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Have You Saved Enough for Retirement?

winding roadOne of the reasons that retirement funding is a mystery to most folks is the uncertainty that comes with trying to determine how much is enough – enough savings set aside so that we don’t run out of money during retirement.

The answer to this question begins with an understanding of your day-to-day living expenses, and how those expenses may change in retirement. This is a simple enough process, although it does take some effort.

The difficult part is to determine what the funding requirement is in order to provide the income you’ll need to cover your living expenses – for as much as forty years or more!

There is a rule of thumb (more on this later) that you can use to come up with a rough guess – but without using sophisticated computer modeling and analysis, your level of assuredness is limited.

According to a recent survey by the Employee Benefits Research Institute, 84% of future retirees believe that they will have plenty of savings to cover their needs in retirement. At the same time, less than one-third of those surveyed had gone through the effort to calculate how much they will need.

When looking at the actual savings numbers, only around 20% of the survey respondents had in excess of $100,000 set aside for retirement, and more than 10% indicated that they had nothing at all saved for retirement.

The rule of thumb that I mentioned before indicates that you should plan to withdraw no more than 3% to 5% each year from your retirement savings in order to not run out of money. This is what we refer to as a “sustainable rate of withdrawal”. (There are many opinions about what exactly is the appropriate sustainable withdrawal rate – at one time it was suggested that 4% is the right number, but this has been under considerable scrutiny of late. Working with the range of 3 to 5% will get you in the ballpark, nonetheless.) This equates to a requirement of $1 million in retirement funds in order to be able to withdraw $30,000 to $50,000 each year.

Don’t despair over these estimates, though. The rule of thumb is based upon 100 percent certainty, and if you happen to have that luxury, that’s fantastic. There are ways to increase your sustainable rate of withdrawal, while still maintaining a relatively high degree of certainty.

Improving the Level of Certainty

The first and possibly most important factor is to have a plan, and to monitor your plan closely. You can do this on your own, or in conjunction with a financial pro. Paying close attention to your plan and staying with it will provide you with the information in order to make certain that your plan stays on track.

Your plan should include some sort of projections or modeling to show what your future income could be based upon your sources of income – retirement savings, pensions, Social Security, and the like. This will help you to plan for your expenses in retirement – developing a budget in reverse, if you will.

Making adjustments to your portfolio holdings can have a positive impact on the level of sustainable withdrawal. It may seem to run counter to your intuition, but more risk in your holdings is good for your long-term holdings. It is important to maintain significant positions in the stock market in order to achieve a higher level of withdrawals over time. Without some exposure to risk, your funds will fall behind when compared to inflation of day-to-day expenses, not to mention high-inflation items like healthcare costs.

The third factor that can have an impact on your savings’ sustainability is the pattern of income that you’ll need in retirement. As you probably realize, over the span of the potential forty-plus year retirement, your income needs will likely change. During your first several years, you’re likely to spend considerably more than the overall average, as you travel more, take on new hobbies, and the like. Or, on the other hand you may continue to save during this time of your life.

Later on in your retirement, many folks take on lower expenses as they become more sedentary, not traveling as much and having fewer extraneous expenses. Declining health and lower energy level makes staying closer to home more attractive. In later years, health care costs can cause those expenses to increase. It is also important to maintain a realistic view of your own life span. It’s not at all unreasonable to project your retirement plan out to your late 90’s.

There are more factors that can have a positive impact on your sustainable withdrawal rate, but these are the primary ones. I want to reiterate that the most important factor is to make a plan, monitor it closely, and make the appropriate adjustments throughout your life.

What you’ll find is that, by putting some effort into developing a plan, you’ll have much more confidence in your ability to make your savings last. At the same time, if you find that you haven’t yet done enough, you have time to make adjustments in your efforts that will increase your odds.

Having made a plan, it’s also important to review and update it, on average once a year or so. This kind of review will leave you with the peace of mind that, in fact, you’re on track.

How to Invest

Eggs in a basket

Photo courtesy of sraskie

Occasionally, someone will ask me a question in the following different ways: “Did you see what the market did today?” or “How did the market do today?” To be honest, I’d love to use the line that Charley Ellis has used from the movie Gone with the Wind; “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Professionally, my response is more in line with “I couldn’t tell you.” or “I don’t follow the market really.”

The response is not meant to be rude or abrupt, but more to simply say that for most investors (myself included); they shouldn’t be worried about what the market is doing on a day to day basis. This is especially true for the Dow Jones Industrial Average. A price weighted index of 30 stocks is hardly representative of the market, yet it’s what most people think and refer to as “the market” when they ask the questions above or read the news.

The other reason is when you think of it, do we really have control over the market? In other words, what’s the sense in worrying about something that’s beyond our control? Instead, we can focus on what we can control. One of those is expenses. The other is diversification. The good news is that both are easy to control and easy to implement.

As the title says, this is how most individuals can and should invest. Leave worrying about market fluctuations to individuals who think they can beat the market, but very rarely do consistently.

How to control expenses

Generally, one of the best ways to control expenses is to find passively managed funds such as index funds. Index funds simply buy the market basket of securities and since they represent a market index (such as the S&P 500, the bond market, real estate market, etc.) they generally don’t have a manager actively buying and selling securities in order to beat the market. The more a manager actively trades, the more expenses increase – and lower investors’ returns. To quote Dr. Burton Malkiel, Princeton professor and author of the seminal book on investing A Random Walk Down Wall Street, “You get what you don’t pay for.”

Not all index funds are created equal. This is something I wrote about in the past. Investors should look for index funds that are no-load (do not pay the broker an up-front commission) and with expense ratios of .5% (1/2 of 1%) or less. Two companies that offer very inexpensive index fund options are Vanguard and Fidelity. Once you’ve selected which company you’re going to use it’s now time the next step.

How to diversify

When it comes to diversification, investors should first consider which assets classes they will select to invest and diversify into. Asset allocation and diversification are different. Asset allocation means selection from asset classes such as stocks, bonds, REITs, commodities, etc. Diversification means spreading your investment selection among a particular asset class. Once an investor has picked their asset classes the choice of funds from the above two providers becomes easy.

