Strategies for Retiring in Volatile Markets

In an ideal world, your retirement would be timed perfectly. You would be ready to leave the workforce, your debt would be paid off, and your nest egg would be large enough to provide a comfortable retirement–with some left over to leave a legacy for your heirs.

roller-coasterUnfortunately, this is not a perfect world, and events can take you by surprise. In a survey conducted by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, only 44% of current retirees said they retired when they had planned; 46% retired earlier, many for reasons beyond their control.1

But even if you retire on schedule and have other pieces of the retirement puzzle in place, you cannot predict the stock market. What if you retire during a market downturn?

Sequencing risk
The risk of experiencing poor investment performance at the wrong time is called sequencing risk or sequence of returns risk. All investments are subject to market fluctuation, risk, and loss of principal–and you can expect the market to rise and fall throughout your retirement.

However, market losses on the front end of your retirement could have an outsized effect on the income you might receive from your portfolio. If the market drops sharply before your planned retirement date, you may have to decide between retiring with a smaller portfolio or working longer to rebuild your assets.

If a big drop comes early in retirement, you may have to sell investments during the downswing, depleting assets more quickly than if you had waited and reducing your portfolio’s potential to benefit when the market turns upward.

buckets-of-change-1024x545Dividing your portfolio
One strategy that may help address sequencing risk is to allocate your portfolio into three different buckets that reflect the needs, risk level, and growth potential of three retirement phases.

Short-term (first 2 to 3 years): Assets such as cash and cash alternatives that you could draw on regardless of market conditions.

Mid-term (3 to 10 years in the future): Mostly fixed-income securities that may have moderate growth potential with low or moderate volatility. You might also have some equities in this bucket.

Long-term (more than 10 years in the future): Primarily growth-oriented investments such as stocks that might be more volatile but have higher growth potential over the long term.

Throughout your retirement, you can periodically move assets from the long-term bucket to the other two buckets so you continue to have short-term and mid-term funds available. This enables you to take a more strategic approach in choosing appropriate times to buy or sell assets.

Although you will always need assets in the short-term bucket, you can monitor performance in your mid-term and long-term buckets and shift assets based on changing circumstances and longer-term market cycles. If this strategy appeals to you, consider restructuring your portfolio before you retire so you can choose appropriate times to adjust your investments.

Stretch-IRADetermining withdrawals
The three-part allocation strategy may help mitigate the effects of a down market by spreading risk over a longer period of time, but it does not help determine how much to withdraw from your savings each year. The amount you withdraw will directly affect how long your savings might last under any market conditions, but it is especially critical in volatile markets.

One common rule of thumb is the so-called 4% rule. According to this strategy, you initially withdraw 4% of your portfolio, increasing the amount annually to account for inflation. Some experts consider this approach to be too aggressive–you might withdraw less depending on your personal situation and market performance, or more if you receive large market gains.

Another strategy, sometimes called the endowment method, automatically adjusts for market performance. Like the 4% rule, the endowment method begins with an initial withdrawal of a fixed percentage, typically 3% to 5%. In subsequent years, the same fixed percentage is applied to the remaining assets, so the actual withdrawal amount may go up or down depending on previous withdrawals and market performance.

A modified endowment method applies a ceiling and/or a floor to the change in your withdrawal amount. You still base your withdrawals on a fixed percentage of the remaining assets, but you limit any increase or decrease from the prior year’s withdrawal amount. This could help prevent you from withdrawing too much after a good market year, while maintaining a relatively steady income after a down market year.

Note: Asset allocation is a method used to help manage investment risk; it does not guarantee a profit or protect against investment loss.

1Employee Benefit Research Institute, “2016 Retirement Confidence Survey”

Watch Out for These Six Potential 401(k) Rollover Pitfalls

You’re about to receive a distribution from your 401(k) plan, and you’re considering a rollover to a traditional IRA. While these transactions are normally straightforward and trouble free, there are some pitfalls you’ll want to avoid.

