Florida is a goal and the destination of choice for many mid-westerners when they retire. For some it becomes a permanent residence, for others it is just part-time for the winter months. It has been several decades since Carol and I decided we were not going to wait until we stopped working to enjoy warmer weather and a more active lifestyle for most of the year instead of a few months. By and large we don’t regret the decision we made to resign our positions and strike out anew in Texas. The move has been a good one for our family.
In recent years Christmas greetings from old friends have started to carry a postmark from some community in Florida. Many of our contemporaries whom we left behind are beginning to retire, most with old-fashioned company-funded pension plans, some with employer-provided retiree health insurance. It was common for large manufacturing companies, school districts, universities, state and local governments to offer retirement plans with 30 years and out provisions. It is sometimes difficult not to harbor a tinge of envy as we read about their extended leisure time, travel and golf. The moments are usually rather brief and we turn our thoughts to our own plans for retirement.
Like a growing number of Americans, our retirement plan does not include a pension. We cashed out both of my wife’s teacher retirements when we moved out of the states. I had built up equity in several newspaper company plans, but the companies sold and the retirement funds were rolled into IRA and mutual fund investments. The current company offers a 401-K plan where it provides a percentage match on the investment we make into it. We have realized for awhile that our quality of life in retirement was going to depend on how well we saved and managed our investments to supplement Social Security when it came time to start drawing the funds.
This year has put wannabe retirees in a horrific bind. Many working families nearing retirement age are watching the nest egg they have been building for years losing 15, 20, even 30 percent of its value in a matter of months and there does not appear to be any end in sight. Typically, financial consultants suggest diversifying investments to provide for a safe and good plan of long-term investing. Savings accounts and bonds alone will not grow fast enough to overcome inflation so the idea is to include stocks and mutual funds in a percentage of the plan. Over the long run, returns from stocks and mutual funds tend to surpass the returns on other investments. The horrific news in recent days about the crisis on Wall Street and in the financial industry has most of us doubting whether the trend will continue. In a letter we received this week from the investment firm we use, the managing partner said, since 1900 there have been 31 “bear markets” defined as a decline of 20 percent or more in market indexes, followed by 31 recoveries. We have no reason to doubt that better times will return.
The suggested strategy today for workers considering retirement is to delay the date if they are physically able. One can start collecting Social Security checks at age 62 and many elect to go for it. If someone resists the temptation to draw the benefits at 62 and waits until the full retirement age 66 (for my wife and me), they’ll boost their monthly benefit check by 33 percent. Those who can hold off retirement till age 70 will see their Social Security payments grow a lot more, as much as 75 percent, according to Alicia Munnell, director of Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research.
The choice of retirement age is the most important portfolio choice most workers will make, a 2006 study by the Urban Institute said, it is far more important than whether to shift around your 401-K in stocks or bonds.
Many millions of American households will be gingerly opening envelopes containing reports of the third quarter losses in their 401-K and other retirement accounts. Each household will learn how much their share is of the billions of dollars shed in recent weeks. Delaying our retirement date may not only be the best strategy, it may be the only one available - to allow time for the recovery to occur.
Robert Brincefield is vice president and publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.