MONEY psychology of money

Don’t Make These Common Mistakes If You Plan To Retire Soon

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Alamy

Procrastination can undermine your retirement.

When it comes to the downside of procrastination, most people focus on the danger of getting a late start on saving. Indeed, TIAA-Cref’s Ready-to-Retire Survey shows that’s a major regret. But you can also put your retirement in jeopardy by putting off certain key tasks in the years just before retirement. And the cost can be just as devastating as procrastinating earlier in life.

We all know by now (or should) that putting off saving for retirement comes with a high cost. As I’ve shown before, a 25-year-old who earns $40,000 a year, gets 2% annual raises, and contributes 15% of his salary to a 401(k) or similar plan each year, earns 5.5% a year on investments, and follows that regimen for 40 years would end up with a nest egg of roughly $1.1 million. Were that same hypothetical 25-year-old to wait until age 30 to start saving, his projected nest egg’s value would drop to $875,000. And it falls to $680,000 if he procrastinates until age 35.

But procrastination during the home stretch to retirement, or even after retiring, can also be costly, although it may be harder to put a specific number on.

What kind of procrastination am I talking about?

Well, for starters, many people don’t transition early enough from investing for long-term growth to creating a portfolio more geared toward generating income that will support them throughout retirement. Making such a shift doesn’t mean you should dump stocks wholesale or load up on “income investments.” Rather, it’s mostly a process of refining your stock-bond mix to be sure it reflects the level of risk you’re comfortable with as you enter retirement. Failing to go through such a re-assessment could leave you with a stock-heavy portfolio that, in the event of a major market downturn, could significantly reduce the amount of money you can safely draw from your portfolio each year and lower the chances that your savings will last as long as you do.

Another area where pre-retirees delay is getting a fix on the expenses they’ll face when they retire. You can’t forecast outlays precisely; there will always be wildcards. But you can come up with a reasonable estimate that you can update periodically by going to an online budget tool like the Retirement Expenses Worksheet in Fidelity’s Retirement Income Planner calculator. It suggests dozens of expense items and also has room for custom expenses you create, making it unlikely you’ll overlook anything. This worksheet also allows you to designate each expense as essential or discretionary, so you can more easily see where you can cut back, if necessary. One cost of foregoing such an analysis is that you might pull the trigger on retirement before you’ve accumulated the resources you need, which could mean you’ll have to live a more frugal retirement than necessary or, in some cases, even “unretire” to avoid depleting your nest egg.

Many people don’t engage as early as they should in figuring out what they can expect from Social Security. Certainly by your late 50s, you (and your spouse if you’re married) should be checking out Social Security’s Retirement Estimator to see what sort of benefits you may qualify for at different retirement ages. And by your early 60s, you’ll want to go to a tool like Financial Engines’ Social Security calculator, which can show you how you may be able to boost the amount you receive over your lifetime by delaying taking benefits (an instance when procrastination of a sort can make sense) or engaging in a variety of “claiming strategies” that can boost benefits.

In this instance, it’s actually possible to come up with a potential cost of procrastination. In a recent column I showed how a married man earning $100,000 a year and his wife who earns $60,000 might lose $300,000 in joint lifetime benefits if they both start taking payments at 62 instead of coordinating their filing to maximize their payout.

There are plenty of other key issues you should be looking into as you approach the final five to ten years of your career. Will your nest egg last a good 30 or so years in retirement? No reason for that to be mystery. You can get a decent sense of how long your savings might support you by plugging your account balances and other financial info into a good retirement calculator like T. Rowe Price’s Retirement Income Planner. What are the pros and cons of reverse mortgages and what kind of income might one provide? You can and should research such questions before pulling the trigger on retirement by checking out The Mortgage Professor and AARP sites. And while you’re at it, take the time to do some broader retirement lifestyle planning—that is, taking a hard look at how you’ll actually spend your time after leaving your job and investing such issues as whether to relocate or downsize.

Retirement planning is tough. You’ve got to get an early start and then push on throughout your career, even when you face lots of other demands on your time and finances. It would be a shame to get that part of the process right, and mess things up by dropping the ball just as the finish line is within sight.

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.

