Q&A: More on Saving for Retirement

Dear Liz: Here is another take on your response to the reader who questioned whether retirement calculators were a hoax that promoted excessive savings rates. You mentioned that current retirees had enough pensions, Social Security and savings to replace nearly 100% of their working income, while younger people likely would have only enough to replace 50%. You closed your advice by asking if the letter writer would be comfortable living on 50% of that person’s income. For a non-saver, that is a fair question. But for a saver, it isn’t an accurate comparison.

If one is presently saving, say, 10%, then that person is already living on 90% of current income. If saving 15%, then that person is already living on 85%. When you analyze the expected impact of having the compounded savings at retirement, the true “step down” in income is really the difference between the current 90% or 85% figure and what you will have with Social Security, part-time job income, pension (if you work for the government) and savings. The gap becomes much more manageable, because you already are used to living on 10% to 15% less than your current income.

The point? Savers are already accustomed to living on less — in some cases, significantly less — than current income. Between the already lowered current disposable income and the benefit from the accumulated savings and investments, the “step down” gap is made manageable. Saving helps on both ends.

Answer: That’s an excellent point. Taxes are another factor to consider. Working people pay nearly 8% of their wages in Social Security and Medicare taxes, an expense that disappears when work ends. Income tax brackets often drop in retirement as well.

Still, there are good reasons to shoot for a higher replacement rate than you think you may need. Investment markets don’t always cooperate and give you the returns you expect. Inflation can kick up and erode the value of what you’ve saved. Careers can be disrupted, leading to lower wages or an earlier retirement than you planned. People who have “oversaved” will be in a better position to deal with these setbacks than those who save only enough to scrape by.

Q&A: Retirement calculators are a wake-up call for undersavers

Dear Liz: Are retirement calculators a hoax? It seems that the published estimates for the amount of savings required are insanely high. If most U.S. citizens haven’t saved much and have a decent standard of living in retirement, where is the misperception? Let’s say an individual is resolved to choose hospice over intensive care — so we can reduce healthcare from the equation — and is no longer paying for a mortgage or college. How could someone really need to replace a high percentage of salary? Do we really need to save millions to retire? Even if we just spend the principal in the calculated estimates, we are truly old before we run out. I have got to be missing something.

Answer: You’re missing quite a few things.

People born between 1936 and 1945 — those aged 71 to 80 now — typically had enough savings, home equity, pension income and Social Security benefits to replace 99% of their annual incomes in retirement, according to a Pew Charitable Trust study. This generation benefited from steadily rising incomes and wealth levels through most of their working lives.

Early boomers, born between 1946 and 1955, aren’t quite as well off but typically can replace a comfortable 82% of their incomes.

They’re the last generation, though, that’s expected to be truly secure on average in retirement. Younger people are much less likely to have pensions. Stagnant incomes, rising costs and falling wealth levels further undermine their financial security.

Late boomers, born between 1956 and 1965, are on track to replace 59% of their incomes. GenX, born between 1966 and 1975, could see their incomes cut in half in retirement.

Imagine living on 50% of what you make now. If that would be easy — and if you’re really resolved to choose death over medical treatment — maybe you don’t have to worry about retirement calculations.

If the thought of eking by on half your current income makes you break out in a cold sweat, though, then you better start saving.

Q&A: Social Security family maximum

Dear Liz: My husband is disabled from a stroke and is on Social Security disability. I am 65 and nearing retirement. I keep seeing Social Security rules about “family maximums.” Does this mean that I won’t get my full retirement amount if, between his SSDI and my retirement, we exceed the family maximum? Or will my retirement amount be what I actually earned?

Answer: You’ll get what you earned. The family limit refers to the maximum benefits that can be paid out based on one worker’s earning record. They kick in when multiple family members claim benefits, such as spousal and child benefits in addition to the worker’s retirement benefit. The rules are stricter for disabled family benefits than for retirement family benefits, but that doesn’t affect you since you’ll be claiming a check based on your own work record.

Q&A: Catching up on retirement savings

Dear Liz: I just found out I am cured of cancer. I thought I would be dead in three years and thus did not save very much. I’m 62, single, with no children and an annual salary of $85,000. I’m now contributing the maximum to my employer’s 403(b) retirement plan plus $6,500 to a Roth IRA. My mortgage balance is $380,000 on a 30-year loan fixed at 3.65%. I have about $380,000 in equity. I have about $30,000 saved outside of my $10,000 emergency fund. What should I do with it to get the highest return with minimal risk?

Answer: There’s no such thing as an investment that offers high returns with minimal risk. You get one or the other.

There’s also no such thing as “making up” for decades of not saving, short of an extremely unlikely windfall such as a lottery win or a big inheritance. This is why financial planners tell young people to start saving for retirement from their first paychecks and not to stop or touch those funds prematurely. Waiting until the last minute simply won’t work, and the longer you delay the tougher it will be to catch up — until catching up becomes impossible.

Still, at some point you won’t be able to keep working, so you need to save what you can. The more you save, the better off you’ll be.

Continue to take full advantage of your retirement savings options. Thanks to catch-up provisions, you can put up to $24,000 in your workplace retirement fund (the 2016 limit of $18,000 plus a $6,000 “catch up” for those 50 and over) and $6,500 into an IRA or Roth IRA (the 2016 limit of $5,500 plus a $1,000 catch-up). You’ve saving more than a third of your income, and several years of contributions like that will go a long way toward easing your final years. A balanced approach to your investments, with 50% to 60% in stocks, should give you the growth you’ll need to overcome inflation over the decades to come.

