Part of the side effects from my PTS means the wrong damn song, movie, book, or thought can be problematic from time to time. This happened recently. While I was typing an article about pensions and streaming some music, a sad song played over my headphones. That’s not always an issue, except I’d never heard this song before, so I didn’t know to skip it. The song’s subject related to one of the causes of my PTS. As a result, I scrambled for the volume control before tears erupted uncontrollably. Alas, I was too slow. As a result, I spent the next few hours trying to control the flood of emotions that washed over me.
Unlike my previous articles on my mental health and job struggles, this article isn’t about anger. It’s about sadness. In true Grumpus Maximus form though, the article is still relevant to the topics of personal finance, careers, and the Golden Albatross. Yet, much like my Worth vs. “Worth It” article, this story is raw and personal. Even more so than my previous article in fact. If that isn’t your thing, I completely understand and don’t hold it against you. Click away now.
Hello! If you are a ChooseFI listener who made their way here to read my response to a ChooseFI listener’s pension question in Episode 58R, you’re in the right place! You can probably skip the Context section and go straight to the case study if you want. Also, if you’re one of the many listeners and readers who reached out to me as a result of my interview in Episode 57, thank you. I’d like to thank Jonathan and Brad as well for providing me the opportunity to spread the Golden Albatross message!
On the other hand, if you have no idea what I am talking about, read the context portion. I wrote it just for you…
Context Is Key
In late 2017, Jonathan Mendonsa and Brad Barrett from the ChooseFI podcast interviewed yours truly. It proved a great experience. When the episode aired on 08 JAN 2018, it generated a lot of traffic to my blog, FaceBook (FB) group, and FB page. It turns out though, that my interaction with Choose FI listeners was destined for more than one interview and intermittent responses in the ChooseFI FB group to pension questions. Jonathan and Brad asked me to joint their team as the resident researcher for pension questions based on my pension “expertise”. I guess pickings were slim when it came to bloggers who write about Financial Independence (FI) and Pensions! I didn’t have enough happening in my life between my family, military career, and blog; so I said “yes”.
They didn’t waste any time either. I caught my first listener question on Christmas weekend 2017 .. with a due date of 12 JAN 18. They asked for an answer before their weekly round up episode, in which they review what they learned from the week’s interview and answer listener’s questions. Of course, that was the intended week of my interview, so it played into the overall theme of pensions for the week. I was happy to provide. Unfortunately, Brad got sick during the week of 12 JAN, so they pushed my listener question and answer to Episode 58R on 19 JAN 18. No big deal, we got there in the end.
Thus, this post is the written version (with better grammar) of the same pension lump sum case study I read out loud on ChooseFI Episode 58R. You can find Tess’s (the listener’s) seemingly simple question at 38m53s into the episode, and my long winded response immediately following. You’ll need to at least listen to her question to understand my response.
Right onto my overly complicated answer to Tess’s question.
The Set Up
Whether or not a person should take a pension lump sum is the pension question I see asked most often in the ChooseFI FB group. As a result, I hope this proves an enlightening discussion for a portion of ChooseFI listeners.
Tess asked a seemingly simple question for which no simple or precise answer exists. To paraphrase in terms I use on my blog, Tess wants to calculate the Total Dollar Value (TDV) of her three different pension options in today’s dollars in order to compare them to her company’s lump-sum offer (also in today’s dollars).
One of the reasons there is never a precise answer to the TDV question is due to the vague nature of all retirement planning. Most importantly none of us know how long we will live! Nor do we know exactly what our rate of return or inflation rates will be. Thus, the clear mathematical answer Tess desires is an estimation at best, and a guess at worst.
Pension Lump Sum Framework
Since some estimations are better than others, it’s best to understand what we are dealing with, so let’s discuss some general facts about pension lump sums in order to frame our discussion.
Why do private pension funds, or any pension fund for that matter, offer lump sums? I will tell you it’s not out of the goodness of their hearts. No, pension funds offer lump sums primarily because it allows them to transfer risk at a discounted rate to the pensioner.
