  • Make the most of your match A big advantage of saving in a 401(k) is the company match. Many plans will match your contributions dollar for dollar or 50 cents on the dollar up to 6% of your salary. This is free money. Make sure you are contributing enough to get the full match.
  • Keep it simple Choosing investment options are where a lot of young workers get hung up. But it’s really simple. Forget the noise around large-cap and small-cap stocks, international diversification, and asset allocation. Most plans today offer a target-date fund that is the only investment you’ll ever need in your 401(k) plan. Choose the fund dated the year you will turn 65 or 70. The fund manager will handle everything else, keeping you appropriately invested for your age for the next 40 years. In many plans, such a target-date fund is the default option if you have been automatically enrolled.
  • Take advantage of a Roth Some plans offer a Roth 401(k) in addition to a regular 401(k). Divide your contributions between both. They are treated differently for tax purposes and having both will give you added flexibility in retirement. With a Roth, you make after-tax contributions but pay no tax upon withdrawal. With a regular 401(k), you make pre-tax contributions but pay tax when you take money out. The Roth is most effective if your taxes go up in retirement; the regular 401(k), if your taxes go down. Since it’s hard to know in advance, the smart move is to split your savings between the two.
  • Get help An increasing number of 401(k) plans include unbiased, professional third-party advice. This may be via online tools, printed material, group seminars, or one-on-one sessions. These resources can give you the confidence to make decisions, and according to Charles Schwab young workers that seek guidance tend to have higher savings rates and better ability to stay invested for the long haul in tough times.

Read next: 6 Financial Musts for New College Grads

 

 

MONEY retirement planning

9 False Moves That Could Derail Your Retirement

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Biehler Michael—Shutterstock

For many of us, retirement is a great unknown. In your 20s, it seems so far away that it’s easy to figure you’ll start saving when you have more money. Of course, if you wait until you have “extra money,” you might never start at all.

But 20-somethings aren’t the only ones who do things that sabotage their retirement. Their parents may be putting their own retirement at risk by, for example, borrowing money to pay for a wedding, just when they should be turbocharging their own savings, especially if they started late.

So what are we to do? We don’t know that we’ll live to be 85 and still healthy enough to travel, or that the stock market will crash just before we retire. And yet we hope to plan as if we do know. Some of us dream about retirement — and many of us sabotage it at the very same time. Here are some money moves you may regret down the road.

1. Raiding Your Home Equity

Home equity can seem like a a piggy bank when you’re short on cash. And a “draw period” on a home equity line of credit before repayment of principal is due can make it feel almost like free money. Worse, it feels like you are borrowing from yourself. After all, you built up that home equity, right? But if you spend it now, you won’t have it later. And should you decide you want to sell or get a reverse mortgage at some point, that decision can come back to haunt you. You will walk away with less from a sale or be eligible for lower payments from a reverse mortgage. Either way, Retired You could suffer from the decision.

2. Unplanned Roth IRA Withdrawals

Some experts recommend Roths as vehicles to save for a first home or as a place to park an emergency fund because the money grows tax-free. If you have planned to use the money for a first home, you can withdraw up to $10,000. It can also come to your rescue for unforeseen expenses (particularly tempting because, after five years, you can withdraw principal penalty-free). Its flexibility is both an advantage and a temptation, since raiding your retirement account now robs you of those funds and their compounding interest down the road.

3. Failing to Put Away Anything

For many of us, it’s easier to wait to save until we’re “more established” or until we’re making a little more money. Why aren’t we saving? Because there’s no extra money! The problem, of course, is there may well never be any extra money. Most of us don’t come to the end of the month and try to figure out what to do with all the money that’s left. Saving needs to be in the budget from the beginning. It’s often easiest to automate this.

4. Helping Adult Kids Financially

But they’re your children. And everyone makes mistakes. (Or maybe they think you did when you didn’t save thousands for a wedding.) There are exceptions, of course, but if you do help out financially, be sure you minimize your own costs or that you do not jeopardize your own retirement. It’s not usually a good idea to let them grow accustomed to a parental supplement. Relationships and money can be fraught, too. So think very carefully before you make your help monetary.

5. Co-Signing for a Child or Grandchild

They are just starting out and don’t have much of a credit history. Or they want to take out private student loans, and all that’s standing between them and next semester is your signature. The car they are financing, the lease they are signing … if your signature is on it, you are on the hook. If they pay late, your credit could be affected. And should you need a loan, this obligation will count as your debt for purposes of determining eligibility. Student loans can be particularly risky. In many cases, they can’t be erased in bankruptcy. If you have already co-signed on a loan, it’s important to check your credit regularly to see how it’s affecting your credit.