401kRollovertoIRA1. The first mistake some people make is failing to consider the pros and cons of a rollover to an IRA in the first place. You can leave your money in the 401(k) plan if your balance is over $5,000. And if you’re changing jobs, you may also be able to roll your distribution over to your new employer’s 401(k) plan.

Though IRAs typically offer significantly more investment opportunities and withdrawal flexibility, your 401(k) plan may offer investments that can’t be replicated in an IRA (or can’t be replicated at an equivalent cost).

401(k) plans offer virtually unlimited protection from your creditors under federal law (assuming the plan is covered by ERISA; solo 401(k)s are not), whereas federal law protects your IRAs from creditors only if you declare bankruptcy. Any IRA creditor protection outside of bankruptcy depends on your particular state’s law.

401(k) plans may allow employee loans.

And most 401(k) plans don’t provide an annuity payout option, while some IRAs do.

2. Not every distribution can be rolled over to an IRA. For example, required minimum distributions can’t be rolled over. Neither can hardship withdrawals or certain periodic payments. Do so and you may have an excess contribution to deal with.

file0002903222023. Use direct rollovers and avoid 60-day rollovers. While it may be tempting to give yourself a free 60-day loan, it’s generally a mistake to use 60-day rollovers rather than direct (trustee to trustee) rollovers. If the plan sends the money to you, it’s required to withhold 20% of the taxable amount.

If you later want to roll the entire amount of the original distribution over to an IRA, you’ll need to use other sources to make up the 20% the plan withheld. In addition, there’s no need to taunt the rollover gods by risking inadvertent violation of the 60-day limit.

4. Remember the 10% penalty tax. Taxable distributions you receive from a 401(k) plan before age 59½ are normally subject to a 10% early distribution penalty, but a special rule lets you avoid the tax if you receive your distribution as a result of leaving your job during or after the year you turn age 55 (age 50 for qualified public safety employees). But this special rule doesn’t carry over to IRAs.

If you roll your distribution over to an IRA, you’ll need to wait until age 59½ before you can withdraw those dollars from the IRA without the 10% penalty (unless another exception applies). So if you think you may need to use the funds before age 59½, a rollover to an IRA could be a costly mistake.

5. Learn about net unrealized appreciation (NUA). If your 401(k) plan distribution includes employer stock that’s appreciated over the years, rolling that stock over into an IRA could be a serious mistake. Normally, distributions from 401(k) plans are subject to ordinary income taxes. But a special rule applies when you receive a distribution of employer stock from your plan: You pay ordinary income tax only on the cost of the stock at the time it was purchased for you by the plan.

Any appreciation in the stock generally receives more favorable long-term capital gains treatment, regardless of how long you’ve owned the stock. (Any additional appreciation after the stock is distributed to you is either long-term or short-term capital gains, depending on your holding period.) These special NUA rules don’t apply if you roll the stock over to an IRA.

6. And if you’re rolling over Roth 401(k) dollars to a Roth IRA…If your Roth 401(k) distribution isn’t qualified (tax-free) because you haven’t yet satisfied the five-year holding period, be aware that when you roll those dollars into your Roth IRA, they’ll now be subject to the Roth IRA’s five-year holding period, no matter how long those dollars were in the 401(k) plan. So, for example, if you establish your first Roth IRA to accept your rollover, you’ll have to wait five more years until your distribution from the Roth IRA will be qualified and tax-free.

Changes to Social Security Claiming Strategies

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 included a section titled “Closure of Unintended Loopholes” that ends two Social Security claiming strategies that have become increasingly popular over the last several years. These two strategies, known as “file and suspend” and “restricted application” for a spousal benefit, have often been used to optimize Social Security income for married couples.

SocSecurityTriColiStock_000008528384_sqIf you have not yet filed for Social Security, it’s important to understand how these new rules could affect your retirement strategy.

Depending on your age, you may still be able to take advantage of the expiring claiming options. The changes should not affect current Social Security beneficiaries and do not apply to survivor benefits.