An investor can have excellent asset allocation and diversification with only a few funds in their portfolio. For example, an investor could choose a total stock market index fund, total bond market index fund, an international index fund and a REIT index fund and arguably never have to look at it again except to re-balance occasionally. The weights of the funds (percent of the portfolio dedicated to each fund) needs to be determine by the investor and may solicit the help of a competent financial planner. Financial planning professionals can assist the client with understanding their appetite for risk, goals, time horizon, and tax implications of their investments.

It’s been said that diversification is the only free lunch in investing. That is, according to Modern Portfolio Theory investors can combine individually risky assets while lowering the overall risk in the portfolio.

I’d love to tell you that investing is rocket surgery, but it really isn’t. The industry can make it complicated and I would argue that the more complicated the less benefit it is to investors. Investors should focus on what they can control; expenses and diversification, and get competent professional advice when necessary.

Delayed Retirement Credits for Social Security

these two dudes are delayingWhen you delay filing for your Social Security retirement benefit until after your Full Retirement Age (FRA), your future benefit increases due to a factor known as Delayed Retirement Credits, or DRCs. These credits accrue at the rate of 2/3% for each month of delay, which equates to 8% for every full year of delay.

It’s important to know a few facts about DRCs. For one – the delayed retirement credits are accumulative, not compounding. If your Full Retirement Age is 66 (if you were born between 1943 and 1954), you can accrue a full 32% in DRCs. This means that the amount of benefit that you would normally receive at FRA (which is your Primary Insurance Amount, or PIA) would be multiplied by 132% at your age 70. If your FRA is above age 66, your maximum delayed retirement credit is something less than 32% – as little as 24% if your FRA is 67.

Delayed retirement credits stop once you reach age 70, no matter when your Full Retirement Age is.

If you are delaying your benefit to achieve the delayed retirement credits and you die before reaching age 70, your DRCs stop at your death. Your surviving spouse will be eligible for a Survivor Benefit with delayed retirement credits as of the date of your death. Even if your spouse delays receiving the Survivor Benefit after your death, no more delayed retirement credits will accrue to that benefit.

For example, if you died at the age of 68 years and 6 months, your surviving spouse will be eligible for a Survivor Benefit that is 120% of your Primary Insurance Amount (PIA). If your PIA is $1,500 that means your surviving spouse is eligible for a benefit equal to $1,800.

The same is true if you decide at some point before your own age 70 to go ahead and file. I get this question every once in a while, since most examples of File & Suspend illustrate the individual doing a file & suspend at Full Retirement Age and then delaying benefits until age 70. But it’s not a requirement that you delay until age 70 – if you delay until, for example, age 67, you’ll achieve an increase of 8% since you waited a year before filing for your benefit.

You can file at any time after you’ve reached Full Retirement Age to achieve this 2/3% increase for each month. There’s no requirement to File & Suspend before filing for the delay credits either. It might be part of your strategy to File & Suspend if you’re delaying your own benefit but want to provide a Spousal Benefit for your better half. On the other hand, you might not want to File & Suspend if you plan to file a restricted application for Spousal Benefits based upon your spouse’s record.

Lastly, DRCs only affect your own retirement benefit. There are no delayed retirement credits for Spousal or Survivor benefits by delaying past FRA.

The Second Most Important Factor to Investing Success

Photo courtesy of Padurariu Alexandru via

Photo courtesy of Padurariu Alexandru via

On these very pages not too long ago, I pointed out the most important factor to achieving investing success, which is consistent accumulation. The second most important factor? Asset allocation.

Asset allocation is the process of dividing your investment “pile” into various different types of investments in an effort to maximize your exposure to the unique benefits of each type of asset class – while at the same time utilizing the risk as efficiently as possible.

When it comes to asset allocation, there are two primary factors which help to determine how you might allocate your investment assets: risk tolerance and time horizon.

Risk tolerance deals with whether or not you can sleep at night knowing that your investment could fall (or rise!) by 15%, for example. If you’re a person who feels compelled to monitor your investments every day and can’t stand it when you see a loss, you have a low tolerance for risk. If, however you recognize that it is important to take measured risks in order to achieve a better return, you may have a moderate tolerance for risk. On the third hand, if you consider the lottery, Texas Hold ‘Em, and day-trading penny stocks to be reasonable components of a portfolio, you may have an inappropriately large appetite for risk.

Risk is tempered by your time horizon. In other words, even if you’re fairly risk-averse, if your time horizon is long enough, you can (and should) take on a fairly risky allocation model. Conversely, when your time horizon is shorter, you may need to dial down the risk – even if you have a relatively high appetite for risk – the short time horizon reduces your ability to recover from significant losses should they occur.

What’s important to remember is that investing too conservatively early on in your savings career can have a drastic affect on the results. Since you have a significant amount of time for compounding to work in your favor, it makes sense to take additional risk to increase the overall return for your portfolio. With time on your side, you can afford to take a little more risk when the reward is appropriate.

At the same time, when your investing horizon is shorter, say less than five years, you can’t afford to put your funds at much risk. But this doesn’t mean that you should put your money under the mattress – inflation will eat away the buying power of your money in a short time. It’s important to maintain a degree of risk in your portfolio throughout your investing life in order to combat the impact of inflation and provide for a minimal amount of growth.

Once you determine an appropriate allocation model to follow, it makes sense to review and re-balance your portfolio about once a year – in order to make sure your allocation model is still in effect. Rebalancing more often doesn’t produce benefits to match the amount of effort and transaction costs that you would incur.


berriesA number of years ago while in my garden I was tending to my raspberry patch. It had been a long winter and I feared that many had not survived the cold Wisconsin winter. In the spring, the vigorous plants shot through the soil and in just a few months I had a glorious stand of robust plants.

