Thursday, March 3, 2011

How to Avoid Running Out of Money in Retirement

The fear of running out of money may be the biggest financial dilemma for most retirees. There's no perfect solution to the problem. But plenty of people have long, enjoyable retirements and leave something behind for their heirs. So the problem isn't insurmountable. Here are some ideas.

Build up your Social Security and pension credits. Whatever Congress and the President do to reform Social Security, they won't abolish it. It will be there in one form or another when you retire. Working as long as possible to maximize your benefits ensures a lifelong stream of inflation-adjusted payments. While Social Security won't cover more than the basics, life is easier when you have the basics covered. If you're fortunate enough to have a pension, work as long as you can to boost your pension payments. Working longer, although not as much fun as shuffleboard, is one of the best ways to make sure you're as well prepared as possible for retirement.

Save. The more you save, in retirement accounts or otherwise, the better off you will be in retirement. Non-savers, by definition, have already run out of money, and poor savers will quickly fall into the abyss. It's important to have a pool of cash available for big expenses like assisted living and other medical bills. If all you have are comparatively small streams of payments like Social Security and perhaps a pension, and you need to go into assisted living, you'll have effectively run out of money even though you're still getting a monthly income.

Pay down debts. Ideally, you should have no mortgage and little or no other debt by the time you retire. Debt, and its accompanying interest expenses, are negative savings. Some financial advisers will conjure up scenarios where you supposedly might be better off with a mortgage or some other debt. But debt involves risk, and the recent financial crisis and Great Recession amply demonstrate that risk can easily lead to losses. Financial stability is very important for a comfortable retirement, and debt destabilizes.

Invest conservatively. The older you get, the less time you have to recover from investment losses. Keeping some money in assets with potential for appreciation, like stocks, is a good idea because of long term risks of inflation. But be cautious about investing in stocks and other volatile assets. Perhaps a third of your portfolio might prudently be kept in stocks. As you get older, that proportion should shrink so that you don't get walloped by the stock market when you're 83.

Consider an annuity. It's easier to establish a budget if you have a predictable monthly income. An immediate annuity can provide either a fixed monthly payment or one that rises with inflation. (The latter is costlier, but you get additional peace of mind.) Annuities are issued by insurance companies, and they can go bankrupt. If you want the benefits of an annuity, consider buying two, each for half the amount you want to invest, from different insurance companies. Both should have solid credit ratings. With two different insurers, you diversify your risks.

Be cautious with variable annuities. They tend to have high expenses and varying (as the name indicates) payments. That uncertainty of payments may, for some, defeat the purpose of an annuity.

Note that annuities lock up the capital you invest in them, meaning you can't get access to it. All you can get are the payments. You'll almost surely need some liquid assets during retirement, for medical expenses and large items like cars. Never spend more than half your savings on annuities. Indeed, given the limitations of annuities, spend only the minimum amount needed to give you the peace of mind you're trying to secure.

Think about long term care insurance. Although increasingly expensive, long term care insurance gives you hundreds of thousands of dollars of buying power if you have to go into assisted living or have other major similar needs. Long term care insurance helps to preserve your savings (which may be important if you have a spouse or partner whose financial security you wish to protect). In addition, if you want to avoid a nursing home that accepts Medicaid patients--some feel that such nursing homes provide lower quality services--long term care insurance could be essential to affording a more exclusive facility.

Work part-time. Okay, working isn't exactly what you had in mind for retirement. But it allows you to spend less of your savings while you're able to work. If and when you reach the point where you can't work, you'll be glad you worked as long as you did.

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