File and suspend
Under the previous rules, an individual who had reached full retirement age could file for retired worker benefits–typically to enable a spouse to file for spousal benefits–and then suspend his or her benefit. By doing so, the individual would earn delayed retirement credits (up to 8% annually) and claim a higher worker benefit at a later date, up to age 70. Meanwhile, his or her spouse could be receiving spousal benefits.

For some married couples, especially those with dual incomes, this strategy increased their total combined lifetime benefits. Under the new rules, which are effective as of April 30, 2016, a worker who reaches full retirement age can still file and suspend, but no one can collect benefits on the worker’s earnings record during the suspension period. This strategy effectively ends the file-and-suspend strategy for couples and families.

The new rules also mean that a worker cannot later request a retroactive lump-sum payment for the entire period during which benefits were suspended. (This previously available claiming option was helpful to someone who faced a change of circumstances, such as a serious illness.)

Tip: If you are age 66 or older before the new rules take effect, you may still be able to take advantage of the combined file-and-suspend and spousal/dependent filing strategy.

Restricted application

Under the previous rules, a married person who had reached full retirement age could file a “restricted application” for spousal benefits after the other spouse had filed for Social Security worker benefits. This allowed the individual to collect spousal benefits while earning delayed retirement credits on his or her own work record.

In combination with the file-and-suspend option, this enabled both spouses to earn delayed retirement credits while one spouse received a spousal benefit, a type of “double dipping” that was not intended by the original legislation.

Under the new rules, an individual eligible for both a spousal benefit and a worker benefit will be “deemed” to be filing for whichever benefit is higher and will not be able to change from one to the other later.

Tip: If you reached age 62 before the end of December 2015, you are grandfathered under the old rules. If your spouse has filed for Social Security worker benefits, you can still file a restricted application for spouse-only benefits at full retirement age and claim your own worker benefit at a later date.

Basic Social Security claiming options remain unchanged. You can file for a permanently reduced benefit starting at age 62, receive your full benefit at full retirement age, or postpone filing for benefits and earn delayed retirement credits, up to age 70.

Although some claiming options are going away, plenty of planning opportunities remain, and you may benefit from taking the time to make an informed decision about when to file for Social Security.

Taxes, Retirement, and Timing Social Security

The advantages of tax deferral are often emphasized when it comes to saving for retirement. So it might seem like a good idea to hold off on taking taxable distributions from retirement plans for as long as possible. (Note: Required minimum distributions from non-Roth IRAs and qualified retirement plans must generally start at age 70½.) But sometimes it may make more sense to take taxable distributions from retirement plans in the early years of retirement while deferring the start of Social Security retirement benefits.

Some basics
sscardUp to 50% of your Social Security benefits are taxable if your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) plus one-half of your Social Security benefits falls within the following ranges: $32,000 to $44,000 for married filing jointly; and $25,000 to $34,000 for single, head of household, or married filing separately (if you’ve lived apart all year).

Up to 85% of your Social Security benefits are taxable if your MAGI plus one-half of your Social Security benefits exceeds those ranges or if you are married filing separately and lived with your spouse at any time during the year. For this purpose, MAGI means adjusted gross income increased by certain items, such as tax-exempt interest, that are otherwise excluded or deducted from your income for regular income tax purposes.

Social Security retirement benefits are reduced if started prior to your full retirement age (FRA) and increased if started after your FRA (up to age 70). FRA ranges from 66 to 67, depending on your year of birth.

Distributions from non-Roth IRAs and qualified retirement plans are generally fully taxable unless nondeductible contributions have been made.

Accelerate income, defer Social Security
It can sometimes make sense to delay the start of Social Security benefits to a later age (up to age 70) and take taxable withdrawals from retirement accounts in the early years of retirement to make up for the delayed Social Security benefits.

file5511312030154If you delay the start of Social Security benefits, your monthly benefits will be higher. And because you’ve taken taxable distributions from your retirement plans in the early years of retirement, it’s possible that your required minimum distributions will be smaller in the later years of retirement when you’re also receiving more income from Social Security.

