Q&A: State pensions’ effect on Social Security

Dear Liz: Recently someone wrote to you about plans to receive a state pension and apply for Social Security benefits. You said if the person’s job didn’t pay into Social Security, the Social Security benefit might be reduced because of the state pension. I have a state pension from a job that did not pay into Social Security and was under the impression that I would not be eligible for Social Security benefits. Am I wrong about that?

Answer: If you previously worked at a job that paid into Social Security, you may be able to receive both your state pension and a Social Security retirement benefit. Your Social Security benefit is typically reduced, but never eliminated, because of pensions received from jobs that didn’t pay into the system.

This reduction, known as the windfall elimination provision, does not apply to people who worked for 30 years or more in jobs that paid into Social Security. Its effect is greatest on people who worked less than 20 years in such jobs. Between 20 years and 30 years, the impact declines year by year.

Your state pension also affects — and can eliminate — any spousal or survivor benefits you might have received based on a current or former spouse’s Social Security work record. This separate provision is known as the government pension offset. You can learn about both the windfall elimination provision and government pension offset on the Social Security site, www.ssa.gov.

Q&A: Do the math on retirement benefits

Dear Liz: My full retirement age for Social Security benefits is 66. To receive that amount, do I have to keep working until I am 66? I was going to retire at 63 and receive a state pension and wait until 66 to apply for Social Security. I wasn’t planning on working full-time from 63 to 66.

Answer: You don’t have to keep working. When to retire can be a separate decision from when to start Social Security benefits.

Before you do either, though, find out how your state pension may affect your Social Security benefits. If you’re receiving a pension from a job that didn’t pay into the Social Security system, your Social Security benefit may be reduced. If that’s the case, it can make sense to delay taking your pension and start taking Social Security earlier. You can use claiming software such as MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com or SocialSecurityChoices.com to see what might be the best approach.

Q&A: Retirement account bears close scrutiny

Dear Liz: About five years ago, I transferred a 401(k) account to an IRA with a financial advisor recommended by a friend. I receive monthly statements, but like most people, I am busy and do not study them, which is my fault. The statements are very confusing, even though I am a college graduate with a business degree. I recently realized that the account has not grown at all, even though it’s invested in stock mutual funds. The Standard & Poor’s 500 has been up about 10% each year on average, so I feel that I should have a much better return. How do I best go about finding out why I am not making any money? Approaching this financial advisor is useless.

Answer: It appears your advisor is worse than useless; he or she is a hazard to your financial health.

A properly diversified retirement portfolio may not grow at exactly the same rate as a stock benchmark such as the S&P 500, but it certainly should have grown significantly in the past five years. It could be that the advisor has been trying to “beat the market” with actively managed funds, which typically fall far short of the mark and do little other than cost investors too much. Or the advisor could be pushing high-cost funds that pay fat commissions and benefit the firm far more than they benefit you.

The Department of Labor recently instituted regulations that should stop many of these shenanigans by requiring advisors giving retirement advice to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own. You shouldn’t wait for those changes to be implemented, though, because you’ve already lost enough ground. Transfer your IRA to a low-cost provider such as Vanguard, Fidelity or T. Rowe Price and consider investing in a target-date retirement fund that will take care of asset allocation and rebalancing for you.

Q&A: Healthcare coverage should be part of retirement planning

Dear Liz: You’ve been writing about how much to save for retirement, including how much of our incomes we should aim to replace with our savings. Two additional reasons to shoot for a higher replacement rate is the possibility that medical needs will be higher the older one becomes (even with Medicare and a supplemental plan) and the possibility that long-term care will take a huge bite out of savings if one self-insures for this. My wife and I took these into account when we saved as much as we could afford during our working years.

Answer: Many people erroneously believe that Medicare will take care of their healthcare costs in retirement. In reality, Medicare generally pays for about 60% of typical healthcare services, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Fidelity Investments estimates the typical couple at age 65 can expect to spend $245,000 on healthcare throughout retirement. That figure doesn’t include the costs of nursing homes or long-term care, which also aren’t typically covered by Medicare. Anticipating and saving for these expenses was a smart move on your part.

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.