Category Archives: Investopedia

The Retirement Dilemma Facing American Workers

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The way Americans fund their retirement has undergone a fundamental transformation in the last 30 years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of private-sector employees with a traditional defined benefit pension plan has dropped from about 45% in 1980 to a little over 20% in 2011. A defined benefit pension plan is one that provides the retiree with a guaranteed income for the rest of his or her life.

The guaranteed pension has been replaced by a defined contribution plan. Today, about 50% of the private workforce participates in one of these plans, which include 401(k) plans and 403(b) plans and allow the worker to set money from their paycheck aside to grow tax-deferred until they retire, at which point they can start pulling from it to fund their retirement. However, there is no guarantee that the amount saved will be adequate to meet their income needs once they retire.

Most government workers still have access to traditional defined benefit pension plans. However, most of these plans are severely underfunded and questions are being raised about cities and states being able to pay the benefits that were promised. A recent poll of people 25 years and older concluded that “Americans are united in their anxiety about their economic security in retirement.” Over 75% of those surveyed worry that economic conditions might hurt their chances for a secure retirement. (For related reading from this author, see: How Retirees Should Think About Retirement Income.)

Social Security and Medicare Concerns

The federal government provides a basic level of retirement income via Social Security, and provides a basic level of health insurance via Medicare and Medicaid. However, these programs are on shaky ground according to most actuaries. The Social Security Trust Fund will run out of money around 2034 unless it is reformed. That does not mean that checks will not go out to retirees, but it does mean that the amount going out will decrease.

Medicare is in even worse shape and, with the continued rapid rise in medical costs, may face a crisis even sooner. The costs of health care and increasing life spans are major issues for retirees, which explains the reason that so many Americans think they are facing a retirement crisis in the first place. Given the level of debt at the federal level and the rhetoric of the current administration, we do not see the government jumping in to fund the American worker’s retirement at levels above what it does now.

Even Denmark, an icon of the Welfare State, is proposing tax cuts, reducing welfare benefits and raising the retirement age.

“We want to promote a society in which it is easier to support yourself and your family before you hand over a large share of your income to fund the costs of society.”

Funding Your Own Retirement

If the government is not going to come to the rescue, and if corporations are going to continue to unload the financial risks and burdens associated with pension plans, what is the answer? Look to the old saying, “If you want something done, do it yourself.” Going forward, it’s increasingly going to be up to the individual American worker to fund his or her own retirement.

If people begin saving early, a large part of the retirement problem will be solved. The most valuable asset that people have when they are young is time. If workers begin putting money aside at an early age, it will grow and compound for 40 to 50 years until retirement, solving a large part of the problem. The compounding of returns is what makes so much of the difference.

Here is a little math exercise: assume you begin by saving $25 per month—much less than the cost of having one decent dinner at a restaurant—and invest it conservatively so that it grows at 5% per year. At the end of 45 years you will have $50,000. Now assume that you increase your savings by 10% each year—so that in year two you save $27.50 per month (still far less than the cost of just one dinner out)—at the end of 45 years you have $400,000 to use in retirement. These examples go to show that saving a modest sum for retirement does not require much cost or effort, just discipline, time and patience.

Financial Education is Key

The greatest asset that young workers have is time. Unfortunately, people rarely enter the workforce knowing much about saving or investing. That is one reason so many people live paycheck to paycheck. The solution to the retirement crisis is achievable by educating young people and raising awareness. Until schools and colleges begin having mandatory courses for our young people about managing money, parents should be doing this. If they are unsure, they can put their children in touch with a financial planner who will spend time to provide the education. Many financial planners are beginning to offer hourly rates to help people learn to plan and budget.

For most people, the retirement problem is the result of a lack of information. The solution is right in front of us, if we realize that times have changed and people must change with it.

(For more from this author, see: Are You Ready for the Retirement Challenge?)

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What’s the Difference Between an IRA and a Roth IRA

A questioner on Investopedia.com asks:

I contribute about 10% to my 401k. I want to know more about Roth IRAs. I have one with my company, but haven’t contributed any percentage yet as I am not sure how much I should contribute. What exactly is a Roth IRA? Additionally, what is the ideal contribution to a 401k for someone making $48K a year?

Here was my reply:

A Roth IRA is a retirement account.  It differs from a regular IRA in two important aspects.  First the negative: you do not get a tax deduction for contributing to a Roth IRA.  But there is a big positive: you do not have to pay taxes on money you take out during retirement.  And, like a regular IRA, your money grows sheltered from taxes.  There’s also another bonus to Roth IRAs: unlike regular IRAs, there are no rules requiring you to take annual required minimum distributions (RMDs) from your Roth IRA, even after you reach age 70 1/2.

