Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

7 Retirement Savings Tips to Help Avoid Regret

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According to TIAA-CREF’s Ready to Retire Survey “…more than half of people approaching retirement (52 percent) say they wish they had started saving for the future sooner.”    Some key findings from the survey include:

  • “Many respondents say they wish they had made smarter financial decisions earlier in their career, including saving more of their paycheck (47 percent) and investing their savings more aggressively (34 percent).
  • Forty-five percent of participants age 55-64 say financial readiness is the most important factor in determining when they will retire, but only 35 percent say they saved in an IRA or met with a financial advisor.
  • By not making the most of these options, many Americans now feel uncertain about their financial futures, with 68 percent of those approaching retirement saying they are not prepared for what’s to come
  • These retirement savings challenges are causing Americans to reconsider their vision of retirement. Forty-two percent of survey respondents age 55-64 say they plan on working in a part-time job, and 39 percent say they’ll be more conservative about how much they spend on entertainment and other luxuries.” 

Here are 7 retirement savings tips to help you avoid regret as you approach retirement. 

Start early 

If you are just starting out in the workplace, enroll in your employer’s 401(k), 403(b), or whatever type of retirement plan they offer.  Contribute as much as you can.  If there is a match try to contribute at least enough to earn the full matching contribution from your employer, this is free money.  There is no greater ally for retirement savers than time and the magic of compounding.  As tough as it may be to save early in your career put away as much as you can reasonably afford as early as you can afford it.

Increase your contributions 

The maximum 401(k) contribution limits for 2015 are $18,000 and $24,000 for those 50 or over at any point in the year.  No matter what you are currently contributing to your plan try to increase it a bit each year.  If you are currently deferring 3% of your salary bump that to 4% or even 5% next year.  Increase a bit more the following year.  You won’t miss the money and every bit can help fund a comfortable retirement.

Start a self-employed retirement plan 

If during the course of your career you become self-employed it is still important that you save for retirement.  Starting a plan such as a SEP or Solo 401(k) can be a great way for you to put away money for retirement.  You work hard at your own business and you deserve a comfortable retirement.

Contribute to an IRA 

Anyone can contribute to an IRA.  Traditional IRAs are subject to income limits as far as the ability to make pre-tax contributions, but anyone can contribute on an after-tax basis with no income limits.  All investment gains grow tax-deferred you do need to keep track of any post-tax contributions however.  Roth IRAs can also be a good alternative; again there are income ceilings that can limit your ability to contribute.

Don’t ignore old retirement accounts 

Today it isn’t uncommon for people to have worked for five or more employers during their career.  It is important that you make an affirmative decision as to what you with your old 401(k) or other retirement account when you leave your employer.  Leave it where it is, roll it to an IRA, or to your new employer’s plan (if allowed) but don’t ignore this money.  Even smaller balances can add up especially if you have several such accounts scattered about.

By the same token make sure that you stay on top of any pensions that you might be eligible for from old employers.  Make sure these companies can find you and be sure to carefully evaluate any pension buyout offers you might receive from old employers.  These can often be a good deal for you.

Beware of toxic rollovers 

Recently I have read a number of accounts about brokers and registered reps looking for employees of large organizations and convincing them to roll their retirement accounts into questionable investments with their brokerage firms.  Certainly rolling your 401(k) into an IRA via a trusted financial advisor is a valid strategy but like anything else you need to vet the person suggesting the rollover and the investment strategy they are suggesting.

Avoid high cost financial products

Many financial advisors who make all or part of their income from the sale of financial products will often suggest high cost financial products to implement their financial recommendations.  These might include annuities, certain mutual funds, non-traded REITs, and others.  Be leery and ask about the costs and fees associated with these products.  There is nothing wrong with annuities, but many of them that are pushed by registered reps carry excessive fees and have onerous surrender charges.

In the case of mutual funds, index funds are not the end all be all.  But you should certainly ask the advisor why the large cap actively managed fund with an expense ratio of 1.25% or more that they are suggesting is a better idea than an index fund with an expense ratio of 0.15% or less.

At the end of the day starting early, investing wisely and consistently, and being careful with your retirement savings are excellent ways to avoid the regrets expressed by many of those surveyed by TIAA-CREF.

Please feel free to contact me with your questions. 

Check out an online service like Personal Capital to manage all of your accounts all in one place.  Also check out our Resources page for more tools and services that you might find useful.

Financial Independence or Retirement – Which is the Better Goal?

