Sunday, November 03, 2013

Reserve Cause

When I was still a child, my parents owned a 1958 VW Beetle. I was pretty young, so I don’t remember much about that car, other than the color, and what struck me, even as a child, as the “odd” reversal of the trunk and engine. One thing I do remember is that it didn’t have a gas gauge. Instead, there was a reserve tank switch, and when the engine started sputtering, you opened the valve, and got enough “extra” gas to get to a gas station.

The trick was that you had to remember to leave that reserve open when you filled up―if you didn’t, well then, you had no reserve. As you might expect, the reason I remember that relatively obscure feature to this day is a trip that was “interrupted” when my family discovered the hard way that my father had forgotten to reset the reserve switch.

Retirement planning typically focuses on looking to ensure that your post-retirement income sources are adequate to replicate some percentage of your preretirement income level. Underlying that approach is the assumption that individuals incur roughly the same kinds of expenses in retirement, although the amount, and proportionate share, of those expenses can certainly shift, particularly in areas such as health care. Indeed, while EBRI’s Retirement Security Projection Model®  (RSPM) and Retirement Readiness Rating have long incorporated the uninsured costs of post-retirement health care and long-term care, a few other  retirement projection models only recently acknowledge post-retirement health care costs as a discrete retirement savings need.

As a recent EBRI Notes article[1] explains, individuals should be concerned about saving for health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket expenses in retirement for a number of reasons. Medicare generally covers only about 60 percent of the cost of health care services for Medicare beneficiaries ages 65 and older, while out-of-pocket spending accounts for 12 percent.[2] The percentage of private-sector establishments offering retiree health benefits has been falling, and where benefits are offered, they are becoming less generous, even in the public sector.

While EBRI’s analysis indicates that savings targets for post-retirement health expenses (other than nursing home and home health care costs) declined between 6 percent and 11 percent between 2012 and 2013 for a person or couple age 65, there are a wide variety of possible outcomes, depending not only on the age at which an individual retires, but also the length of life after retirement, the availability and source of health insurance coverage after retirement to supplement Medicare, their health status and out-of-pocket expenses, the rate at which health care costs increase, the impact of interest rates and other rates of return on investments, as well as possible changes in public policy―not to mention the targeted probability of success of those targets.

Remember that while it is possible to come up with a single number that individuals can use to set retirement savings goals, a single number based on averages will be wrong for the vast majority of the population.

But, as with that old VW Beetle, those who set savings targets that fail to set aside any reserve for the eventuality might well wind up short of their destination.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

[1] The EBRI Notes article, “Amount of Savings Needed for Health Expenses for People Eligible for Medicare: More Rare Good News” is online here.
[2] Note that many individuals will need more than the amounts cited in this report because this particular analysis does not factor in the savings needed to cover long-term care expenses, nor does it take into account the fact that many individuals retire prior to becoming eligible for Medicare. However, some workers will need to save less than what is reported if they choose to work during retirement, thereby postponing enrollment in Medicare Parts B and D if they receive health benefits as active workers.

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