More From RealDealRetirement.com

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MONEY retirement savings

Women Are Better Retirement Savers Than Men, but Still Have a Lot Less Money

woman's coin purse and men's billfold
iStock; Getty Images

It's all about the difference in wages.

Income inequality doesn’t end when you quit working. A report out Tuesday finds that women lag far behind men in retirement savings, even though women save at higher rates and take fewer risks with their investments.

According to Vanguard’s How America Saves report, women are more likely than men to be in a 401(k) plan: 73% of women vs. 66% of men. The difference is even larger at higher income levels. Last year, 81% of women earning $50,000 to $75,000 a year participated in their 401(k) vs. 62% of men. Among people earning $75,000 to $100,000, 86% of women put away money in a 401(k) vs. 70% of men.

Women also save at higher rates than men: Women put away 7% to 16% more of their income than men. And women are less likely to engage in risky investment behavior, such as frequent trading.

Despite those good habits, women are significantly behind men in the amount they have put away. Men have average account balances that are 50% higher than women’s. The average account balance for a man last year: $123, 262, compared with $79,572 for women.

“Women are better savers, but the difference in account balances comes down to the difference in wages,” says Jean Young, senior research analyst at the Vanguard Center for Retirement Research and the lead author on the report. “It’s not surprising. Women typically earn less than men do.”

Still, Young says, the Vanguard report revealed a lot of positive trends among retirement savers.

Among the findings:

  • More people are enrolled in 401(k)s. One-third of companies have auto-enrollment programs that automatically put new employees into 401(k)s unless they choose to opt out. That’s up from 5% a decade ago. Among large companies, 60% have auto enrollment. More companies are doing this not just for new hires but about 50% of plans with auto enrollment are also “sweeping” existing employees into plans during open enrollment, with a choice to opt out. Auto-enrollment has been criticized for enrolling people at very conservative deferral rates, typically 3%. That’s changing slowly: 70% of companies that have auto enrollment also automatically increase contributions annually, typically 1% a year. And, while 49% of plans default people to a 3% deferral rate, 39% default to 4% or more vs. 28% in 2010.
  • More retirement savers are leaving it to professionals. Thanks to the rise in target date funds and automatic enrollment (which typically defaults people to target date funds), 45% of people in Vanguard plans have professionally managed accounts vs. 25% in 2009. The number of people in such accounts is expected to surpass 50% this year, and that’s a good thing, says Young. According to Vanguard, people in professional managed accounts have more diversified portfolios than those who make their own investment decisions.“A professional helps you find the appropriate asset allocation, rebalance, and adjust the portfolio to your life stage,” says Young.
  • The bull market continues to deliver. The median total one-year return for people in Vanguard 401(k) plans was 7.2% in 2014. Over the past five years, 401(k) participants returns averaged 9.9% a year.
  • Few people max out. Only 10% of 401(k) participants saved the maximum $17,500 allowed in 2014. But the number rises with higher earners: One-third of people who earn $100,000 or more a year max out.
  • Savers are doing better than you think. Most financial planners recommend putting away 12% to 15% of annual income to save enough for a comfortable retirement. While the average 401(k) deferral rate is just 6.9%, combined with employer contributions, it’s 10.4%, close to that mark.

That doesn’t mean that most people are all set for retirement. Vanguard reports little change in account balances: The average 401(k) balance is $102,682, while the median is $29,603. The typical working household nearing retirement with a 401(k) and an IRA has a median $111,000 combined, which would yield less than $400 a month in retirement, according to a recent report by the Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research. But those who have access to a 401(k) and contribute regularly are in much better shape, regardless of whether you are a man or a woman.

MONEY Kids and Money

The Risky Money Assumption Millennials Should Stop Making Now

man walking tightrope
Kazunori Nagashima—Getty Images

Nearly half of millennials believe family will ride to the rescue if they don't save enough to retire. Here's a better plan.

As if we needed more evidence that millennials have been slow to launch, new research shows that a heart-stopping 43% are counting on financial assistance from loved ones if things go poorly with their retirement savings.

