Workers Overestimate their Social Security


Printed Social Security statement

Workers Overestimate their Social Security

The U.S. Social Security Administration reported a few years ago that half of retirees get at least half of their income from their monthly checks. For lower-income retirees, the benefits constitute almost all of their income.

Yet Americans have only a vague understanding of how this crucial program works – one of many obstacles on the road to retirement. A new study by the University of Southern California’s Center for Economic and Social Research finds that workers are overly optimistic about their future benefits, which is one reason so many people don’t save enough for retirement.

Workers “would probably have fewer regrets after retirement” if they were better informed, the study concluded. And many retirees in the study have regrets. Roughly half wished they’d done a better job of planning.

The researchers’ focus was on working people ages 30 and over. In a survey, the workers were asked to pick the age they plan to start Social Security and to estimate their future monthly benefits. To get as good a number as possible, they were instructed to predict a range of benefits in today’s dollars and then assign subjective probabilities to the amounts within that range.

Their guesses were compared with more precise estimates, made by the researchers, who predicted each workers’ future earnings paths – based on characteristics like their age, gender, education, and past and current earnings – and put them into Social Security’s formula to calculate the expected benefits.

The subjective estimates made by every group analyzed – men, women, young, old, college degree or not – on average exceeded the researchers’ more accurate estimates, though to different degrees. For example, women were more likely than men to overshoot the reliable estimates. Interestingly, people who said they had “no idea” what their benefits would be came closer to the mark than anyone – having less confidence apparently offset the tendency toward overestimation.

Young adults, who aren’t naturally focused on retirement, overshot their benefits the most. This is not surprising but still unfortunate, because good decisions made early in a career – namely, how much to save in a 401(k) – will greatly improve financial security in retirement.

One explanation for workers’ widespread inaccuracy, the researchers found, is that they aren’t clear on how much their benefit would be reduced if they claim it before reaching Social Security’s full retirement age. …Learn More


Photo of the board game Life

Here’s Why People Don’t Save Enough

In the United States and Singapore – places that emphasize self-reliance – many older workers and retirees admit that, if given a do-over, they would have saved more money over the past 20 or 30 years.

Regret was more common in the United States – 54 percent of older Americans had it versus 46 percent in Singapore, according to comparable surveys in each place. Perhaps the reason Singapore has less is because the government requires that employees set aside more than a third of their income in three government-run savings accounts for retirement, healthcare, and home purchases and other investments. On the other hand, Singapore doesn’t have Social Security or unemployment insurance, and private pensions are rare.

Whatever the differences, regret is a common sentiment in Singapore and the United States. What researchers wanted to know is: what is the source of that regret?

They tested two hypotheses. One is the human tendency to procrastinate and never get around to tasks that should be a priority. The other reason is largely outside of workers’ control: financial disruptions earlier in life that sabotage efforts to save, such as a layoff or large medical bill.

Employment problems, the researchers found, were a major source of saving regrets for 60- to 74-year-olds in both places but the impact was especially strong in the United States, which historically has had a more volatile labor market than Singapore. Disruptions that interfered with workers’ ability to save included bouts of unemployment and earning less than they were expecting. Early retirements and disabilities also led to saving regrets, as did unanticipated health problems and bad investments.

But procrastination as a reason for regret did not stand up to scrutiny. In this part of the survey, individuals agreed or disagreed with various statements designed to indicate whether they were procrastinators, including whether they work best under pressure or put off things they’re not good at. …Learn More


Silhouette of a detective with glasses

$4 Billion in Pension Payments Returned

It’s the employer’s responsibility to find former employees and keep them apprised of any retirement benefits they left behind.

But that hasn’t always worked out. Some employers don’t have former workers’ current contact information, and others don’t bother to track them down. Worst-case scenarios are often fallout from a merger: the company being acquired has kept shoddy pension plan records and the acquirer doesn’t update them.  Some companies have even deleted a participant’s name from the records.

Tyler Compton, an attorney with the Pension Action Center, which connects workers with lost pensions and 401(k) savings plans, said people frequently contact a former employer because they think they might have a plan. But if the worker is told he’s not in the records, he might drop the matter, she said.

The U.S. Department of Labor decided several years ago that employers’ efforts weren’t good enough. The department’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) began investigating the problem and pushing companies to improve their methods for finding workers who had quit or been laid off but were owed pension benefits or had savings sitting in an old 401(k).

EBSA has gotten results. Since 2017, more than $4 billion in past due defined benefit pension payments have been returned to millions of plan participants.

By making clear what is expected of employers, regulators “put a lot of pressure, in a good sense, on plan administrators to really up their games,” Jeffrey Holdvogt, a legal partner with McDermott Will & Emery, said in a recent webinar hosted by the Pension Action Center at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. …Learn More

No-Benefit Jobs Better than Retiring Early

Woman in taxiMany workers in their 60s lose some of their stamina. Either their bodies start showing signs of wear, or they don’t tolerate on-the-job stress like they used to.

People who find themselves in this situation but can’t afford to retire will appreciate the findings in a recent study: older workers who transition to a new job – and perhaps a less demanding one – have greatly improved their retirement finances, even if the new job lacks health and retirement benefits.

The starting point for the analysis was to identify 61- and 62-year-olds employed in career jobs and follow the changes in their retirement finances over time, as they break into three groups. Some retired, some remained in longstanding jobs with benefits, and some found no-benefit jobs, whether with an employer or as an independent contractor.

Matt Rutledge and Gal Wettstein at the Center for Retirement Research compared each group’s retirement prospects in their early 60s with where they ended up years later, after the majority of them had retired. The focus was on the people who, at 62, were falling short of what they would need to retire comfortably.