In other words, the company transfers the future risk of running out of money with which to pay the pensioner over to the pensioner in the present day. By taking a lump sum the pensioner incurs the risk of running out of money in the future, not the pension fund. Assuming the pensioner actually invests the money (a big assumption in my opinion), the pensioner runs the risk by not employing an appropriate Safe Withdrawal Rate (SWR) and therefore withdrawing all their money prior to death. As ERN McCracken has written about prolifically; employment of a SWR can be a tricky thing if an investor does not understand the facts and math.
The U.S. government further incentivizes the risk transfer from company to the pensioner with its rules that govern pension lump sum calculations. Most importantly, the rules allow companies to use what an article at Forbes.com calls “unrealistically high rates of return” for a lump sum invested by the pensioner. Higher than normal rates of return from an invested lump sum (again assuming the lump sum gets invested at all) forces the pensioner to reach for returns to achieve the same value that an annuitized payout would offer.
The U.S. government also forces companies to use the government’s longevity estimates which inexplicably combines male and female longevity into one table. This is unfair to women offered lump sums since U.S. women statistically live longer than men. Conversely, for U.S. males, this unfairly bumps up their lump sum offer.
Since companies are legally allowed to “low-ball” their pensioners, TDV calculations almost always end up greater than the pension lump sum offered. Thus, anyone looking to compare a lump sum payout to the future value of their annuitized pension using today’s dollars should brace themselves. In rare cases, inflation mitigates this effect, but that isn’t the norm in my experience. If Tess wants a good article explaining these issues further, she can go to the Forbes.com article by William Baldwin (not the actor) I reference above. The article also provides a calculator which (supposedly) mitigates the flaws in U.S. based lump sum calculations and offers a true lump sum calculation.
The final factor to understand up front in any lump sum discussion is pension safety. Pension safety is something of a trump card (no pun intended) when it comes to lump sums. If a high likelihood of pension fund failure exists, then no matter how “low-ball” the lump sum offer, a pensioner will probably take it.
That said, pension safety is an area many people, including many of the ChooseFI Facebook followers, tend to misunderstand. Much of the advice I see in the ChooseFI FB Group generally equates to “assume your pension won’t be there for you, and if it is, it’s just icing on top of the cake”. If that were true, then logic should dictate that everyone take the lump sum offer.
But it’s not true. Each pension fund is run and managed separately from one another. To say that all pensions are doomed is not only inaccurate, but unhelpful to those trying to use a pension to help them achieve FI.
Thus, I would advise anyone in Tess’s situation to dig into the financial details of their pension fund. Pension funds and the companies that own them are required to produce annual statements and reports which disclose how well funded the pension fund is. If for some reason Tess cannot find those reports for her particular company, then I would recommend she go to Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research and see what information they have among their reams of reports on pensions. By doing this, someone should be able to build a much better estimate of the likelihood that their pension fund might fail in the future.
For a private pension, let me further point out that all may not be lost even if the pension fund fails. Many private and union pension funds in the U.S. belong to the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC). The PBGC is a U.S. Government-backed insurance scheme meant to act as the final backstop for all pension funds who are paying members. However, the PBGC itself is massively underfunded and in need of much reform, which limits its usefulness. Currently, if the PBGC assumes the financial liabilities of a failed pension fund it only pays out about 60% of what is owed to a pensioner.
Facts and Assumptions
So with that long-winded framing of Tess’ question out of the way, let’s discuss the important facts and assumptions about Tess’ pension and lump sum offer:
We’ll assume Tess is asking about herself, not a spouse, and use female life expectancy rates
Tess is 48 (according to follow-up email) so has 7, 12, or 17 years to wait until pension payouts start; depending on which choice she makes
Assuming no COLA, that’s 7, 12, or 17 years of inflation eating away at the value of her payouts before they start
This means the value of the different monthly payouts offered ($690, $1066, and $1254) would respectively be worth $601, $841, $896in today’s dollars when those payouts start. I made those calculations with this inflation calculator at BuyUpside.com
It’s worth a read, but I’ve yet to figure out how to value the immediacy effect mathematically for TDV calculations
Right, I’m ready to make the TDV calculations now. Here’s how I do it for a situation like Tess’s. Take the inflation-adjusted monthly payouts I noted above, and turn them into annual amounts. Then multiply the various totals by the number of years left from the start point of each pension payout to the end of Tess’s assumed life. Finally, adjust that total again for inflation using the BuyUpside.com calculator. That should provide three different TDV’s in today’s dollars to compare the $75.5K lump sum.