It’s not clear exactly who these loved ones may be—their boomer parents, or perhaps successful friends or even their own children. But counting on others for retirement security is almost always a mistake. No other generation has anywhere near this level of expectation for family aid, according to a Merrill Edge survey of Americans with investable assets of $50,000 to $250,000. Just 9% of those outside the millennial generation are counting on a friends-and-family backstop, the survey found.

Boomers are famously under-saved; many will struggle themselves to keep from becoming a financial burden to others. Yet their millennial offspring, accustomed to unprecedented support from Mom and Dad that spawned a new life phase called emerging adulthood, continue to believe they have a rock-solid back-up strategy. In a MONEY poll this spring, 64% of millennials said before marrying it is important to discuss any potential inheritance with a mate. Only 47% of boomers agree.

Certainly, some millennials will inherit financial security. Wall Street estimates about $30 trillion will flow in their direction the next few decades. But the average millennial will receive almost 10 times less than they expect—and many won’t receive a thing, and So the best retirement backstop is one they build for themselves.

Fortunately, the current crop of retirees has left a blueprint, according to the Merrill Edge report. Both retirees and pre-retirees overwhelmingly describe the ideal retirement as one that is stress free and financially stable. Yet 66% of Americans expect to be stressed about money in retirement because of the way they have saved during their working years. Those who are already retired express less concern; nearly three quarters believe they will have enough money to last through retirement. Only 57% of folks still working feel that way.

Retirees say that contributing to a retirement account (63%) and paying down debt (68%) while working were among the most important parts of their life strategy. Working Americans today are engaged in these activities at a lower level: 57% contribute to a retirement account and 54% are paying down debt, Merrill Edge found. Meanwhile, 42% of today’s retirees also invested outside their retirement accounts, vs. just 24% of workers today.

Another source of stress: Workers today have less confidence in a government solution, probably reflecting their more pessimistic view of Social Security. Only 28% of workers are counting on help from the government when they retire, vs. 41% of retirees who now say they rely on government assistance.

Three quarters of workers say they will rely on their own savings to fill financial gaps in retirement. Yet it is unclear they will have enough to make a big difference. In the survey, about one in three workers say they would be embarrassed if close friends knew the details of their finances. Much of this points to millennials’ overriding belief that Mom and Dad will make it all okay—and that might be the case for some. But to be safe, young workers should start now saving 10% of everything they earn. Four decades of compound growth is the only backstop they’ll ever need.

 

MONEY Social Security

3 Facts About Social Security Almost No One Knows

golden umbrella
Annabelle Breakey—Getty Images

For starters, its benefit formula favors low-income workers.

Tens of millions of Americans receive Social Security, but very few of them truly understand the ins and outs of the program. Indeed, there are many aspects of Social Security that almost no one really knows; yet they can have a huge impact on your financial prospects in retirement. Let’s take a closer look at three key facts that you really ought to know about the Social Security program.

1. Social Security benefits are progressive and favor low-income workers.
Many people mistakenly believe that the amount of taxes they pay directly influences how much they’ll receive in Social Security benefits. They assume that if they made twice as much money during their careers and paid twice as much in Social Security payroll taxes, they’ll get twice the monthly benefit of the lower-earning person.

Social Security doesn’t work that way. Its progressive benefit formula pays a high percentage of your average monthly earnings up to a certain point; but then, as your income grows, lower percentages apply to bring down your overall benefit as a percentage of your career income.

Specifically, as you can see below, the Social Security Administration calculates your primary insurance amount — the figure that determines your monthly checks — by looking at your average monthly earnings. In 2015, for the first $826 in earnings, 90% of that figure goes toward your Social Security. For the next $4,154, however, that percentage drops to 32%, and above $4,980, a 15% percentage applies.


Data: SSA.

The result is that Social Security returns a greater percentage of income to low-income workers than to high-income workers. That’s consistent with the program’s purpose as a safety net, although some believe that the fact that those who pay more taxes don’t get correspondingly bigger benefits isn’t fair.

2. Social Security doesn’t cover everyone.
With Social Security providing benefits for so many people, it’s natural to assume that every American must be covered. But there are eligibility rules for Social Security, and many people don’t meet them, and therefore won’t get retirement benefits.

