5 Retirement Assumptions You Can’t Make Anymore

By: Michelle Petrowski, CFP®, CDFA

We’ve all heard the adage “nothing can be certain, except death and taxes.” This line of thought also applies to retirement, as society and financial markets change.

Here are a few assumptions many Americans used to be able to make about retirement, and why they can’t rely on them anymore.

1. I’ll Be Married When I Retire

Times are changing. We have all heard the statistics that 50% of first marriages end in divorce, and the numbers are even higher for second and third marriages. “Gray” divorces — among couples 50 and up, or “Boomers” – have been on the rise, according to a study by the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University, with about one in every four divorces (25%) occurring to people over the age of 50.

Divorce can wreak havoc on the retirement plan of married couples, as assets now need to be divided. Typically, the “less monied” earning spouse has less saved for retirement (401(k), pension, annuities) and a lower Social Security benefit than their higher-earning spouse. With the retirement strategy no longer based on two incomes (even if only Social Security) as originally planned, income is cut in half or less, and expenses as a single person rise. Consequently, divorced couples face unanticipated financial constraints and decisions.

Retirement assets may not be split 50/50 – only the “marital” portion will be divided and they are not automatically split in a divorce — substantially reducing what you will receive after a divorce versus at widowhood. Get financially literate and know what you have ahead of time. Understand all the marital assets, as they all become “potential” retirement assets; even more esoteric employment benefits such as stock options, deferred compensation, bonuses, HSA accounts and the value of pensions (their future income stream). If these assets aren’t explicitly accounted for, or you don’t understand them, the success of your retirement plan may be been compromised and you could be out of luck – there is no “re-do” in divorce.

Divorce may be out of our control, just like an accident or illness, but it’s important to plan for the things we can control – like saving more. Since divorce is forever, perhaps it may be prudent to run retirement projections if you were to divorce — treat it like a “long-term care event,” even if you are not considering it — just to test the success rate of the modified scenario and understand the potential financial impact on your retirement plan.

Pensions and Social Security are an important part of your plan after divorce, as they are considered the “safer streams of income,” and increase the likelihood of successfully meeting your needs in retirement. After divorce, you may still be eligible to collect larger spousal or survivor Social Security benefits using your spouse’s higher earning record under certain circumstances; even if he/she is remarried. You can speak with a Financial Planning (FP) professional to test your plan as a “single” and to understand how to maximize your monthly Social Security benefit before filing for benefits. Most FP’s have special software used to determine the best age and withdrawal strategy for you to begin collecting benefits based on your “individual” situation, something that the Social Security department cannot do as effectively.

2. My Assets ‘Conservatively’ Need to Last for 30 Years

As we live longer, a 30-year conservative assumption for retirement assets to last for an average 65-year-old becomes more the “norm,” rather than the conservative assumption it was meant to be in 1994 when first introduced as part of the 4% safe withdrawal rule, according to Wade Pfau, economist and professor at The American College of Financial Services. At that time, a 30-year number was outside the “normal” lifespan for an adult.

According to the Social Security website, approximately 25% of 65-year-olds today will live past age 90, and 10% will live past age 95. These numbers are generally lower for an individual versus a married couple, but these statistics negate a “30-year time horizon” for a plan as a “conservative” assumption for how long assets need to last in a retirement plan. If you are retiring earlier, assets need to last longer, but as we live longer and heath costs in retirement increase (more on this in item #5 on this list), the chances of outliving our money increases. Although age 95 is now used as the common age for “last to live for couples,” a more “conservative” number may have the last in a couple living until age 100 since 10% of individuals will live past age 95. Then you need to factor in “planned” years in retirement (as some retire earlier than 65), marital status, sex, personal and family health issues. You may get a more accurate number by working with a planner, and to get a better idea of whether your plan will be successful.

3. I Won’t Outlive My Money If I Have a Safe Annual 4% Withdrawal Rate

How cliché can I get? Well when science proves something out, it should be shouted from the rooftops beyond facial blueness. The 4% safe withdrawal rate rule was introduced in 1994 by financial adviser Bill Bengen. It has been used by planners to help retirees spend their retirement funds and suggests that if retirees withdraw 4% of their portfolio in their first year of retirement, and adjust that amount for inflation each year, they’ll have a low risk of running out of money in 30 years. This rule is affected by several parameters such as; interest rates/income generation, how long folks live (longevity), asset allocation & income source types (stocks, bonds, guaranteed annuity stream, pension etc.).

However, several articles have been written challenging this 4% withdrawal assumption. Pfau wrote a research paper showing that this rule would not work when retiring in a market downturn or in a period with historically low interest rates.

