Retirement Planning Upgrade Turns Your 401(k) Into A Cash Machine

Congress has given 401(k) plan sponsors like your employer the green light for offering investments that provide guaranteed lifetime income — annuities — to plan members like you. The introduction of annuities would add a major power tool to workers’ retirement planning kits.


Adding this sort of lifetime income feature would make 401(k) plans more like traditional pension plans.

Less than 5% of plans already offer comparable options, says Glenn Dial, senior retirement strategist for American Century Investments. Fidelity Investments expects plan sponsors to spend at least several more months deciding what new options to offer workers.

Great-West Investments says interest looks strongest from plans in the public sector and among not-for-profits.

You would use other savings in your account or new contributions to buy such annuities.

Annuities Beef Up Retirement Planning

This potential tsunami of annuities is coming because the Secure Act of 2020 immunizes employers from lawsuits by plan members if the underlying insurer goes broke.

The goal is to help workers beef up their retirement planning by making their retirement income more predictable.

In contrast, yield from income-oriented mutual funds can vary, depending on market action, interest rates and dividend yields.

The bigger or more innovative a 401(k) plan, the more choices it likely will offer. Variables will include how much money you receive yearly and when payments start. Do you want payments to start now? Or years from now?

And how long do you want checks to continue? Depending on your plan, you’ll be able to choose scenarios like checks that continue for as long as you live. Or checks that keep going to your survivor after your death.

You may even be able to arrange payments to, say, your favorite charity after you and your survivor pass away.

“Which bells and whistles you choose will depend on how much you want to spend, and what you want to spend it on,” Dial said.

Secure Act Requires Additional Retirement Planning Benefits

Many American Century mutual funds are offered in 401(k) plans nationwide. American Century is partnering with insurers to offer lifetime income investments.

The Secure Act also requires plans to tell plan members periodically how much income their choices can generate. And workers’ choices must be portable to another 401(k) or IRA if a worker leaves a job or takes a new one.

Traditional Pension Plans Are Dying

Demand exists. A hefty 76% of U.S. workers want their 401(k) plan to offer them a way to arrange retirement income, according to an American Century survey.

Traditional pensions offer that sort of guaranteed income. And workers don’t have to select the underlying investments. Nor do they have to bet on how long they are likely to live.

The trouble is that traditional pension plans are going the way of dinosaurs, especially in the private sector. In 1989, a pension plan was the sole retirement plan for 22% of all U.S. workers. Ten percent had both a pension plan plus a 401(k)-style plan, according to the Boston College Center for Retirement Research.

By 2019, a mere 7% had a pension plan only. Just 5% had both types of retirement plans.

Are Annuities Right For You?

When your 401(k) offers such annuities, how will you know whether to buy one?

First, figure out how much retirement income you’ll need. As it is now, Social Security typically replaces 43% of your preretirement income if that was $80,000, according to J.P. Morgan Asset Management.

It will replace only 27% of a preretirement income of $150,000.

Step Two In Shopping For 401(k) Annuities

Second, decide how much you’re willing to spend for annuitized income from your 401(k).

Suppose you want $7,000 per month, beyond your Social Security benefits. Visit insurers’ websites. See how much they charge for annuities that generate that amount.

Repeat your calculations, changing factors like the starting date for income. Do you want checks to start right away? Or, say, five years from now?

Are the checks for you alone? Or do you want checks to continue to your spouse after you die? Do you want check size to be adjusted periodically for inflation?

And after both you and your spouse have passed away, do you want something to go to charity?

In each case, notice what the annuity would cost.

Continue your retirement planning by comparing that cost to your 401(k) plan’s choices. “Because of institutional pricing, it will probably cost you up to 50% less to buy the same amount of guaranteed lifetime income inside your plan,” Dial said.

Annuities Shopping For Retirement Planning: Step Three

Your third step in sifting through annuities is to decide whether you want to plow all of your 40(k) savings into the income investment. Do you want to hold some aside in a separate investment, such as a growth mutual fund whose balance rises with time?

“The basic rule is, the more income you want and the sooner you want it, the more it will cost,” Dial said.

Follow Paul Katzeff on Twitter at @IBD_PKatzeff for tips about retirement planning and actively run portfolios that consistently outperform the market.


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