In particular, in order to get Social Security benefits based on your own work history, you need to have at least 40 credits with the SSA. For 2015, every $1,220 you earn in wages or other earnings gives you a credit, and you can earn a maximum of four credits per year. What that means in practical terms is that most people have to work 10 years to get retirement benefits based on their own work history.

Of course, married people can claim spousal benefits based on their spouse’s work history, and those whose spouses have died can generally get survivors benefits. Again, though, the spouse whose work history is being used to claim benefits has to meet those eligibility rules.

3. The Social Security Trust Fund doesn’t need to worry about rising interest rates.
The Social Security Trust Fund is only allowed to invest in U.S. Treasury bonds, and many people have worried that if interest rates start to rise, bond prices could fall, hurting the Trust Fund financially. But the Trust Fund invests in a special type of bond that’s only available to it, and one of its features is that its price isn’t affected by rate changes. The Trust Fund always has the right to redeem its bonds at full value.

That doesn’t mean that the Trust Fund isn’t affected by interest rates. Low rates have actually hurt the Social Security program, because they’ve reduced the income available to help pay benefits. Offsetting that pressure, though, is the fact that low inflation has kept cost-of-living increases to a minimum, with many foreseeing no change at all to Social Security benefits in 2016. On the whole, Social Security faces some big financial problems, but interest rates are far from the biggest.

Social Security has some complexities that few people understand. By knowing about these three facts, though, you’ll put yourself ahead of the game and have a better chance of getting the full benefits you deserve in retirement.

More From Motley Fool:

TIME Retirement

This Is the Worst City to Retire In

FRANCE-ELDERLY
Philippe Huguen—AFP/Getty Images An elderly couple walks in le Touquet, northern France, on September 8 ,2013

Retirees should look to Arizona instead

If you want to retire well, set out for Arizona. According to a new Bankrate survey out Monday, the Grand Canyon state is home to three of the country’s best cities for retirees, ranked by metrics like cost of living, weather, crime rate, health care, taxes, walkability and the well-being of seniors living in the area.

“It’s just a great place for a low-maintenance, outdoor type of lifestyle,” Chris Kahn, a Bankrate analyst, told USA Today. “Your dollar is going to stretch further in Arizona.”

But where’s the worst place to call it quits? That’s New York City.

The survey’s full results for the best places to retire are as follows:

1. Phoenix metro area, including Mesa and Scottsdale

2. Arlington/Alexandria, Virginia.

3. Prescott, Arizona

4. Tucson, Arizona

5. Des Moines, Iowa

6. Denver, Colorado

7. Austin, Texas

8. Cape Coral, Florida

9. Colorado Springs, Colorado

10. Franklin, Tennessee

Meanwhile, the worst cities for retirees include the Big Apple; Little Rock, Ark.; New Haven, Conn.; and Buffalo, N.Y.

MONEY

6 Questions to Ask Before Switching to Medicare

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Knowing the answers will help you avoid costly mistakes and coverage gaps.

The hand-off from employer health insurance to Medicare can be one of the trickiest challenges you will face in managing your retirement.

The rules are full of pitfalls that can cost you thousands of dollars in unnecessary premiums or lead to a risky gap in coverage.

Here are the six most frequent questions I get about the work-to-Medicare transition:

1. Is the Medicare enrollment process automatic?

A: Only if you have already claimed Social Security benefits by the time you turn 65, which is the Medicare eligibility age.

If not, Medicare requires you to sign up in a seven-month window before and after your 65th birthday, unless you have employer coverage or through your spouse.

Failing to sign up when required is costly. Monthly Part B premiums, which cover doctor visits and medical supplies, jump 10 percent – lifetime – for each full 12-month period that you should have been enrolled. Penalties also are applied for late enrollment in Part D (prescription drugs).

If you retire after 65, you can take advantage of an eight-month special enrollment period that begins the month after employment ends.

2. Should I enroll in Medicare even if I am offered COBRA health insurance when I leave my job?

A: Yes. Although you might need COBRA to cover a spouse or dependent child, Medicare must be your primary insurance coverage once you are over age 65.

“People often miss that memo and find out about the consequences in a nasty way,” says Katy Votava, president of Goodcare.com, which advises consumers on health plan selection.