And smaller taxable withdrawals will result in a lower MAGI, which could mean the amount of Social Security benefits subject to federal income tax is reduced.

Whether this strategy works to your advantage depends on a number of factors, including your income level, the size of the taxable withdrawals from your retirement savings plans, and how many years you ultimately receive Social Security retirement benefits.

Example
Mary, a single individual, wants to retire at age 62. She can receive Social Security retirement benefits of $18,000 per year starting at age 62 or $31,680 per year starting at age 70 (before cost-of-living adjustments). She has traditional IRA assets of $300,000 that will be fully taxable when distributed.

file0001270953716She has other income that is taxable (disregarding Social Security benefits and the IRA) of $27,000 per year. Assume she can earn a 6% annual rate of return on her investments (compounded monthly) and that Social Security benefits receive annual 2.4% cost-of-living increases. Assume tax is calculated using the 2015 tax rates and brackets, personal exemption, and standard deduction.

Option 1. One option is for Mary to start taking Social Security benefits of $18,000 per year at age 62 and take monthly distributions from the IRA that total about $21,852 annually.

Option 2. Alternatively, Mary could delay Social Security benefits to age 70, when her benefits would start at $38,299 per year after cost-of-living increases.

To make up for the Social Security benefits she’s not receiving from ages 62 to 69, during each of those years she withdraws about $40,769 to $44,094 from the traditional IRA–an amount approximately equal to the lost Social Security benefits plus the amount that would have been withdrawn from the traditional IRA under the age 62 scenario (plus a little extra to make the after-tax incomes under the two scenarios closer for those years).

When Social Security retirement benefits start at age 70, she reduces monthly distributions from the IRA to about $4,348 annually.

Mary’s after-tax income in each scenario is approximately the same during the first 8 years. Starting at age 70, however, Mary’s after-tax income is higher in the second scenario, and the total cumulative benefit increases significantly with the total number of years Social Security benefits are received.*

Can You Count on Dividends as a Reliable Income Source?

Dividends can be an important source of income. However, there are several factors you should take into consideration if you’ll be relying on them to help pay the bills, especially if you are no longer earning income.

8-03-2An increasing dividend is generally regarded as a sign of a company’s health and stability, and most corporate boards are reluctant to cut them. However, dividends on common stock are by no means guaranteed; the board can decide to reduce or eliminate dividend payments at any time.

Investing in dividend-paying stocks isn’t as simple as just picking the highest yield; consider whether the company’s cash flow can sustain its dividend, and whether a high yield is simply a function of a drop in a stock’s share price.

Because a stock’s dividend yield is calculated by dividing the annual dividend by the current market price per share, a lower share value typically means a higher yield, assuming the dividend itself remains the same.

Also, dividends aren’t all alike. Dividends on preferred stock typically offer a fixed rate of return, and holders of preferred stock must be paid their promised dividend before holders of common stock are entitled to receive theirs. However, because their dividends are predetermined, preferred stocks typically behave somewhat like fixed-income investments.

For example, their market value is more likely to be affected by changing interest rates, and most preferred stocks have a provision allowing the company to call in its preferred shares at a set time or at a specified future date. If you have to surrender your preferred stock, you might have difficulty finding an equivalent income stream.

Finally, dividends from certain types of investments aren’t eligible for the special tax treatment generally available for qualified dividends, and a portion may be taxed as ordinary income.

Note: All investing involves risk, including the potential loss of principal, and there can be no guarantee that any investing strategy will be successful. Investing in dividends is a long-term commitment. Investors should be prepared for periods when dividend payers drag down, not boost, an equity portfolio. A company’s dividend can fluctuate with earnings, which are influenced by economic, market, and political events.

A Do It Yourself Guide to Retirement Planning

Each year in its annual Retirement Confidence Survey, the Employee Benefit Research Institute reiterates that goal setting is a key factor influencing overall retirement confidence. But for many, a retirement savings goal that could reach $1 million or more may seem like a daunting, even impossible mountain to climb.