Scenario #1 Age 55 Pension Pay Out
$601 x 12 months = $7212 per year
$7212 x (83 – 55 years) = $201,936 non-inflation adjusted cash value
$201,936 adjusted for 2% inflation over 28 years (83 – 55 years) =
$115,987 TDV in 2017 dollars
Scenario #2 Age 60 Pension Pay Out
$841 x 12 months = $10,092 per year
$10,092 x (83 – 60 years) = $232,116 non-inflation adjusted cash value
$232,116 adjusted for 2% inflation over 23 years (83 – 60 years) =
$147,198 TDV in 2017 dollars
Scenario #3 Age 65 Pension Pay Out
$896 x 12 months = $10,752 per year
$10,752 x (83 – 65 years) = $193,536 non-inflation adjusted cash value
$193,536 adjusted for 2% inflation over 18 years (83 – 65 years) =
$135,506 TDV in 2017 dollars
Comparison of TDVs to Lump Sum Offers
Wahay, we did it! Not only did we determine today’s TDV for Tess’s future pension payouts, but we also discovered that Scenario 2 provides the most money over her life expectancy (if our assumptions hold true). About this point is where I typically caution readers to remember the TDVs are at best estimations! Tess actually has to make it to 83 years of age to realize this scenario. Not only that, but she has to die (sorry Tess) at 83 for this to hold true too. Finally, our 2% inflation rate has to hold true over the lifetime of our scenario as well.
Those are a lot of assumptions, and they don’t include any of the other assumptions I made about Tess’s pension due to a lack of information. For instance, the addition of other pension benefits like healthcare, or a major pension safety concern, seriously complicates comparing a TDV to a pension lump sum. If that happens to be anyone else in the audience, then refer to Part 8 of my Pension Series for more detailed comparison methods.
However, in Tess’s case let’s assume everything is true up to this point and holds true throughout the lifetime of our TDV scenarios. As a result, I would recommend she concentrate on the difference between Scenario 2 and the lump sum offer. That comparison truly highlights the “low-ball” effect I described towards the beginning of this response. Tess’s lump sum offer is worth approximately half of what she’s owed in Scenario 2. Not good, but that’s what the U.S. law allows.
One last point worth noting, my method isn’t the only one out there for calculating pension lump sums. Both Financial Samurai and Actuary on Fire also wrote fairly extensive posts on how to value a pension. Actuary’s is probably the easiest, as it makes a lot of assumptions, and uses the XNPV function on MS Excel. Actuary’s method and mine are conceptually similar since we both base our calculations on the potential amount earned, discounted for inflation. Financial Samurai uses a Rate of Return method for comparing the value of a pension, which is something I don’t do. This illustrates the point I was trying to make at the beginning of this post though. Since there is no precise method for calculating TDV for a pension, there is no one correct method.
At this point, it’s over to Tess for her determination as to what to do. The TDV estimates argue for Scenario #2, but then again that doesn’t take into account what’s going on her personal life. As Airmen Mildollar likes to say, personal finance is personal; which means no two pension lump sums comparison scenarios will be the same. And as Brad Barret likes to point out on the ChooseFI podcast all the time, people value different things as well. All I’ve done is arm Tess with knowledge by showing her a way (not the way) to estimate her pension’s Total Dollar Value (TDV). She can use that knowledge to compare it to her lump-sum offer, but what she chooses to do with that knowledge is up to her. Best of luck Tess!
I like doing these. If you’re interested I can run a TDV, pension lump sum, or FI pension scenario for you. I will emphasize I am neither a math genius, nor a trained professional though. However, anyone can learn to make these calculations; they just don’t necessarily have the time. The only “payment” I ask for in return is the permission to anonymize the data, and publish it as a case study article! Your call.
