Start early to get your house retirement-ready

Many people want to remain in their homes after they retire rather than move to a senior living facility or community. Unfortunately, most homes aren’t set up to help us age safely and affordably.

If your goal is to “age in place,” some advance preparation could help make that possible — or point to better alternatives.

“Somewhere in your 50s, hopefully, you’re starting to think seriously about are you going to be able to stay in the house you’re in? Or are you going to need to make changes?” says DeDe Jones, a certified financial planner in Denver.

In my latest for the Associated Press, changes you need to consider to get your house retirement ready.

Q&A: They paid off the mortgage rather than save for retirement. Now what?

Dear Liz: My wife and I aggressively paid down our mortgage and now have it paid off, but we don’t have much saved for retirement. I make about $90,000 a year and will receive a teacher’s pension that will replace between 30% and 60% of that (depending on what option we choose) when I retire in about 10 years. It probably won’t be enough to live on. We will receive no Social Security benefits. We have no other debts, and we would like to make up for lost time as best we can on retirement preparation. What is your best advice for people like us who have diligently paid off their mortgage but have not diligently put money away for retirement?

Answer: The older you get, the harder it is to make up for lost time with retirement savings. You probably can’t do it if retirement is just a few years away.

This is not to make you feel bad, but to serve as a warning for others tempted to prioritize paying off a mortgage over saving for retirement.

If you’re in your 50s, you’d typically need to save nearly half your income to equal what you could have accumulated had you put aside just 10% of your pay starting in your 20s. The miracle of compounding means even small contributions have decades to grow into considerable sums. Without the benefit of time, your contributions can’t grow as much so you have to put aside more.

But you can certainly save aggressively and consider a few alternatives for your later years.

Once you hit 50, you can benefit from the ability to make “catch up” contributions. For example, if you have a workplace retirement plan such as a 403(b), you can contribute as much as $26,000 — the $19,500 regular limit plus a $6,500 additional contribution for those 50 and older.

You and your spouse also can contribute as much as $7,000 each to an IRA; whether those contributions are deductible depends on your income and whether you’re covered by a workplace plan. If you’re covered, your ability to deduct your contribution phases out with a modified adjusted gross income of $105,000 to $125,000 for married couples filing jointly. If your spouse isn’t covered by a workplace plan but you are, her ability to deduct her contribution phases out with a modified adjusted gross income of $198,000 to $208,000. (All figures are for 2021.)

If you can’t deduct the contribution, consider putting the money into a Roth IRA instead because withdrawals from a Roth are tax free in retirement. The ability to contribute to a Roth IRA phases out with modified adjusted gross incomes between $198,000 and $208,000 for married couples filing jointly.

If possible, a part-time job in retirement could be extremely helpful in making ends meet. So could downsizing or tapping your home equity with a reverse mortgage. A fee-only financial planner could help you sort through your options, as well as help you figure out the best way to take your pension when the time comes.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to retire rich without following a budget. Also in the news: a new episode of the Smart Money podcast on how to buy a house in 2021, a look at President Biden’s housing plans, and how much a divorce will cost you.

You’ll Never Follow a Budget. Here’s How to Retire Rich Anyway
Calculate your net worth by taking what you own and subtracting what you owe to measure your financial progress.

Smart Money Podcast: How to Buy a House in 2021
And a discussion of NerdWallet’s Best-Of Awards.

The Property Line: Biden Housing Plans Include Down Payment Help
Joe Biden’s campaign included numerous proposals to expand housing opportunity. Here’s what some of them might look like.

How Much Will A Divorce Will Cost You?
Breaking down the cost.

Q&A: Retirees and mobile home parks

Dear Liz: I’ve been following the discussion of the reader who was 70 and trying to decide between renting in a senior living facility versus buying a second-floor condo with no elevator. There is a third choice for people who are older and cannot stay in their present residence. We moved to a senior citizen manufactured-home park. It has a clubhouse, and before the COVID epidemic the park had all kinds of activities. It is a great place for seniors.

Answer: That’s a good suggestion and actually just one of many choices people have to age safely. Many mobile home parks are “naturally occurring retirement communities,” a term for areas that weren’t necessarily created for seniors but that nonetheless have a high concentration of older folks. At their best, these organic retirement communities provide services and activities that benefit seniors, including opportunities for socializing and the sense that their neighbors are looking out for them.

Q&A: Older parents and retirement: What about child benefits?

Dear Liz: I am trying to decide whether to take Social Security at my full retirement age (66 years and four months) or wait and take it at 70. I am 64 and have two children, 13 and 11. My older child could get the child benefit for 24 months while my younger one would receive it for 41 months. Currently I am scheduled to receive about $2,600 a month at full retirement age or $3,500 at 70. My family maximum is $4,668 per month. I am having a hard time finding out what each dependent would earn monthly. Also, when my older child turns 18, does my younger child’s payment increase?

Answer: Starting Social Security earlier than age 70 means giving up the delayed retirement credits that otherwise would boost your checks for the rest of your life, and potentially those of a surviving spouse. As mentioned in an earlier column, though, child benefits complicate the math that typically favors waiting to claim Social Security.

