At one time, living on a fixed income meant you were retired, received a pension and social security, and got some extra income from your savings. For our parents and grandparents, certificates of deposit, otherwise known as “CDs” were a guaranteed source of no-risk income. Back in 1981 you could put your savings in the bank and get nearly 18%. That was a period of high inflation when prices were also going up. But CDs and bonds paid investors high enough rates so that retirees were comfortable with putting their money into CDs or bonds.
But interest rates have been on a downward path since then. CD rates have dropped from about 11% in 1984 to 1% or less today.
Today, CDs and bonds, once the go-to choice of the thrifty retiree, pay a small fraction of what they once did, and provide very little income to supplement their other retirement income sources.
The Federal Reserve has been keeping rates close to zero for years to try to jump-start the economy, with limited success. But while it’s been good for businesses and home buyers who have have been able to borrow money at rates that we have not seen since the 1950s, the traditional saver has seen their income dry up, collateral damage of Federal Reserve policy.
Charles Schwab, in an article published in the Wall Street Journal states that:
U.S. households lost billions in interest income during the Fed’s near-zero interest rate experiment. Because they are often reliant on income from savings, seniors were hit the hardest. Households headed by seniors 65-74 years old lost on average $1,900 in annual income over the past six years, according to a November 2013 McKinsey Global Institute report. For households headed by seniors 75 and older, the loss was $2,700 annually.
With a median income for senior households in the U.S. of roughly $25,000, these are significant losses. In total, according to my company’s calculations, approximately $58 billion in annual income has been lost by America’s seniors since 2008.
Retirees depend on income from their savings for basic living expenses. Without that income, many seniors have taken on greater risk to increase the potential yield on their savings, or simply spent down their nest eggs. After decades of playing by the rules, putting off spending and socking away money, seniors have taken it on the chin. This strikes a blow at the core American principles of self-reliance, individual responsibility and fairness.
What’s a retiree to do? Let’s look at some of the alternatives that people on fixed incomes are being offered and what to watch out for. All of them involve risk that may not be readily apparent. There are traps for the unwary.