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Retirement planner yields interesting discovery

If you’re nearing retirement or thinking about how you can escape into early retirement, check out Vanguard’s retirement planning tools. You don’t have to be logged in to use these things. Go to and click on “Planning and Education”; from there navigate to Retirement Planning > I’m Planning to Retire > Evaluate Your Expenses and Income. Entering the site through this pathway takes you past a number of other options, including some for people who aren’t yet on the verge of retirement.

For example, you can create an investment plan, plan for college, learn the basics of estate planning, and discover how to manage your portfolio with an eye to tax savings.

But since I equate the coming layoff with enforced retirement (as in please don’t throw me in the brier patch), my exploration soon took me to Vanguard’s paired worksheets, one that allows you to estimate your expenses and one that helps you estimate your retirement income and figure whether it will support you.

To my amazement, Vanguard’s machine-generated planning estimates are more optimistic than what Excel  has been telling me. As you may recall, I’ve figured I might have to draw down as much as 6 percent of total savings to get by; at best, 5 percent was a likely number.

Because Medicare will cost about 12 times what I pay for health insurance now and because I’ll have to pay my share of the mortgage on the downtown house out of cash flow, my monthly living and emergency savings costs will rise from the current $2,800 to about $3,275—$425 more than my present take-home pay!

However, even with that stunning expense figure entered in the retirement income worksheet, Vanguard tells me that the amount I’ll have to draw down from savings will be only 4.3 percent of the total.

I can’t account for the difference. At first I thought it had to do with the way taxes were figured—Vanguard’s income worksheet automatically generates an estimated tax liability based on the tax rates you provide—but punching a few numbers into a handheld calculator shows that not to be so. Unless I’ve made a mistake in entering expenses, it looks like Social Security, part-time teaching income, and a drawdown of a little over 4 percent will just about cover the average monthly cost of living. Excel shows an average monthly cost of $3,306; Vanguard’s comes to $3,275, not a significant difference.

Either of these figures requires me to avoid extraordinary expenses at all costs, something I haven’t succeeded in doing for lo, these many months. One crazy cost after another—some optional, some decidely not—has overrun my budget three out of the past five months, and probably will overrun it this month, too. Last year I ran in the red five out of twelve months; once by only $37, but still…

If we think in terms of the whole year rather than focusing tightly on given months, last year’s total black ink came to $1,397.37; red ink totaled $726.23, leaving me $671.14 to the good at the end of the year. However! Last year’s discretionary budget was $1,500 a  month. The amount I entered in Vanguard’s worksheet comes to only $1,265—and that includes a $500/month allowance for extraordinary expenses. It’s highly questionable whether I can live on that: last year’s expenditures averaged $1,440 a month.

Starting in January, I cut the budget for nonrecurring expenses to $1,200 a month. As of June 20, the end of the last budget cycle, I was $681.89 in the red: an average of $136 a month! That’s after The Copyeditor’s Desk covered every expense I could justify as a business cost.

So it appears that in retirement, unless Medicare and income taxes are less than I think they’ll be, I will not be able to cover every expense that comes my way. I’ve got seven months to get the extraordinary spending under control.

Image: Micky, Hammock on Beach; Wikipedia Commons

Layoff: Getting by in unwilling retirement

There just may be a way to survive post-layoff with little risk and not too much fear and loathing. A drawdown of 4 percent from retirement savings plus early Social Security plus a modest hand-to-mouth income would support my current lifestyle. Here’s how:

If I move my plan to create a large cash-flow pool from savings in 2010 forward to, say, today, I could pay for the Investment House mortgage out of cash flow + non-tax-deferred savings (thereby preserving tax-deferred savings, if the market improves over the rest of 2009). Assuming I pick up two junior-college classes in the fall and thereafter engineer three a semester, I could continue to carry the mortgage with no problem whatsoever. In fact, not only can I continue to pay the mortgage and live in my wonted style, at the end of 2010 I could be some $3,200 ahead of the game.

And that’s not counting revenues from freelancing and not counting whatever little bit Funny about Money might generate once it’s monetized. It also is figuring the highest monthly expenses year-round: utility costs represent summer expenses, twice the winter rates.

This is a function of longstanding frugality. Because I put about $400 a month into casual savings, plus all the after-tax revenues from freelancing, a fair amount of cash has gathered in the credit union’s money market account. So…next time someone tells you frugality is bad for your psyche and bad for the economy, tell them to think again.

Now, I allow as to how I have indeed said I’d rather eat worms than teach one more section of freshman comp. However, when you come right down to it, we’re talking about a grand total of eight months’ labor a year. Around here, you get about a month off over winter break and three months over the summer.

To make a long spreadsheet short, if I gather all the savings now in the credit union and add the coming federal tax refund, I could “grubstake” a “pool” account with $11,448. By December 31, after paying my $800/month share of the mortgage bill, that base amount will have grown to $14,788, assuming I take on two community college courses in the fall.

The point of this “grubstake” or “cushion” would be to keep from overdrawing my checking account in months when expenses outrun revenues.

So, in January, when I have to start drawing Social Security and 4 percent of what little remains of my retirement savings, I would start with $14,788 plus $1,162 of Social Security and $1,333 of investment proceeds, plus net monthly pay from the community colleges, which is about $500 per course.

If I teach two sections, at the end of 2010 I end up $1,276 in the hole.

But three sections produce $3201 worth of black ink.