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This is a post by author and financial journalist Jonathan Chevreau.  Jon is at the forefront of a movement he calls “Findependence.”  This is essentially looking at becoming financially independent so that you can pursue the lifestyle of your choosing.  This may be a form of semi-retirement, but the point is to work because you want to, not so much because you have to. Findependence is a process and a journey rather than a big financial event like the traditional concept of retirement.  I agree with Jon’s views on this issue.  Jon is the author of the book Findependence Day, be sure to check out his new site Financial Independence Hub.  

One of the problems with selling the concept of Retirement to young people is that old age just seems so impossibly far away in the distant future. The financial services industry and the mass media love to talk about retirement but let’s face it, if you’re a recent college graduate just entering the workforce, retirement is perceived as something far far in the future, just one step before the equally remote prospect of death. 

Findependence far more accessible for the young than Retirement

The pity is there’s a much better term that could be substituted for Retirement. It’s called Financial Independence or what I’ve dubbed “Findependence.” (simply a contraction of the two words.)

Financial independence is a goal that can be achieved not 30 or 40 years from now but in 10 or 15 years. It’s not unreasonable for a 25 year old just taking their first step on the career ladder and embarking on marriage, family formation and home ownership to set a goal of financial independence (or “Findependence”) by the time they’re age 40. 

Findependence is not synonymous with Retirement

Does that mean “early retirement” at such a tender age? No, because Findependence is not synonymous with Retirement. Most of us know what Retirement is but for a refresher course on Financial Independence, go to Wikipedia and search the term Financial Independence. You’ll find an entry which is simple enough to grasp: financial independence is the state of being able to have enough financial wealth to live “without having to work actively for basic necessities.”

If you’re findependent, your assets generate income greater than your expenses. Note that Findependence is not correlated with age. If you have modest means and have been frugal enough to build up a nest egg in 10 or 15 years, you may well be “findependent” by age 40 or so. Conversely, if you’re a high-earning high-spending professional who requires hundreds of thousands of dollars of income a year, findependence may not be in your grasp even by the traditional age of retirement.

You can see why people often confuse the terms since two ways of generating passive income is often employer pensions and Social Security or other pensions paid by governments. These particular income sources do not begin until one’s late 50s or 60s. But again, if your needs are modest, you might well be able to establish early findependence solely with a portfolio of dividend-paying stocks, perhaps supplemented by part-time jobs or freelance work. 

Boomertirement

For baby boomers, the so-called “New Retirement” will often prove to be a variant of Findependence and traditional Retirement. Very few boomers, even if they have the financial means, will embrace the traditional “full-stop” retirement of their parents who enjoyed Defined Benefit pension plans. The older generation may have experienced the gold watch and a quarter century of golf, bridge, reading but boomers are much more likely to embrace a semi-retirement that consists partly of employer pensions, supplemented by government pensions, taxable investment income and part-time employment income, and perhaps the fruits of certain creative endeavors: royalties from literary or musical creations, licensing fees from various entrepreneurial ventures, fees from serving as corporate directors and other sources of income. 

Jonathan Chevreau is a financial journalist and author.  He is the author of the book  Findependence Day.   The original version of this post appeared on his new site Financial Independence Hub.  Jon is a must follow on Twitter

Should You Accept a Pension Buyout Offer?

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Corporate pension buyout offers have been in the news lately with Hartford Financial Services offering lump-sum payment options to former employees and with Boeing offering a choice of lump-sum or annuity payments to a similar group.

Other major corporations have made similar offers in recent years including General Motors, who actually offered retired employees a “pension do-over.”

The answer to the question of whether you should accept a pension buyout offer is that it depends upon your situation.  Here are a few things to consider.

Are they sweetening the deal? 

I don’t know the details of either the Hartford or the Boeing offers but I have to think they are offering these former employees some sort of incentive to forgo their normal pension and to take the buyout offer.  Perhaps the lump-sum is a bit larger and in the case of the Boeing offer the annuity payments are a bit better.  Or perhaps there normally wouldn’t be a lump-sum option available from the pension plan so this in and of itself is an incentive.

Remember the incentive for the companies offering these deals is to get rid of these future pension liabilities.  The potential cost savings and impact on their future profitability is huge. 

Can you manage the lump-sum? 

The decision to take your pension as a lump-sum vs. a stream of payments is always a tough decision.  A key question to ask yourself is whether you are equipped to manage a lump-sum payment.  Ideally you would be rolling this lump-sum into an IRA account and investing it for your retirement.  Are you comfortable managing this money?  If not are you working with a trusted financial advisor who can help you?

