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MONEY TALK: Retirement calculators are a wake-up call for undersavers

Retirement housing
An instructor performs yoga with seniors at a retirement community. Such complexes can’t block in-home caregivers by requiring that residents be capable of living independently.
(Getty)

Dear Liz: Are retirement calculators a hoax? It seems that the published estimates for the amount of savings required are insanely high.  If most U.S. citizens haven't saved much and have a decent standard of living in retirement, where is the misperception? Let's say an individual is resolved to choose hospice over intensive care -- so we can reduce healthcare from the equation -- and is no longer paying for a mortgage or college. How could someone really need to replace a high percentage of salary? Do we really need to save millions to retire?  Even if we just spend the principal in the calculated estimates, we are truly old before we run out. I have got to be missing something.

Answer: You're missing quite a few things.

People born between 1936 and 1945 — those aged 71 to 80 now — typically had enough savings, home equity, pension income and Social Security benefits to replace 99% of their annual incomes in retirement, according to a Pew Charitable Trust study. This generation benefited from steadily rising incomes and wealth levels through most of their working lives.

Early boomers, born between 1946 and 1955, aren't quite as well off but typically can replace a comfortable 82% of their incomes.

They're the last generation, though, that's expected to be truly secure on average in retirement. Younger people are much less likely to have pensions. Stagnant incomes, rising costs and falling wealth levels further undermine their financial security.

Late boomers, born between 1956 and 1965, are on track to replace 59% of their incomes. GenX, born between 1966 and 1975, could see their incomes cut in half in retirement.

Imagine living on 50% of what you make now. If that would be easy — and if you're really resolved to choose death over medical treatment — maybe you don't have to worry about retirement calculations.

If the thought of eking by on half your current income makes you break out in a cold sweat, though, then you better start saving.

Divorced survivor benefits

Dear Liz: After death, do ex-spousal Social Security benefits continue?

Answer: Any checks you're getting from Social Security are supposed to stop when you die. But you're probably asking what happens after the death of your ex-spouse.

The good news is that you would be eligible for divorced survivor benefits. Instead of receiving a check based on half of what your ex was getting, your payment will be based on the entire check your ex was getting. (With either benefit, the check would be reduced if you started benefits before your own full retirement age.)

Benefits for divorced spouses are available if the marriage lasted at least 10 years. Divorced spousal benefits end if the person remarries, but divorced survivor benefits can continue if the survivor remarries after reaching age 60.

Defaults on a co-signed student loan  

Dear readers: A recent column about private student loans prompted financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz to reach out with some additional advice for people who co-signed student loans for someone who has stopped paying. Although private student loans don't have the same rehabilitation options as federal student loans, Kantrowitz encourages anyone in this situation to ask the lender, "What are my options?" and "Can you remove the default?"

"I've seen lenders not only remove the default from the co-signer's credit history, but even reduce the interest rate if the co-signer agrees to make the payments by auto-debit," said Kantrowitz, coauthor of the book "File the FAFSA."

Someone who agrees to make payments may get a better deal than someone who pays off the loan in a lump sum, Kantrowitz said, because lenders want to be paid interest. But there would be nothing to stop a co-signer who makes payment arrangements to pay off the debt in full after a few months.

"This way he potentially can have the default entirely removed from his credit history, restoring him to his previous credit score," Kantrowitz said. "It also leaves the account open, so that he can pressure the [borrower] into making payments."

Liz Weston is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the "Contact" form at asklizweston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.


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