The financial assessments were based on so-called replacement rates – estimated retirement income as a percentage of employment earnings. The average target required for financial security in old age is about 75 percent of past earnings, though the precise number depends on how much the individual earned.

The researchers estimated replacement rates for the 62-year-olds who fell short of the targets and estimated the rates again when they were 67 or 68. Retirement security improved over time for the under-prepared people who continued to work – in contrast to an erosion in security for the people who, despite falling short, had retired at 62 and locked in a small Social Security check.

The most interesting finding concerned the older workers who had extended their employment by switching to no-benefit jobs. Their retirement income in their late 60s replaced 68 percent of their past earnings, on average – still less than what they need but up dramatically from 52 percent if they had retired early. …Learn More


A group of millennials

Black Millennials’ Wealth is Sliding

Black Millennial Figure

It’s still too early to assess the full impact of the COVID-19 downturn on Millennials’ economic fortunes. But Black Millennials had already lost a lot of ground before the pandemic hit their communities hard.

Their wealth in 2019 was just half of what would be expected based on how much wealth their parents’ generation had at the same age.

Other Millennials are also running behind previous generations, but only slightly. And their situations have improved in recent years, while Black Millennials are sliding farther and farther behind.

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis called the situation “alarming” in its new report.

The oldest Millennials are turning 41 this year. But in 2019, the typical Black family born in the 1980s had only $5,000 in their savings accounts, 401(k)s, home equity and other wealth – compared with the roughly $11,000 they would be expected to have based on the previous generation. Hispanic Millennials had $22,000, and whites had $88,000.

Black Millennials are struggling for a few different reasons, said Ana Hernández Kent, a senior researcher for the St. Louis Fed’s Institute for Economic Equity. Homeownership is a major source of wealth for most Americans, but only a third of them own homes – half the rate of their white peers.

Student debt is another big issue, because African-Americans who borrowed money for college either didn’t graduate or used the loans to attend lower-quality for-profit colleges at disproportionate rates. Their college experiences haven’t always translated to earnings that are high enough to justify the debt taken on to pay for an education.

“They’re over-leveraged,” Kent said. “Just over a third of Black Millennials with at least a two-year degree are more likely to say the costs of college are larger than the benefits.” …Learn More


A small house

Home Equity Rises. Reverse Mortgages Don’t

The housing market has shrugged off the pandemic, and home prices are rising sharply due to historically low interest rates. The market crash more than a decade ago is a distant memory.

Home Equity graphThe total value of the equity in older Americans’ homes has doubled since 2010, hitting $8.05 trillion at the end of last year. The irony is that federally insured reverse mortgages, which allow a long-time homeowner to cash in on tens of thousands of dollars of equity, aren’t very popular.

Last year, only 42,000 Home Equity Conversion Mortgages (HECMs) were sold – half as many as in 2010 – according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

One reason HECM reverse mortgages haven’t caught on, as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau notes, is that they might not be suitable to homeowners who eventually sell their house. As the loans accrue interest, the “balance is likely to grow faster than their home values will appreciate,” the agency said.

But most retired homeowners never move, and HECMs are one option for people who are short on income. “We accept it as ‘normal’ to spend-down 401(k) funds, yet somehow home equity is sacrosanct,” said Dave Gardner, a former mortgage broker who sometimes handled reverse mortgages. Retirees, he said, should consider this question: “Could you achieve a better result and extend the lifespan of your nest egg with a reverse mortgage?”

To qualify for the loans, borrowers must be at least 62. They can take the reverse mortgage proceeds in the form of a lump sum, line of credit, or monthly payments – or some combination of these.

Curious homeowners can check out the federal government’s new pamphlet, which explains the basics of reverse mortgages. It’s aimed at people who already have the loans but is just as useful for people who are curious about using one themselves.

Before proceeding with any complex financial transaction, however, it’s critical to do due diligence. A reverse mortgage is no different. …Learn More


colorful arrows

What the Research Can Tell us about Retiring

It’s difficult to envision what life will look like on the other side of the consequential decision to retire.

But research can help demystify what lies ahead – about the decision itself, the financial challenges, and even the taxes. Readers understand this, as evidenced by the most popular blog posts in the first three months of the year.

Here are the highlights:

The retirement decision. The article, “Retirement Ages Geared to Life Expectancy,” attracted the most reader traffic. Myriad considerations go into a decision to retire. But a sense of whether one might live a long time – because of good health or simply seeing that parents or neighbors are living unusually long – is a compelling reason to postpone retirement either to remain active or to build up one’s finances to fund a longer retirement.

A recent study found that as men’s life spans have increased, they have responded by remaining in the labor force longer, especially in areas of the country with strong job markets and more opportunity. This is also true, though to a lesser extent, for working women.

The planning. The second most popular blog was, “Big Picture Helps with Retirement Finances.” It described the success researchers have had with an online tool they designed, which shows older workers the impact on their retirement income of various decisions. When participants in the experiment selected when to start Social Security or how to withdraw 401(k) funds, the tool estimated their total retirement income. If they changed their minds, the income estimate would change.

The tool isn’t sold commercially. But it’s encouraging that researchers are looking for real-world solutions to the financial planning problem, since the insights from experiments like these often make their way into the online tools that are available to everyone.

The taxes. It’s common for a worker’s income to drop after retiring. So the good news shouldn’t be surprising in a study highlighted in a recent blog, “How Much Will Your Retirement Taxes Be?” Four out of five retired households pay little or no federal and state income taxes, the researchers found. But taxes are an important consideration for retirees who have saved substantial sums. …Learn More

 


Originally posted at https://squaredawayblog.bc.edu/tag/401k/

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