The mid-term congressional election is less than two months away and some observers wonder whether the event will be all about nothing.
We've all seen the studies – one seems to land on my desk
once or twice a week. “Americans are living longer.”
“Fewer have defined benefit pensions.” “The value
of Social Security is shrinking.” “Boomers don't have
enough money to retire comfortably.” “A retirement
crisis is looming.”
Just a couple recent data points:
--Working American households may experience a potential income
drop of 28 percent in retirement, and nearly four-in-ten (38
percent) retiree households won't have sufficient income to cover
their monthly expenses, according to a Fidelity Investments survey
of more than 2,800 adults.
--Americans' confidence that they'll be able to retire
comfortably is at historically low levels, due to worries about
jobs and debt, according to the 2012 Retirement Confidence Survey
by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI). More than half
haven't tried to calculate how much money they will need for
--Even among the affluent, 66 percent of women and 54 percent of
men are worried that they won't have sufficient assets to last
through their lifetime, according to the most recent Merrill Lynch
Affluent Insights Survey.
You may have clients who share these worries. Yet there are ways
to change the retirement math, even for people close to retirement.
This is true especially for those who may not be on track for
retirement success but are “within striking distance,”
as Steve Utkus of the Vanguard Center for Retirement Research put
it in a recent blog post.
If you have clients who fit that description, consider the
following ways to get them on track. These aren't easy,
magic-bullet solutions, but basic blocking-and-tackling ideas that
can have very dramatic impact on retirement success.
1: Scrub the Expense
Many financial services companies and planners adhere to the
rule of thumb that retirees should plan to replace 80 percent of
working income in retirement. Many baby boomers will fall short of
that. For instance, The Urban Institute calculates that about 40 percent of late
boomers (born between 1956 and 1965) won't have enough income at
age 70 to replace even 75 percent of what they earned between age
50 and 54.
Just as important, the 80 percent rule-of-thumb is no more than
a rough estimate. For example, it doesn’t take into account
unforeseen spending needs such as higher health care expenses or a
long-term care insurance policy. At the same time, the rule
doesn’t recognize that some expenses might shrink or
disappear entirely, such as commuting or maintaining a business
It also sidesteps some key questions people should be asking
themselves in tough economic times: What is the lifestyle I want?
How much will I need to spend on basics? What can I afford to
EBRI analysis concluded that the median retired household spends about
80 percent of what working households spend. But that's just the
median – many spent more or less.
Just as important, EBRI found that overall spending in
retirement falls with age -- which means that a retiree won't need
a constant replacement rate of pre-retirement income.
A better approach is to create a careful zero-based budget for
projected expenditures over time based on the client's lifestyle
expectations, and discuss alternatives that could reduce costs in
key areas, such as housing (see retirement math suggestion No. 2,
2: Tap Home Equity
Real estate is a key asset for most older Americans – even
in the wake of the housing crash. Eighty percent of Americans over
age 65 are homeowners, according to the Joint Center
for Housing Studies at Harvard University. And Census Bureau data
reveals that 65 percent own their homes free and clear. So, there's
plenty of home equity out there waiting to be tapped.
Downsizing is the best way to do it. Most homeowners will need
to sell at a lower price than they would have expected a few years
ago -- but they'll be able to buy at lower prices, too. What's
more, an improving economy should unleash a great deal of pent-up
demand among young buyers who have been forced to hold off on home
purchases over the next few years as employment and incomes
Most downsizing moves occur close to home. In 2010, just 1.6
percent of retirees between age 55 and 65 moved across state lines,
according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by The Urban
Institute. Moving from an expensive inner-ring suburb to a less
costly exurban location can help your client extract equity that
can be saved, invested and drawn upon in retirement.
Reverse mortgages offer a second option – with caveats.
I'm not a fan of adding debt in retirement, and traditional reverse
loans carry heavy fees. But a relatively new lower-cost option
introduced last year could make sense in some cases.
The Saver HECM (Home Equity Conversion Mortgage) is administered
by the federal government, just like a standard reverse loan. But
the amount that can be borrowed is smaller, and Saver HECMs can be
used as a flexible line of credit. Saver HECMs also have far lower
costs: an upfront premium of only 0.01 percent of the property's
value, or HUD's loan limit, whichever is less, versus the standard
loan's 2 percent.
Some planning experts – including Harold Evensky of
Evensky & Katz Wealth Management – see these loans as a
useful way to help clients who may face a short-term cash shortfall
to avoid unwanted portfolio sales; others have suggested using
Saver HECMs as an alternative to early filing for Social Security.
(See retirement math suggestion Number 3.)
3: Work Longer
It's easier said than done in a tough economy, but working
longer can have a nearly magical effect on retirement success.
Working longer means fewer years relying on nest eggs to fund
retirement, more years of contributions to retirement accounts and
higher monthly Social Security income through delayed filing.
The Social Security numbers alone are dramatic. Benefits are
calculated using a formula called the primary insurance amount, or
PIA. Seniors who wait to start receiving Social Security until
their full retirement age (currently 66) receive 100 of PIA; taking
benefits at 62, the first year of eligibility, gets them only 75
percent of PIA. By waiting until age 70, they'll receive 132
percent of the PIA – nearly double the monthly income for the
rest of their lives. Those benefits are enhanced by an annual
cost-of-living adjustment, which is added in for any years of
David Blanchett, a research consultant with Morningstar
ran Monte Carlo simulations that show delaying retirement even
one year improves the probability of successful retirement by 18
percent; waiting two years boosts the odds by 37 percent and a
three-year delay improves the outlook by a whopping 55 percent
(Success is defined as achieving the income goal for the target
Income annuities offer another path to
mitigating longevity risk. The single premium income annuity
(SPIA) offers a simple proposition: turn over a chunk of cash to an
insurance company, which then sends your client a monthly check for
life. The latest twist – and one that bears watching –
longevity policy - essentially a deferred annuity that can be
bought well ahead of retirement with payouts delayed to an advanced
It's a very specific hedge against longevity risk; the downside,
of course, is that clients might never see a dime of it if they
don't make it to advanced age. Nonetheless, longevity policies are
far less expensive than SPIAs. For example, Metlife says that for
$43,000, a 65-year-old man could purchase a longevity policy paying
$2,000 monthly starting at age 85, compared with $398,000 for a
policy generating the same payout immediately.
SPIA critics point out important downsides, including lack of
flexibility and liquidity and inadequate diversification that comes
from relying on a single insurance carrier. Moreover, current
ultra-low interest rates makes all types of income annuities more
5: Boost Savings
At the risk of stating the obvious, encourage your clients
– especially younger ones – to sock it away.
Vanguard research shows that getting an early start in life on
retirement saving, and the rate of contribution, have a far larger
impact on retirement success than market returns or asset
allocation. For example, Vanguard found that saving 9 percent
starting at age 25 in a moderate allocation resulted in a higher
median ending balance than saving 6 percent in a more aggressive
That's an important consideration in light of the growth of
auto-enrollment programs in workplace retirement plans, where most
default contribution rates are set at 3 percent. As the saying goes
– control what you can control, and the rest will take care
Mark Miller is a journalist
and author who writes about trends in retirement and aging. Mark
edits and publishesRetirementRevised.com, featured as one of the best retirement
planning sites on the web in the May 2010 issue ofMoney
Magazine. He is a columnist for
Reuters and also contributes to Morningstar and theAARP
Magazine. Mark is the author
of The Hard Times Guide to Retirement Security: Practical
Strategies for Money, Work and Living (John Wiley & Sons,