There has been much written about financial advisors who troll large organizations (both governmental and corporate) looking for large numbers of folks with lump-sums to rollover.  In some cases these advisors have moved this rollover money into investments that are wholly inappropriate for these investors.  As always be smart with you money and with your trust.  Be informed and ask lots of questions.

Do you have concerns about the company’s financial health? 

Do you have doubts about the future solvency of the organization offering the pension?  This pertains to both a public entity (can you say Detroit?) and to for-profit organizations like Hartford Financial and Boeing.  In the latter case pension payments are guaranteed up to certain monthly limits set by the PBGC.  If you were a high-earner and your monthly payment exceeds this limit you could see your monthly payment reduced.

While I am not familiar with the financial state of either Hartford Financial or Boeing I’m guessing their financial health is not a major issue.  However if you receive a buyout offer you might consider taking it if you have concerns that your current or former employer may run into financial difficulties down the road.

Who guarantees the annuity payments? 

If the buyout offer includes an option to receive annuity payments make sure that you understand who is guaranteeing these payments.  Typically if a company is making this type of offer they are looking to reduce their future pension liability and they will transfer your pension obligation to an insurance company.  They will be the one’s making the annuity payments and ultimately guaranteeing these payments.

This is not necessarily a bad thing but you need to understand that your current or former employer is not behind these payments nor is the PBCG.  Typically if an insurance company defaults on its obligations your recourse is via the appropriate state insurance department.  The rules as to how much of an annuity payment is covered will vary.

An additional consideration in evaluating a buy-out option that includes annuity payments of this type is the fact that most of these annuities will not include cost of living increases.  This means that the buying power of these payments will decrease over time due to inflation. 

What other retirement resources do you have? 

If you will be eligible for Social Security and/or have other pension plans it quite possibly will make sense to take a buyout offer that includes a lump-sum.  Take a look at all of your retirement accounts and those of your spouse if you are married.  This includes 401(k) plans, 403(b) accounts, IRAs, etc. This is a good time to take stock of your retirement readiness and perhaps even to do a financial plan if don’t have a current one in place.

The Bottom Line

I’m generally a fan of pension buyout offers, especially if there is a lump-sum option.  As with any financial decision it is wise to look at your entire retirement and financial situation and to have a plan in place to manage this money.  Where an annuity is also available you need to understand who will be behind the annuity and to analyze whether this is a good deal for you.  I suspect that pension buyout offers will continue to be offered by more and more organizations seeking to reduce their pension liability.  You need to be prepared to deal with an offer if you receive one.

Pension Payments – Annuity or Lump-Sum?

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I’m often asked by folks approaching retirement whether to take their pension as a lump-sum payment or as an annuity (a stream of monthly payments).  Investment News recently published this excellent piece on this topic which is worth reading.

As with much in the realm of financial planning the answer is that “it depends.”  Everybody’s situation is different.  Here are some factors to consider in deciding whether to take your pension payments as an annuity or as a lump-sum.

Factors to consider 

Among the factors to consider in determining whether to take your pension payments as an annuity or as a lump-sum are: 

  • What other retirement assets do you have?  These might include:
    • IRA accounts
    • 401(k) or 403(b) accounts
    • Taxable investments such as stocks, bonds, mutual funds, or others
    • Cash and CDs
  • Will you be eligible for Social Security?
  • Will the monthly pension payments be fixed or will they include cost of living increases?
  • Are you comfortable managing a lump-sum yourself and/or do you have a trusted financial advisor to help you?
  • What are your expectations for future inflation? 
  • What is your current tax situation and what are your expectations for the future?

Factors that favor taking payments as an annuity 

An annuity might be the right option for you if:

  • You have sufficient other retirement resources and are seeking to diversify your sources of income during retirement.
  • You are uncomfortable with managing a large lump sum distribution.
  • You are not eligible for Social Security.
  • Your pension payments have potential cost of living increases built-in (typical for public sector plans but not for private pensions).

Factors that favor taking payments as a lump-sum 

A lump-sum distribution might be the right option for you if:

  • You are comfortable managing your own investments and/or work with a financial advisor with whom you are comfortable.
  • You have doubts about the future solvency of the organization offering the pension.  This pertains to both a public entity (can you say Detroit?) and to a for-profit company.  In the latter case pension payments are guaranteed up to certain monthly limits set by the PBGC.  If you were a high-earner and your monthly payment exceeds this limit you could see your monthly payment reduced.
  • You are eligible for Social Security payments. 