To my chagrin, the tall, leafy canes were lacking berries. I didn’t even see any flowers blossoming. For two weeks I would go out and check the patch to see if there were any signs of blossoms or berries and each time I went out, I can back in to the house disappointed. Had something happened? I began to question what the winter had done to them or if I had prevented their fruiting in any way. After all, this was a pretty easy variety to grow and ever-bearing nonetheless.

Just as I was ready to give up and call it a failed summer for raspberries, something occurred to me. Every time I check for fruit I was looking down at the plants. I had never bothered to check underneath the plants. Like a mechanic changing oil, I got on my back and shimmied under the plants.

Bingo! I had hit the jackpot. Drooping above me were hundreds of ripe berries. So big and so heavy they nearly fell off as soon as I touched them. How terrible it would have been had I not looked at the patch differently. I simply needed to change my view.

While not necessarily a financial post, I hope this helps some of our readers who may be seeing things a certain way, and by changing their view can give them a new perspective. Life may seem like it’s not bearing fruit right now, but if we look at it from another point of view, we may find we would have missed out on a bumper crop.

Divorcee Social Security Planning

divorcedIf you’re planning to retire and you’re a divorcee, you may be entitled to additional retirement benefits based on your ex’s earnings record.

This can be quite a boon for an individual whose ex-spouse has had a significant earnings record over his or her lifetime. Especially so, if your own benefit is lower because you didn’t work outside the home for a significant number of years.

You may be eligible for this additional benefit if you are at least age 62, your marriage lasted for at least ten years, and your ex-spouse is at least 62 years of age (and therefore eligible for Social Security benefits). If your ex hasn’t filed for his or her own Social Security benefit, the last factor is that your divorce must have been final for at least two years. If your ex has filed for benefits, this time limit is eliminated.

How Can You Plan?

So you’ve determined that as a divorcee you’re eligible for a Spousal Benefit based on your ex’s record. How can you plan? How can you determine what amount of Spousal Benefit you may have available?

Of course, a quick and easy way to know how much your Spousal Benefit might be is to ask your ex-spouse. He or she should know (or should be able to find out readily) the amount of Social Security benefits that he or she will have coming upon retirement.

But it’s often not so easy – naturally a product of divorce is a cut-off of communications, by either or both parties. Even if communicating is possible, it may be far from the desirable choice. The good news is that you don’t *have* to do it that way. You can just go to the Social Security Administration office near you to find out.

But wait a minute – you’d at least hope that the SSA folks wouldn’t just hand out personal information to just anyone who darkens their threshold, right? I mean, you can’t just walk in and ask for Social Security benefit information for another person’s record without proving that you *should* have access to this information.

Of course, there is a certain amount of information that the Social Security Administration staff will not give you – your ex’s Social Security number and address, for example. But if you prove your relationship to the ex – that is, if you can show evidence that you were married for the applicable 10 years or more, and that you are divorced – you can get some information for planning purposes.

This evidence is in the form of a marriage license and a divorce decree. Both items must be official records. In addition, if you don’t have your ex’s Social Security number, you will have to provide enough identifying information to ensure that the records requested are the appropriate ones. This identifying information includes full name, including maiden name if applicable, date of birth, place of birth, known addresses, parents’ names and addresses, and possibly other information to correctly identify your ex.

Once the record has been identified and your relationship the the individual is established, SSA may give you access to your ex’s:

  • Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) – for use in determining what your future Spousal and Survivor Benefits might be;
  • Earnings Record – for use if you believe that the PIA may be incorrect due to incorrect information in the earnings record, to pursue review of earnings record discrepancies.

Generally with the information specified above these inquiries can be made over the telephone, although in certain situations a request must be made in person.

There is No Free Lunch (or Dinner)

Free LunchA few days ago my mailbox was graced with the postcard you see at the top of this post. In case the print is too small it’s essentially an offering for a free dinner at a local restaurant while the dinner’s hosts plan to offer a seminar on achieving more retirement income.

My initial reaction was to laugh at the card, and then my laughter changed to concern. How many individuals were sent this malarkey? Here are some of the “finer” bullet points from the list of discussion topics:

  • Avoid the long delays and costs of probate
  • Opportunities and solutions to help protect your assets for the futureFree Lunch 2
  • Avoid significant tax losses when passing on your assets

It became apparent that this free dinner seminar was nothing more than a sales pitch for a company to sell life insurance and annuities to unsuspecting individuals. A search on the Internet provided more detail on the company (whose name has been removed from the postcard) and it was apparent they are in the business of selling insurance products. The interesting thing was that I could find not one individual contact name or person for the company. This is scary.

There is no such thing as a free lunch. Be cautious of companies that try to lure individuals in with the goodwill of a free meal only to try to catch you in their trap of high-commissioned, surrender charge-heavy products and promises of retirement security. Almost always, these types of bait and switch tactics are a sham – and you should avoid them.

If you can see the fine print at the bottom you’ll notice two striking phrases:

  • Nothing will be sold at this seminar. Topics covered may require the purchase of insurance products.

Why wouldn’t I be allowed in? And of course, no free lunch would be complete without a helping of the second phrase. In other words, “We’re hoping you’ll feel obligated to us for the free meal by buying insurance products which just makes sense based on our biased and subjective informational seminar.”

This postcard got added to our wall of shame.

Why Financial Planning?

Photo courtesy of Sebastien Gabriel via

Photo courtesy of Sebastien Gabriel via

I am always advocating creating a plan for your financial life – but why plan? Maybe we can identify some factors which may motivate you to develop plans for your life, incorporating financial factors with the rest of your life.

Following are some of the more important factors that you may want to think about:

  1. It is a way to prepare for the inevitable future. This fits in with one definition of planning, which is “intelligent cooperation with the inevitable.”
  2. Planning identifies problems and points the way to solutions. Taking a systematic, thorough look at the situation and thinking about the future possibilities can bring these things to light.
  3. It helps us to do first things first. In other words, it provides a rationale for assigning priorities. Should we save more for retirement, or for college? Should we pay off our home mortgage?
  4. Planning helps to coordinate your various goals with one another. For example, you need to make sure that adequate funds are being set aside for family vacations, while still putting aside funds for college and retirement.
  5. Planning can educate, involve and inform you and your family about the various goals and situations that you have to account for within your financial world. Planning can be a real eye-opener.

