MONEY

How to Max Out Social Security Spousal Benefits

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: My spouse and I are both 61½, retired in mid-2013, and have earned almost equal income for over 40 years. We can afford to wait to claim — but for how long, I don’t know. We would, of course, like to travel and have enough money to enjoy life while we are still “young,” since you never know what the future brings. That’s the gamble, isn’t it? I did call the Social Security Administration several months ago and a very nice woman gave me this advice: We should both file and suspend at 66, collect each other’s spousal benefits, and then collect our full amount at 70. Then when one of us dies, the other one will still have a maximum payment. Do you agree with that? Patti

A: I don’t agree with that advice, Patti. Let me explain why.

Social Security benefits are 76% higher if delayed to age 70 than if begun at age 62, but delaying benefits can seem like a gamble. As you noted, one never knows what surprises life will bring, or when, so many opt to take the money while they can best enjoy it.

But there’s a reason Social Security is called Old-Age, Survivors, and Disablity Insurance. And among all the changes in the years since Social Security was created in 1935, none has been more important for retirements than the tremendous longevity gains that people have experienced. Old age lasts much longer than it used to, and so should your money.

Many people look at the decision about when to claim benefits as a break-even analysis. How long must I survive to make waiting for higher benefits a winning proposition? We are wired to look at money this way. But if you can, think instead about Social Security as insurance for a very long life. Deferring benefits until they are at their greatest possible level makes a lot of sense when viewed this way.

As for Patti, the woman she spoke with at Social Security may have been very nice, but she did not provide very nice advice. It is possible for one spouse to collect spousal benefits while their own retirement benefit is deferred and rises in value. But two spouses cannot both do this.

The classic approach is for both Patti and her husband to wait to claim until they have both reached 66, which is their full retirement age under Social Security rules. At this time, the one with the larger retirement benefit would file and suspend his or her own retirement benefit, enabling the other spouse to file a claim for spousal benefits and receive half of the first spouse’s benefit. Then, at age 70, both would switch to their own retirement benefit.

This approach, as Patti noted, will not bring in any Social Security benefits for several years. If Patti and her husband need some retirement money sooner, an alternative approach is for one of them to file for retirement benefits now. The other spouse would do nothing.

Then, at age 66, the spouse who had filed at 62 would suspend benefits, allowing them to grow by 8% a year until age 70. The spouse who had done nothing could then claim a spousal benefit at age 66 and, at age 70, switch over to his or her own retirement benefit.

There are numerous other versions of this “start-stop-start” strategy that can optimize claiming choices for spouses between the ages of 62 and 70. This Maximize My Social Security software can run all the various scenarios for your situation and recommend the best option. (The company that makes it is run by Larry Kotlikoff, co-author of my book, but I don’t stand to benefit by recommending it.) The service costs $40 a year; given the stakes, I believe the price is well worth it.

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

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

Read next: How Your Earnings Record Affects Your Social Security

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TIME advice

10 Life Lessons to Excel in Your 30s

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Be good to the people you care about

A couple weeks ago I turned 30. Leading up to my birthday I wrote a post on what I learned in my 20s.

But I did something else. I sent an email out to my subscribers (subscribe here) and asked readers age 37 and older what advice they would give their 30-year-old selves. The idea was that I would crowdsource the life experience from my older readership and create another article based on their collective wisdom.

The result was spectacular. I received over 600 responses, many of which were over a page in length. It took me a solid three days to read through them all and I was floored by the quality of insight people sent.

So first of all, a hearty thank you to all who contributed and helped create this article.

While going through the emails what surprised me the most was just how consistent some of the advice was. The same 5-6 pieces of advice came up over and over and over again in different forms across literally 100s of emails. It seems that there really are a few core pieces of advice that are particularly relevant to this decade of your life.

Below are 10 of the most common themes appearing throughout all of the 600 emails. The majority of the article is comprised of dozens of quotes taken from readers. Some are left anonymous. Others have their age listed.

1. START SAVING FOR RETIREMENT NOW, NOT LATER

“I spent my 20s recklessly, but your 30s should be when you make a big financial push. Retirement planning is not something to put off. Understanding boring things like insurance, 401ks & mortgages is important since its all on your shoulders now. Educate yourself.” (Kash, 41)

The most common piece of advice — so common that almost every single email said at least something about it — was to start getting your financial house in order and to start saving for retirement… today.

There were a few categories this advice fell into:

  • Make it your top priority to pay down all of your debt as soon as possible.
  • Keep an “emergency fund” — there were tons of horror stories about people getting financially ruined by health issues, lawsuits, divorces, bad business deals, etc.
  • Stash away a portion of every paycheck, preferably into a 401k, an IRA or at the least, a savings account.
  • Don’t spend frivolously. Don’t buy a home unless you can afford to get a good mortgage with good rates.
  • Don’t invest in anything you don’t understand. Don’t trust stockbrokers.

One reader said, “If you are in debt more than 10% of your gross annual salary this is a huge red flag. Quit spending, pay off your debt and start saving.” Another wrote, “I would have saved more money in an emergency fund because unexpected expenses really killed my budget. I would have been more diligent about a retirement fund, because now mine looks pretty small.”