In general, the tax benefits of being able to get money out of a Roth IRA outweigh the advantages of the immediate tax deduction you get from making a contribution to a regular IRA.  The younger you are and the lower your tax bracket, the bigger the benefit of a Roth IRA.

There is no “ideal” contribution to a 401k plan unless there is a company match.  You should always take full advantage of a company match because it is  essentially “free money” that the company gives you.

Have a question for us?  Ask away:

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How Advisors Can Help Surviving Spouses

Investopedia published an article we authored.

When the subject of death comes up, a term that’s often used to describe the feelings of those left behind is “loss.” But there is more to that loss than the loss of companionship. There’s also the loss of information, especially if the person who died also handled the family finances.

In my 30 years of experience advising families I have often had to help and council widows who depended on their husbands to manage the family finances. It’s fairly common for families to have several investment relationships. It’s quite rare to find that the spouse who managed the money actually did a good job keeping records and keeping his spouse “in the loop” when it comes to money management. And when her spouse dies, the widow has to deal with a host of organizations whose primary focus is on making sure that they don’t distribute money to anyone who is not entitled to it. The liability is too great. So we typically have a widow dealing with the death of a loved one, plus the Social Security Administration, the husband’s pension plan, and two, three or more brokerage firms who handled the couple’s investments. (For more, see: Estate Planning: 16 Things to Do Before You Die.)

Who Handles the Finances?

One of my earliest experiences was with a widow whose husband took care of all the family finances. He made the investment decisions, paid the bills and balanced the checkbook. He died suddenly and his wife did not know what to do. Childless and with no near relatives, she needed help. (For more, see: Estate Planning for a Surviving Spouse.)

While her husband’s will was up to date, during our first meeting she revealed that she knew nothing about her financial condition. She did not know how much she was worth, what her income sources were or what it cost her to live. It took a while to learn where all the investments were, what her income sources were and how much she needed to maintain her lifestyle. (For related reading, see: Advanced Estate Planning: Information for Caregivers and Survivors.)

Over the years I found that this situation was not uncommon. Balancing a checkbook, paying bills and making investment decisions does not appeal to a lot of people. They are happy to allow their partner to do that for them. The problem with this division of labor does not appear until the individual in charge of the finances disappears either through death or incapacitation.

Helping Manage the Transition

This is the point at which a trusted financial advisor can ride to the rescue. A good one is willing to go through records to see what it takes to run the household. He will be able to determine the survivor’s income. He will know how to identify the family’s investment and bank accounts even if the records are incomplete. Just as important, a financial advisor should be willing to provide more than simply financial advice to the surviving spouse. This is the point where questions arise about selling the extra car, upgrades around the home, moving to be nearer the children – or moving into a senior living facility. These may well be the questions a trusted advisor is able to answer. (For more, see: 6 Estate Planning Must-Haves.)

Advisors who are simply money managers will, at this point, probably find themselves replaced. According to PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ Global Private Banking/Wealth Management Survey, 2011, more than half (55%) of the survivors will fire their financial advisor following the death of a spouse. A lot of that will be due to the changing level of service that a surviving spouse needs. (For related reading, see: Why Do Widows Leave Their Advisors?)

But there is actually a better answer to the financial confusion that often follows a death. The best time to gather comprehensive information about family finances is when the couple is still alive.

Why a Will Might Not Be Enough

With due respect to the legal profession, will and trust documents are written to specify how assets are to be distributed at death. With few exceptions, they rarely get down to the kind of detail that allows the surviving spouse to take up where the deceased has left off.

What is needed is a specific book of instructions itemizing financial assets, their location and their ownership. Income will be vitally important to the surviving spouse. Realizing that income will change once one’s spouse dies, it’s important to know what the survivor’s income sources will be. Finally, the cost of maintaining the surviving spouse can be determined while both are still alive much more easily than after one has passed away. And since so many transactions now take place via password protected Internet portals, the survivor needs a list of those portals and passwords. (For further reading, see: The Importance of Estate and Contingency Planning.)

When someone dies, the surviving spouse will always have a period of grieving. But if a little though is given to preparing for the inevitable, grief does not have to be accompanied by fear of an unknown financial future.

To make it easy for couple who want to plan, purchase a copy of our book: BEFORE I GO and the BEFORE I GO WORKBOOK.  Contact us:

 

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