Now, just so that you won’t think that this concept of planning is a new idea, I recently came across the following endorsement of the concept of planning:

Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying ‘this fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’

Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.

In case you don’t recognize the quote, it is from the New Testament of the Bible (NIV), the book of Luke, chapter 14, verses 28-32. Obviously the concept of planning is important – considered by Jesus Christ to be what we call today a “no brainer”. That’s a pretty powerful endorsement, in my opinion.

Hopefully these factors have helped you to understand the importance of planning – and that you are inspired to begin developing your own plan. Because your life will go according to “a” plan, you might as well make it “your” plan!

Credit for Reduced Social Security Benefits When Subject to the Earnings Test

earningsContinuing to work while receiving Social Security benefits may cause a reduction to your benefit – if you earn more than the annual earnings test (AET) amount. But this reduction isn’t permanent – you will get credit for reduced Social Security benefits when you reach Full Retirement Age. So how does this work?

Earnings Test

The earnings test limit is $15,720 for 2015 if you are under Full Retirement Age for the entire year. The limit is $41,880 in the year that you reach Full Retirement Age. Full Retirement Age (FRA) is age 66 if you were born between 1946 and 1954, ratcheting up to age 67 if your birth year is 1960 or later.

So for 2015 if you were born after 1949 and you are receiving Social Security benefits, for every two dollars that you earn over $15,720, one dollar of your benefit is withheld.

For example, if you earn $20,000 in 2015 and your Social Security benefit is $500 per month, that’s $4,280 more than the limit. Your $500 benefit will be withheld for the first 5 months, in order to withhold the full $2,140. The extra $360 will be refunded to you at the beginning of the next calendar year.

The same would happen if you will reach FRA in 2015 and you earn more than $41,880. Let’s say you make $50,000 during the first half of 2015 and you reach age 66 on July 1. Since you’ve earned $8,120 more than the limit before reaching FRA, $1 is withheld for every $3 over the limit. So if your SS benefit is $1,000, in order to withhold $2,707, 3 months’ worth of benefits will be withheld.

The Payback

Once you reach Full Retirement Age, you will receive credit for reduced Social Security benefits. SSA will look at your record to determine how many months’ worth of benefits that you have had withheld due to the earnings test. Your filing age is then re-calculated, adding on those months of withheld benefits.

Returning to our example from above, you were receiving a benefit of $500 per month beginning at age 62, and over the years 15 months’ worth of benefits had been withheld due to the earnings test. At FRA, your filing age is re-calculated as if you had filed at the age of 63 years, 3 months – an addition of 15 months.

Since your original benefit was reduced by 25%, your re-calculated benefit would only be reduced by 18.33% – owing to the fact that the year between age 62 and 63 increases your benefit by 5%, and each month above 63 increases the benefit by 5/9%, a total of 15/9%, or 1.67% total. So your $500 benefit is increased to $544 per month from now forward.


This reduction and payback applies to your own retirement benefit, spousal benefits, and survivor benefits. If your own benefit is withheld due to earnings over the limit, your beneficiaries’ benefits (your spouse’s or children’s benefits) will also be withheld until the reduction amount is completely covered. If you are receiving spousal benefits before FRA and are also working and earning more than the limit, only your spousal benefit is reduced due to those earnings.

Will Work After Retirement Age Increase My Social Security Benefit?

work after retirement ageThis question comes up every once in a while: Will work after retirement age increase my Social Security benefit due to the additional earnings going on my record?

The answer, as with many of these calculation-type questions, is a fully-qualified “maybe”. The amount of your earnings from work in any year may have a positive impact on your benefit – not just work after retirement age. On the downside, depending upon your benefit amount it may not be much of an increase.

The reason it’s not certain whether work after retirement age will increase your benefit is because of the nature of the calculations involved. If you’ll recall from the article on calculation of your Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) – the foundation of this calculation is a figure called your Average Indexed Monthly Earnings, or AIME. The AIME is an average of the 35 highest indexed earnings years in your working life. This is (first) calculated based upon the years between your age 20 and the year before you reach age 60.

For example, if you reach age 62 in 2015, your AIME is first calculated based on your earnings between the years 1973 and 2013. The index is based on the average of all earnings for the years prior to 2014, as compared to the average of all earnings in the year 2013. For the year 1973 in this example, the indexing figure (multiplier) is 5.9217958 – so if your earnings in 1973 were $10,000 then the indexed earnings for that year would be $59,217. Each year of earnings is multiplied by the unique index factor for your year of eligibility.

Once these figures have been determined, any years of earnings on your record at or after age 60 are added to the list as well – but earnings at or after age 60 are not indexed. These are added to the list of your lifetime earnings at face value.

Once the list of your indexed years of earnings is compiled, the amounts, indexed and face value for those after age 60, are compared and the highest 35 years are selected. This list of 35 years of earnings is then totaled and divided by 420, the number of months in 35 years – and the result is your AIME.

Armed with your AIME, you can now calculate your Primary Insurance Amount (PIA). (PIA is the foundation of all benefit calculations based on your record. PIA is the amount of benefit you would receive if you file at exactly your Full Retirement Age.)

The PIA is based upon your first year of eligibility for benefits, the year in which you reach age 62. From the year you reach age 62, income levels called bend points are defined. For our example of an individual reaching age 62 in 2015, the amount of the AIME up to $826 is multiplied by 90%; for any amount above $826 up to $4,980, the amount is multiplied by 32%; and any amount above $4,980 is multiplied by 15%. (The dollar amounts are adjusted annually, the percentages remain the same.) These three results are added together, resulting in your PIA.

So – back to the question: Will work after retirement age increase my benefit due to the additional earnings?