And then there were the readers who were just completely screwed by their inability to save in their 30s. One reader named Jodi wishes she had started saving 10% of every paycheck when she was 30. Her career took a turn for the worst and now she’s stuck at 57, still living paycheck to paycheck. Another woman, age 62, didn’t save because her husband out-earned her. They later got divorced and she soon ran into health problems, draining all of the money she received in the divorce settlement. She, too, now lives paycheck to paycheck, slowly waiting for the day social security kicks in. Another man related a story of having to be supported by his son because he didn’t save and unexpectedly lost his job in the 2008 crash.

The point was clear: save early and save as much as possible. One woman emailed me saying that she had worked low-wage jobs with two kids in her 30s and still managed to sock away some money in a retirement fund each year. Because she started early and invested wisely, she is now in her 50s and financially stable for the first time in her life. Her point: it’s always possible. You just have to do it.

2. START TAKING CARE OF YOUR HEALTH NOW, NOT LATER

“Your mind’s acceptance of age is 10 to 15 years behind your body’s aging. Your health will go faster than you think but it will be very hard to notice, not the least because you don’t want it to happen.” (Tom, 55)

We all know to take care of our health. We all know to eat better and sleep better and exercise more and blah, blah, blah. But just as with the retirement savings, the response from the older readers was loud and unanimous: get healthy and stay healthy now.

So many people said it that I’m not even going to bother quoting anybody else. Their points were pretty much all the same: the way you treat your body has a cumulative effect; it’s not that your body suddenly breaks down one year, it’s been breaking down all along without you noticing. This is the decade to slow down that breakage.

And this wasn’t just your typical motherly advice to eat your veggies. These were emails from cancer survivors, heart attack survivors, stroke survivors, people with diabetes and blood pressure problems, joint issues and chronic pain. They all said the same thing: “If I could go back, I would start eating better and exercising and I would not stop. I made excuses then. But I had no idea.”

3. DON’T SPEND TIME WITH PEOPLE WHO DON’T TREAT YOU WELL

“Learn how to say “no” to people, activities and obligations that don’t bring value to your life.” (Hayley, 37)

After calls to take care of your health and your finances, the most common piece of advice from people looking back at their 30-year-old selves was an interesting one: they would go back and enforce stronger boundaries in their lives and dedicate their time to better people. “Setting healthy boundaries is one of the most loving things you can do for yourself or another person.” (Kristen, 43)

What does that mean specifically?

“Don’t tolerate people who don’t treat you well. Period. Don’t tolerate them for financial reasons. Don’t tolerate them for emotional reasons. Don’t tolerate them for the children’s sake or for convenience sake.” (Jane, 52)

“Don’t settle for mediocre friends, jobs, love, relationships and life.” (Sean, 43)

“Stay away from miserable people… they will consume you, drain you.” (Gabriella, 43)

“Surround yourself and only date people that make you a better version of yourself, that bring out your best parts, love and accept you.” (Xochie)

People typically struggle with boundaries because they find it difficult to hurt someone else’s feelings, or they get caught up in the desire to change the other person or make them treat them the way they want to be treated. This never works. And in fact, it often makes it worse. As one reader wisely said, “Selfishness and self-interest are two different things. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.”

When we’re in our 20s, the world is so open to opportunity and we’re so short on experience that we cling to the people we meet, even if they’ve done nothing to earn our clingage. But by our 30s we’ve learned that good relationships are hard to come by, that there’s no shortage of people to meet and friends to be made, and that there’s no reason to waste our time with people who don’t help us on our life’s path.

4. BE GOOD TO THE PEOPLE YOU CARE ABOUT

“Show up with and for your friends. You matter, and your presence matters.” (Jessica, 40)

Conversely, while enforcing stricter boundaries on who we let into our lives, many readers advised to make the time for those friends and family that we do decide to keep close.

“I think sometimes I may have taken some relationships for granted, and when that person is gone, they’re gone. Unfortunately, the older you get, well, things start to happen, and it will affect those closest to you.” (Ed, 45)

“Appreciate those close to you. You can get money back and jobs back, but you can never get time back.” (Anne, 41)

“Tragedy happens in everyone’s life, everyone’s circle of family and friends. Be the person that others can count on when it does. I think that between 30 and 40 is the decade when a lot of shit finally starts to happen that you might have thought never would happen to you or those you love. Parents die, spouses die, babies are still-born, friends get divorced, spouses cheat… the list goes on and on. Helping someone through these times by simply being there, listening and not judging is an honor and will deepen your relationships in ways you probably can’t yet imagine.” (Rebecca, 40)

5. YOU CAN’T HAVE EVERYTHING; FOCUS ON DOING A FEW THINGS REALLY WELL

“Everything in life is a trade-off. You give up one thing to get another and you can’t have it all. Accept that.” (Eldri, 60)

In our 20s we have a lot of dreams. We believe that we have all of the time in the world. I myself remember having illusions that my website would be my first career of many. Little did I know that it took the better part of a decade to even get competent at this. And now that I’m competent and have a major advantage and love what I do, why would I ever trade that in for another career?