6. Failing to Have a Plan B

You probably hope or assume your good health (and that of your spouse, if you are married) will continue. You may be planning to stay with your current employer until you reach full retirement age. But people fall ill, or they get laid off before they planned to leave the workforce. Do you have a reserve parachute? Your standard of living won’t be as high, but knowing that you have a plan can make the situation a little less worrisome.

7. Poor Investment Choices

Even if you’ve managed to sign up for the 401(k) at work or to open an IRA for yourself, choosing the wrong funds or failing to diversify can set you up for failure. A target-date fund can be useful, but only if you choose the appropriate target. (If you’re in your 50s and choosing a 2050 target retirement date, you may get really lucky and see big gains — but you could also see big losses and not have much time to recoup them.) Likewise, it’s smart not to put all your nest eggs in the same investment basket. Do your own research or find a planner to find a mix you are comfortable with and that is appropriate for your age and goals.

8. Not Making Changes When Needed

Are your investments changing with your goals? And are you keeping track of all of your investments? If you’ve had several jobs (and several 401(k)s), it’s a good idea to do some consolidation. Keeping track of funds in several investment houses can make figuring out minimum withdrawals much more difficult once you are retired. Keep accounts organized.

9. Taking Social Security As Soon As You Can

In many cases, it’s better to wait. Your payment will be higher, although if you take it younger, you will get it for more years. Claiming it the minute you can may be tempting, but if you come from a family with a history of people living well into old age, consider whether you think the smaller checks will be worth it. (You can calculate a “break-even” age of how long you would have to live to collect as much as you would have had you started younger — so that checks from then on truly are additional money.) Conversely, if no one in your family has ever turned 80, you may want to opt for the earlier payout. And, of course, your financial situation when you retire will have a say. If you can’t make ends meet without Social Security, then you should take it.

Another mistake? Making all your plans — including retirement — for later. A life of sacrificing for a “later” that may or may not come is not much of a life. They key is balance. We’re not suggesting you never take a vacation, never give to a cause that is close to your heart or buy the car you’ve desperately wanted (and can now afford) so that years of self-denial will pay off someday … maybe. But it is good to know that if you live a long life, you’ll have the financial resources you need.

Read next: Can You Pass This Retirement Quiz?

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MONEY Social Security

Can You Pass This Retirement Quiz?

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Carl Smith—Getty Images/fStop

If so, you're in the minority of Americans who know the right answers.

Ready for a quick quiz on how Social Security benefits work?

You should ace it. After all, Social Security is the most important retirement benefit for most Americans, and understanding the rules is critical for getting the most out of the program.

So here we go with a few questions:

  1. At what age can you receive your full benefit?
  2. Can you keep working while collecting a full benefit?
  3. If you are divorced, can you collect a benefit based on your ex-spouse’s earning history?
  4. Can you receive a benefit even if you are not a U.S. citizen?

Only 28% of Americans can give enough correct answers to questions like these to get a passing grade, according to a new survey by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co.

Just one in 1,500 respondents correctly answered all 12 questions, and only 38% got more than half of the answers right.

The findings are disturbing. 90% of Americans over age 65 receive Social Security benefits, and, for 65%, the program provides more than half of total income, according to the National Academy of Social Insurance. For 36%, Social Security is the entire retirement income ballgame.

“We didn’t expect everyone to get a 100% score, but what shocked us was that only 28% got a passing grade,” said Michael R. Fanning, executive vice president of MassMutual’s U.S. Insurance Group.

The silver lining is that the retirement industry has ramped up efforts to educate workers about Social Security. Information and tools about benefits are cropping up in many workplace 401(k) plans, and much media coverage of the program has shifted of late away from political rants to useful information.

So how did you do? Here are the answers:

Full Benefit Age

Most people got this wrong. Some 71% of respondents think 65 is still the full retirement age for Social Security. But it is 66 for today’s retirees and will be 67 for people retiring in 2022.

Only 57% of respondents were aware that the timing of their claim affects the monthly benefit amount.

Working While Receiving Benefits

Slightly more than half missed this one, believing people can continue to work while collecting a full Social Security retirement benefit. But that is true only if you have reached your full retirement age.

This year, an early Social Security filer with income of more than $15,720 from work (employment or self-employment) will pay a penalty. One dollar will be deducted from benefit payments for every $2 earned above that limit.

Collect From an Ex-Spouse

Just 45% think that it is possible to claim a benefit on the record of an ex-spouse. They are correct, and it does not matter if that ex-spouse has remarried.

This can boost benefits dramatically, since spousal and survivor benefits are among the most valuable features of Social Security.

You can claim half of an ex-spouse’s benefit if you are at full retirement age (currently 66), had been married for at least 10 years, and if that benefit works out to be higher than your own. You are entitled to 100 percent of a deceased ex-spouse’s benefit .