DSC00566What if you’re investing as much as you can, but still feel that you’ll never reach the summit? As with many of life’s toughest challenges, it may help to focus less on the big picture and more on the details.* Start by reviewing the following points:

Retirement goals are based on assumptions
Whether you use a simple online calculator or run a detailed analysis, your retirement savings goal is based on certain assumptions that will, in all likelihood, change. Inflation, rates of return, life expectancies, salary adjustments, retirement expenses, Social Security benefits–all of these factors are estimates.

That’s why it’s so important to review your retirement savings goal and its underlying assumptions regularly–at least once per year and when life events occur. This will help ensure that your goal continues to reflect your changing life circumstances as well as market and economic conditions.

Break it down
Instead of viewing your goal as ONE BIG NUMBER, try to break it down into an anticipated monthly income need. That way you can view this monthly need alongside your estimated monthly Social Security benefit, income from your retirement savings, and any pension or other income you expect. This can help the planning process seem less daunting, more realistic, and most important, more manageable. It can be far less overwhelming to brainstorm ways to close a gap of, say, a few hundred dollars a month than a few hundred thousand dollars over the duration of your retirement.

Make your future self a priority, whenever possible
While every stage of life brings financial challenges, each stage also brings opportunities. Whenever possible–for example, when you pay off a credit card or school loan, receive a tax refund, get a raise or promotion, celebrate your child’s college graduation (and the end of tuition payments), or receive an unexpected windfall–put some of that extra money toward retirement.

Retirement may be different than you imagine
When people dream about retirement, they often picture images like exotic travel, endless rounds of golf, and fancy restaurants. Yet a recent study found that the older people get, the more they derive happiness from ordinary, everyday experiences such as socializing with friends, reading a good book, taking a scenic drive, or playing board games with grandchildren. (Source: “Happiness from Ordinary and Extraordinary Experiences,” Journal of Consumer Research, June 2014)

While your dream may include days filled with extravagant leisure activities, your retirement reality may turn out much different–and that actually may be a matter of choice.

The bottom line
Setting a goal is a very important first step in putting together your retirement savings strategy, but don’t let the number scare you. As long as you have an estimate in mind, break it down to a monthly need, review it regularly, and increase your investments whenever possible, you can take heart knowing that you’re doing your best to prepare for whatever the future may bring.

*All investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal, and there can be no assurance that any investment strategy will be successful.

No Matter Your Age, Your Social Security Statement Matters

Fifteen years ago, the Social Security Administration (SSA) launched the Social Security Statement, a tool to help Americans understand the features and benefits that Social Security offers. Since then, millions of Americans have reviewed their personalized statements to see a detailed record of their earnings, as well as estimates of retirement, survivor, and disability benefits based on those earnings.

NPT-HEALTHSSI0114_02How do you get your statement?
Here’s how to get a copy of your statement, and why it deserves more than just a quick glance, even if you’re years away from retirement! In September 2014, the SSA began mailing Social Security Statements to most workers every five years. Workers attaining ages 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55, and 60 who are not receiving Social Security benefits and are not registered for an online account will receive a statement in the mail about three months before their next birthday. Workers older than age 60 will receive a statement every year.

But why wait? A more convenient way to view your Social Security Statement is online. First, visit socialsecurity.gov to sign up for a personal my Social Security account (you must be 18 or older to sign up online). Once you have an account, you can view your Social Security Statement anytime you want, as often as you want.

Check your estimated benefits
Your Social Security Statement gives you information about retirement, disability, and survivor benefits. It tells you whether you’ve earned enough credits to qualify for these benefits and, if you qualify, how much you can expect to receive. As each Social Security Statement notes, the amounts listed are only estimates based on your average earnings in the past and a projection of future earnings. Actual benefits you receive may be different if your earnings increase or decrease in the future.

Amounts may also be affected by cost-of-living increases (estimates are in today’s dollars) and other income you receive. Estimated benefits are also based on current law, which could change in the future.