Besides leading to penalties, missing the special enrollment window could mean going with nothing but COBRA, which provides limited coverage to retirees, until the next enrollment period, which could be a year away.

3. What if I am still working when I turn 65?

A: If your employer has fewer than 20 insurance-eligible workers, Medicare will be your primary coverage, so go ahead and enroll.

You can stick with your employer’s coverage and forestall Medicare enrollment if your employer has 20 or more insurance-eligible workers. The insurance must be similar to Medicare benefits as measured by a set of standards set by the program.

You also could enroll in Medicare, which would provide secondary coverage to fill gaps in your employer’s plan.

One caveat: Do not enroll if you contribute to a Health Savings Account linked to a high-deductible employer plan. You are prohibited from making further contributions to the HSA once enrolled in Medicare.

4. What if I want to execute a file-and-suspend strategy for Social Security? Could I contribute to an HSA in that situation?

A: No. Claiming Social Security benefits automatically triggers enrollment in Medicare Part A, which covers hospital and nursing home stays. That would still be true if you file and suspend your benefits while still working and participating in a high-deductible employer health insurance plan.

5. Do I sign up for Medicare when I retire if my former employer provides a retiree health benefit?

A: Even if your former employer offers a retiree health benefit, it is important to sign up for Medicare at age 65 to avoid penalties and coverage gaps. Employer-provided benefits usually provide a secondary layer of coverage – often covering co-pays or providing a drug benefit.

The key to coordinating the two insurance plans: “Understand who pays first,” says Votava.

But Votava says retirees should compare the cost of retiree coverage with what is available on the open Medicare market. “I often see people holding on to retiree coverage when it’s not the best value for them.”

This is especially true for with supplemental plans that cap out-of-pocket costs, either Medigap or Medicare Advantage. “I’ve had clients find much less expensive Medigap or Medicare Advantage policies with equal or better coverage,” Votava says.

6. What if I retire, enroll in Medicare and then go back into a full-time job?

A: If your new employer provides health insurance, you can drop Medicare and re-enroll when you finally retire without paying late enrollment penalties.

Call the Social Security Administration (1-800-772-1213), which will send a form to sign that creates a record of what you are doing. The paper trail is important because it helps you avoid late enrollment penalties when you return to Medicare.

MONEY mortgages

When a Reverse Mortgage Is Too Big a Risk

Q: Can I take out a reverse mortgage and invest that money in an account that would pay a decent rate of return? My home is paid off and the equity is just sitting there drawing no return. If repay the loan in 10 or 20 years with the money I invested, would I come out ahead? – Stan Larrison

A: In theory it sounds good, but to get the kind of return you’d need to make it worth doing, you’d have to take on a fair amount of risk. “You don’t want to gamble with your home equity,” says Tom Mingone, founder and managing partner of Capital Management Group of New York.

First, a little background on how reverse mortgages work. A reverse mortgage is a loan that allows you to convert your home equity into cash. Based on the amount you borrow, you’ll get a payment every month. You can also take the money as a lump sum or an equity line of credit. The proceeds of the loan are tax-free.

You have to be at least 62 and own the home as your primary residence. How much you’ll get depends on your age, home equity, and current loan rates. The amount you can borrow is capped, typically less than 60% of your home equity. For example, if you are 70, your spouse is 68, and you own a $255,000 house with no mortgage, you could get a $139,000 loan in the New York area, Mingone says. You can use a calculator to figure out how much you would qualify for where you live.

You don’t have to repay the loan as long as you live in the house. Once you do leave it, say when you pass away or move out to assisted living, the house gets sold and the proceeds go toward paying off the loan, as well as any interest or fees that have accrued. Keep in mind that the longer you have the loan, the more you will owe. And depending on the type of loan, the rates may be variable.

If the house sells for more than the loan balance, you or your heirs get the difference. If the house sells for less, you aren’t on the hook; the bank just takes a loss.

Now here’s why it would be hard to come out ahead by investing money from a reverse mortgage. First, reverse mortgages are costly loans to pay back compared with traditional loans. Reverse mortgage rates are currently about 5%, versus about 4% for a typical 30-year fixed rate loan. Closing costs are typically higher too.