In 1994, when this rule was introduced, portfolios were generally earning 8% annually, and these days we are looking at earnings more like 3-4%, with safe investment such as bonds not earning nearly what they did historically, and if interest rates did rise, folks would face a loss in bond values since prices fall when yields rise.

When interest rates are low, retirement savings are not earning the same income and people are spending principle, retirement savings becomes more dependent on market upside (if they are invested in stocks and bonds) to provide the earnings needed rather than stable rates of return. This makes retirement savings more susceptible to swings in the market when money is being withdrawn and that can have a dramatic impact of savings, which increases the risk that funds won’t last through retirement.

Add the fact that we are living longer, and the money needs to last even longer — creating further risk in the original 4% withdrawal rule.

The bottom line is there is no easy answer.

4. A Home Is a Good Retirement Asset

A home is probably the largest and most valuable asset that consumers own, though it may not be as appreciable as you think it is. Owning a home is no guarantee of profit. In fact, even if you sell your home for more than you bought it, that doesn’t mean you necessarily made a profit. You need to determine the inflation-adjusted dollar amount of what it would cost to buy that home in the future when you want to sell it.

Going backwards: For example, if you spent $800,000 in 2005 to buy your home, and wanted to sell it 10 years later in 2015, that same $800,000 in 2005 would cost you $974,111 in today’s dollars due to inflation. So then you may think you need to sell that house for more than $974,111 to break even – but owning a home has related expenses that are much higher than renting. You need to also subtract any money you spent on upgrades and maintenance over the past 10 years, and 3-6% in sales commission, closing costs and moving costs to get a more accurate picture of your profit. Chances are you really didn’t make very much on that asset you held for 10 years.

Additionally, the housing market is volatile, and if you don’t sell at the height of market, you could be facing a flat market or prices declining for many years. The financial crisis taught us that the real estate market can be affected by things outside our control. This, and the fact that you can’t sell unless there’s a buyer with your price at the time you want to sell, makes real estate illiquid and creates undue risk in your retirement plan at a chosen time that you need cash flow.

Making a profit also depends on where you buy and when you sell and where you wind up living after the sale. You will need to spend money on a place to live, and unless you are planning to live in an area with a substantially lower cost of living, that “windfall” may not seem so big or last so long. (This free calculator can show you how much house you can afford.)

We cannot predict the market climate when you retire, so remember your home is a home, buy it with that intent, and plan on not needing it in retirement you will have a higher degree of certainty that you plan will work.

5. Spending Always Decreases in Retirement

Maybe, maybe not. Just as we were individuals while working, the same goes for retirement. Sure, certain expenses like clothing, transportation and other business expenses tend to go down, and maybe your house is paid off, but with 8-10 hours extra a day, socializing, entertainment and eating out can take up a bigger part of your retirement budget. Many retirees want to travel more in the early retirement years and believe these costs drop later, but those travel costs are most likely offset by rising medical costs. Medical expenses can even consume a larger portion of a post-retirement budget right away because health insurance costs may no longer be subsidized by employers. So you may need to pay out of pocket; if you are 65, Medicare part B premiums can be pretty high, depending on your income level.

As we live longer, the likelihood of increased medical expenses also increases with diseases such as Dementia & Alzheimer’s. Seventy percent of individuals over 65 have a long-term care event at some point in their life, which is not covered by Medicare. According to the Employee Benefits Research Institute (EBRI), Medicare covered roughly 62% of an individual’s medical expenses, and it may decrease in the future – increasing a retiree’s share of health care costs. EBRI estimates that a 65-year-old couple should save between $241,000 and $326,000 to cover medical and drug costs (excluding long-term care) in addition to the amount required by a retirement plan to cover basic annual needs. Also, another EBRI study stated that 20% of retirees reported that, in addition to supporting the immediate household, they also provided financial support to relatives and friends.

Between high retirement lifestyle goals, rising health care costs, increased longevity and costs related to supporting family members in retirement, don’t assume that expenses in retirement are always less. Instead, you need to take this all into consideration to help improve the success of your retirement plan.

This article originally appeared on Yahoo Finance.

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Michelle Petrowski is the Founder of Being Mindful in Divorce. She’s a divorced single mom, passionate about using her professional experience as a CFP® & CDFA™ and personal journey to support women in transition; creating confidence through education so they can make financial choices with peace of mind. Bringing together a background in investment management, tax prep and retirement planning, to provide Divorce planning (with singles or couples) and Financial Coaching services, financial literacy workshops and writings.

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