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Menlo Park author offers tips on retiring with no pension

 

Emily Brandon is an expert on retirement.

It's not because the U.S. News & World Report senior editor, Menlo Park resident and mother of an Oak Knoll second-grader is retired, or even close to it.

Ms. Brandon is an expert on retirement because it's been her beat, the area she has written about day-in and day-out, for the 10 years she's worked for U.S. News. She also blogs about retirement on the website of U.S. News, which no longer puts out a print edition, except for special reports.

You can find Ms. Brandon's blog: "Planning to Retire," on the U.S. News website.

After all those years of writing about issues facing retirees, she got an itch to pool all the information in one place. So she put together a book, her first. With a full-time job and husband and daughter who need her attention at times, she managed to complete the book in about a year. "It sort of got done on weekends and vacation time," she says.

The book, titled "Pensionless," has just over 200 pages divided into 10 chapters, each designed to help readers who find themselves retiring without a pension, whether it's next year or in a couple of decades. At the end she adds advice for those who decide what they'd really like is a pension.

Very few pensions

"Most of us want to eventually stop working and begin enjoying a well-deserved retirement. The problem lies in how to pay for it," Ms. Brandon says in the introduction.

For many workers, pensions have been replaced with retirement accounts such as 401(k)s (named after the section of the Internal Revenue Code that created them in 1978) and Individual Retirement Accounts, known as IRAs.

"How well you are able to use these retirement accounts, and avoid the taxes and penalties associated with them, will ultimately determine your retirement lifestyle," she writes.

Social Security

One benefit that almost all retirees have is Social Security, which, Ms. Brandon writes, provides some income to 86 percent of retirees. In fact, she writes, 65 percent of those who receive Social Security get half or more of their income from it, and 33 percent receive 90 percent or more of their income from that source.

One of the most important decisions is when to start taking Social Security, because benefits vary depending on the age at which they are first taken. The longer one expects to live, the better off you may be to wait to take benefits, she says.

When her mother turned 65 this year, Ms. Brandon says, she helped her decide to wait until 70 to take Social Security, partly because her grandmother is still living at age 97.

Avoid pitfalls

One of the clear impressions that can be gleaned from "Pensionless" is that juggling the components that go into a retirement plan without a pension is complicated.

For example, not signing up for Medicare when first eligible can mean increased premiums for the rest of your life.

Not taking a minimum distribution from a 401(k) or IRA account every year from age 70-1/2 will result in a penalty of half the amount that was to be withdrawn.

Choosing a 401(k) investment that charges higher fees can significantly slow down its growth, and not transferring the contents of a 401(k) properly after changing jobs can mean losing a significant chunk of it to taxes.

Other topics in the book include Medicare and associated health care plans, how to minimize taxes once retired and how to minimize housing costs.

"It sort of goes through everything that could potentially trip you up," she says, including "gotchas" in 401(k)s, such as things that trigger taxes and fees, vesting schedules for employer matches, and how to handle a retirement account when changing jobs.

The book is not just for those about to retire. "If you start saving in your 20s, you will have so much more (saved) when you're in your 60s," she says. And yes, although she is many decades from retirement herself, Ms. Brandon says she does follow her own advice. "I spend a lot of time thinking about retirement," she says.

Her tips

Some tips from Ms. Brandon:

● The young who have no faith that Social Security will be around when they retire might be looking at it in the right way, she says. "It's not a bad way to plan as if it won't be there," she says. "It's not enough really to give you a really desirable lifestyle."

U.S. News has, however, found some places retirees can live on Social Security alone, she says. "Around here, I could not picture it working," she says. "You would be getting by," and have no money for things such as travel.

● Ms. Brandon says that while selling a high-value home and moving to a less expensive area can provide income for retirees who don't have other savings, "it's not necessarily a bad thing to stay where you are in retirement." Friends, family and familiarity are all nice, she says.

● Building a second residential unit for a member of the family can work for some, she says. "It's a nice way for the family to stay involved (in the retirees' lives) if you can make it work." You need to set down rules of who does what up front to avoid potential conflict, she says.

● Spouses need to discuss retirement in advance. "Couples don't always agree on when to retire and where to live," she says. And suddenly spending much more time together can also be hard on couples. "Suddenly you're arguing about who unloads the dishwasher," Ms. Brandon says. "You have to renegotiate everything."

In addition to making clear what they want to have happen at the end of their lives, Ms. Brandon advises retirees to also write down exactly what they want to happen when they need additional care, including whether they want to age at home or in a nursing facility. Having wishes in writing can save bickering among children about what to do for their parents, and ensure that the parent gets what he or she wants.

If you want a pension

The last chapter of the book contains advice on how to make retirement easier -- earn a pension. Only about 18 percent of private industry workers had traditional pensions in 2015, Ms. Brandon writes, but 84 percent of state and local government workers did. An even greater percentage of teachers, 98 percent, had pension coverage.

Where to buy the book

Buy the book online from Keplers.com or find it in stock at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park. The book is also available in paperbac or electronic form at Amazon.com.

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