Retirement benefits
Social-security-statementAlthough Social Security was never intended to be the sole source of retirement income, retirement benefits are still very important to many retirees. Your statement shows estimates of how much you can expect to receive if you begin receiving benefits at three different ages: your full retirement age (66 to 67, depending on your birth year), age 62 (your benefit will be lower), or age 70 (your benefit will be higher).

When to start claiming Social Security is a big decision that will affect your overall retirement income, so if you’re approaching retirement, this information can be especially useful. But even if you’re years away from retirement, it’s important to know how much you might receive, so that you can take this information into account as you set retirement savings goals.

Disability benefits
Disability is unpredictable and can happen suddenly to anyone at any age. Disability benefits from Social Security can be an important source of financial support in the event that you’re unable to work and earn a living. Check your Social Security Statement to find out what you might receive each month if you become disabled.

Survivor benefits
Survivor protection is a valuable Social Security benefit you may not even realize you have. Upon your death, your survivors such as your spouse, ex-spouse, and children may be eligible to receive benefits based on your earnings record. Review your Social Security Statement to find out whether your survivors can count on this valuable source of income.

Review your earnings record
In addition to benefit information, your Social Security Statement contains a year-by-year record of your earnings. This record is updated whenever your employer reports your earnings (or if you’re self-employed, when you report your own earnings). Earnings are generally reported annually, so keep in mind that your earnings from last year may not yet be on your statement.

It’s a good idea to make sure that your earnings have been reported correctly, because mistakes do happen. You can do this by comparing your earnings record against past tax returns or W-2s you’ve received. This is an important step to take because your Social Security benefits are based on your average lifetime earnings. If your earnings have been reported incorrectly, you may not receive the benefits to which you’re entitled.

What if you find errors? The SSA advises you to call right away if any earnings are reported incorrectly. The SSA phone number is 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778).

How Much Money Should You Withdraw for Retirement?

During your working years, you’ve probably set aside funds in retirement accounts such as IRAs, 401(k)s, and other workplace savings plans, as well as in taxable accounts. Your challenge during retirement is to convert those savings into an ongoing income stream that will provide adequate income throughout your retirement years.

file7681341282971Your retirement lifestyle will depend not only on your assets and investment choices, but also on how quickly you draw down your retirement portfolio. The annual percentage that you take out of your portfolio, whether from returns or the principal itself, is known as your withdrawal rate. Figuring out an appropriate initial withdrawal rate is a key issue in retirement planning and presents many challenges.

Why is your withdrawal rate important?
Take out too much too soon, and you might run out of money in your later years. Take out too little, and you might not enjoy your retirement years as much as you could. Your withdrawal rate is especially important in the early years of your retirement, as it will have a lasting impact on how long your savings will last.

Conventional wisdom
So, what withdrawal rate should you expect from your retirement savings? One widely used rule of thumb states that your portfolio should last for your lifetime if you initially withdraw 4% of your balance (based on an asset mix of 50% stocks and 50% intermediate-term Treasury notes), and then continue drawing the same dollar amount each year, adjusted for inflation. However, this rule of thumb has been under increasing scrutiny.

Some experts contend that a higher withdrawal rate (closer to 5%) may be possible in the early, active retirement years if later withdrawals grow more slowly than inflation. Others contend that portfolios can last longer by adding asset classes and freezing the withdrawal amount during years of poor performance. By doing so, they argue, “safe” initial withdrawal rates above 5% might be possible. (Sources: William P. Bengen, “Determining Withdrawal Rates Using Historical Data,” Journal of Financial Planning, October 1994; Jonathan Guyton, “Decision Rules and Portfolio Management for Retirees: Is the ‘Safe’ Initial Withdrawal Rate Too Safe?” Journal of Financial Planning, October 2004)

1_1837966Still other experts suggest that our current environment of lower government bond yields may warrant a lower withdrawal rate, around 3%. (Source: Blanchett, Finke, and Pfau, “Low Bond Yields and Safe Portfolio Withdrawal Rates,” Journal of Wealth Management, Fall 2013). Don’t forget that these hypotheses were based on historical data about various types of investments, and past results don’t guarantee future performance.

