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Market drops may stoke retirees’ fears that they will no longer have enough assets to live on.
But it turns out that may not be the biggest financial risk they should be watching for in retirement.
Instead, longevity — the prospect retirees may live longer than expected and run out of money — is actually the biggest financial threat, according to recent research from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. The paper ranked both actual and perceived risks for retirees.
Market risk ranked at the top of retirees’ perceived risks, which researchers wrote “reflects retirees’ exaggerated assessments of market volatility.” Older adults discounted the top objective risk, longevity, due to being “pessimistic about their survival probabilities.”
Longevity and the market, which accounts for investment and housing conditions, are just two of five major retirement risks individuals and couples face. The other three are health, family and policy risks.
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When it comes to health care, retirees may face unexpected long-term care needs and medical expenses. Those medical expenditures include the sum of out-of-pocket spending not covered by insurance on drugs, insurance premiums, hospital stays, nursing home care, doctor and dentist visits and outpatient care.
Yet the research found that medical spending expectations mostly don’t change with age, which means older people tend to underestimate the costs they may face.
Family risks include unforeseen circumstances like a divorce, the death of a spouse or adult children becoming sick or unemployed. About one-third of households with people 65 and older transfer money to family members over a two-year period, according to the research. Yet many individuals underestimate the possibilities that would prompt them to give money to family.
Policy changes are also a risk to retirees, particularly due to Social Security’s uncertain future. As such, the research modeled in a one-time benefit reduction between now and 2035, when the Social Security trustees project the program will no longer be able to pay full benefits. However, any changes the come about through Congressional reform would be unlikely to affect today’s retirees, according to the research.
Of all five risks, longevity was No. 1 for both single men and married couples, according to the research. That was followed by health, market, family and policy risks, in that order.
However, when asked to rank the risks on their own, single men put markets as No. 1, followed by longevity, health, family and policy, in that order.
“Retirees do not have an accurate understanding of their true retirement risks,” the research states.
This may distort the decisions people make, including the age at which they decide to retire, and how they decide to spend and invest their money once they are in retirement, according to Wenliang Hou, who authored the research. Hou is currently a quantitative analyst at Fidelity Investments, and previously served as a research economist at the Center for Retirement Research.
Because longevity is the primary risk, retirees should carefully plan ways to access guaranteed income throughout their retirement years.
“That just highlights the need for a lifetime income source for retirees,” Hou said.
By carefully planning when to claim Social Security, they may be able to identify a strategy to help maximize their income in retirement. Generally, it pays to wait to claim up to age 70, when beneficiaries stand to get the biggest benefit, but this can vary depending on your health and marriage status.
Private sector annuities, where you invest a lump sum in exchange for monthly checks, can also help. Because long-term care is a key concern, life annuities may help retirees with limited financial assets protect themselves from catastrophic risk, according to the research.