Means ‘Tested’

Pundits have long worried that retirees wouldn’t have accumulated enough to live on in retirement, but the data suggests that most retirees aren’t exactly burning through their retirement savings.

I remember my one and only conversation with my father about retirement income. He had already decided to quit working, and had gathered his assorted papers regarding his savings, insurance, etc. for me to review. Determined to “dazzle” Dad with my years of accumulated financial acumen, I proceeded to outline an impressive array of options that offered different degrees of security and opportunities for growth, the pros and cons of annuities, and how best to integrate it all with his Social Security.

And when I was all done, he looked over all the materials I had spread out before him, then turned to me and said – “so how much will I have to live on each month?”

See, my dad, like many in his generation, were accustomed to living within their means. And, according to new research, he isn’t the only one.

The study shows that retirees generally exhibit very slow decumulation of assets. More specifically, the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) found that 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; those with between $200,000 and $500,000 immediately before retirement had spent down just 27.2%. Retirees with at least $500,000 immediately before retirement had spent down only 11.8% within the first 20 years of retirement at the median.

Those with pensions were much less likely to have spent down their assets than non-pensioners. During the first 18 years of retirement, the median non-housing assets of pensioners (who started retirement with much higher levels of assets) had declined just 4%, compared with a 34% decline for non-pensioners.

The median ratio of household spending to household income for retirees of all ages hovered around 1:1, inching slowly upward with age – a finding that the EBRI researchers said suggests that majority of retirees had limited their spending to their regular flow of income and had avoided drawing down assets, which explains why pensioners, who had higher levels of regular income, were able to avoid asset drawdowns better than others.

Not that that’s necessarily a heartening result, since those pensioners, arguably having guaranteed income for life, such as a pension, doesn’t lead them to spend down their assets. Indeed, of all the subgroups studied, pensioners have the lowest asset spend-down rates – though one might well expect that, with that pension “cushion” they might be more inclined to dip into their savings and “splurge.”

Why are retirees not spending down their assets? The EBRI report offers a number of reasons:

  • People don’t know how long they are going to live or how long they have to fund their retirement from these assets.
  • Uncertain medical expenses that could be catastrophic if someone has to stay in a long-term care facility for a prolonged period.
  • A desire to pass along assets to heirs.
  • A lack of financial sophistication – people don’t know what is a safe rate for spending down their assets, and are thus erring on the side of caution.
  • A behavioral impediment – after building a saving habit throughout their working lives, people find it challenging to shift into spending mode.

Now, the EBRI research was based on government data from the U.S. Health and Retirement Study to track retirees born between 1931 and 1941 with assets ranging from stocks, bonds, mutual funds, real estate and CDs to savings and checking accounts (individual homes were excluded). That’s “greatest generation” territory – retirees who were, as my father, accustomed to living within their means. Even then, it’s not all sunshine and unicorns; some retirees are indeed running out of money in retirement – though, at the same time, instead of spending down, a large – and to my ears, largely unacknowledged ­– number of retirees are continuing to accumulate assets throughout retirement.

But I’d still argue that the question “how much will I have to live on each month” winds up being a lot easier to answer at retirement – if you’ve been thinking about it pre-retirement.

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