“In a word: focus. You can simply get more done in life if you focus on one thing and do it really well. Focus more.” (Ericson, 49)

Another reader: “I would tell myself to focus on one or two goals/aspirations/dreams and really work towards them. Don’t get distracted.” And another: “You have to accept that you cannot do everything. It takes a lot of sacrifice to achieve anything special in life.”

A few readers noted that most people arbitrarily choose their careers in their late teens or early 20s, and as with many of our choices at those ages, they are often wrong choices. It takes years to figure out what we’re good at and what we enjoy doing. But it’s better to focus on our primary strengths and maximize them over the course of lifetime than to half-ass something else.

“I’d tell my 30 year old self to set aside what other people think and identify my natural strengths and what I’m passionate about, and then build a life around those.” (Sara, 58)

For some people, this will mean taking big risks, even in their 30s and beyond. It may mean ditching a career they spent a decade building and giving up money they worked hard for and became accustomed to. Which brings us to…

6. DON’T BE AFRAID OF TAKING RISKS, YOU CAN STILL CHANGE

“While by age 30 most feel they should have their career dialed in, it is never too late to reset. The individuals that I have seen with the biggest regrets during this decade are those that stay in something that they know is not right. It is such an easy decade to have the days turn to weeks to years, only to wake up at 40 with a mid-life crisis for not taking action on a problem they were aware of 10 years prior but failed to act.” (Richard, 41)

“Biggest regrets I have are almost exclusively things I did *not* do.” (Sam, 47)

Many readers commented on how society tells us that by 30 we should have things “figured out” — our career situation, our dating/marriage situation, our financial situation and so on. But this isn’t true. And, in fact, dozens and dozens of readers implored to not let these social expectations of “being an adult” deter you from taking some major risks and starting over. As someone on my Facebook page responded: “All adults are winging it.”

“I am about to turn 41 and would tell my 30 year old self that you do not have to conform your life to an ideal that you do not believe in. Live your life, don’t let it live you. Don’t be afraid of tearing it all down if you have to, you have the power to build it all back up again.” (Lisa, 41)

Multiple readers related making major career changes in their 30s and being better off for doing so. One left a lucrative job as a military engineer to become a teacher. Twenty years later, he called it one of the best decisions of his life. When I asked my mom this question, her answer was, “I wish I had been willing to think outside the box a bit more. Your dad and I kind of figured we had to do thing A, thing B, thing C, but looking back I realize we didn’t have to at all; we were very narrow in our thinking and our lifestyles and I kind of regret that.”

“Less fear. Less fear. Less fear. I am about to turn 50 next year, and I am just getting that lesson. Fear was such a detrimental driving force in my life at 30. It impacted my marriage, my career, my self-image in a fiercely negative manner. I was guilty of: Assuming conversations that others might be having about me. Thinking that I mightfail. Wondering what the outcome might be. If I could do it again, I would have risked more.” (Aida, 49)

7. YOU MUST CONTINUE TO GROW AND DEVELOP YOURSELF

“You have two assets that you can never get back once you’ve lost them: your body and your mind. Most people stop growing and working on themselves in their 20s. Most people in their 30s are too busy to worry about self-improvement. But if you’re one of the few who continues to educate themselves, evolve their thinking and take care of their mental and physical health, you will be light-years ahead of the pack by 40.” (Stan, 48)

It follows that if one can still change in their 30s — and should continue to change in their 30s — then one must continue to work to improve and grow. Many readers related the choice of going back to school and getting their degrees in their 30s as one of the most useful things they had ever done. Others talked of taking extra seminars and courses to get a leg up. Others started their first businesses or moved to new countries. Others checked themselves into therapy or began a meditation practice.

As Warren Buffett once said, the greatest investment a young person can make is in their own education, in their own mind. Because money comes and goes. Relationships come and go. But what you learn once stays with you forever.

“The number one goal should be to try to become a better person, partner, parent, friend, colleague etc. — in other words to grow as an individual.” (Aimilia, 39)

8. NOBODY (STILL) KNOWS WHAT THEY’RE DOING, GET USED TO IT

“Unless you are already dead — mentally, emotionally, and socially — you cannot anticipate your life 5 years into the future. It will not develop as you expect. So just stop it. Stop assuming you can plan far ahead, stop obsessing about what is happening right now because it will change anyway, and get over the control issue about your life’s direction. Fortunately, because this is true, you can take even more chances and not lose anything; you cannot lose what you never had. Besides, most feelings of loss are in your mind anyway – few matter in the long term.”(Thomas, 56)

In my article about what I learned in my 20s, one of my lessons was “Nobody Knows What They’re Doing,” and that this was good news. Well, according to the 40+ crowd, this continues to be true in one’s 30s and, well, forever it seems; and it continues to be good news forever as well.