After the initial computation (described above), in any subsequent year that you have earnings from a Social Security-covered job, SSA takes your additional earnings and puts them into the list of years of earnings (indexed prior to age 60, face-value thereafter) and determines if the additional year’s earnings is one of the highest 35 years in your list. If this additional year replaces a lower earning year in your original list, a new AIME is calculated. Then your same bend points from your age 62 year are applied and a new PIA is developed. This recalculation is automatic, you don’t have to do anything to have the new earnings applied.


John has been working all of his adult life, from age 20 onward. He will reach age 62 in 2015. His AIME has been calculated as $5,000 this year, which results in a PIA of $2,075.70.

John continues to work past his age 62 since he has risen to the position of manager at his job and he’s just not ready to retire. John’s total earnings are $90,000 in 2015. So at the end of 2015, SSA includes the 2015 earnings in his AIME calculation. His lowest indexed earnings from prior years was $59,217 – and this amount is replaced in his “high 35” with his earnings from 2015. This results in an increase to his AIME to $5,073, and then the PIA is recalculated as $2086.60.

So – indeed, if your additional earnings are greater than one of your AIME calculation years, earning more past age 62 can have a positive impact on your benefit. However, as illustrated in the example, adding a relatively high earnings year after age 62 only increased the PIA by $10.90 per month.

Adjusting the example – if John’s earnings for 2015 are only $40,000 – this amount is less than the lowest indexed amount in his AIME list, so the AIME is not recalculated, and neither is his PIA. This is good news if you think about it. Additional earnings can only increase your benefit and cannot decrease the benefit.

If your benefit is low by comparison to the bend points for your situation as a result of low or zero earnings in one or more years used in your calculation, work after retirement age may have a larger impact.

Looking at another example, Sam (age 62 in 2015) didn’t work outside the home for the first 18 years after he reached age 20, pursuing his recording career and raising his children. From age 38 on, he dropped the recording career dream and took on a job in customer service, earning an average indexed wage over the 23 years (from age 38 to 61) of $24,000 per year. However, since Sam had many years of zero earnings in his list, his AIME is calculated as $1,314 – and his PIA is calculated as $899.40.

If Sam earns his average salary of $24,000 in 2015, his AIME will be recalculated because those earnings replace an earlier “zero” year in his list. As a result his new AIME is $1,371, and the resulting PIA is $917.70. This is an increase of $18.30 per month, almost double the amount that John’s PIA increased for earning nearly four times as much in 2015.

Is a Reverse Mortgage Right for You?

350px-halo_over_tree3As individuals near retirement there may be a need for additional income in order to support their living expenses in retirement. On this blog we have discussed creating income streams in retirement with annuities, Social Security optimization, and withdrawal strategies in qualified accounts.

For some individuals these streams of income may not be enough. Another potential vehicle to assist with providing income in retirement is a reverse mortgage. Reverse mortgages are where an individual or couple uses the equity in their home to received monthly income payments. Generally, once the owners pass away or sell the home, the loan is paid off with the remaining equity in the home. There’s also a limit on the amount a homeowner can borrow.

The most popular form of a reverse mortgage is the home equity conversion mortgage (HECM) offered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). To qualify, individuals must be 62 years of age or older, live in the home that qualifies for the loan and receive counseling from a HECM approved counselor. The counselor will educate the individual on the advantages and disadvantages of the reverse mortgage and whether or not it makes sense.

Should individuals decide that the HECM is right for them the still maintain ownership of the home. HECM loans are also non-recourse. In other words, an individual will never owe more than the value of the home when it’s sold – regardless if the home’s value declines.

From a retirement perspective, a reverse mortgage can increase the probability of not outliving your income at retirement. The income from the reverse mortgage can be used in conjunction with other income such as Social Security, pensions and qualified plan distributions. This is something we have helped clients with do determine if such a strategy is right for them.

For more information on reverse mortgages, the links below provide excellent information.

Social Security Earnings Test

testWhen you’re receiving Social Security benefits before your Full Retirement Age (FRA, which is age 66 ranging up to age 67 for folks born in 1960 or later), there is an earnings test which can reduce or eliminate the benefit you are planning to receive.

If your earned income* is greater than $15,720 (2015 figure), for every $2 over this limit, $1 will be withheld from your Social Security benefit. So, for example, if you earn $20,000 in 2015, a total of $2,140 in benefits will be withheld – 50% of the over-earned amount of $4,280.

If you are receiving a Social Security benefit of $1,070 per month, this means that 2 months’ worth of benefits will be withheld. This can come as a surprise if you’ve been receiving the full benefit and the earnings test is applied at the beginning of the following year, when you don’t receive a check for two months.

After you reach FRA, you’ll get an adjustment to your benefit for the withheld checks. From our example, if you had two months’ worth of benefits withheld during the 3 years before the year you’ll reach FRA, you will receive credit for the months of withheld benefits. At FRA your benefit will be adjusted as if you had filed 6 months (3 years times 2 months) later than you actually filed. So if you originally filed at age 62, your benefit will be adjusted as if you filed at 62 years and 6 months, an increase of 2.5%.

In the year that you reach FRA (but before you actually turn 66) the earnings test is much more liberal: the limit is $41,880. Plus the rule is that for every $3 over the limit, $1 is withheld from your benefits. The rule is actually applied on a monthly basis, at the rate of $3,490 per month for partial years ($1,310 for the years before you reach FRA).

*So what earnings are counted? Only earnings from employment or self-employment are counted toward the earnings tests. There is a rather long list of income types that do not count toward the earnings test – here’s a brief rundown of non-counted earnings (only for Social Security earnings test, not for income taxation):

  • deferred income (based on services performed before becoming entitled to Social Security benefits)
  • court awards, including back-pay from an employer
  • disability insurance payments
  • pensions
  • retirement pay
  • real estate rental income (if not considered self-employment, i.e., the individual did not materially participate in the production of the income)
  • interest and dividends
  • capital gains
  • worker’s compensation or unemployment benefits
  • jury duty pay
  • reimbursed travel or moving expenses as an employee
  • royalties – only exempted in the year you will reach FRA, otherwise royalties are counted toward the earnings test

Mandatory Retirement Plans

6870886851_76c9703cca_m1A few weeks ago I finished a paper arguing for mandatory retirement contributions from both employers and employees. Though arguably the paper will not come close to changing public policy on retirement plans, it did raise some arguments in favor of the United States adopting a mandatory savings plan.