Once you start your own Social Security benefit, each eligible child could get an amount up to 50% of your benefit. Eligible children are those who are unmarried and younger than 18, or under 19 if they’re still in high school, or 18 or older with a disability that began before age 22.

There’s a maximum a family can receive based on one worker’s earning record, however. The family maximum is 150% to 180% of the worker’s benefit. If your family’s total benefit would exceed that maximum, the children’s checks would be reduced, but yours would stay the same.

If you were receiving $2,600 a month, and your family maximum is $4,668, your children would split the remaining $2,068 and get $1,034 apiece. Once your older child is no longer eligible, your younger child’s benefit would increase to equal 50% of what you receive ($1,300, plus any cost of living adjustments).

If you were to start your benefit now, before your full retirement age, these checks would be subject to the earnings test that reduces the benefit by $1 for every $2 earned over a certain limit, which is $18,240 in 2020. The earnings test doesn’t apply after full retirement age.

Free Social Security claiming calculators typically don’t include child benefits as a variable, so you’d be wise to invest $20 to $50 in a more sophisticated calculator, such as Maximize My Social Security or Social Security Solutions.

Suddenly retired? Here’s what to do next

The pandemic seems to be driving a surge of early retirements as businesses close or downsize and older people weigh the health risks of continuing to work.

The share of unemployed people not looking for work who called themselves “retired” increased to 60% in April from 53% in January, according to a study by three economists. The study was done in the early days of the pandemic, well before tens of thousands of businesses nationwide closed permanently and others began offering early retirement packages to trim their workforces.

In my latest for the Associated Press, how to avoid making hasty decisions that could cause you to run out of money.

Is your target date investment letting you down?

Target date investments are supposed to be an easier way to invest, and they’re a popular choice in 401(k) plans. But the recent market downturn showed that some target date strategies suffered much bigger losses than others, especially for investors nearing retirement.

In my latest for the Associated Press, how to be sure the investment strategy you’re using still makes sense, especially if you’re close to retirement.

Q&A: Withdrawing after-tax retirement funds

Dear Liz: I have been contributing to retirement accounts for many years, starting back in the early 1980s. Back then, there were no deductions for contributions. I made about $50,000 of after-tax contributions, meaning I’ve already paid taxes on that money. Later I switched to before-tax contributions. Now that I am retired and approaching 65, in my feeble mind, I believe I should be able to withdraw that $50,000 without having to pay any taxes on it. However, things that I’ve read indicate that it may not be that easy. Can you help with this question, or at least point me in the right direction?

Answer: You will escape taxes on a portion of any withdrawal you make from a retirement plan that has after-tax money in it, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. However, only Roth IRAs allow you to make totally tax-free withdrawals of your contributions at any time.

With a Roth IRA, any withdrawals are considered first to be a return of contributions. For example, if you contributed $50,000 to an account that’s now worth $200,000, the first $50,000 you withdraw would be tax- and penalty-free, regardless of your age, Luscombe said. If you were under 59½, additional withdrawals could be subject to taxes and penalties.

With regular IRAs and 401(k)s, the tax treatment is different. Withdrawals are considered to be a proportionate return of your after-tax money, Luscombe said. If you contributed $50,000 after tax and then withdrew the same amount from an account now worth $200,000, only one quarter of the money would escape tax.

Q&A: Coronavirus aid law lets you more easily tap retirement savings. That doesn’t mean you should

Dear Liz: You recently mentioned that a person can withdraw money from their 401(k) and spread the taxes over three years. If 401(k) is paid back, they can amend their tax returns to get those taxes refunded. Because of some major home repairs, I asked our accountant about this before we proceeded. He said that he hasn’t read anything official about the above. Would you please provide where you obtained your information, so we can decide if that’s an avenue we can use?

Answer: It’s possible you had this conversation before March 27, when the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act became law.

Otherwise, it’s kind of hard to imagine an accountant anywhere in the U.S. who hasn’t heard of the emergency relief package that created the stimulus checks being sent to most Americans, as well as the Paycheck Protection Program’s forgivable loans for businesses and the new coronavirus hardship withdrawal rules for 401(k)s and IRAs.

Those rules allow people who have been affected financially or physically by COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, to get emergency access to their retirement funds if their employers allow it.

Even if you do have access to such a withdrawal, you should consider other avenues first.

The income taxes on retirement plan withdrawals can be substantial, even when spread over three years. Perhaps more importantly, you probably would lose out on future tax-deferred returns that money could have earned because few people who make such withdrawals will be able to pay the money back.

A home equity loan or line of credit is typically a much better option for home repairs, if you can arrange it.

How to raid your retirement funds in a crisis

In an ideal world, your retirement accounts would be left alone for retirement. You’ve probably noticed that we’re not living in an ideal world.

Early withdrawals can have serious repercussions, including big tax bills today and potential shortfalls in the future. In my latest for the Associated Press, alternatives to consider and what to do if you absolutely must touch your savings.