“Most of what you think is important now will seem unimportant in 10 or 20 years and that’s OK. That’s called growth. Just try to remember to not take yourself so seriously all the time and be open to it.” (Simon, 57)

“Despite feeling somewhat invincible for the last decade, you really don’t know what’s going to happen and neither does anyone else, no matter how confidently they talk. While this is disturbing to those who cling to permanence or security, it’s truly liberating once you grasp the truth that things are always changing. To finish, there might be times that are really sad. Don’t dull the pain or avoid it. Sorrow is part of everyone’s lifetime and the consequence of an open and passionate heart. Honor that. Above all, be kind to yourself and others, it’s such a brilliant and beautiful ride and keeps on getting better.” (Prue, 38)

“I’m 44. I would remind my 30 year old self that at 40, my 30s would be equally filled with dumb stuff, different stuff, but still dumb stuff… So, 30 year old self, don’t go getting on your high horse. You STILL don’t know it all. And that’s a good thing.” (Shirley, 44)

9. INVEST IN YOUR FAMILY; IT’S WORTH IT

“Spend more time with your folks. It’s a different relationship when you’re an adult and it’s up to you how you redefine your interactions. They are always going to see you as their kid until the moment you can make them see you as your own man. Everyone gets old. Everyone dies. Take advantage of the time you have left to set things right and enjoy your family.” (Kash, 41)

I was overwhelmed with amount of responses about family and the power of those responses. Family is the big new relevant topic for this decade for me, because you get it on both ends. Your parents are old and you need to start considering how your relationship with them is going to function as a self-sufficient adult. And then you also need to contemplate creating a family of your own.

Pretty much everybody agreed to get over whatever problems you have with your parents and find a way to make it work with them. One reader wrote, “You’re too old to blame your parents for any of your own short-comings now. At 20 you could get away with it, you’d just left the house. At 30, you’re a grown-up. Seriously. Move on.”

But then there’s the question that plagues every single 30-year-old: to baby or not to baby?

“You don’t have the time. You don’t have the money. You need to perfect your career first. They’ll end your life as you know it. Oh shut up… Kids are great. They make you better in every way. They push you to your limits. They make you happy. You should not defer having kids. If you are 30, now is the time to get real about this. You will never regret it.” (Kevin, 38)

“It’s never the ‘right time’ for children because you have no idea what you’re getting into until you have one. If you have a good marriage and environment to raise them, err on having them earlier rather than later, you’ll get to enjoy more of them.” (Cindy, 45)

“All my preconceived notions about what a married life is like were wrong. Unless you’ve already been married, everyone’s are. Especially once you have kids. Try to stay open to the experience and fluid as a person; your marriage is worth it, and your happiness seems as much tied to your ability to change and adapt as anything else. I wasn’t planning on having kids. From a purely selfish perspective, this was the dumbest thing of all. Children are the most fulfilling, challenging, and exhausting endeavor anyone can ever undertake. Ever.” (Rich, 44)

The consensus about marriage seemed to be that it was worth it, assuming you had a healthy relationship with the right person. If not, you should run the other way (See #3).

But interestingly, I got a number of emails like the following:

“What I know now vs 10-13 years ago is simply this… bars, woman, beaches, drink after drink, clubs, bottle service, trips to different cities because I had no responsibility other than work, etc… I would trade every memory of that life for a good woman that was actually in love with me… and maybe a family. I would add, don’t forget to actually grow up and start a family and take on responsibilities other than success at work. I am still having a little bit of fun… but sometimes when I go out, I feel like the guy that kept coming back to high school after he graduated (think Matthew McConaughey’s character in Dazed and Confused). I see people in love and on dates everywhere. “Everyone” my age is in their first or second marriage by now! Being perpetually single sounds amazing to all of my married friends but it is not the way one should choose to live their life.” (Anonymous, 43)

“I would have told myself to stop constantly searching for the next best thing and I would have appreciated the relationships that I had with some of the good, genuine guys that truly cared for me. Now I’m always alone and it feels too late.” (Fara, 38)

On the flip side, there were a small handful of emails that took the other side of the coin:

“Don’t feel pressured to get married or have kids if you don’t want to. What makes one person happy doesn’t make everyone happy. I’ve chosen to stay single and childless and I still live a happy and fulfilled life. Do what feels right for you.” (Anonymous, 40)

Conclusion: It seems that while family is not absolutely necessary to have a happy and fulfilling life, the majority of people have found that family is always worth the investment, assuming the relationships are healthy and not toxic and/or abusive.

10. BE KIND TO YOURSELF, RESPECT YOURSELF

“Be a little selfish and do something for yourself every day, something different once a month and something spectacular every year.” (Nancy, 60)

This one was rarely the central focus of any email, but it was present in some capacity in almost all of them: treat yourself better. Almost everybody said this in one form or another. “There is no one who cares about or thinks about your life a fraction of what you do,” one reader began, and, “life is hard, so learn to love yourself now, it’s harder to learn later,” another reader finished.

Or as Renee, 40, succinctly put it: “Be kind to yourself.”

