Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Boomer POV: Retirement

This is the point where two facts collide. You hear a lot of white noise about the so-called delayed retirement, the I'll-have-to-work-longer-because-my-plan-was-undone tales. Those headlines create anxiousness amongst even those who are prepared to retire as planned. This group second-guesses the plan they have in place even if it is viable. And then you also hear the unbelievable number of retiring Boomers that do take the leap, a number that doesn't seem real: 10,000 Boomers are reaching retirement age each day.

Who are these people? The unprepared and the prepared hurtling headlong into older adulthood. They both had expectations of retiring based on what can only be considered now as unrealistic math. They set goals and they weren't met as planned. A few got it right. Remember, there's no shame in that miscalculation. Folks have been doing it for decades. But your plan is all you really care about and if it hasn't met your expectations, which in many instances were a bit lofty, you resign to work longer. This is where the facts collide.

You know all too well that simply working longer will add to the amount of retirement income you will have but only if you significantly increase your contributions. Few resign themselves to do both.

But the other half of the equation, the Boomers who do retire, are often caught in the same anxiety ridden place. They question whether they made the right choice and more importantly, whether the money they have amassed will serve their purpose, remains hanging over every plan as an unknown.

That purpose is often clouded with not only the unpredictable cost of longevity but whether they might have enough to take care of their heirs - a serious consideration among a wide swath of retired adults and those about to retire. This last consideration is entertained by women more so than men, statistics have uncovered, which is often surprising. Why? This same group of women approaching retirement has often saved less, another unfortunate statistic concerning women and retirement.

Those that do retire should consider where they retire. And while there are many suggestions as to what to do and how to go about it, but a quick survey of your current surroundings will offer a great many answers to your dilemma.

For instance, seniors or those about to become seniors often fail to inventory the services they may need. Once retired, your daily life will require things you had previously not considered. More than just the availability of medical services, more than the infrastructure of city services such as public transportation and well-lit and well-patrolled neighborhoods, your current location needs to stimulate you or at least have accessible stimulation to keep you mentally sharp and involved. This is not how many American cities were designed. Far too many cities and their suburbs require a car. And while this may be seen by many older Americans as a freedom, not being able to drive can imprison some seniors if they find where they live too far away from these activities. Only vast sums of retirement income can change that one item and few seniors, who essentially are on a fixed income, want to reach for their wallet or purse to pay to go shopping.

To pre-Boomers or those who are still working, where you live is not often what you can afford. If you live in the city, chances are you rent. If you live in the suburbs, chances are you have a mortgage. If you have a mortgage, chances are you can't afford it. That's a lot of "ifs" but they are an approaching nightmare for those about to retire.

While many of believe that the cities we live in should adjust to us and our current and future retirement needs, it probably won't happen soon. So retirees look to communities that cater to their needs. This ghetto-izing of seniors, much like Florida and Arizona is not only unappealing to many Boomers, it is not as healthy as it first appears. Sure, these senior-only communities do provide like-minded companionship, concentrated services and accommodations that cater to gradual aging, but they are often culturally void of the stimulation that all walks of life can provide. Being isolated is not the answer.

So what is? Cities are struggling with their finances and as a result are cutting back on services that once were taken for granted. We might be living longer but in far too many instances, your health may compromise that statistic or impact the quality of that longer life. And the cost of where you live - assuming your mortgage is paid off before you retire - is not getting cheaper. Add inflation into the mix and you have eliminated all but the most obvious choice: you have fewer options.

Of course, you can stay put in a house that might be too big and too costly to maintain. This will gradually eat away at your fixed income and reduce your opportunities to engage with the outside world. Now one plans on spending their day at McDonalds sipping bad coffee with fellow seniors, no matter how well-lit, no matter how inexpensive the house brew and no matter if the loitering rules don't apply. But take away any portion of that spendable income and you limit the choices.

Where is the right place? While there is no firm answer, you do have options. For instance, if family is important to you, be sure your family shares this thinking as well. The dynamic of marriage - and I am speaking of your children's marriage - can create some confusion. Deciding that you can rely on your children and their spouses for the help you might need is something you need to discuss well in advance of retiring.

At some point, one of your kids or their spouses may find you in their care. Perhaps not in the day-to-day sense or even the long-term care situation, but in the need to check-in, help with errands or assume a financial role. This needs to be discussed in advance, a discussion that should be instigated by you. This is no easy discussion.

You do need to tell your children what you expect from retirement, even if you are unsure. Answer the hard questions (can you afford to stay in your house for instance) and when the time comes, unfold your finances for them to see. Let them know where you stand and what your plan is.