Inflation is a major consideration
An initial withdrawal rate of, say, 4% may seem relatively low, particularly if you have a large portfolio. However, if your initial withdrawal rate is too high, it can increase the chance that your portfolio will be exhausted too quickly, because you’ll need to withdraw a greater amount of money each year from your portfolio just to keep up with inflation and preserve the same purchasing power over time.

In addition, inflation may have a greater impact on retirees. That’s because costs for some services, such as health care and food, have risen more dramatically than the Consumer Price Index (the basic inflation measure) for several years. As these costs may represent a disproportionate share of their budgets, retirees may experience higher inflation costs than younger people, and therefore might need to keep initial withdrawal rates relatively modest.

Your withdrawal rate
There is no standard rule of thumb. Every individual has unique retirement goals and means, and your withdrawal rate needs to be tailored to your particular circumstances. The higher your withdrawal rate, the more you’ll have to consider whether it is sustainable over the long term.

All investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal; there can be no assurance that any investment strategy will be successful.

Financial Choices: College, Retirement, or Both?

Life is full of choices. Should you watch Breaking Bad or Modern Family? Eat leftovers for dinner or order out? Exercise before work or after? Some choices, though, are much more significant. Here is one such financial dilemma for parents.

Should you save for retirement or college?
DSCN8976It’s the paramount financial conflict many parents face, especially as more couples start having children later in life. Should you save for college or retirement? The pressure is fierce on both sides.

Over the past 20 years, college costs have grown roughly 4% to 6% each year–generally double the rate of inflation and typical salary increases–with the price for four years at an average private college now hitting $192,876, and a whopping $262,917 at the most expensive private colleges.

Even public colleges, whose costs a generation ago could be covered mostly by student summer jobs and some parental scrimping, now total about $100,000 for four years (Source: College Board’s Trends in College Pricing 2013 and assumed 5% annual college inflation). Many parents have more than one child, adding to the strain. Yet without a college degree, many jobs and career paths are off limits.

On the other side, the pressure to save for retirement is intense. Longer life expectancies, disappearing pensions, and the uncertainty of Social Security’s long-term fiscal health make it critical to build the biggest nest egg you can during your working years.

In order to maintain your current standard of living in retirement, a general guideline is to accumulate enough savings to replace 60% to 90% of your current income in retirement–a sum that could equal hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. And with retirements that can last 20 to 30 years or longer, it’s essential to factor in inflation, which can take a big bite out of your purchasing power and has averaged 2.5% per year over the past 20 years (Source: Consumer Price Index data published by the U.S. Department of Labor, 2013).

So with these two competing financial needs and often limited funds, what’s a parent to do?

conventional_wisdom_7-10-2012The prevailing wisdom
Answer: retirement should win out. Saving for retirement should be something you do no matter what. It’s an investment in your future security when you’ll no longer be bringing home a paycheck, and it generally should take precedence over saving for your child’s college education.

It’s akin to putting on your own oxygen mask first, and then securing your child’s. Unless your retirement plan is to have your children be on the hook for taking care of you financially later in life, retirement funding should come first.

And yet…
It’s unrealistic to expect parents to ignore college funding altogether, and that approach really isn’t smart anyway because regular contributions–even small ones–can add up over time. One possible solution is to figure out what you can afford to save each month and then split your savings, with a focus on retirement. So, for example, you might decide to allocate 85% of your savings to retirement and 15% to college, or 80/20 or 75/25, or whatever ratio works for you.

Although saving for retirement should take priority, setting aside even a small amount for college can help. For example, parents of a preschooler who save $100 per month for 15 years would have $24,609, assuming an average 4% return. Saving $200 per month in the same scenario would net $49,218.*

These aren’t staggering numbers, but you might be able to add to your savings over the years, and if nothing else, think of this sum as a down payment–many parents don’t save the full amount before college. Rather, they try to save as much as they can, then look for other ways to help pay the bills at college time. Like what?

file000195499258Loans, for one. Borrowing excessively isn’t prudent, but the federal government allows undergraduate students to borrow up to $27,000 in Stafford Loans over four years–a relatively reasonable amount–and these loans come with an income-based repayment option down the road.

