So many theories – What’s the reality

How many times have you read a headline that fairly screams “retirement crisis” or some variation on that theme.  I often get the question – Am I saving enough? Or, How much should I be saving?  There are number of handy rules of thumb that can point people in the right direction but each requires a bit more understanding than simply a percentage or a dollar figure.

Let’s begin with a better understanding of where to start.  If you look at your paycheck the first number we need is your “net pay” which is how we will form our baseline.  Take that number and multiply it by the number of paychecks you receive each year then divide that by 12 for your monthly baseline cash flow.  That’s pretty simple math and it gives us something we can start to work with (a bit of a simplification, yes, I completely agree).  Rule of Thumb #1 – the higher that number, the more you should be saving.  Why is this?  For starters, Social Security is going to cover a higher percentage of a lower monthly amount than a higher amount. 

Let’s run through an example:  Let’s say your annual salary is $65,000.  Depending on your tax and insurance deductions (let’s leave your retirement savings out of it for now), your take home might be something in the range of $43,500 or $3,630 a month.  On the other hand, let’s say your annual salary is $95,000, your monthly take home might be something closer to $5,300.  If the average Social Security is $1,540/month, then you can quickly see that $1,540 covers a bigger chunk of $3,630 per month than it does $5,300 which means the higher earner needs to save more to make up the difference.

The next step is to consider whether or not you have a pension (and yes, there are still plenty of those floating around out there).  If you do have access to a pension and you are the lower earner in the above scenario, then you don’t need to save nearly as much as the higher earner does who might not have access to that pension.  This leads me to Rule of Thumb #2 – if you don’t have access to a pension, the more you should be saving.  Of course, having a pension isn’t fool-proof and you may want to be saving more to insulate yourself from the risks associated with non-government based pensions but that’s now a matter of choice rather than baseline survival.

So now we have some idea of how much we need and what structured resources we might have available so let’s turn to what we should be saving.  You’ll often hear “you should be saving 10% (or 15%, or 20%) of your income” or “you need to save up 10x your salary.”  That give us Rule of Thumb #3 – Target 10% of your salary since it is an easier equation to work with.  That being said, don’t forget that if you are receiving a matching contribution from your employer that counts towards your 10%.  If your income is higher and you don’t have a pension, you should be thinking about saving a higher percentage.  If you want to retire before your Social Security Full Retirement age, ditto.  If you want to retire before you are Medicare eligible or earlier, double ditto.  If you are getting started later in life, want to retire before you are Medicare eligible, and have a healthy income, perhaps consider couch surfing for a while so you can catch up on your retirement savings.

But what about all those “what’s your number” ads? So here’s the challenge with those – what’s the time frame leading up to that “number?”  What life expectancy is being use in that calculation?  What’s rate of return on your assets?  What rate of inflation is being used for your expenses?  All of your expenses, or is a different rate being used for your medical expenses?  What rate of inflation is being used on the Social Security benefits?  Rule of Thumb #4 – f you are using one of the many computer formulas available on line, make sure you understand how they are calculating what you need to save to make your “number.”

Of course, all of this starts with the making sure you have a good handle on your cash flow, have your non-housing debt eliminated (or under control), and are considering a retirement lifestyle roughly equal to your current lifestyle.  Here you have Rule of Thumb #5 – If you aren’t sure where to begin, begin at the beginning.  Start saving 1% of your pay (net or gross, your choice) and put a note in your calendar for three months later.  This lets your budget adjust for 3 months.  When that three months is up, increase your savings by 1% and mark your calendar out three more months.  Repeat this process until you’re saving at least 10%.  Can’t find 1% (or whatever you need)?  Come on in and I’ll help you find it (full & fair disclosure, my version of what you need in life is probably going to look different than yours….).

So there you have it – a solid five Rules of Thumb to bring some perspective to your long-term savings plan.  Draw yourself a little hand-turkey (remember those from kindergarten), label the fingers, and post it on your fridge as a reminder on how to secure your future.  And who said money isn’t fun!


Health Savings Accounts: Both Scary and Useful

Now that tax season is behind us, we can take a little breather and think about actions we can take to help with next year’s taxes as well as better support our retirement prospects. Most companies’ open enrollment season starts in the Fall so this gives you plenty of time to evaluate whether or not a Health Savings Account (HSA) might work for you.

What is an HSA? Not only is it a tax-deductible account you can use to save money to cover medical expenses tax-free; it’s also a tax-deductible account you can save money into for retirement. In a nutshell, you can contribute money into one and take a tax deduction for that tax year, you can invest those dollars and let them build tax-deferred, and then, in retirement, you can draw them out tax-free. There really isn’t another type of account like it.
 
For the here and now—if you are a somewhat heavy user of medical services, and you have the nice low and consistent co-pays, it’s unlikely that you will pay enough in co-pays to be able to take advantage of the medical tax deduction because of the high threshold that deduction uses (7.5% of your AGI). By switching to a High Deductible Health Plan and using an HSA, you can fund the HSA with tax-deductible dollars then pay for those services from that account tax-free. Once you’ve met your insurance deductible, your insurance kicks in and pays for any additional services you might need throughout the year. Is it really that simple? Of course not, but very often it does make much more financial sense than the co-pay process. A little more work at first—yup.  A little more money in your pocket overall—more than likely. You can even complete a once-in-a-lifetime rollover from your IRA into your HSA to frontload your account.
 