Many readers included the old cliche: “Don’t sweat the small stuff; and it’s almost all small stuff.” Eldri, 60, wisely said, “When confronted with a perceived problem, ask yourself, ‘Is this going to matter in five years, ten years?’ If not, dwell on it for a few minutes, then let it go.” It seems many readers have focused on the subtle life lesson of simply accepting life as is, warts and all.

Which brings me to the last quote from Martin, age 58:

“When I turned forty my father told me that I’d enjoy my forties because in your twenties you think you know what’s going on, in your thirties you realize you probably don’t, and in your forties you can relax and just accept things. I’m 58 and he was right.”

Thank you to everyone who contributed.

Mark Manson is an author, blogger and entrepreneur. This post originally appeared on MarkManson.net.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Cash in on a Piece of History

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: My mother has a postal savings bond dated 1939. The bond was only $1 dollar. It has my father’s name on it, but he has been deceased for over 40 years. What can my mother do to cash it? How much is it worth? — Kathy

A: Your mother owns an interesting piece of history.

Congress established the Postal Savings System in 1911 to encourage immigrants, who were accustomed to saving via post offices in their homelands, to stash their cash somewhere other than in their mattresses.

Based on your description of the document, it sounds like you have a certificate of deposit. Although the Postal Savings program was in place until 1966, the government stopped issuing Postal Savings Bonds in 1935.

If you want to look into redeeming it, your best bet at this point is to make a copy of the document — hold onto the original — and send it to the Bureau of the Fiscal Service for closer examination.

Assuming it can be redeemed, your mother can do so by submitting a copy of your father’s death certificate or other supporting estate documents.

Keep in mind that with many of these bonds “the historical value is often greater than what they would get if they sent this to us,” says Mckayla Braden, a senior advisor Bureau of the Fiscal Service. “A lot of these instruments stopped paying interest by the 1940s.”

To find out if the document itself is worth something, send a copy of it to someone who specializes in historic certificates or to see how similar documents are valued at collector sites, such as Scripophily.com.

In the end, you may be better off simply holding onto the certificate, as its biggest value may be sentimental. “Sometimes it’s fun to just frame it and put in on your wall,” Braden says.

In the meantime, if you come across other savings bonds, Treasury Direct is a good resource for determining what the bond may be worth and redeeming it. You can use the site’s calculator to look up the value of Series EE, E, and I bonds, as well as Savings Notes.

While you’re at it, check out the Treasury Hunt feature to see if you, or your parents, have any unclaimed savings bonds ready to be redeemed.

MONEY 401(k)s

Here’s a Good Reason Not to Fund Your 401(k)

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Don't get too caught up in the amount of money you're saving for retirement. Focus instead on the income you'll have.

We save for retirement so we can create income for ourselves when we stop receiving a paycheck. And as a financial planner, I am supposed to determine how much money clients need to sock away in order for them to generate enough income to sustain their lifestyle in retirement.

But if the income itself is the most important thing — not the amount of money you amass to create that income — why don’t we ever focus on building lifelong income streams outside of our investment portfolios?

A recent meeting with a client — I’ll call her Mary — sparked an interesting conversation on the subject.

The subject of the meeting was goal planning. We began by outlining SMART goals for the next year, five years, and beyond. Mary had a very specific goal for the next five years: She wanted to leave her current job and become a full-time real estate investor. Although quite interesting, this wasn’t necessarily a unique goal. Many people aspire to do this, yet they get caught up in concerns about retirement — and rightly so.

In order to truly go after this goal, Mary would have to cut back on her retirement savings. “Oh no,” says society. “How can she possibly reduce her 401(k) contributions? She’s in her early 30s and does not have anywhere near enough stowed away. Saving early and often is necessary to ensure that she can retire someday. Plus, tax deferral is too good to pass up!”

I disagree in this specific scenario. Mary happens to know a good deal about real estate. She may not be an expert investor yet, but she is working on it. It’s her dream to create a lifestyle funded by real estate activities, specifically rental income. Additionally, investment real estate can provide some great tax advantages.

However, in order for her to achieve this goal, she has to save for the next down payment on a second investment property (she currently has one such property). From the outside, this goal seems to stand in the way of saving for retirement. To achieve her five-year real estate investment goal at this stage in her life, she can’t fully fund her 401(k). She has to direct most of her savings toward future property purchases.

Let’s shift our point of view for a minute and look at this situation through a different lens. By buying rental properties, she is establishing a sustainable income stream — an alternate form of cash flow from which she can benefit now and in the future. As this rental income grows, her 401(k) and IRA balances become less relevant. The rent checks she receives monthly actually alleviate the burden of amassing a large amount of money for retirement. And she avoids the stress of watching stock market investments ride the economic roller coaster.

This approach is definitely not for most people, but it does raise an interesting question. What other income streams might we be able to establish that could supplement the income from our retirement portfolios? What can we create for ourselves that could take the place of pensions, Social Security, and even our 401(k) plans?

———-

Eric Roberge, CFP, is the founder of Beyond Your Hammock, where he works virtually with professionals in their 20s and 30s, helping them use money as a tool to live a life they love. Through personalized coaching, Eric helps clients organize their finances, set goals, and invest for the future.

