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Boomers: At the retirement crossroads

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If you’re the kind of person who spends a lot of time traveling, you’re likely able to recite the standard air safety demonstration spiel, complete with drooping oxygen masks and wing exits. And if you’re an advisor, you’ve probably got the whole looming boomer story down pat: The first of 76 million or more folks born between 1946 and 1964 have finally reached the age at which they can draw Social Security benefits.

It’s still a bit of an abstract notion, but it’s one that’s going to have significant impact for a community of advisors who’ve spent years dealing with older retirees and their more frugal financial outlook. Boomers, for the most part, didn’t do the best job of planning for their golden years, and with a series of market upheavals in the past dozen years, what meager savings they had have been hard hit.

It comes as little surprise that a boomer, like Maryland’s Jeff Mose, has come to specialize in solving the financial issues of folks in his own generation. Like many boomers, Mose, 58, has changed careers several times — years in the United States Navy and Reserves merged into a varied stint in broadcasting, followed by work as a corporate communications liaison for a prosperous Internet start-up company.

But those career changes also came with some financial challenges, and Mose says he and his wife have some uncomfortably intimate knowledge of the rollercoaster market’s effect on their retirement plans — and the hard choices many boomers must make as they face the future.

Jeff Mose, pictured below

Senior Market Advisor: What went wrong in your own early retirement planning, before you became an advisor?

Jeff Mose: It happened to us after the dot-com craze. We had a broker, and we’d invested a lot of money, and suddenly it was gone — and she was gone, too. You find yourself asking, “How did we let this happen?” You go into an investment plan thinking it’s like the relationship you have with your doctor; there’s just a level of trust and expertise, and, of course, your broker must be looking out for your individual money, right?

It happened to a lot of us — we were all left thinking, “How can such intelligent people make such stupid money decisions?” Luckily, I’ve gotten much smarter on this, and I want to share that with other people.

SMA: And what did you learn?

JM: My parents bought an annuity and I started to learn a lot about defined contribution plans versus defined benefit/pension plans. I’d had a 403(b) plan when I worked for PBS at one time, and through my parents, I discovered the whole notion of safe money.

And I learned how percentages and actual dollars are sometimes diametrically opposed: When someone says you’ve made a 12 percent gain but it’s on an account that lost 40 percent of its value, you’re still in a big hole. I don’t mind putting light on a bad situation, provided I have ways of fixing it. Still, most people would rather have a root canal than have to talk seriously about their finances.

SMA: What are you finding in your dealings with your fellow boomers?

JM: I’m seeing different kinds of issues. The older wave of boomers, those who’ve started to hit retirement age this year, a lot of them still had pensions but a shorter window for their defined plans, as those emerged further in their work careers. Middle boomers, like me, are less likely to receive a pension, and a lot of them have had some very volatile 401(k) experiences.

And it irritates you to see the way your 401(k) is managed, but if you’re 58 like I am, you’d face a 10 percent early-withdrawal penalty, even if you wanted to get out of the mutual funds and put it into annuities. Fidelity recently announced that the average value of the average retiree’s 401(k) is only $183,000; even people with that much money better hope that nothing bad happens between now and their retirement, as that amount of money is only going to generate about $800 a month in retirement. Worst off are the youngest boomers, who may not even have a 401(k) — they’re really struggling.

SMA: And recent economic hard times have made things more of a challenge?

JM: There’s an entire missing group from that equation. I’ve talked to benefits people, and there’s a whole new wave of 61 to 62 year olds who got bought out at exactly the age that their heath care costs were set to double. And while they’re in good health now, they’re going to be more prone to hypertension and other long-term ailments that aren’t going to be cured, just treated expensively.

These people step away from their jobs, and then realize that Medicare isn’t going to kick in for another five years, so how are they going to pay for their health care in the meantime? And what if Congress decides to move the retirement age to 69? A lot of boomers don’t have LTCI, so if Medicare and Medicaid won’t cover those costs, the costs are going to go back to their children.

SMA: What have boomers told you they want in their retirement?

JM: So many people I meet at a local group that we call the Second Cup of Coffee bunch, say, “I just want to be able to live in my house and pay my bills. I want a decent quality of life.” They’re the kind of people who drive Buicks and might go on a bus trip vacation to Branson when they’re retired. I don’t meet a lot of people who think they’re magically going to be riding bicycles through Italian vineyards, as you see in all the boomer ads.

SMA: With all of these generational issues, where do you start trying to help?

JM: When I meet with clients, I try to look at the big picture. Do they want to leave a legacy and set up income for their children? What are their plans for their own parents’ money? We will be the first generation to inherit IRAs, but we might inherit them wrong and give up all the tax benefits on the front end. God bless (IRA expert) Ed Slott; he’s really been teaching us about IRAs.

Overall, I’m not a big product person; my advice to clients is usually, “If I were you, I would consider these options,” though I’m studying for my Series 65 to offer some different solutions. But if there’s no guaranteed paycheck in their retirement future, that’s where we talk about annuities — at least they know they’ll have something and can find a solution for income that they won’t outlive. Personally, my wife and I are even open to a reverse mortgage, as we have no kids.

SMA: What’s your investment and planning philosophy nowadays?

JM: I truly believe that you get what you put in, and that means you have to be involved. You can’t just hand off your money to someone and just hope that they’ll do the right thing. You have to be educated. When you don’t know what you don’t know, you don’t even know what questions to ask. So I try to keep things basic. I feel like my customers should be able to recite all the easy stuff about the products they own, so I go through and bullet point the most important stuff, including the surrender fees.

They need to know that you’re either in or you’re out — you can’t have it both ways in an annuity. Overall, I think there’s great reason for optimism, but you have to take an hour a week and take a little evaluation of your finances, with or without my help. And sometimes that means that people have to change their lifestyles. When people see their friends having economic problems, suddenly a light goes on in their heads, and it hits home.


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