Citizenship

Three-quarters of survey respondents think that being an American citizen is necessary to receive Social Security retirement benefits. But the main eligibility requirement to receive benefits is paying into the system.

You must have contributed payroll taxes for a cumulative total of at least 40 quarters (10 years). Along with citizens, individuals who are “lawfully present” in the United States, including permanent residents, refugees and asylum seekers, are eligible for benefits.

Read next: Why Retiring Early May Be More Affordable Than You Think

MONEY Retirement

What Italy and Germany Show Us About the Future of Social Security

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Shutterstock

Families, not government, may be what rescues retirement.

One of the big questions facing retirement planners is how much to count on Social Security in the decades ahead. The number of Americans past age 65 will double by 2050, part of the longevity revolution that threatens to leave Social Security insolvent by 2033.

That doesn’t mean benefits would stop abruptly. Under the current system, enough funding would be in place to continue benefits at 77% of the promised level. Of course, anything is possible if laws change. But cuts probably are coming.

Most Americans get that. Among those that have not yet retired, just 20% believe they will receive full benefits when they retire, according to a Pew Research report. Some 31% expect reduced benefits and 41% expect no benefits at all. Presumably, these findings skew along age lines. Most experts believe benefits adjustments will be phased in. Those currently 55 or older likely will see minimal change to their benefits while those under 30 likely will see big change.

The longevity revolution is a global phenomenon, and government pensions are in trouble around the world. Two of the oldest nations on the planet are Germany and Italy and, demographically speaking, they are now where the U.S. will be in 35 years: a fifth of their population is older than age 65. If you think Americans are glum about prospects for collecting Social Security, these nations offer a glimpse of what’s coming.

In Germany, just 11% think they will receive benefits at current levels, 45% think they will receive benefits at reduced levels and 41% expect to get no benefits at all, Pew found. In Italy, only 7% believe they will get full benefits, 29% expect benefits at reduced levels and 53% think they will get no benefits at all. Interestingly, Germans and Italians are twice as likely as Americans to believe this is primarily a problem for government to solve. In the U.S., there is a strong belief that this is a problem for families and individuals to fix, Pew found.

Just 23% of Italians are putting anything away for retirement, vs. 56% of Americans and, perhaps because austerity is in their DNA, 61% of Germans. The most important statistic, though, may be the percentage of young adults (ages 18-29) that are saving. This is the group most likely to see reduced or no benefits in retirement but which still has 40 years or more to let savings grow. In the U.S., 41% of young adults are saving for retirement. In Germany, the figure is 44%. In Italy, just 13% are saving.

What will fill the gaps? Pew found a strong sense of families as backstops in all three countries. Nearly nine in 10 Italians view financial assistance for an aging parent in need as their responsibility. The figure is 76% in the U.S. and 58% in Germany. This sense runs deepest among young adults, perhaps because their parents are now assisting them through an extended period of dependence known as emerging adulthood.

In all three countries, financial help is more likely to flow down to adult children than up to aging parents: about half or more of adults with grown children have helped them financially in the last 12 months. That many or more have assisted grown children in non-monetary ways as well, helping with errands, housework, home repairs or child care. The vast majority says this assistance is more rewarding than stressful; they value the time together.

So family support looms as a large part of future retirement security for many people in graying nations, and that’s fine for families with the wherewithal. But young adults, especially, don’t have to feel victimized by the decline of government pensions. They have many opportunities for tax-advantaged saving through an IRA or 401(k) plan, and decades to let compound growth solve their problems. Workers past 50 can take advantage of catch-up contributions, and for guaranteed lifetime income use a portion of their savings to buy a fixed annuity. Like it or not, personal savings is the key to retiring comfortably—self security in place of Social Security.

 

 

MONEY mutual funds

This Is The Absolute Easiest Way to Invest for Retirement

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Andy Brandl—Getty Images/Moment RM

Stay on track by keeping things simple.

Most people know they need to save for retirement, but many are intimidated by the complexity of the investing world. To make investing for retirement simpler, many financial companies have created target date mutual funds that combine a number of different investments into a single package. The Vanguard Target Retirement Fund series is one such fund, created by the Vanguard Group as a way for people to get everything they need to save for retirement in a single investment. Let’s look at the Vanguard Target Retirement Fund and why it could be the simplest way to long-term riches for you.

The basics of Vanguard’s Target Retirement Fund
The first thing to know about the Vanguard Target Retirement Fund is that you actually have 12 different mutual funds from which to choose. Funds corresponding to target dates every five years ranging from 2010 to 2060 make up the bulk of the offerings, and a single fund aimed at providing income for those already in retirement closes out the list.