Read next: 6 New Ideas That Could Help You Retire Better

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MONEY Savings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on saving and budgeting from Money 101:

How can I make it easier to save?

How do I set a budget I can stick to?

Should I save or pay off debt?

MONEY Roth IRA

Cut Taxes and Get a Bigger IRA With This One Neat Trick

A Roth IRA is a great tool for retirement savings. Here's how to make it even better.

At the beginning of every year, we work with some of our clients to convert their IRAs to Roth IRAs, knowing, even then, that we will undo most of those conversions at the end of the year. The whole process involves a lot of paperwork and tracking of their accounts throughout the year.

So why do we go through all this trouble? It’s a great way to save on taxes.

First, let’s do a quick review. An IRA is typically funded with pre-tax dollars and grows tax-deferred. When the account holder withdraws the money from the account, those withdrawals are fully taxed as regular income. A Roth IRA, on the other hand, is funded with after-tax dollars, and withdrawals are tax-free.

When you convert an IRA to a Roth IRA, you have to pay regular income taxes on the amount you convert. By doing the conversion, thus, you’re effectively paying income taxes now so that your withdrawals later — from the new Roth IRA — will be tax-free.

There’s a twist: You’re allowed to undo the conversion in the same tax year of the conversion without incurring any taxes or penalties. It is this ability to undo the conversion which provides for a great tax planning strategy.

So when and why might you want to do a Roth IRA conversion? And why might you want to undo it?

  • Low Income Taxes: Let’s say you lost your job, and you end up having a year owing little or no income tax. You could convert some amount of your IRA to a Roth IRA without much of a tax hit. Or maybe, because you’re self-employed or work on commission, your income varies widely; in a year with very low income, you could use the conversion to move money to a Roth at very low tax rates. Whatever your situation, you can convert at the beginning of the year, then depending on your earnings over the year, you can decided to keep the conversion or undo.
  • Topping off Your Tax Bracket: Similar to the low income taxes, if you find yourself in a lower-than-expected tax bracket, you may want to keep some of the conversion to fill up that lower tax bracket.
  • Investment Performance: The more your assets increase in value after conversion, the better. Since no one can time the markets, however, the best strategy (again) is to convert at the beginning of the year. Then, as year-end approaches, you can decide if the conversion was worthwhile. Let’s say, for example, that you convert a $10,000 IRA to a Roth in January. If in December the Roth is worth $15,000, you’ll still pay taxes only on the $10,000 you converted — a pretty good deal. If, however, the account is worth only $5,000 by December, you’d still have to pay taxes on that original $10,000 you converted. So if the converted assets lose money, you can just undo the conversion and pay no taxes on it at all.

If you’re taking this wait-and-see approach, you can increase your tax advantages even further — as we do with clients — by converting IRAs into multiple Roth accounts. In this multiple-account strategy, we put different assets into each new Roth. That process lets you select the asset that had the best returns after the conversion and keep it as a Roth, while undoing the conversion of other assets with low or negative returns.

To explain this strategy, let me use the hypothetical example of Sally, a self-employed graphic designer with $40,000 in a traditional IRA. In March 2014, she converts that IRA into a Roth.

For illustrative purposes, let’s suppose that she divides up her new Roth by investing $10,000 apiece in four different index funds, each representing a different asset class:

  • US large-cap stocks
  • US small-cap value stocks
  • International large-cap stocks
  • International small-cap value

At the end of November, Sally has more business income than she expected, and she decides that she would like to convert only $10,000 to a Roth — one-quarter of the original $40,000.

Let’s take a look at where her account has ended up:

Initial Investment Total Return End Value
US Large-cap $ 10,000 12.89% $ 11,289
US small-cap value $ 10,000 0.91% $ 10,091
International large-cap $ 10,000 -2.39% $ 9,761
International small-cap value $ 10,000 -8.09% $ 9,191
TOTAL $ 40,000 0.83% $40,332

The usual approach, in this situation, would have been for Sally to convert the entire IRA into one new Roth conversion account. In such a case, since she wants to convert only one-quarter of the original amount, she will be able to keep only one-quarter of her $40,332 balance at the end of November, or $10,083.

But the strategy we use would be to open four separate Roth conversions — one for each asset class. In that case, when Sally wants to undo the conversion on three-quarters of her original $40,000, she can keep the Roth account with the best return and undo the conversion on the other three. In this particular example, she would keep the US large-cap fund in her Roth, which is now worth $11,289.

So under this four-account option, she starts out with exactly the same investments as in the original scenario, and has exactly the same tax liability on the $10,000 Roth conversion she doesn’t undo. But she also ends up with $11,289 in her Roth account, not the $10,083 she would have had by converting into a single account. That’s an extra $1,206 in the Roth, for no added tax liability.

The following year, Sally can take the $29,000 that reverted to her traditional IRA and do the conversion all over again. (IRS rules dictate that once you’ve reversed an Roth conversion, you have to wait at least 30 days, and until a new calendar year, to do another.)

Neat trick, huh?