This is an updated version to my article originally posted 04 October 2017. This version includes a substantive correction. The previous version of the article failed to accurately describe all the calculations required when comparing a pension with an inflation-linked Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) to life insurance. I noticed my omission today and reworked the affected paragraphs. I also took the opportunity to clean up some grammar. You will see substantive changes noted in red text. I believe the changes make the comparisons between life insurance and survivorship more competitive.
The incomplete calculations I described in the previous version of my article appeared weighted towards survivorship. That was not my intent. Since the intent of the article changed, and I believe in full disclosure with my readers; I felt this mistake warranted a revision with new publish date.
This is a first for me in the blogging sphere, although in the military we routinely strive for this level of transparency when an official report, memorandum, or instruction contains a major mistake. The primary purpose for issuing a correction is to prevent anyone from acting on erroneous information. It’s also important that the historical record reflect accurate information. I’ve decided to hold myself to the same standard on this blog.
As a result, I advise anyone who read and used the methods described in the previous version of this article to read this update and adjust your calculations accordingly. While I apologize for the inconvenience, and always strive for 100% accuracy in my articles; I would remind everyone I’m not a professional. Nor am I considering your case specifically. No matter how comfortable you are with your retirement numbers and plan; it’s always best to run your plan by a professional like a fee-only Certified Financial Planner who adheres to the fiduciary standard. Again my apologies.
In late Summer 2003, a member of my unit and one of its seasoned mentors was killed in the early days of the Insurgency in Iraq. We were both part of a tight-knit group of young officers that worked and played hard. While I would not have called him a close friend, many in our group did, and I often sought advice and guidance from him. His death was a blow to everyone in our group and the unit as a whole. Nothing was the same after it. Most of us were not prepared mentally and we all took it personally. Each of us dealt with his death in our own way, and I am sad to say it splintered the group in ways I never could’ve foreseen. Continue reading The Pension Series (Part 5): Survivorship (Updated)
Like what I did there with the title? I created what’s called click bait. Most of the time my titles are boring, other times they are obscure. This time though I created an “action” title to capture readers’ interest in the Gap Number Method, because it gained some recent publicity. That’s about as creative as I get, adding the word “action” in all caps to a title.
Yes, I know. You’re wondering how, with only two readers who aren’t related to me, did I gain any publicity? Well, it turns out I have a face built for radio — or podcasting as the case may be. Not so sure about the voice though.
In any case, on a recent (and so far my only) podcast interview on ChooseFI, the hosts asked me to explain my concept of the Gap Number. For those of you who need a refresher on the Gap Number, you can find the post where I coined the term here. In general, the Gap Number is the difference between your fixed income in retirement and your expenses. Expressed mathematically it looks like: Continue reading The Gap Number Method in … ACTION! (Part 1)
As a result of the problems identified in my previous article with Mint.com’s annual “Net Savings Over Time” report, I decided to nerd out on money tracking again. Apologies to those of you who don’t enjoy these articles as much as some of my others. However, much like Darrow Kirkpatrick did with retirement calculators, I believe it’s important to understand the pluses and minuses associated with popular money tracking software. This is especially crucial considering the importance I place on tracking money, to begin with.
I spent several days prior to writing this article improving the fidelity of my data in my Mint.com account. I also rebuilt my entire 2017 financial year in Quicken. Doing so allowed me to total my net savings for the year in Quicken and verify if I made any mistakes with my Mint calculations.
To refresh everyone’s memory, when I initially ran Grumpus Familias’s net savings for 2017 through Mint as part of my annual end of year fiscal review, it reported we saved $70.5K. However, I didn’t trust that number due to my inability to verify whether or not Mint accounted for our annual Roth IRA transfer. The program, as far I could tell, didn’t allow for that determination. After spending a few days double checking entries, modifying several transaction labels, and re-displaying reports; Mint now shows an annual net savings of $69.5K. Obviously, I had approximately $1K of transactions mislabeled in my previous report. However, I still cannot verify exactly how Mint determines expenses and income for this report. As a result, I don’t trust this number any more than the previous one. Continue reading Track Your Money (Part 4): Mint All Breakdown