Your home could be another source of funds. Downsizing or moving to a lower-cost area could free up some of your equity to bolster your nest egg. Another option could be a reverse mortgage, but make sure you get objective, expert advice before you proceed.

Finally, it’s crucial to delay claiming Social Security as long as possible, since this benefit is likely to comprise most of your income in retirement and you want that check to be as large as possible. Try to put off claiming until age 70 when your benefit maxes out.

Q&A: How much does a fee-only financial planner cost?

Dear Liz: You frequently suggest consulting a fee-only financial planner, such as those who are members of the Garrett Planning Network, which seems like great advice. Can you provide any guidance on how much one should expect to pay for the services of this type of planner? We are a couple living in Los Angeles looking for a pre-retirement evaluation. That would probably include evaluation of existing investments, insurance needs, Social Security, long-term care, etc. How should we evaluate a quote of $3,000 for a full review estimated at 10 hours or $300 an hour?

Answer: The cost for a comprehensive financial plan varies depending on where you live and the planner’s experience level, among other factors. Nationally, the range is typically from $150 to $300 an hour, so $3,000 for 10 hours in Los Angeles is at the high (but not unreasonable) end of the scale, assuming the planner has several years’ experience.

Another way to get a feel for going rates is by interviewing a couple of other fee-only planners in your area. If the cost you’re quoted is dramatically lower, though, make sure the planner isn’t accepting commissions as well. Some planners are “fee based,” which means they accept both fees from clients and commissions on the products they recommend. You can ask for the planner’s Form ADV, a form filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Part II of this form contains information about how the planner is compensated.

Q&A: Social Security vs. state pension

Dear Liz: I worked enough in private industry to qualify for Social Security benefits, but then worked for the state and did not contribute to Social Security for another 20 years. So, I will have a state pension at my current salary as well as Social Security representing my former salary, which was about one-third of what I’m making now. My question is, would it be of value to retire early and return to private industry for a few years?

Answer: Your Social Security benefit is likely to be reduced because you’re getting a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security. This is known as the windfall elimination provision, and you can learn more about it on the Social Security website.

You can avoid the provision if you had 30 years or more of “substantial earnings” (which varies by year but was at least $22,050 in 2015) from jobs that paid into Social Security.
It probably wouldn’t make much sense to quit a well-paying job with a presumably generous pension to try to boost a much smaller Social Security payout. But a fee-only financial planner could run the numbers for you and explain your various options.

Q&A: The pros and cons of converting life insurance to an annuity

Dear Liz: I have a life insurance policy that is worth $16,000 if I cash out. Our agent says if we convert this to an annuity, we would eliminate our monthly fee of $25. The policy is worth $35,000 if I should die with it still in effect. We purchased this only for the purpose to have me buried. Is converting this to an annuity a better option?

Answer: Possibly, but you’ll want to shop around to find the best one rather than just accepting whatever rate your current insurer offers. You can compare offers at www.immediateannuities.com.

Converting to an annuity through what’s known as a 1035 exchange means you’re giving up the death benefit offered by your current policy for a stream of payments that typically last the rest of your life. You don’t pay taxes on this conversion, but taxes will be due on a portion of each withdrawal to reflect your gains.

If you cash out, you’ll get money faster — in a lump sum — but will owe taxes on any gains above what you’ve paid in premiums.

The face value of your policy is far beyond the median cost of a funeral and burial, which the National Funeral Directors Assn. said was $7,181. Before you dispose of the policy, though, you should make sure your survivors will have other resources to pay that cost and that they won’t otherwise need the money.

Q&A: Social Security divorced spousal benefits

Dear Liz: A friend was told by Social Security that she could not collect spousal benefits on her ex-husband’s work record because she did not have his Social Security number. How can I help her find it?

Answer: Your friend may have run into a new Social Security employee, or at least one who is not well-informed. Social Security says on its website that people who qualify for divorced spousal benefits do not need their exes’ Social Security number as long as they can provide enough identifying information for the agency to locate his record. She does need to have a marriage certificate and divorce decree along with her own birth certificate.

To qualify for divorced spousal benefits, the marriage must have lasted 10 years and your friend must currently be unmarried

Q&A: Taking Social Security at 70

Dear Liz: My husband will be turning 70 in August. Must he start taking Social Security at 70 or can he wait a little longer? He will still be earning money and if I understand correctly that will lower the amount he will receive. Does he have to do anything like apply for it or do they know he is turning 70?

Answer: He should apply for retirement benefits — online at www.ssa.gov, in person at a local office or by calling 800-772-1213 — three months before he turns 70. Benefits max out at that age, so there’s no reason to delay any longer.

The earnings test you fear only affects people who start benefits before their full retirement ages, which for your husband was 66. When you start benefits early, Social Security deducts $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain amount ($15,720 in 2016). After full retirement age, that penalty disappears.

Q&A: Taking Social Security early

Dear Liz: My wife will be 62 in November and does not work. I am 55 and have a 401(k) for our retirement. I know you preach waiting to take Social Security. But what about if my wife takes it early and we invest all of the money? Would it then make sense to take early?

Answer: You would need to get returns well in excess of 7% to beat the guaranteed annual return you get from waiting to take Social Security. In today’s volatile markets, that would be quite a feat.

You can run the numbers yourself at a Social Security claiming calculator. AARP offers a free one, or you can pay $40 to use one of the more sophisticated options such as MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com.