———-

Scott Leonard, CFP, is the owner of Navigoe, a registered investment adviser with offices in Nevada and California. Author of The Liberated CEO, published by Wiley in 2014, Leonard was able to run his business, originally established in 1996, while taking his family on a two-year sailing trip from Florida to New Caledonia in the south Pacific Ocean. He is a speaker on investment and wealth management issues.

MONEY best of 2014

6 New Ideas That Could Help You Retire Better

Lightbulb in a nest
MONEY (photo illustration)—Getty Images (2)

A great new retirement account, the case for an overlooked workplace savings plan, a push to make your town more retiree-friendly, and more good news from 2014.

Every year, there are innovators who come up with fresh solutions to nagging problems. Companies roll out new products or services, or improve on old ones. Researchers propose better theories to explain the world. Or stuff that’s been flying under the radar finally captivates a wide audience. For MONEY’s annual Best New Ideas list, our writers searched the world of money for the most compelling products, strategies, and insights of 2014. To make the list, these ideas—which cover the world of investing, technology, health care, real estate, college, and more—have to be more than novel. They have to help you save money, make money, or improve the way you spend it, like these six retirement innovations.

Best Kick-Start for Newbies: The MyRA

Half of all workers—and three-quarters of part-timers—don’t have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan like a 401(k). The new MyRA, highlighted in President Obama’s State of the Union address in January, will fill in the gap, helping millions start socking away money for retirement. Even if you are already well on your way to establishing your retirement nest egg, you could learn something from this beginner’s savings account.

The idea: The MyRA, rolling out in late 2014, is targeted at workers without employer plans. Like a Roth IRA, the contributions aren’t tax-deductible, but the money grows tax-free. Savers fund a MyRA via payroll deductions, with no minimum investment and no fees.

What’s to like about this baby ira: The MyRA’s investments, modeled after the federal government’s 401(k)-like Thrift Savings Plan, emphasize safety, simplicity, and low costs. Those are principles more corporate plans—and individual savers—should embrace.

Best Workplace Plan That’s Finally Come of Age: The Roth 401(k)

With a 401(k), you sock away pretax money for retirement and then pay taxes when you withdraw the funds. With a Roth 401(k), you do the opposite: take a tax hit upfront but never owe the IRS a penny again. Few workers take advantage of this option. Now that could be changing.

This year Aon Hewitt reported that for the first time, 50% of large firms offer a Roth 401(k), up from 11% that did so in 2007. Adoption levels—still only 11%—tend to pick up once plans have a Roth on the menu for several years and new hires start signing up, Aon Hewitt reports.

A recent T. Rowe Price study found that even though young workers who expect to pay higher taxes in the future reap the greatest benefit, savers of almost every age collect more income in retirement with a Roth 401(k). A 45-year-old whose taxes remain the same at age 65 would see a 13% income boost, for example. And, notes ­Stuart Ritter, senior financial planner at T. Rowe Price, “the ­money in a Roth is all yours.”

Best New Defense Against Running Out of Money

When the only retirement plan you have at work is a 401(k), you may yearn for the security you would have gotten from monthly pension checks. Pensions aren’t coming back, but the government is letting 401(k) plans be more pension-like. A rule tweak by the Department of Labor and the IRS should make it easier for employers to incorporate deferred annuities into a 401(k)’s target-date fund, the default retirement option for many. Instead of a portfolio of just stocks and bonds that grows more conservative, target-date savers would have a portion of their funds socked into a deferred annuity, which they could cash out or convert to a monthly check in retirement. Done right, the system could re-create a long-missed pension perk, says Steve Shepherd, a partner at the consulting firm Hewitt EnnisKnupp. “They are making it easier and more cost-effective to lock in lifetime income.”

Best Supreme Court Ruling

In June the Supreme Court issued a ruling that makes it easier for Fifth Third employees to sue the bank over losses they suffered from holding company stock in their 401(k)s. The share price fell nearly 70% during the financial crisis. By discouraging companies from offering stock in plans in the first place, the unanimous decision could help 401(k) savers everywhere.

For years—and especially since the 2001 Enron meltdown—experts have advised against holding much, if any, company stock in your retirement plan. Still, not everyone has gotten the memo. About 6% of employees have more than 90% of their 401(k)s in company stock, the Employee Benefit Research Institute reports. About one in 10 employers still require 401(k) matching contributions to be in company shares, according to Aon Hewitt, a benefits consulting company.

With heightened legal liability, that could finally change. The upshot, according benefits lawyer Marcia Wagner, is that fewer employers will offer their own stock in their 401(k)s. “It’s risky for them now,” she says. That’s “a tectonic shift.”

Best New Book on Retirement

You may think you’ve heard a lot the looming retirement crisis. Well, it’s worse than you think. That’s the message of a new book, Falling Short, written by retirement experts Charles Ellis, Alicia Munnell, and Andrew Eschtruth.

One of their main targets is the 401(k), whose success depends on an unlikely combo of investor savvy, disciplined saving and great market returns. As things stand now half of Americans may not be able to maintain their standard of living in retirement. Their prescription? Don’t wait for Washington to fix things. Save as much as you can, work longer, and delay Social Security to increase your benefits.

