Emily Brandon is a retirement columnist with U.S. News & World Report and author of the new book “Pensionless.” I asked her about a wide range of retirement topics.
Your book is called “Pensionless: The 10-step solution for a stress-free retirement.” Is there one (or two) of those steps that you would stress as being at the top of the list? What are they?
One of the most important retirement decisions you will make is when to sign up for Social Security. Your monthly payments change significantly depending on your age when you sign up. Most baby boomers are eligible to claim the full benefit they have earned at age 66. If they sign up earlier their monthly payments are reduced. Those who delay claiming Social Security until age 70 are eligible for bigger monthly payments. Married couples have additional Social Security claiming options. You can coordinate benefits with a spouse to maximize your benefit as a couple or boost the benefits a surviving spouse will receive.
Is there one fact or statistic related to retirement that would surprise most people?
As recently as 1980, 39 percent of the private sector labor force had a traditional pension plan, according to Department of Labor data. The proportion of people enjoying this level of retirement security has fallen relentlessly since then to just 15 percent in 2015. Almost all of us are now pensionless. The 401(k) plan has risen as the new predominant form of workplace retirement benefit. In 2015, 61 percent of private industry workers had the option to join a 401(k) plan, but only 43 percent of workers actually saved in the plan. The benefits of 401(k) plans primarily go to people who have the ability to save, the financial literacy to invest successfully, and the savvy to make it through a gauntlet of fees and penalties.
One of your steps is about how to minimize taxes. Why is this important, and why do many people overlook it?
The money you have accumulated in your traditional 401(k) and traditional IRA can’t all be used for retirement because you still owe income tax on it. However, there are several ways to minimize or even avoid taxes as you pull money out of your retirement accounts. For example, taking withdrawals from your retirement accounts before you sign up for Social Security can sometimes help you to stay in a lower tax bracket and pay a lower tax rate on your retirement savings. If you are employed after age 70½ and don’t own 5 percent or more of the company you work for, you can delay 401(k) withdrawals, and the resulting tax bill, until you actually retire. And those who are at least age 70½ can avoid income tax on IRA distributions of up to $100,000 per year that they directly transfer to a qualifying charity.
Why are people so confused by Medicare? And what are the most surprising things retirees discover when they are eligible for Medicare?
You need to make a variety of decisions when you sign up for Medicare. You first become eligible for Medicare during the 7-month period that begins three months before your 65th birthday. It’s incredibly important to sign up for Medicare during this initial enrollment period. If you delay your Medicare enrollment you could be charged higher premiums for the rest of your life. Medicare Parts B and D both have late enrollment penalties that could be permanently added to your monthly premiums. If you’re still working after age 65 and receive health insurance through your employer, you need to sign up within 8 months of leaving your job or the group health plan ending to avoid the penalty.
If you can give retirement-age people one piece of advice, what would it be?
Pay close attention to the fees you are being charged on your investments, and consider switching if you can find a similar fund that costs less. One document that everyone should look at is called your 401(k) fee disclosure statement, which your 401(k) plan is required to send you every year. This document will list every fund in your 401(k) plan and how much it costs to invest in it. You can use this statement to calculate how much you are paying, determine what will trigger additional fees, and to shop around for lower cost funds. Minimizing the fees you pay on your investments will give you more money for spending in retirement.
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Question of the week: What are your biggest regrets about retirement and retirement planning? Send comments to email@example.com. Please include your name, city and state. In the subject line put “Retirement Regrets.”
Last week’s question: Are you planning to retire in your current home or move to a new city and/or state? Where and why?
C.E. May wrote:
Yes, my husband and I are planning to retire in our current home. We purchased it about 3 years ago. It is a one level with walkout basement. It has a few steps, but not many. We were looking while I was on a knee scooter, and we saw what would be involved in getting into/out of the house and that mostly it would be one level living. It is a straight shot to the basement, so a rail chair installation would be easy and not too expensive.
We’ve been making changes it to it, that would allow for extra comfort and ease.
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Write Brooks at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20071, or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Perfiguy. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read more, go to washingtonpost.com/business