The idea behind the Vanguard Target Retirement Fund is that investors should pick the fund that corresponds to the year they expect to retire. Over time, the fund goes from a more aggressive mix of assets when you’re young and still have a long time before retirement to a more conservative asset allocation as you grow older and approach the end of your working life. For instance, the 2060 fund is composed of 90% stocks and 10% bonds, while the 2020 fund has a much larger 40% bond allocation and just 60% in stocks.

Vanguard isn’t the only company offering target date funds, but the advantage of using Vanguard is that you gain access to the low-cost funds the index fund pioneer is famous for promoting — with index funds connected to the stock and bond markets both within the U.S. and internationally. The funds tend to favor domestic investments but still have significant foreign exposure, giving investors diversification. Another benefit of using Vanguard’s index funds as underlying investments is that the expense ratios on the Vanguard Target Retirement Fund are very low, ranging from $16 to $18 per year for every $10,000 you have invested.

The downsides of the Vanguard Target Retirement Fund
All that said, Vanguard’s target date funds are far from perfect. One criticism is that you can duplicate the funds’ portfolios yourself by buying the underlying index funds directly and save some expenses. With those component funds charging between $5 and $19 annually per $10,000 investment — and most of the allocated money going to the cheaper part of that range — wealthy investors can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars each year just by monitoring their balance on their own.

Also, not all investors agree that index funds are the best strategy for long-term investing. Some competing target date funds offer actively managed mutual funds rather than index funds; while they’re more expensive, top funds can sometimes earn a sufficient extra return to offset higher costs.

Finally, like any other target date fund, the Vanguard Target Retirement Fund takes the decision about asset allocation out of your hands and puts it squarely on Vanguard’s shoulders. That’s fine when things work out, but during the financial crisis many target date funds took heat for being too heavily invested in stocks. If you’re not comfortable with the level of risk that Vanguard’s target date funds take, then you’ll probably prefer to create a do-it-yourself mix of funds on your own.

The Vanguard Target Retirement Fund series isn’t the only way to invest for retirement, but it is one of the simplest. With basic exposure to the most important investments you’ll need and extremely low costs, a Vanguard Target Retirement Fund can be a great way to build up your retirement savings over time.

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MONEY Social Security

Are Social Security Benefits Taxable?

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Rubberball/Mike Kemp—Getty Images/Rubberball

Your marital status, total income and location all come into play.

Saving for retirement is a crucial part of preparing for your financial future — but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan for Social Security benefits. You can calculate what your Social Security income will be to help provide an estimate of your benefits and what other savings you will need to lead the lifestyle you want in retirement. While you may have heard about a time when these payouts were tax-free, that is no longer the case. In short, Social Security benefits are taxable. But in reality, it is not that simple — taxability depends on marital status, total income and location. If you have some additional retirement income, besides Social Security, coming from a salary, pension, IRA or 401(k), you will likely be over the income limits and can expect that up to 85% of your Social Security benefits will be taxable.

Income Limits

The portion of your benefits you are taxed on depends upon your income. The Internal Revenue Service sets limits for calculating tax liability every year. In 2015, you will pay income taxes on up to 50% of your benefits if you are filing as an individual with combined income between $25,000 and $34,000. If you have more than $34,000 in combined income, you could be subject to taxes on up to 85% of your benefits. For couples, the amounts are $32,000 and $44,000 for up to 50% and about $44,000 for up to 85%. In this case, “combined income” means the total of your adjusted gross income, the nontaxable interest and half of your Social Security benefits. If Social Security benefits are your only source of income and your total is below $25,000, your benefits will not be taxed at all — but you may not have the comfortable retirement you imagined.

Federal & State Taxes

If you will have to pay taxes on your benefits, up to 85% every dollar of income you make over the limit will be subject to federal income tax. This can get complicated to predict, so the IRS offers a worksheet and e-file software to help you calculate your Social Security tax liability. It’s a good idea to check with your local tax pro or an accountant about state and local taxes because the rules vary by location. Some states offer exemptions and credits based on age or income and at least some Social Security is tax-exempt in most states, but there is usually a range.

Simplifying the Process

You can make the tax burden on your Social Security benefits simpler by paying these costs gradually throughout the year instead of all at once. You can either ask the Social Security Administration to withhold taxes from your benefit check by submitting a W-4V or pay quarterly estimates. If you are very concerned about tax burden in retirement, it’s a good idea to start saving early and generously with a Roth IRA, as this account uses after-tax dollars. You will never have to take required minimum distributions and you will not have to pay taxes on payments down the road because you already have.

Retirement can be tricky, so it’s important to stay on top of your finances and look for ways to improve your Social Security benefits. Check regularly to ensure you are saving enough for retirement in other ways like a 401(k) or IRA to supplement the money you can expect from Social Security. While paying taxes may not be enjoyable, this is an indication that you have saved sufficiently and will not have to live solely on these Social Security payments.

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