Best New Idea About Where to Retire

Whether you can stay in your home after you retire is as much about where you live as it is about your house. Yes, there are inexpensive changes you can make to age-proof your home, but is your town a good place to age? AARP is helping people answer that question. Through its Network of Age-Friendly Communities, AARP is working with dozens of cities and towns to help them adopt features that will make their communities great places for older adults. Those include public transportation, senior services, walkable streets, housing, community activities, job opportunities for older workers, and health services.

Nearly half of the 41 places that have joined the network signed on in 2014, including biggies such as San Francisco, Boston, Atlanta, and Denver. Membership requires a commitment by the community’s mayor or chief executive, and communities are evaluated in a rigorous program that is affiliated with the World Health Organization’s Age Friendly Cities and Communities program and is guided by state AARP offices. This spring, AARP will launch an online index rating livability data about every community in the U.S.

MONEY Financial Planning

The Real Purpose of Financial Planning

A chat about retirement, Italy, and The Golden Girls illustrates how financial planning can help a person uncover and achieve her deepest passions.

Our meeting started with an engaging description of her latest trip to Italy.

She had come in to see how her situation looked retiring now instead of two years from now, as we had originally planned. Approaching her late 60s, she no longer felt like dealing with her new manager, who was making work a little less tolerable than it used to be.

But in our first fifteen minutes, the focus was on the delicious food she tasted and beautiful buildings she toured while overseas with her travel partner.

By listening closely, we planners can learn a lot from the small talk at the beginning and the end of our meetings. Some of the most important parts of our job are to learn the true desires of our clients and to calculate whether their resources will be sufficient to make those dreams come true. But when asked to come up with their life’s goals, many people struggle to articulate what they are or even write down a few possibilities. This is where listening helps us; we can get insights by observing what people get most excited about.

As we began discussing the possibility of her retiring now, my client mentioned her desire to spend more in the early years while her health still allowed her to enjoy traveling. That’s a common theme among early retirees.

Analyzing that scenario, we determined she would need to lower her overall spending a bit each year or generate additional income for her plan to have the best odds of success. So we spent time brainstorming options that would prevent her standard of living from declining significantly during her retirement.

The first thought on her mind was to leverage her knowledge and experiences of Italy by starting a niche travel business that would take first-time travelers on adventures to her favorite places. She also expressed a passion for teaching English as a second language. She hadn’t had the time in the past, but felt this would be a more rewarding way to spend her time than continuing in her current job, even if her income dropped.

It became quickly apparent that this line of thinking had sparked excitement in her about the possibility of doing things she’d always wanted to try — dreams she hadn’t pursued because of her current job.

She next talked about downsizing her home as she got older. Unloading her home would allow her to join a group of girlfriends that all wanted to eventually move in to less expensive, cottage-style dwellings closer to one another. She called this plan her own version of The Golden Girls.

This story reminds us that we don’t always know what we want until we are forced to think deeper about how and why we want it. We spend so much time in our daily lives focusing on what the world measures as success that we too often overlook the things that could truly make us happy.

But when the probability of adjustment is introduced, we gain a clearer perspective of the things that really matter to us. In that mindset, we have the freedom to be creative, as we are forced to embrace the idea of being flexible in the face of potential sacrifices. We begin to prioritize with purpose.

Furthermore, realizing that our money is a tool to help us experience the things we are most passionate about can take our financial planning to a new level of fulfillment. In doing so, we are experiencing the real purpose of financial planning – answering the question, “Will I have enough to do the things I want and love to do?”

———-

Smith is a certified financial planner, partner, and adviser with Financial Symmetry, a fee-only financial planning and invesment management firm in Raleigh, N.C. He enjoys helping people do more things they enjoy. His biggest priority is that of a husband and a dad to the three lovely ladies in his life. He is an active member of NAPFA, FPA and a proud graduate of North Carolina State University.

TIME Veterans

Army Says Captains Can Now Retire With Full Benefits

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Travels To Mideast
Mark Wilson—Getty Images U.S. troops listen to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speak during a visit to Baghdad International Airport on Dec. 9, 2014, in Baghdad

The officers were initially forced to retire with the benefits associated with sergeants

A change in U.S. Army policy this week means that captains being forced into retirement will be granted the full benefits associated with their ranks, instead of retiring with the benefits granted to sergeants as they initially would have had to.

Lawmakers who advocated for the added benefits said the policy change would give 120 soldiers an additional $1 million each over their lifetimes, the New York Times reported.

Since the officers served as captains for less than the required eight years for full benefits, they had been told they would be given benefits consummate with their previous enlisted rank.

“We fought and sacrificed and did well,” said Captain Tawanna Jamison, who is based at Fort Bragg, N.C. “This change restores honor and treats us right.”

The Army also notified 44 officers less than two years away from reaching the 20-year tenure required to receive full benefits that they would be allowed to keep their jobs instead of being forced to retire.

[NYT]

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