Pros and cons of retirement income options

Hand holding piece of paper that says "401k"
  • Americans' lack of retirement readiness prompted calls for a solution.
  • Lifetime income options offer a regular income stream, but at a price.
  • The various products and payout plans make it hard to do a comparison.

Despite near-constant reminders, Americans aren't really good at saving for retirement. And they're likely to be just as bad at stretching their savings to last the entirety of their golden years. It's a problem that has the government weighing whether to require plans to offer an option that can generate retirement income for their workers.

The Government Accountability Office recently solicited opinions from the financial community -- and the general public -- about ways to enhance the retirement security of citizens. At issue: Should the government force financial companies to offer lifetime income options that give retirees a predictable stream of retirement income for the remainder of their lives?

The financial community is split down the middle on the issue. Some are in favor, saying it can alleviate a significant and growing problem. Others note that if worded poorly, enforced lifetime income options could wrestle control of workers' financial future away from them.

What are they?

There's nothing new about a lifetime income option. Many insurance companies, and some investment houses, currently offer them in the form of immediate annuities. After investing a lump sum, you're eligible to get a fixed percentage of that amount per year for the rest of your life once you hit a certain age.

So, for instance, if you have $100,000 in the annuity and you get a 5 percent rate, you'll get $5,000 of retirement income each year going forward -- even if you live longer than 20 years.

Consumers, though, haven't been too enthusiastic about the investment option. The concern has been that if you put, say, $100,000 into one of the accounts and die before it's paid back to you, your heirs may get nothing. If you live a particularly long time, though, you could get back more than your original investment.

Other plans lock you in -- not allowing you to withdraw your money prior to retirement, even in the event of a financial crisis.


In general, financial advisers, such as Jim Holtzman, a CFP and CPA with Legend Financial Advisors in Pittsburgh, aren't exactly anti-annuity. They do say, however, that the amount people should invest in a lifetime income option account comes down to spending needs. The payout should be enough to cover your projected monthly living expenses. Beyond that, other investment vehicles should be considered.

"It's complicated, but you have to structure a portfolio that makes sense for the client," he says. "Part of the reason this (debate) is coming up is pensions have (basically) gone away. Also, in the last 20 years, we've had two bubbles burst in the market. That's going to cause concern for a lot of people who were approaching retirement."

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