Boomers will be sold a retirement that is unlike any other before them. If you live longer as the statistics suggest you will, what do you expect of your surroundings? What role does your community play in the decision? What role will your kids have? Retirement is much more than simply amassing cash. It is amassing support. And believe it or not, that is old school thinking, a throwback to the time when retired family members depended on their kids for everything. But those kids, who may not be thinking along the same lines as you need to be involved now, rather than later.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Leverage and Retirement

Over the years I have written about the topic of retirement planning, I have witnessed some incredibly crazy thinking. Many of those thoughts have come home to roost often too late for the investor to do anything to fix the situation. We plan, we tell ourselves, to retire at a certain age with a certain amount of money based on a certain withdrawal rate.  But those plans are often dashed by unforeseen events that, in hindsight we should have anticipated.
Recent reports have pointed towards an increase in employee contributions to their 401(k) plans. These upticks, however slight lead many to conclude that we are starting to get the message. But which message are we holding on to? Is it the need to simply save more because we know the chances are we will need more or is it the result of some other encouraging news? I'm inclined to go with the second choice.
Retirement planning is a whole package endeavor. In other words, simply putting money away for retirement is not enough. Numerous other pieces of the puzzle come into play and this is what is often ignored. The effort is noteworthy only if you have developed a budget that is actually less generous, forcing you to face the reality of an income in retirement that is not the same as the one the you had while working.
This income reduced budgeting is practiced by too few close-to-retirement planners. At no time in the history of retirement planning - and I'm going way back to the generous days of the defined benefit plan or pension - was the payout at retirement designed to replace 100% of what you live on now. The number was actually closer to 70% replacement and that was only if you had worked within the confines of that pension for thirty years or more (and it was not impacted by changes from the company). The remainder was to be supplemented by Social Security.
But with advent of the defined contribution plan (401(k), 403(b)), with the responsibility for funding your retirement placed squarely on your shoulders, we were forced to face the possibility that 70% of our current income would not be replaced. In order to get those kinds of post-work rewards, we would have had to invest 12-15% of our pre-tax income, every year without fail, in good markets and bad. For too many people with this plan, that sort of budget-busting restriction was simply too much to embrace.
We are to be forgiven for our human-ness however. We make mistakes and follow the herd - when they sell, we sell and when they pile in, we follow. In both instances we turn our backs on the whole concept of retirement planning: steady and ever-increasing contributions without consideration for what the overall market is doing.
Our employers didn't help much either. They gave us matching contributions, took them away or reduced them, and when they re-introduced them, they were far smaller. And we misinterpreted this as a sign that they knew something we didn't and mimicked their actions: we reduced our contributions when the matches were lowered and increased them when they were raised. As I said, we can be forgiven this tendency but we won't be absolved of this sin of remission when we begin thinking about retirement.
One of the other keys to the seemingly good news about an increase in contributions in 2011 is backlit with some additional news. Auto-enrollment helped to raise the account balances of the overall plan (and as employment improves, so will the news that we are using the plans in a more robust way). But those auto-enrolled new hires were placed squarely in the plan's target date fund of choice.
Long-time readers know about my reservations with these funds. New readers should note: target date funds are often less transparent than stand-alone funds, the underlying portfolio can be suspect, the target date may not be far enough in the future to be realistic and to date, the rebalancing implied in the fund is not determined by any specific guidelines. In other words, those who are put in a target date fund via auto-enrollment would be wise to get into an index fund (or four raging across a variety of markets) as soon as possible.
Those folks, the youngest among us who are the most likely candidates for these auto-enrollment options can make changes that will get them much closer to the goal. Older workers, however don't. And they know it. But they have some advantages, at least in their mind that the younger worker doesn't: equity.
And that equity in their homes, combined with the historically low interest rate environment has given many Baby Boomers a second option: to borrow against their homes and take the refinanced money and put into their retirement accounts. Is it a good idea or one that is bound to backfire?
Three things make it risky. One the equity in your home may not recover. Older homeowners who tap their home's equity are doing so at the risk of increasing their mortgages at a time when additional debt, no matter how inexpensive is not prudent. Two: They are eliminating a safety valve that could be used if retirement got too rough: the reverse mortgage. And third, if they are forced to or simply want to sell, the equity in their property is not there to give them a downpayment for new housing.
Leveraging your home to finance your retirement account does come with some tax advantages though. Just because one account increases as one is leveraged doesn't necessarily give you a balanced approach. In other words, there are "veiled risks".
You will still need to allocate your portfolio to perform better than the cost of the new loan and the interest rate you pay. This means that year-over-year, you will need to do much better than you may have calculated. A four percent mortgage added into the cost of the refinance (another one percent) added to the rate of inflation (another three percent if it holds steady) means your portfolio will need to return north of eight percent year over year - without fail.
The only way to give your retirement income any sort of sure footing is to increase your contributions by a much wider margin than what has become known as the average - 8% - and pay down your mortgage.
Fifteen percent is still the optimum contribution rate and even that number will give you only 75% of your current income in retirement - provided you saved for twenty years or more. Paying down the mortgage reduces your overall cost of debt service while increasing your equity.