The factors listed above favoring either the annuity or lump-sum options are not meant to be complete lists, but rather are intended to stimulate your thinking if you are fortunate enough to have a pension plan and the plan offers both payment options.  A full listing for each option would be much longer and might vary based upon your unique situation.

Moreover the decision as to how to take your pension payments should be made in the overall context of your retirement and financial planning efforts.  How does each payment method fit?

Lastly those evaluating these options should be aware of predatory financial advisors seeking to convince retirees from major corporations and other large organizations to roll their retirement plan distributions over to IRA accounts with their firm.  While this issue has seen a lot of recent press in terms of 401(k) plans it is also an issue for those eligible for a lump-sum pension distribution. If you are working with a trusted financial advisor an IRA rollover can be a viable option, but in some cases rollovers have been directed to questionable investment options putting many retirement investors at risk.

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3 Misunderstood Aspects of Social Security Benefits

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This post was written by Jim Blankenship, CFP®, EA, a fee-only financial advisor and owner of the excellent finance blog Getting Your Financial Ducks in a Row, where he covers IRAs, Social Security, Taxation, and most other aspects of financial planning.  I’ve known Jim for a long time and consider him an expert on Social Security and many other topics.  His blog is must-reading for me and should be for you as well.

The Social Security benefit landscape is a complicated and confusing place to navigate. It’s tough enough to figure out what is the best time to file for your own benefits, let alone trying to coordinate benefits for yourself and your spouse.  There are many confusing provisions of Social Security; below is a brief explanation of 3 misunderstood aspects of Social Security benefits.

Spousal benefits

When one spouse is eligible for retirement benefits, the other spouse is also eligible for a benefit based upon the first spouse’s record.  The largest Spousal Benefit is 50% of the other spouse’s Primary Insurance Amount (PIA).  The PIA is equal to that individual’s benefit available at Full Retirement Age (FRA). Full Retirement Age is 66 for folks born between 1946 and 1954, increasing to age 67 for those born in 1960 or after.

An individual may receive the Spousal Benefit as early as age 62, at a reduced rate. The other spouse must have filed for his or her own benefit – and could have suspended benefits (see File and Suspend below).

The confusing parts. The following areas always seem to trip up folks as they plan for the Spousal Benefit.

  1.  Only one of the spouses can receive Spousal Benefits at a time. The other spouse must have filed or filed and suspended for his or her own benefit.
  2.  At or after FRA, the individual can receive Spousal Benefits alone, separate from the retirement benefit on his or her own record (see Restricted Application below).  This allows the spouse receiving Spousal Benefits to delay receiving his or her own benefit, increasing that retirement benefit (via Delayed Retirement Credits).
  3.  Before FRA, filing for Spousal Benefits will result in a reduced Spousal Benefit. Plus, filing for Spousal Benefits before FRA will result in deemed filing for the individual’s own retirement benefit, with both benefits reduced. 

File and Suspend

When the individual who is eligible for a retirement Social Security benefit reaches Full Retirement Age (FRA), the individual may voluntarily suspend receiving benefits.  By suspending benefits, the individual has accomplished two things:

  1.  The individual has established a filing date for benefits. This means that the Social Security Administration has a record that the individual has filed for benefits. Since that record exists, other benefits become available based upon the individual’s Social Security record. Also, at some point in the future, the individual could change his or her mind and collect retroactive benefits from the established filing date to the present, continuing to receive monthly benefits as if the filing was never suspended.
  2. The individual will not receive benefits while the suspension is in place. If the individual does not collect retroactive benefits at a later date (see #1 above), Delayed Retirement Credits will add to his or her future benefit. This amounts to an 8% increase in benefits per year of delay.

Restricted Application 

As mentioned above, when an individual reaches Full Retirement Age (FRA) and is eligible for a Spousal Benefit, the individual may choose to file a Restricted Application for Spousal Benefits only.  This type of application provides for the individual to receive *only* the Spousal Benefit, based upon his or her spouse’s record. By doing so, he or she can delay filing for his or her own benefit to a later date.  With the delay, the individual’s own benefit will gain Delayed Retirement Credits; maximizing the benefit by age 70.

Jim Blankenship, CFP®, EA, is a fee-only financial advisor.  Check out his blog Getting Your Financial Ducks in a Row, follow him on Google+ and Facebook as well.  

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