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Outside the Box: Retiring is one of the most complicated things we do. This will make it easier

Forget buying a home or paying for college. In terms of complexity and cost, nothing comes close to retirement—a topic that encompasses saving, investing, taxes, Social Security, healthcare expenses and countless other financial issues.

Fortunately, there’s a growing body of research to guide us, and some of the best studies come from Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research (CRR). Here are just some of the insights I’ve lately garnered from CRR studies:

Valuing annuities. Many retirees question the value of immediate fixed annuities that pay lifetime income and, in one sense, they’re right. The present value of these annuities works out to about 80 cents for every $1 invested, meaning the typical retiree wouldn’t recoup the full amount of his or her investment plus interest. On top of that, of course, there’s also the risk that you’ll lose the life expectancy lottery and recoup far less than 80 cents.

Still, for affluent individuals who have looked after their health, the payback will likely be well above 80 cents. Moreover, as a recent CRR study notes, the value of income annuities goes beyond raw dollars. There’s also an insurance component. The notion: Retirees can generate more income from their nest egg if they buy income annuities because they don’t have to worry so much about outliving their money. This is one reason I plan to stash a significant portion of my retirement savings in immediate fixed annuities. An added reason: The resulting stream of large, predictable income will allow me to invest much of my remaining money in stocks—and, fingers crossed, that should result in greater long-run wealth.

Claiming Social Security. Like many others, I’ve lamented how many retirees claim Social Security benefits at age 62, which is the earliest possible age, rather than delaying benefits so they get a larger monthly check. But it seems retirees are wising up.

There are two key ways to look at the data. The usual way: Calculate what percentage of those claiming benefits each year are age 62. That number has been trending lower since 2005 and, as of 2019, stood at 34% of female claimants and 31% for men.

But as CRR researchers note, the number of folks turning age 62 each year has been growing rapidly in recent decades and that distorts the data. Why? There are more 62-year-olds than, say, 68-year-olds. That’s why CRR researchers offer an alternative way of looking at the issue: They calculate the percentage of those turning age 62 each year who opt to claim Social Security at that age. That number is even lower, with just a quarter of 2019’s 62-year-olds opting to claim right away.

In a separate study, the CRR examined whether Social Security’s actuarial adjustments are correct. In other words, based on current life expectancies and interest rates, are you—on average—likely to do equally well whether you claim benefits at, say, age 62, 66 or 70? It seems not.

CRR researchers concluded that the reduction in benefits for claiming at age 62 rather than 65 is too large given today’s greater life expectancy and lower interest rates. (Those lower interest rates also mean you’re less likely to come out ahead by claiming benefits early and then investing the money in bonds.) The implication: For the typical retiree, it makes financial sense to delay benefits, and that’s especially true for high-income earners, who tend to live longer than average.

Needing care. Many retirees end up needing help with daily living, but the amount varies greatly. Some might need assistance with routine tasks like shopping or preparing meals, while others might need help because they have dementia or have trouble, say, dressing and bathing themselves.

CRR researchers looked at what percentage of 65-year-olds end up needing help with at least one activity of daily living (think bathing, dressing, toileting and so on) for three years or more. That came to 24%. At the other end of the spectrum, 17% of retirees needed no help at all. The remainder fell somewhere in between—their need for care during retirement was modest or it lasted less than three years.

If that sounds like a mixed bag, it is. But here’s an intriguing data point: Among those ages 65 to 70 who describe their health as “excellent” or “very good,” the probability of not needing any help was 30%, versus 5% for those who said their health was “fair” or “poor.”

Working longer. We know that working longer is financially beneficial: It gives us more time to save and collect investment returns, leading to a larger nest egg. It also allows us to postpone Social Security and any annuity purchases, resulting in more retirement income.

Read: How to extend your life by as much as two years

According to a 2021 CRR study, there’s an added bonus: It seems those who work longer also tend to live longer. The study in question looked at men in the Netherlands who opted to stay in the workforce in response to what proved to be a temporary tax law change. The upshot: Those who worked between ages 62 and 65 were less likely to die over the next five years than those who didn’t work. The long-term impact isn’t yet known, but the researchers suggest that the improvement in life expectancy might be as much as two years.

This column originally appeared on Humble Dollar. It was republished with permission.

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