In the paper I explained that research has shown that individuals risk not having enough saved for retirement. This could be due to employees not having a retirement plan through work or because employees face an abundance of mutual fund options in the plan that they don’t know where to begin. Some of these employees choose the default option or simply go with what a colleague recommends.

Another problem the paper addresses is the declination of defined benefit pensions. Such pensions are employer sponsored and funded, thus removing funding an investment risk from the employee. At retirement the employee receives a guaranteed income for the rest of his life. The concerns of these plans are they can be costly for the employer to maintain and in the case of Illinois, can be drastically unfunded.

The majority of employees that have retirement plans have access to defined contribution plans. In these plans the employee is responsible for funding, investing and distributing the money at retirement. The employer only sponsors the plan and may provide a matching sum. Those without any employer plan are left with saving in IRAs, myRAs, or other non-qualified accounts.

Proponents of mandatory savings plans include Froman (2009), David (2007), Statman (2013), and Ghilarducci (2007, 2009). Most notably, Teresa Ghilarducci recommends a 2.5% contribution from both employer and employee to an account maintained for the benefit of the employee. The accounts would have investment options similar to the Thrift Savings Plan for government employees as well as a guaranteed interest account.

At retirement the entire account must be annuitized to provide guaranteed income for the retiree’s life. I agree with this method. This provides at least some guarantee that a retiree will have income for life. This is what annuities are designed to do – provide longevity insurance.

Following in Ghilarducci’s footsteps, I recommended a higher savings rate similar to what Ibbotson, Xiong, Kreitler, Kreitler, Chen, P., (2007) and Pfau (2011). At the very least, I suggest a minimum default savings rate of 10% with gradual 2% increases annually to 20%. This is similar to what Bateman & Piggott (1998) found in Australia’s mandatory plan.

A mandatory plan will remove the need for employers and financial planners to “nudge” employees and clients to save for retirement. Under a mandatory plan, the decision is made for them. In this case, some income for retirement is guaranteed.



Bateman, H., & Piggott, J., (1998). Mandatory Retirement Saving in Australia. Retrieved March 20, 2015, from

David, D., (2007). Mandatory Retirement Plans? Not Quite, but Close. Journal of Pension Benefits. 56-58.

Forman, J. (2009). Should We Replace the Current Pension System With A Universal Pension System? Retrieved March 24, 2015 from

Ghilarducci, T., (2007). Guaranteed Retirement Accounts: Toward Retirement Income Security. Retrieved April 10, 2015 from

Ghilarducci, T., & Arias, D. (2009). The High Cost of Nudge Economics and the Efficiency of Mandatory Retirement Accounts. Retrieved April 17, 2015 from

Ibbotson, R., Xiong, J., Kreitler, R., Kreitler, C., & Chen, P., (2007). National Savings Rate Guidelines for Individuals. Retrieved April 9, 2015 from

Pfau, W. (2011). Safe Savings Rates: A New Approach to Retirement Planning over the Lifecycle. Journal of Financial Planning, 24(5).

Statman, M., (2013). Mandatory Retirement Savings. Financial Analysts Journal, 69(3), 14-18.

Social Security Survivor Benefit Coordination

coordinatingIf you’re a widow or widower and you are eligible for Social Security Survivor’s Benefits based on your late spouse’s record, you may have some timing decisions to make that could significantly affect your overall benefits. This is especially true if you are also eligible for Social Security benefits based on your own earnings record.

Timing the receipt of benefits is, as with most all Social Security benefits, the primary factor that you can control.  If you have worked over your lifetime and you have a  becomes even more important. The decision process is dependent upon the relative size of your own Social Security benefit as compared to the Survivor Benefit based on your late spouse’s record.

Own SS Benefit Greater than Survivor Benefit  If your own benefit will be greater than the Survivor Benefit, it could be beneficial to you in the long run to take the Survivor Benefit as early as possible (as early as age 60) even though it will be reduced.  You could then continue receiving this reduced benefit for several years to your FRA (or even to age 70) and then switch over to your own benefit, which will be higher and unreduced at that point.

Survivor Benefit Greater than Own Benefit  If the Survivor Benefit is the larger of the two, you could take your own benefit early (reduced, of course) and then switch over to the Survivor Benefit later, at FRA. It doesn’t pay to delay the Survivor Benefit to a date later than your Full Retirement Age – the Survivor Benefit will not increase after that age.

By using one of these methods you are able to receive *some* benefit earlier-on in your life, and then switch over to the higher benefit later.  Just keep in mind that earnings limits and other reductions will apply.  Also, these same options are available for ex-spouse widows and widowers as well, as long as you haven’t remarried prior to age 60.

Complications with Social Security Filing for Divorcees

divorceSocial Security filing decisions are tough enough – and so is being divorced. Add the two together and you have all sorts of complications. In this article we’ll review one type of complication with Social Security filing for divorcees that can work in your favor and one that can work against you.

Let’s start with the provision that may work against you – Deemed Filing.

Deemed Filing

When you file for benefits prior to Full Retirement Age (FRA, which is 66 for folks born between 1943 and 1954, ranging up to age 67 if born in 1960), a provision called “deemed filing” takes effect. Deemed filing means that you are “deemed” to have filed for all available benefits – generally meaning your own benefit and any spousal benefit that you are eligible for as of the date of filing.

The reason that deemed filing might work against you if you’re divorced is because of the nature of eligibility for spousal benefits for a divorcee: You are automatically eligible for spousal benefits based on your ex-spouse’s record when either the ex has reached age 62 and the divorce has been final for two years, or when the ex files for his or her own Social Security benefits, whichever occurs first.