In addition, your child can apply for merit scholarships at the colleges he or she is applying to, and may be eligible for need-based college grants. And there are other ways to lower costs–like attending State U over Private U, living at home, graduating in three years instead of four, earning credits through MOOCs (massive open online courses), working during college, or maybe not attending college right away or even at all.

In fact, last summer, a senior vice president at Google responsible for hiring practices at the company noted that 14% of some teams included people who never went to college, but who nevertheless possessed the problem solving, leadership, intellectual humility, and creative skills Google is looking for (“In Head-Hunting, Big Data May Not Be Such a Big Deal,” New York Times, June 19, 2013). One more reason to put a check in the retirement column.

The Decision to Pay Off Your Mortgage in Retirement

For many homeowners, paying off a mortgage is a financial milestone. This is especially true when you are retired. Not having the burden of a monthly mortgage payment during retirement can free up money to help you live the retirement lifestyle you’ve always wanted.

To pay off, or not to pay off: that is the question
NRT-payoffmortgageQ413_02Some retirees are lucky enough to have paid off their mortgage before they reach retirement. For others, however, that monthly obligation continues. If you are retired, you may be wondering whether you should pay off your mortgage. Unfortunately, there’s no one answer that’s right for everyone. Instead, the answer will depend upon a variety of factors and how they relate to your individual situation.

Return on retirement investments vs. mortgage interest rate
One way many retirees pay off their mortgage is by using funds from their retirement investments. To determine whether this is a good option for you, you’ll need to consider the current and anticipated rate of return on your retirement investments versus your current mortgage interest rate. In other words, do you expect to earn a higher after-tax rate of return on your current retirement investments than the after-tax interest rate you currently pay on your mortgage (i.e., the interest rate that you’re paying, factoring in any mortgage interest deduction you’re entitled to)?

For example, assume you pay an after-tax mortgage interest rate of 4%. You are considering withdrawing funds from your retirement investments to pay off your mortgage balance. In general, you would need to earn an after-tax return of greater than 4% on your retirement investments to make keeping your money invested for retirement the smarter choice.

On the other hand, if your retirement funds are primarily held in investments that typically offer a lower rate of return than the interest rate you pay on your mortgage, you may be better off withdrawing your retirement funds to pay off your mortgage.

Additional considerations
As you weigh your options, you’ll also want to consider these additional points:

— Effect on retirement nest egg: If you rely on your retirement savings for most of your income during retirement, you should generally avoid paying off your mortgage if it will end up depleting a significant portion of your retirement savings. Ideally, you should pay off your mortgage only if you have a small mortgage balance in comparison to your overall retirement nest egg.

file00032137357— Tax consequences: Keep in mind that if you are going to withdraw funds from a retirement account to pay off your mortgage, there are some potential tax consequences you should be aware of. First, if you withdraw pretax funds from a retirement account, the amount you withdraw is generally taxable. As a result, you’ll want to be sure to account for the taxes you’ll have to pay on the amount you withdraw from pretax funds. Depending on your tax bracket, that could be a significant amount.

In addition, if you take a large enough distribution from your retirement account, you could end up pushing yourself into a higher income tax bracket. Finally, unless you are 59½ or older, you may pay a penalty for early withdrawal.

— Comfort with mortgage debt: For many retirees, a monthly mortgage obligation can be a heavy burden. If no longer having a mortgage would give you greater peace of mind, give the emotional benefits of paying off your mortgage some extra consideration.

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. To determine which investment(s) may be appropriate for you, consult your financial advisor prior to investing. The tax information provided is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax planning advice. We suggest that you consult with a qualified tax advisor.

Prepared by Broadridge Investor Communication Solutions, Inc. Copyright 2014