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Consumer Blog

Annuities as a DIY Pension: How They Actually Work in your Retirement

August 9, 2023 9:07 am

Annuities as a DIY Pensionfrom our partnership with HerMoney/Filene

Once you take the leap into retirement, reliable income becomes paramount. Yes, Social Security often provides the base layer of financial stability — but it was never meant to be your sole source of support. For the rest, for decades, we had pensions — which replicated a paycheck you’d earn for the rest of your life. But now that most of us are instead saving in 401(k)s, IRAs and other “defined contribution” retirement plans, getting the money out in a way that is predictable and — yes, lifelong — is a challenge.

That’s why more people are turning to annuities. For the uninitiated, annuities are long-term contracts with insurance companies in which you invest your money, and in return get guaranteed income paid out at regular intervals. Like other investments, there’s a menu of annuities with different features and a range of fees. They’re not meant to be a one-and-done solution, but rather something you combine with money in your portfolio that’s invested for growth that can keep pace with inflation.

“When you know you have a source of protected income coming in from an annuity, you’re likely to withdraw less from your market investments, allowing them to ride out the down markets and continue growing your portfolio again,” says Jean Statler, CEO of the Alliance for Lifetime Income.

That said, the marketplace for annuities can be a complex one, which has led to more than a few misunderstandings around these products. We checked in with experts to get a sense of what you need to know if you’d like to create a retirement paycheck of your own.


Start With Your Base

How much will it cost you to live in retirement? When you look at those expenditures, what’s the chunk that is “fixed” — in other words, that you know you’ll have to pay, month in and month out? This includes housing, Medicare premiums and other healthcare costs, transportation, and groceries. Then, look at how much guaranteed income (beginning with Social Security) you will have to put toward them. What’s the remaining gap? That’s the place where many experts advise slotting in an annuity. Because if you knew that you had enough coming in via a dependable paycheck, then you wouldn’t have to worry about your fixed expenses and you could breathe a little easier.


Consider The Range Of Annuities

There are a number of different types of annuities you’ll want to look at. (Note: This is not a DIY endeavor. You’re going to want the help of your financial advisor.) Immediate fixed annuities are the simplest type. You take a chunk of cash and use it to buy a stream of income that is calculated either based on your own life expectancy or that of you and a spouse.  Interest rates and the age at which you make the purchase also play a role in the calculation, with monthly payouts going up as you get older (because you have fewer years to live.) Deferred fixed annuities work similarly, but you don’t start the payout right away.  You put a chunk of money to work now and turn on the income down the road at age 75 or 80. That increases the size of the monthly check, because the month has the period in-between your purchase and your paycheck to grow.

While fixed annuities are insurance products, variable annuities are investment products regulated by the SEC. You put money into these products before retirement, invest that money for growth, and turn on the income stream once you’re past age 59 ½. Although some offer performance guarantees, your return is also based on how the investments you select (usually mutual funds) perform. Finally, there are equity indexed annuities, which are kind of a combo of the two. They’re riskier than fixed annuities, but not as risky as variable annuities. And they offer a minimum guaranteed return combined with an interest rate linked to a market index. Again, it’s complicated, which is why you need a pro.

Speaking of pros, if you’re looking to consider investments beyond annuities (or you just want to learn more about what it means to “play the market”) then consider the InvestingFixx investing club from HerMoney. This private and supportive group meets twice monthly with investing pros Karen Finerman and Jean Chatzky, to define financial terms, pick stocks, and learn more about what it means to secure your financial future.


What to Expect With Fees

 All annuities have some fees factored in, explains Brian Karimzad, co-founder of MagnifyMoney.  Simpler annuities tend to have lower fees. More complicated ones — variable and equity indexed — have higher ones. The size of those fees typically goes up with the guarantees. For example, if you want to ensure that you’ll have a guaranteed income for life (no matter how long you live) and that the initial amount you invest (your principal) will never decrease, those guarantees will come at a cost.


Understand The “Surrender Period”

 Many people want to know if their retirement goals change or a life emergency happens, that they can access their cash early. Most annuities allow you to withdraw some money during what’s called the “surrender period” before you make the decision to convert your account balance into an income stream. During the surrender period, many annuities allow you to withdraw up to 10% of your account balance (or your earnings growth, whichever is greater) free of charge.

But pulling out of an annuity isn’t something you should plan on going in. Like 401(k)s and IRAs, annuities are designed for money that won’t be touched until your retirement period.

If and when you buy an annuity, keep in mind it’s a long-term investment. If you make withdrawals before age 59 1/2, you might have to pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty, plus regular income tax on your investment earnings.


Supplementing Retirement Plans

While annuities are vehicles for retirement, they’re not something that you only buy in retirement — you can start to supplement your retirement plan with annuities in your 40s and 50s. Under the rules of The Secure Act and Secure 2.0 (two new retirement laws), it’s also become easier for 401(k), 403(b) and other retirement plans to offer annuities on their menus. Some are now adding options to their menus that will allow participants to convert principal to income. There is also an option called a “QLAC” that allows you to use up to $200,000 in money that would ordinarily fall under RMDs and use it to buy a deferred annuity tax-free. Talk to your plan administrator for more information. (RMDs are Required Minimum Distributions, the amounts you’re required to withdraw from your retirement accounts every year.)


Keep In Mind, This Is A Supplement — Not A One-Size-Fits-All

Finally, just a reminder that annuities are an addition to your retirement menu, not the entire thing. “No one would suggest that you annuitize a large portion of your portfolio — it should be some percentage,” David Littell, retirement income program co-director at The American College of Financial Services says. You can even use an annuity to pay a specific bill. For example, if you bought long term care insurance, but you’re worried about paying those premiums through retirement, you can buy an annuity that will just cover that every month. Many people take out modest annuities to have peace of mind that certain expenses are paid.

The takeaway? Annuities should not tie all of your money down. Rather, they should be a piece of your portfolio that can balance out your whole financial picture.

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