For a currently-married individual, spousal benefits are not available until the spouse has applied for his or her own benefit. Because of this, the married individual has a bit more control over his or her filing for spousal benefits, since the couple can discuss and time the two filings in order to separate retirement benefits from spousal benefits. As a divorcee you have much less control over this decision.

For example, Lou divorced her husband Ed five years ago after a 10+ year marriage. Lou is going to reach age 62 this year, and she would like to file for her own benefit now, and then delay filing for the spousal benefit based on Ed’s record until she reaches FRA, age 66. The key here is Ed’s age. If Ed is already age 62 or older, Lou does not have the option of separating her retirement benefit from the spousal benefit.

On the other hand, if Ed reaches age 62 at least in the month after Lou reaches age 62, Lou could file for her own retirement benefit any time after she reaches age 62 but before Ed reaches age 62, effectively separating her own retirement benefit from the spousal benefit based on Ed’s record.

Another way that this separation could occur is if the divorce had not occurred more than 2 years before Lou’s reaching age 62, and Ed has not filed for his own benefit prior to Lou’s filing.

So in our example, if the divorce was only finalized earlier this year and Ed has not filed for his own benefit, Lou could file for her own retirement benefit separately from the spousal benefit any time before the two-year period after the divorce has elapsed – as long as Ed doesn’t file for his own benefit before that period has elapsed.

This is also dependant upon the fact that Lou remains unmarried. So another way to separate these benefits would be for Lou to re-marry, and then file for her own benefit at any time. The remarriage nullifies Lou’s eligibility for spousal benefits based on Ed’s record. The eligibility for spousal benefits based on Ed’s record is restored if Lou’s current marriage ends (either by a subsequent divorce or death of the current spouse) – but since she wasn’t eligible when she filed for her own benefit, deemed filing did not apply and she can control when she files for the spousal benefit.

Restricted Application

On the other hand, as a divorcee you may have special treatment available to you in filing a restricted application for spousal benefits.

The restricted application is an option where an individual can, at Full Retirement Age or later, file strictly for spousal benefits only while delaying filing on his or her own retirement benefit until later when delayed retirement credits have accrued. He or she must not have filed for any Social Security retirement benefits previously.

In order for an individual to be eligible to file a restricted application, of course that person must be eligible for a spousal benefit. As a divorcee, the same rules that restricted you in the deemed filing section above have a tendency to liberate you at this stage. Since eligibility for spousal benefits is based only on the age of your ex-spouse and the time elapsed since the divorce was finalized, a unique situation is available. Both spouses could be eligible to file a restricted application.

On the other hand, for a married couple only one spouse can be eligible for a restricted application – because eligibility for spousal benefits for married persons depends on the other spouse filing for his or her own benefit. In doing so, of course this person could not file a restricted application.

Back to our example couple, Lou & Ed: Lou chose not to file for her own benefit at 62, and Ed delayed as well. When Lou reaches FRA (as long as she’s unmarried), she can file a restricted application for spousal benefits based on Ed’s record. This is because she is at or older than FRA and she is eligible for spousal benefits due to the fact that her divorce has been finalized for more than 2 years and Ed is at least age 62. Ed’s filing status doesn’t matter to her eligibility.

Should You Self-Insure?

230147757_0d1d0f2ff5_mAt some point in our lives the question arises as to whether or not it makes sense to keep some of the insurance we have. Please understand that this post is not about encouraging the reader to drop any insurance coverage, but perhaps give some perspective on whether or not it makes sense to do so.

Consider the case of life insurance. Generally, the younger we are the more life insurance makes sense. When we’re young we have many years until retirement and have high human capital; the ability to earn great amount over our working lifetime. Our financial capital is very small; we haven’t accumulated any assets such as retirement savings. As we age, our human capital decreases. Our financial capital increases and is high when we retire. Thus the need for life insurance diminishes.

It’s at this point that an individual can consider letting their term insurance policy expire after the term is up such as 30 years. The individual can consider if there’s really a need to replace the human capital they were protecting throughout their working life. At this point, many individuals choose to self-insure. That is, they elect to pay for expenses at death such as funeral, burial, etc., with the financial capital they’ve accumulated.

A similar consideration can be applied to long term care. With premiums increasing and underwriting getting more stringent an individual or couple may decide that it’s more cost effective to pay for their long term care, if needed, out of their financial capital.

There are plenty of points to think about in favor of keeping the insurance. For example, if an individual has a desire to leave a gift or substantial sum of money to charity or heirs, they may choose to keep their life insurance. They may also purchase life insurance at a later age to leverage the gift.

With long term care insurance, they may choose to purchase a policy in order to protect the assets they’ve accumulated. Additionally, they may purchase the long term care insurance in order to alleviate the burden their care may be on family if they didn’t have the insurance.

These are just some idea to consider. As always, don’t hesitate to ask a professional and get specific advice for your situation.

Maximum WEP Impact


Photo courtesy of Matthew Kosloski via

Rounding out our series of articles about the Windfall Elimination Provision, or WEP, I thought we should talk a bit about the maximum impact that WEP can have on you.

In other articles we’ve discussed this in part, but it hasn’t necessarily been fleshed out completely.  As you may know, the maximum WEP reduction is equal to the lesser of 50% of the first “bend point” for each year or 50% of the amount of the pension from income that was not subject to Social Security taxation. In 2015 this is $413 per month at most.

What’s important to know is that this reduction is against your Primary Insurance Amount (PIA), not necessarily against your benefit amount. Depending upon when you file relative to your Full Retirement Age, the WEP impact to your benefit could be more or less than that amount.

Wait – what?

As you may recall, the Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) is only equal to your benefit if you file at exactly your Full Retirement Age (FRA). If you file at some age (even a month) before or after your FRA, the PIA is only a foundation used to calculate your benefit. If you file before FRA, your benefit will be something less than the PIA; after, your benefit will be something more than your PIA.