You also need to factor in taxes. “If the money is invested in anything that has capital gains or interest income, you’ll owe taxes on that,” says Mingone. So you’ll need to aim for a 7% to 8% return to cover taxes and interest. To find an investment that would give you that kind of return, you’d have to take on more risk.

Still, there are some situations where a reverse mortgage makes sense, especially for retirees who are cash-poor and house rich, Mingone says.

If money is tight, the payments from a reverse mortgage can give you a new stream of income. If you have a mortgage on your current home and it’s hurting your cash flow, you can pay off your conventional loan with a reverse mortgage and eliminate that expense.

It could also be used to pay off high rate credit card debt, fund major home repairs, or cover big medical bills. Check out the AARP Reverse Mortgage Education Project for more information that can help you decide if a reverse mortgage is right for you. If you do go ahead, the federal government requires you to meet with a counselor before taking out the loan. You can find a counselor at the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s web site.

“There are definitely times when using a reverse mortgage is a smart move, but investing the money isn’t one of them,” says Mingone.

MONEY financial advice

Nobel Prize-Winning Economist Shares His Best Financial Advice

Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller talks about the upside of financial advisers and the downside of compound interest.

Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller tells investors to get a financial planner. He advises people to speak frankly and honestly with an adviser about their financial situation. Financial advisers are not always right, but Shiller says there is a lot to be gained by speaking to an adviser or fiduciary. He also warns that compound interest may not compound as much as you hope it will.

TIME Retirement

The Retirement Risk We All Share

one-dollar-bill-bundles
Getty Images

Our retirement system is as hard to understand, opaque, and predatory as ever

As wealth begins to get transferred from baby boomers to the millennial generation—the largest single generation in history and within five years fully half of our nation’s workforce—many social contracts that were enjoyed by the parents and grandparents will not be relied upon, or available, for their children. Two financial bubbles have burst: American cities have gone bankrupt, and the notion of guaranteed pensions has come to seem like a relic from a more innocent time in the world where society paid back its firefighters, teachers, and hard-working middle class for keeping us safe, educating our children, and ensuring the engine of our economy keeps running. So pronounced is this breakdown between our country, our corporations, and our workers that entire political campaigns are won and lost over middle class workers and the pensions they receive in retirement.

Corporations don’t want any part of guaranteed pensions. It’s too expensive, their shareholders don’t like it, and it crimps profits. Neither do governments—politicians are laser focused on the next election cycle and would rather divert taxpayer dollars toward shiny new concepts that will get them re-elected over boring old public pension funds. Today, only 1 in 5 workers in corporate America still has access to a guaranteed pension. Half of American workers have no access to any workplace retirement plan whatsoever. That’s right: in the future, we are going to own all of this risk. We’d better learn to make good decisions for ourselves.

Unfortunately, the 401(k) system is as hard to understand, opaque, and predatory as ever. Two thirds of Americans do not know that they pay fees on their 401K plans, and 90% of people could not accurately tell you what these fees are. Why? Because they never actually write a check to anyone—the fees are automatically deducted from their accounts. I challenge you to go log in to your employer’s 401(k) plan now, and figure out within 5 minutes, or 5 hours, or 5 days the total amount of fees you pay per year. You won’t find it. And it is a huge amount of money. Lifetime fees for the average American household are greater than $150,000 and can erode a third of total savings. Broadly speaking, total mutual fund fees could be the least-known and least-understood $600 billion that come out of Americans pockets every year.

We need to make this far simpler for people. It should be law that you can only give people advice on their 401(k) or IRA, or futures for that matter, if you owe them a legal fiduciary duty to only act in their best interest. Fees should be disclosed in terms that people can understand. Nobody understands what “basis points” or “expense ratios” are. This is purposeful. How about: “this will cost you $5 per year?” That shouldn’t be too hard, right?

Finally, hundreds of investment choices are often used as an illusion to give unsuspecting people the sense that they, too, can beat the market if they just choose right. By now, we know that beating the market is impossible and we should steer people toward the things we can control—diversification, low costs, and good savings behavior over long periods of time, and through many market cycles. Watching CNBC is a waste of time. Index funds are the way to go (although some 401(k) plans still don’t offer them).

