Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Choices aren't so simple

Never one to shy away from jumping into the fray, which is a little different than jumping to conclusions, I have bumped into more than one conversation about the wisdom of drawing on retirement income too soon.  These folks argue that everyone should plan on working longer (and not just to rebuild retirement accounts - or in many cases, build them from scratch) because they are going to live longer. That sort of argument makes me cringe.

Truth is, not all of us do what we want to do, like what we do and simply can't see ourselves spending one more day doing it beyond the point we have to.
But when it comes to Social Security Benefits and when to draw them, something entirely different comes to mind. Bruce Bartlett offered his opinion on early retirement with several other invited guests in the August 21 New York Times. Mr. Barlett, who is former Treasury Department official in the George H.W. Bush administration and columnist for The Fiscal Times, continued that argument at the blog WallStreet Pit claiming limited space in the paper didn't permit him to make two other points on the topic. (You can read those added opinons here.)

The problem is, this sort of discussion has many nuances: fear, health, security, poverty.  Picking one over the other doesn't reduce the impact of the other.  Sixty-two has become the new retirement age because of fear (that the program will not be there after decades of contributions) and diminished retirement investments (we all know why all too well the reasons, and there are many, for that).  They take it whether they need it or not.  But many need it.

Instead of increasing the age for early retirement benefits, something Mr. Bartlett suggests as actuarially adjusted, SS could offer a program that secures those benefits at 62, sort the same way you need to sign up for medicare at 65 whether you need it or not, and guarantees the benefit without paying out anything until the person actually retires.  A healthy individual could continue working knowing that the benefit is secure and increasing each year they wait.  This would work the same way as the payback program already in place where someone begins withdrawal at 62, saves all of the benefits and then pays it back at full retirement age to receive the higher benefit.

I think the income limit currently in effect does two things: keeps the retiree from working too much which keeps the job market growing.  Benefits are only taxed once all of the income is added in and the threshold is breached - $25k for singles, $32k for married filing jointly.  Suppose a married couple calculated their taxable retirement benefits, their taxable income and the SS benefits and found they could live comfortably on $32k, they would be still well above poverty.  If they had used a Roth IRA or a Roth 401(k) to hedge against this tax issue, they could increase their income substantially without any impact on the benefit. And secondly, it taxes those that can afford to be taxed and in all likelihood, they are the very ones who will ladder their retirement income, drawing on accounts as needed - perhaps pensions first, deferred investments later and SS last.

The argument for living longer is the biggest fear most average workers have.  It is not how long you live, but how livable those years are.  While we all suggest that simply working longer is the best retirement solution, it skirts the real issue of whether they want to or if they can.  I'm guessing that only a small percentage will or could work past even the full retirement age.  Some may have to.  But if the amount of people opting for early benefits is any indication, they want to make sure of some things (getting the benefit) and worry about others as they age (whether they can or should work).

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Pursuit of Retirement

Ask any psychiatrist what worrying is and you might get this sort of response: it is " the ubiquitous human practice of imposing suffering upon oneself. Worry is a good example of self-inflicted suffering."  A layman might characterize the worrying as simply being not-so-positive, having crossed some imaginary line between what is feeling good and not so much.  If that is the case, we have become a nation of worriers, inflicting suffering on ourselves about a future we don't know about, preparing for a time when we have absolutely no certainty about inflation, taxes or the eventual returns that our retirement plans might yield.
Personally, I tend to characterize worrying as an activity that suggests lack of preparation or planning.  You can't possibly prepare for every contingency, life has things that simply aren't subject to any sort of plan, but you can make the effort.

Retirement planning, something I have described as a whole life effort at looking at all of the possibilities and making arrangements to address each, offers us the ability to have some control.  Worriers will still worry.  But at least they will worry less and begin to straddle that fretful line separating positive and negative.

There are several things that you can do, in the short-term to help alleviate any worrying that might be haunting you.  There will always be those who say save (although I prefer the word invest) for retirement.  I am one of them and in many instances, those with 401(k) plans will have the easiest time in accomplishing this first and most vital step. But those who don't will need to develop a discipline that isn't quite there or if it is, not fully formed.

Those with a 401(k), who have been on the job long enough to have access to the plan, should contribute 5% of their pre-tax income. To further alleviate the worry - and you will once you are faced with the choices in the plan, many of which are not that great - simply put it in an index fund, either one called Total Market or one that tracks the S&P500. (You can learn more later, after you tackle the next problem.)

Those without a 401(k) (and now that those that have a 401(k) have begun to invest) should begin to focus on what they can do in the short-term.  In the vast majority of instances, your household spending needs to be reexamined. As much as I want to avoid saying so, if you are living paycheck to paycheck, it is not the size of the check that is the problem, it is what the check is paying for.

Credit may be the great social equalizer, giving everyone the impression that you are worth more than you are able to pay for but debt is an economic destabilizer and a very serious threat to your ability to remain positive.  This is and should be the short-term focus for those who wonder what life will be like in retirement.

Oddly, you may always have debt of some sort and even more oddly, some of it will be considered good. Good debt is fixed at a certain rate for a period of time with a pay-off date when the balance will be zero. This includes a house payment and a car payment.  Credit card debt is not considered good debt. It can be paid off although and this is where you will develop the discipline to take the first step towards retirement.

Using a sliding scale plan, your credit cards could be paid off in full in a much shorter time than you imagined.  Try this: Suppose you have three cards - and most of us carry a balance from month to month on this amount - list all three cards in terms of their minimum payments.  It might be $15, $25, $50.  Take the lowest minimum and pay double on it while paying the minimum of the other two (paying double the minimum on all three is better, but we are dealing with manageable amounts here).  Do this until it is paid off.

Now roll the minimum payment you doubled onto the next card's minimum making that payment $55 ($15 x 2 + $25) and continue the $50 minimum on the other card.  Once that accelerated paydown is complete, roll the $55 to the remaining card.

This could take several years to accomplish but what it will do is keep you from stepping backwards each time you try to move forward. While investing for your future is always a priority, the longer you have this sort of debt, the markets where you have invested your retirement dollars will have to outperform to a degree that may not be possible.  They would have to return almost twice as much as the interest rate you are paying your creditors to get to even.

Yes, you will still be behind in the pursuit of retirement but you will know be able to look at the discipline you have created as a new found way to keep worry at bay and begin to build the next phase of your retirement plan: the emergency fund.  having solved this problem and the next will be giving you the ability to resist using credit in times of crisis and tapping your retirement in times of emergencies.  For those of you that have a 401(k) and began your investment plan at 5% of your pre-tax income - a level of investment that in most cases does not alter your take-home pay, your focus on debt and then your emergency account is critical as well.

These remain the two biggest problems facing your future retirement.  I'll never suggest you stop worrying.  But getting these tow things - your debt and your family's emergency fund - under control will put you on a wholly different path, one you will never have to worry about again.