Best Ways To Save: February 2013

Best Ways To Save: February 2013

The Hard Times Guide to Retirement Security

Interview with author Mark Miller

"Whatever the reason, most Americans before they retire have paid little attention to the huge life transition that is coming.  We don’t have a good idea of how much we need to save for retirement," writes Mark Miller, journalist and author who writes about trends in retirement and aging.  Mark, the author of The Hard Times Guide to Retirement Security: Practical Strategies for Money, Work and Living (John Wiley & Sons/Bloomberg Press, 2010) shares a few important tips with our readers.


Q: In your book The Hard Times Guide to Retirement Security you say that today's retirees need to "rethink retirement."  In what ways do our ideas about retirement need changing?


A: We need to throw out the stereotype we've had that when you're 65 you quit working and head to the golf course.  In the wake of the Great Recession, it doesn't really work financially for most folks.  Even though my book has the word "retirement" in the title, about one-third of the chapters deal with careers and work at midlife and beyond -- tips for finding jobs, starting an entrepreneurial venture or launching an encore career focused on social contribution.

The message here isn't "work till you drop."  Working even a few additional years can boost retirement security substantially when you finally do retire. There's a "triple whammy" effect -- delayed Social Security filings means higher monthly benefits; you have more years of contributions to retirement accounts; and you have fewer net years of drawing down those accounts.  Working with financial planning experts, we estimated that these factors can boost income in retirement by one-third or more.


Q: What would you say are the three most important decisions to maximize Social Security?


A: Deciding when to file is the biggest decision you face.  Social Security benefits are calculated using a formula called the primary insurance amount, or PIA. Seniors who wait to start receiving Social Security until their full retirement age (currently 66) receive 100 percent of PIA; taking benefits at 62, the first year of eligibility, gets them 75 percent of PIA.  By waiting until age 70, they'll receive 132 percent of the PIA – nearly double the monthly income for the rest of their lives.  Those benefits are enhanced by an annual cost-of-living adjustment, which is added back in for any years of delayed filing.

Spousal and survivor strategies also are important.  One example is file-and-suspend, which allows a spouse to claim a spousal benefit while the individual defers claiming.  Another is "claim now, claim more later," where the high earner in a married couple claims a spousal benefit based on the lower earning spouse’s record, while delaying his or her own retired worker benefit.  The idea is to generate higher benefits both for the individual as well as higher survivor benefits for widows.

Last - don't let all the political spin about Social Security scare you.  The program is not going broke.  Social Security does face a long-term financial challenge.  Even when the Social Security Trust Fund becomes exhausted there would still be sufficient assets from payroll taxes to pay about 75 percent of promised benefits.  Although that isn't a fair or acceptable outcome — a far more likely one — Congress will take action to correct the imbalance.


Q: What strategies are key to better managing healthcare costs in retirement?


A: First, re-shop your Medicare prescription drug coverage every fall during Open Enrollment season -- and the same goes for Medicare Advantage if you're in one of these plans.  Insurance companies often change their offerings year-to-year in ways that can increase drug costs by hundreds of dollars, or make it more difficult to get certain drugs. At the same time, your drug needs may have changed since the last plan selection period in ways that make a plan less beneficial for you.

The other big variable in health care is insuring against the risk of a big tab for long-term care.  This is an area where we just don't have very good options right now. The market for private long-term care insurance doesn't function very well -- the cost of coverage has been soaring, and the number of insurance companies in the market has been shrinking.  Medicaid is the country's biggest payer for nursing home bills, but you need to spend down to poverty levels to qualify and most often your care choices are limited.  The other options are "self-insuring" paying out of pocket if you’re very affluent, or if like many older senior Americans, you rely on family members for help.


Q: What tips do you have for job hunting seniors?


A: There's good news and bad for older job seekers.  The good news: the jobless rate for older workers is lower than the overall unemployment rate.  And many employers do value older workers for their experience, skill sets, reliability and maturity.

The bad news: there's still plenty of age discrimination in the workplace.  When workers over age 50 lose their jobs, it takes them much longer to find new jobs.  And the impact of a layoff is bigger for older workers.  These folks face the reality that they may not work again full time, which can wreck a retirement plan.  Studies show that household wealth typically takes a hit as high as 23 percent for single people and 19 percent for married couples.

Finally, when older workers do land new jobs, they typically experience a steep drop in income and benefits.  Median wages for people who take new jobs in their fifties fall by a median of 57 percent, and 25 percent lose their health insurance.

As for job hunting tips, my book has a chapter called "Six Rules for Job Hunting." I discuss how to package yourself as the solution to an employer's problems, how to keep your skill set fresh and relevant, 21st Century networking techniques, and several other key strategies.

For more ideas about surviving retirement visit Mark's website

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