The Obama administration and Department of Labor have been trying for years to institute protections for investors against high fees and high-risk products. But the lobbying against these protections has been vicious—billions of dollars of profits do not just go quietly into the night.

So how about a simple and effective do-it-yourself solution in the meantime? The next time someone is offering you serious advice about your retirement or the stock market, print this out and ask them to sign this statement:

“I ________, as your advisor, will act as a fiduciary and only give you advice that is in your best interest.”

If your advisor will not sign this statement—for your own good—run as fast as you can in the other direction and find one of the many advisors that will. It could save you tens of thousands of dollars and years in retirement.

In a world where we are left to fend for ourselves in retirement, the stakes are too high not to at least make sure that someone is legally obligated to tell you the right thing to do. Your 65-year-old self will thank you for it some day.

Greg Smith is president of blooom, an online service that evaluates, simplifies, and manages 401(k) accounts for individuals, and the best-selling author of Why I Left Goldman Sachs: A Wall Street Story.

MONEY Social Security

Your 2016 Social Security Increase Will Probably Disappear

cloud of smoke
Jeremy Hudson—Getty Images

Inflation rates are still too low.

Social Security supports millions of Americans in their retirement, and many of them depend on the program for the vast majority of their overall income. Yet even though retirees have had to make do with minimal cost-of-living increases in their benefits in recent years, early signs suggest the Social Security increase for 2016 could be smaller still — or even disappear entirely.

What goes into calculating your Social Security increase for 2016
Like many of the numbers the government works with, the Social Security Administration indexes benefits to the rate of inflation. New payment rates take effect every January for retirees and other Social Security recipients.

You don’t have to wait that long, however, to determine the number. Specifically, the SSA takes an average from the Consumer Price Index for July, August, and September. It then compares that average to the number from the previous year. The resulting percentage increase corresponds to the amount by which Social Security benefits are adjusted upward to reflect rising costs of living.

Obviously, inflation figures for the summer months are still a long way away. But if you look at April’s CPI figures, you’ll notice the index’s current level is well over a full percentage point below the three-month average from 2014. This means that even if inflation rises at a more typical rate between now and September, it’s unlikely to rise enough to catch up with the drop in the index over the past six months. As a result, the cost of living adjustment could evaporate, leaving Social Security recipients getting exactly the same amount in 2016 that they received this year.

A history of low COLAs
Unfortunately, retirees have had to struggle with small cost of living adjustments for several years. The rise for 2015 was 1.7%, following an increase of 1.5% in 2014 and 1.7% in 2013. Only in 2012 did Social Security recipients collect what seemed like a sizable bump in their monthly checks, a cost of living adjustment amounting to 3.6%.

Even if Social Security recipients don’t get any increase in 2016, it wouldn’t be an unprecedented event for the program. In both 2010 and 2011, the SSA made no changes to overall benefit payments, as dramatic declines in prices kept the inflation rate negative during both years.

Indeed, some retirees’ monthly checks might decline in 2016 if prices keep up this behavior. Many Social Security recipients have Medicare premiums taken out of their monthly payments, and if those premiums rise, it could result in smaller net amounts being paid to retirees. Many retirees faced this situation in 2010 and 2011.

Be ready for no Social Security increase in 2016
The only silver lining in a year in which Social Security doesn’t pay a COLA is that low inflation should — at least theoretically — be good for retirees. If price levels stay constant, then your money will keep going as far as it did in past years. That can make it easier to make ends meet on a fixed budget.

Many retirees, though, are convinced that the inflation figures on which Social Security cost of living adjustments are based don’t reflect their actual expenses. With a different set of priorities than typical American adults, retirees can experience personal inflation rates far in excess of what government figures state.

Nevertheless, without full-blown Social Security reform, recipients are likely to endure an even more painful year of flat benefits than they have faced in recent years. Unless trends such as cheaper gas prices reverse themselves quickly, retirees will have to get used to the idea that their monthly Social Security benefits aren’t likely to rise until 2017 at the earliest.

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