So, as a result, if your PIA is reduced by the maximum WEP impact ($413 for 2015), the actual benefit reduction will be more or less than that amount unless you file at exactly your FRA.

For example, Sue has an unreduced, pre-WEP PIA (Primary Insurance Amount) of $1,500 and she is subject to the maximum WEP impact of $413. Sue is deciding when to file for her Social Security benefit – she will be 62 in 3 months, so she could file early, or she could wait until age 70 to file. Her FRA is 66 years of age.

If Sue decides to file at age 62, her benefit would be calculated as 75% of her PIA. Since her PIA is $1,500 and the maximum WEP impact is $413, her WEP impacted PIA will be $1,087 ($1,500 minus $413). Her benefit at age 62 will be $815.30 – for a dollar-reduction (maximum WEP impact) of $309.70 because if WEP had not impacted her PIA her benefit would have been $1,125.

On the other hand, if Sue decides to file age her own age 70, her benefit is calculated as 132% of her PIA – reflecting the maximum Delayed Retirement Credits. Since her maximum WEP impact-reduced PIA is $1,087 (as calculated above), her benefit at age 70 will be $1,434.80. In this case, her maximum WEP impact is $545.20. This is because if the Sue’s PIA had not been subject to the maximum WEP impact, it would have been $1,980 at her age 70.

So, the real maximum WEP impact to your benefit can be anywhere from $309.70 to $545.20 for 2015.

File & Suspend vs. Restricted Application

file & suspendThese provisions in Social Security filing are, without a doubt, the two that cause the most confusion. Being very complicated provisions and also provisions that can be very helpful to folks wishing to maximize benefits, file & suspend and restricted application are often mis-used or completely misunderstood. So at the suggestion of a reader, seeing a comment response I’d given to another reader, I will provide some additional background on just what is the difference between these two, as well as when one is used versus the other.

First of all – although it is technically possible for one person to both file & suspend and file a restricted application, typically this results in either no benefit at all or very little benefit. You should not consider both of these to be done by one person unless there are some extenuating circumstances that require it (I can’t for the life of me think of any at the moment but there’s bound to be at least one).

Here’s why:

When you file & suspend, you have established a filing date. If you have established a filing date, the only spousal benefit that you are eligible to receive is the excess – which is the spousal benefit minus your own benefit. If this turns out to be negative, you would receive no spousal benefit at all. If your intent is to delay your own benefit as long as possible you would be unnecessarily reducing the spousal benefit (or eliminating it altogether) by doing a file & suspend.

On the other hand, you can only file a restricted application if you have not established a filing date, and you can only file this at or after your FRA. By filing a restricted application, you are eligible for the full amount of the spousal benefit (50% of your spouse’s FRA-age benefit) with no reduction. Your spouse must have established a filing date for her retirement benefit to enable you to file the restricted application.

The restricted application is called so because you are applying NOT for all available benefits, but you are restricting your application to spousal benefits only. If your application is not restricted, SSA considers it an application for all available benefits as of your filing date. You would file a restricted application if you wanted to delay your retirement benefit but also receive a spousal benefit in the meantime (until you file for your own retirement benefit).

To help with understanding, have a look at this prior article File & Suspend and Restricted Application are NOT Equal. There are a few examples toward the end of the article which will likely help illustrate the differences between the two provisions.

Hope this helps to clear things up about file & suspend and restricted application – if not, let me know in the comments below!

The Power of Dollar Cost Averaging

financial fitnessIf you’re like most investors systematically saving for retirement through their employer or with an IRA chances are you’re taking advantage of dollar cost averaging. Dollar cost averaging is a method of investing a specific dollar amount, generally monthly, no matter how the market is reacting. It’s also a way for an investor to fully fund a retirement account without requiring the maximum amount allowed in one shot.

For example, let’s assume that an investor under the age of 50 wants to save to an IRA. The maximum contribution to the IRA for 2015 is $5,500. Should the investor want to save monthly and still invest the maximum allowed for the year, he would simply divide by 12 and invest a sum of $458.33 monthly.

The beauty of this strategy is that the investor takes advantage of market swings, whether high or low. If the market is considerably high (as it is as of this writing) the investor is buying fewer shares for the $458.33 invested. If the market falls, the investor (assuming he keeps investing – which he should) buys more shares for the same $458.33. Over time, dollar cost averaging allows the investor to purchase shares for an overall lower cost per share. This strategy not only works for IRAs but also for an employer-sponsored plan such as a 401(k). In fact, many individuals are already doing this via payroll deductions.

The investor is accomplishing a few things by dollar cost averaging. First, he is saving for retirement. Second, he is controlling emotions by investing consistently no matter what the market is doing. Lastly, he is not trying to time the market. By dollar cost averaging he’s actually passively timing the market by buying less when the market is high and more when it’s low, all for the same monthly amount.

Let me explain why it’s important to keep investing in a down market. I’m going to give an analogy that I think fits well. Imagine you want to purchase a flat screen TV. You’ve gone to the local store and find out that the TV you’re looking for is $1,000. After waiting a week you go back to the store to see that same TV has been marked down to $250, same TV, brand spanking new. Another week goes by and you see the TV is now priced at $1,250.

The question is: at which point do you buy?

Obviously the answer is when the TV is priced at $250. You may consider buying four TVs since you planned on spending $1,000 anyway. Paying $1,250 is absurd, isn’t it?

Interestingly enough, many investors do the exact opposite when markets are rising or falling. Many individuals feel safety and security when the market is high and invest more. Yet, those same individuals will not buy and may even sell when the market is low or on sale, which is a recipe for disaster. This is a rare example where individuals feel better about paying more – for the same thing. It doesn’t make sense.

Dollar cost averaging helps control this behavior. It systematically forces us to buy less when markets are high and possibly overpriced and more when they’re on sale. Benjamin Graham, arguably the most famous investor and Warren Buffett’s teacher advocates dollar cost averaging in his seminal book, The Intelligent Investor. It helps take the emotion out of investing by passively forcing an investor to keep investing regardless of market volatility.