For the big upcoming medical events—another strategy is to use an HSA in anticipation of big medical events. Let’s say you are a young healthy person but you know you’re going to want to start a family (we’ve already talked about Baby Talk and how expensive giving birth is and you can count on spending many times more than that that if you need help to get pregnant), or perhaps you’ve been having a hip / knee / shoulder / reproductive / nasal / digestive / etc. issue that you know you’ll need to deal with at some point. These are big-ticket medical expenses where most insurance policies require a significant contribution from the participant. You could fund an HSA every year, with the contributions rolling from one year to the next and building along the way because you’ve invested them in a conservative allocation. Then, when your planned for event finally happens, you use the balance in one fell swoop when the bills come in.
 
For retirement—want to get the most out of this type of account? Fully fund an HSA and let the dollars roll until you need them for those hearing aids and dental care in retirement (which aren’t usually covered by Medicare). Sure you could contribute to your company retirement plan or an IRA and take the tax deduction now but then you’ll pay taxes when you take the money out, something you won’t do with an HSA. You could also use a Roth IRA but you won’t get a tax deduction now like you do with an HSA. This strategy requires a little more budgetary attention since you’ll want to cover your current medical expenses out of pocket to make the most of the strategy but that’s not out of the realm of possibility with a little prep work.

Want to make the most out of this strategy? Fund your company retirement plan up to the maximum you need to get the match, fully fund your HSA, and then throw additional dollars into your Roth or post-tax investment account—three legs of your retirement stool all set and ready to help you later in life.
 
Of course, there is a catch to all of this. In order to use a Health Savings Account, your health care plan must be a high-deductible one, not one of those co-pay plans, and that’s not always the right type of an account for everyone, which is why I bring this up now. In order to do our taxes for 2020, many of us had to at least take a peek at what we spent on medical costs for last year. Take an hour one day and do the math so you are ready for your next open enrollment. Which is better for you—using a High Deductible Health Plan and an HSA or using a co-pay based plan? While there are pros and cons to each, make sure that you are making the decision based on the numbers and not the emotions. Some people find the idea of a high deductible plan to be a little scary and I get it. Tackle those fears by looking at the numbers and building a plan. There is no insurance fairy godparent looking out for you so it’s up to all of us to make a well-informed choice.

From First Home to Last Home

One of the questions I get from clients who are a bit older is “can I age in place?”  “Aging in place” simply means, is your home set up so that you can maneuver around as you grow less nimble and perhaps need some mechanical assistance to get around (walker, wheelchair, etc.). This includes having wider doorways, door handles instead of knobs, a shower stall without a ledge versus a bathtub, lower countertops in the kitchen, etc. You’ll notice that I didn’t mention being all on one floor or having a master suite on the main floor. While the data is still relatively new, there is a school of thought that NOT doing stairs is actually exacerbating some aging issues here in America. Now, the study I read compared us to Europeans and that’s like comparing apples to Big Macs but there is a kernel of reality there so this will be interesting to watch as more Boomers age. Of course, some situations make one floor living more realistic but stop and think about whether it is something you “want” or something you “think you should have.”

Contrary to popular belief, size does matter – no one has ever said to me “boy, I really like maintaining this big house now that everyone has moved on – I want to buy a bigger house.”  Bigger houses just cost more and there’s more to maintain both inside and out. Take yard work as an example. While I miss the joy of driving my John Deere with the 60” deck, cup holder, and cruise control, I absolutely do not miss being tied to spending 3+ hours mowing each and every week. It now takes me roughly 17 minutes to mow my front lawn with my little 17’ battery-powered push mower, which means I can throw dinner on the stove, mow the lawn, and be back in before it finishes. Quite a difference. Before you start shopping, make a list of the things you absolutely have to have, the aspects that would be nice to have, AND the features you don’t want. This will shape your search.

So let’s talk money – Remember, a home is where you make it. Often, the hardest part of the moving question is making sure we strip out the emotional aspect of the issue so that it’s more about the financial logistics. VERY, Very, very few people in the Greater Rochester area sell their current home and clear enough to retire on, or even to shore up their retirement significantly. More often, they end up spending slightly more than they clear from their current home (either in actual home cost or in the costs of owning the new home) so the question becomes how to handle the difference. Sometimes the house itself is slightly more expensive, sometimes they move from a less expensive property tax area to a more expensive one, or perhaps it’s as simple as leaving Fairport Electric and being stunned by what the real world pays to turn on their lights. Just ask my parents about their sticker shock when they opened their first Avon water bill compared to the Penfield bill they’d been getting for 40 years (when my mom’s on a roll, trust me, it comes up even 10+ years later).

I encourage all of my “I’m/We’re thinking of moving” clients to build a cash flow worksheet as if they already live in “the new place.” For research purposes, go house shopping and pick a house you’d like.  Take a look at what you’ll pay for it versus the current town assessment and calculate what the annual tax bill is going to be. So many people forget that the tax basis resets after a sale and use the old tax costs in their projections. If a house is assessed at $175,000 but you’re buying it for $210,000, you’ll need to bump up the tax line in your cash flow worksheet by 20% from what you see on the Zillow/Realtor/Whatever database. 

What about moving costs? Are you planning on remodeling? Big project or just paint? Do it yourself or use a contractor? Keep going and pick apart everything you can think of about your current house and your projected house. Once you’ve done an armchair cash flow worksheet, you’ll be ready to start shopping.

There is so much more to this particular question but this should get you moving down the right path (or driveway, so to speak). Doing this work ahead of time might help you realize that there’s no place like home, even if it’s the home you already have.