Since the early 1980s, 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts have become the dominant way that workers save for retirement. Yet many workers long for the days of traditional pensions when you could set your watch by how much income you could count on every month after your retired. Many people like that the pension fund (if it did as promised) would pay them and their spouses for the rest of their lives. To be fair, those old-style pensions had some serious flaws:
- It was difficult and sometimes impossible to port with you when you left the company. Depending on the program and how it was administered, you could be left without a pension and without the money in the pension fund if you left the company before a certain number of years.
- You didn’t control the asset base that created the income. After you and your spouse pass away, the income stream from the pension fund stops, and your estate gets no cash from the fund. This was even if both spouses passed away early and collected very little of the pension.
- It was difficult to impossible to access any of the cash inside of the pension prior to actual retirement.
With the 401(k) and most other qualified plans, the flaws of the pension were in large part put to bed.
Now you have the full right to withdraw or roll over your portion of your 401(k) when you leave the company. You control the asset base, so when you and your spouse die, any remaining balance left inside of your qualified plan will go to your estate. It is easier to access your account via loans — assuming you abide by terms laid down by your plan administrator and your employer.
As is often the case when you fix a flaw in something, that repair caused a new set of flaws to emerge. With 401(k)s and IRAs, the burden of guaranteeing income and performance is shifted to the employee. This means that if you are invested in the market, then in good markets you could win, and bad markets you could lose.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could combine the benefits of pensions, 401(k)s and IRAs? Consider annuities. Annuities are offered through insurance carriers to take in big chunks of money and guarantee a payout over a certain period, based on that sum used to purchase the annuity. There are two types of income structure:
- In the immediate annuity, income is started from the lump sum immediately after the annuity purchase.
- In the deferred annuity, your lump sum can grow before you activate the annuitization phase. This structure will result in more monthly income from the extra growth and the number of years the insurance company will have to pay out on the contract.
Once you decide on what kind of payout you want, then you have three basic choices:
- The fixed annuity will guarantee your principle never loses money in the market and guarantee modest growth during the growth phase. That rate might be 2 to 3 percent, so this is for the extremely conservative investor who believes in the old saying “I am more concerned about the return of my money than the return on my money.”
- The variable annuity will go up and down based on the movements of the chosen market (usually the stock market). This product is more for the market player who believes we are in for a bull market during the annuity contract years.
- The fixed indexed annuity will guarantee your principle is not lost, but your growth is not guaranteed. The growth will depend on which market index or indexes your annuity follows, such as the Standard & Poor’s 500 index (^GPSC).
With many annuities, you can add riders. The most common is the lifetime income rider, which for an annual fee will guarantee your future retirement income will increase every year regardless of the market’s rise or fall. As the name implies the insurance company will also guarantee your annual income for the rest of yours and your spouse’s life. This annuity income will be guaranteed even if the underlying funds in the annuity are drawn down to zero.
Your 401(k) and IRA can be used to purchase an annuity with no taxes or penalties. Annuities do have potential pitfalls.
- They are not very liquid. There can be substantial penalties if you withdraw the original purchase price from the contract during a certain period. This penalty will usually graduate downward to zero. This penalty will be determined by the carrier and the product, and it will vary by state.
- Potential annual fees are inherent. Many fees can be reasonable and bring value (such as the lifetime income rider), but some fees buy you very little value and get prohibitive. Fees are generally higher with variable annuities due to their active money management. Make sure you are comfortable with the fees and know what you receive in return.
Do your research and don’t be rushed by a sales pitch.