The fly in the proverbial ointment, however, is income taxes. While the $500/community college course represents net pay, the amounts for Social Security and investment income are gross figures. Assuming just 18 percent (an optimistic guess if ever there was one), taxes on investments and Social Security combined would come to around $5,400. So the truth is, the reward for teaching three courses could be a $2,190 annual deficit. I’d probably have to make around $4,000 in freelance income to pay for that. Impossible to tell, though: taxation in this country is so frigging complicated there’s no way an ordinary taxpayer can make any such projection without professional help.

Well, the taxes come under the heading of “tomorrow’s another day.” Money happens: I’ll find a way to cover it.

Long-term care insurance

Metlife sends a notice inviting me to designate someone who can be alerted if a payment on my long-term care insurance is missed. Good thought: obviously, if you get into a predicament where you need long-term care, you may not be competent to pay your bills. I have the premium, which comes to about $75 a month, paid electronically, and so its unlikely the bill will go unpaid unless M’hijito has to take over my affairs and changes things around.

This policy, which I originally bought from TIAA-CREF but was sold to Metlife, will not cover the exorbitant cost of nursing-home or nursing care 100%. However, it does cover enough that my Social Security and (if my mutual funds ever recover) a 4% drawdown from savings will take up the slack. Because my house is paid for, if the utilities are turned off the house will cost nothing while I’m incarcerated in a nursing home. Well, that’s not so: it will cost the property tax and Gerardo’s bill to come around and clean up the desert landscaping once every month or two.

The cost of nursing care in this country is just astonishing, and because much of it is delivered by minimum-wage workers laboring in extremely difficult conditions, it behooves you to get yourself into the highest-quality nursing home available. And of course, the higher the quality, the higher the cost. By 2004, the average annual cost of nursing home care was over $70,000. This amount increases at about 6% a year; the annual cost is now said to hover around $76,500. In the Phoenix area, if I get sick this year it will cost me about $76,200 to get myself cared for.

Home nursing care, which sounds ever so much more desirable if you’re lucky enough to find someone competent, honest, and caring to do the job, runs about $43,885 a year nationwide and $45,800 in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Assisted living would cost me around $29,700, significantly less than the nationwide average of $33,100.

Is there any question about why some old folks ship out on luxury liners in their sunset years?

Neither Medicare nor health insurance will cover nursing care, at least not for any length of time. In theory Medicare will cover 100 days following an acute illness, but you have to show signs of recovery to get even that much coverage—and of course if your problem is acute senility, “recovery” is not in the picture. When my mother was dying of cancer, we found that Medicare and Blue Cross did everything they could to get her off their rolls, to the extent that my husband, who was a lawyer, and I spent so much of our time and energy fighting bureaucrats that I was left with almost no time to spend with my mother in her last weeks. SDXB had to arrange to have his mother divorce his father when the old man was dying of Parkinson’s, in order to force the VA to cover the his care and avoid pauperizing her.

Medicaid will cover nursing home care, but only after you have utterly pauperized yourself. You must be left penniless, meaning you have had to sell your home, your car, and expendall other assets on medical and nursing home bills. In Arizona, if you’ve made the mistake of gifting your children, as is allowed under federal law, with a few thousand inheritance-tax-free bucks over the two years prior to your falling ill, you can be disqualified from this state’s equivalent of Medicaid on the theory that you must have been trying to cheat the system.

So as you can see, if you’re “lucky” enough to make it to advanced old age, you’d better have long-term care insurance. Fourteen percent of people over 71 suffer from dementia, and that doesn’t count strokes, broken hips, chronic heart failure, Parkinson’s disease, or any of the multitude of other causes that put the elderly out of commission.

The problems with long-term care insurance are a) there are lots of shysters out there selling products that will not provide adequate care; b) premiums are high and must include a provision to adjust upward for the skyrocketing cost of care; and c) the older you are when you buy a policy, the pricier the premiums will be.

In general, you should plan to buy long-term care insurance in your early fifties. Obviously, if you purchase a policy when you’re too young, you’ll pay premiums over a long period when your chance of needing the coverage is almost nil. If you wait until you’re too old, you may be disqualified from buying a policy or pay an exorbitant premium.

You need to investigate any insurance company carefully before buying a long-term policy from it. Be sure it is financially sound and highly rated by Moody’s and A.M. Best. In addition, it’s important to fully understand what you’re buying. Most states have an agency on aging or an insurance commission. These agencies can provide you with information on what to look for and what to avoid in long-term care coverage. AARP also offers a lot of valuable information, but you should be aware that this organization is in the business of selling long-term care insurance.

It’s never too early to look into this issue. And if your parents are baby-boomers, now is the time to find out whether they’re covered and to urge them to get coverage if they’re not. Ten million baby boomers are expected to develop Alzheimer’s disease, and as we’ve noted, that’s not the only ailment that can render an elder helpless. The cost and anguish entailed in having to care for an adult who is fully disabled by senility or other illness are devastating—you should not assume that you will be able to care for your parents in your home, especially since you and your spouse will probably have to work to keep a roof over your heads and you will be trying to deal with raising children at the same time.

My insurance covers nursing home care and in-home care. It also will pay a relative or friend a small stipend to care for me at home, and pay to have the person trained in caregiving. As I look at the budget items I can cut if I’m laid off in the next few weeks, one of the items I do not consider to be an option is the long-term care insurance.