Many retirees are reluctant to dip into their investments. They’ve got a lot of guessing to do when it comes to making their money last. (fergregory/iStockphoto)
Columnist

Rich retirees can’t switch off their savings mode.

Some problems are good to have.

That’s the situation for two readers who wanted advice on how to spend the money they’ve saved for retirement.

“My wife and I lived frugally for years, prioritizing our tithe and savings,” one reader wrote during my weekly online discussion. “We retired last year at 66 with over $2 million in investments and a mortgage-free home. Now that we have time, I would like to do a little traveling, nothing crazy, but maybe a cruise or safari once a year. But my wife can’t switch from saving to spending mode. We have money but don’t enjoy it. Do you have any suggestions on how I can help her understand that it’s okay to loosen up?”

Another wrote: “Any advice on helping someone who has been carefully saving become comfortable with spending in retirement? I’m not talking about getting wild and crazy. Just enjoying some of the fruits of a lifetime.”

This is not an unusual problem.

The Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) released a research paper last year that found that retirees are slowly spending down their money.

Of course, it’s not without reason that many retirees are reluctant to dip into their investments. They’ve got a lot of guessing to do when it comes to making their money last.

“Retirees face several risks — uncertain life span, uncertain medical expenses, uncertain market returns — that might cause many to spend their retirement assets more slowly,” wrote Sudipto Banerjee, who authored the EBRI report. “In addition, throughout their working lives, many people develop a saving habit. Also, having guaranteed income for life, such as a pension, doesn’t make retirees more likely to spend down their assets either. To the contrary, of all the subgroups studied, pensioners have the lowest asset spend-down rates.”

Research shows that in the first two decades of retirement, the majority of retirees don’t spend down their assets, and “this behavior is not limited to those with lower levels [of] assets,” Banerjee wrote. “In fact, those with the highest level of assets show the lowest rates of spending down.”

Here’s the breakdown of EBRI’s findings:

— Within the first 18 years of retirement, individuals with less than $200,000 in non-housing assets immediately before retirement had spent down (at the median) about one-quarter of their assets.

— Retirees with non-housing assets between $200,000 and $500,000 immediately before retirement had spent down 27.2 percent within the first 18 years.

— At the median, retirees with at least $500,000 had spent down only 11.8 percent within the first 20 years of retirement.

There’s no doubt I’ll probably be one of those slow spenders. I’m just wired to save, not splurge. But I’m trying to break the habit. I don’t want to die having not enjoyed my money.

Here are some tips to help you or your spouse let go of some of your retirement funds:

Figure out a baseline of your necessary spending. Review your retirement budget. If you know you have enough to cover your needs, you can free yourself from that fear and have some fun. Remember, your budget shows you what you cannot afford — but it also shows you what you can afford. So, just like you used to budget to replace a car, put in a line item for that cruise or safari.

— Review your net-worth statement. This is how my husband gets me to loosen my grip on our savings. The net-worth statement has all the numbers in one place. It offers a big-picture look at what you have. And if you have a lot, you can afford to treat yourself.

Consider your beneficiaries. Sure, you may want to leave them some money. But ask yourself: Do you want them to enjoy your money more than you?

Your Thoughts

Are you reluctant to spend your retirement funds not because you’re anxious about running out of money but because it’s hard to make the switch from saving to spending? Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name, city and state. In the subject line, put “Retirement Spending.”

And send me your tips on how you overcame being stuck in savings mode.

Read more:

How to live it up without going broke before you die

The top regrets of retirees

Retirement regrets: What retirees would say to their younger selves.

Retirement Rants and Raves

I’m interested in your experiences or concerns about retirement or aging. What do you like about retirement? What came as a surprise?

If you haven’t retired yet, what concerns you financially?

You can rant or rave. This space is yours. It’s a chance for you to express what’s on your mind. Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name, city and state. In the subject line put “Retirement Rants and Raves.”

Lots of readers wanted to discuss the fact that President Trump never once mentioned fixing Social Security during his State of the Union address earlier this month.

By 2034, lacking any fix, the reserves for the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund, which pays retirement and survivor benefits, will be unable to pay full benefits. And the Disability Insurance Trust Fund, which pays disability benefits, will no longer be able to pay full benefits by 2032.

Without a solution, Social Security will only have enough continuing tax income to pay out 77 percent of what is scheduled. Less severe but still falling short, the Disability Trust Fund will only have enough money coming in to cover 96 percent of benefits when its reserves are depleted.

I asked folks to weigh in about the security of Social Security.

“Why would anyone be surprised Trump did not mention Social Security?” wrote Edward Gaulrapp of Haymarket, Va. “He doesn’t need it or care about it.

Laurel Wentz of New York City wrote: “I think it’s terrifying that fixing Social Security isn’t on Trump’s wall-obsessed radar. I guess ‘Fix our retirement’ isn’t as catchy a chant at rallies as ‘Build that wall.’ And to those who aren’t too concerned because they think Social Security is an easy fix, that’s only if the government acts now to raise or remove the cap on earnings.”

Jerry Warshaw of South Orange, N.J. wrote: “The reason Trump doesn’t care about Social Security funding is because it is part of the ‘Socialistic Society’ of America that he would like to eliminate. Because his daddy took care of him, he has no appreciation of how ‘other people’ live, support themselves or have retirement funds. This egomaniac is in a position way above his abilities and we are all going to suffer even more when our deficits come home to roost. PREPARE for the next depression!”

“It is sad that the social security crisis has been so well known, and it seems like fixing it has not been a priority of any party,” wrote Anthony from Florida. “Either party could have set in motion proactive corrective action years ago. Right now, there is a lot of noise in the system and far too much posturing opposed to meaningful action. To me, the fix is simple, that is structuring a year-over-year step function raising of the cap starting immediately to meet the funding requirements. Unfortunately, no party seems to have the courage to do the right thing for the nation if it means losing votes and power. So much for serving the needs of the country.”

“We workers pay Social Security taxes for decades in order to receive a modest check during retirement,” wrote Michael Drake of Gainesville, Ga. “This is not a giveaway! Which is more important? Sending astronauts to Mars or ensuring the widowed old lady with heart failure receives her Social Security check?”

Jim Donnellan of Falmouth, Mass., wrote: “As a 50-something, I would have no issue with raising the age for eligibility for Social Security benefits. Of course, that would need to be phased in so as not to break faith with those closing in on their retirement years.”

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