Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Year-End "Review"

This is the time of year when many people both look back at the year just past—and ahead to the next with a fresh perspective. It’s also that time of year when many make lists.

So, whether you’re looking to make some New Year’s resolutions, or just looking to improve your overall financial situation, here are 10 things to check off your 2013 list—and that can get your 2014 list off to a strong start.
  1. Deal with debt (see Savings Resolutions for the New Year).
  2. Establish a savings goal for retirement (see Estimate “Ed”).
  3. Save for retirement—at work, or on your own (see Saving for Retirement Outside of Work).
  4. Save early so that your savings can work for you (see The “Magic” of Compounding).
  5. If you do have a retirement plan at work, make the most of it (see Making the Most of your Retirement Plan).
  6. Maximize your savings—see if you’re eligible for the Savers’ Credit (see Credit Where Credit is Due).
  7. See if a Roth 401(k) makes sense for your situation (see To Roth or Not?).
  8. Know how much you’re paying for your retirement savings (see Shedding Some Light on your Workplace Retirement Plan Fees).
  9. Keep an eye on your retirement savings investments (see Are Your Savings Investments Over-weighted?).
  10. Don’t forget that you may have other important savings goals as well (see College “Education”–Saving For College).
Of course, a good place to start—any time—is to Choose to Save.® You can find a wide variety of tools and resources—including the popular and widely recommended BallparkE$timate—at[1]

Nevin E. Adams, JD

If you are interested in, or working on, issues of financial literacy or savings education, you’ll want to check out $avings Account$, a free monthly update from the American Savings Education Council (ASEC) on the latest research and updates on new (and old but relevant) tools, as well as keep you up-to-date on various events, conferences, and symposiums relevant to ASEC’s Mission: To make saving and retirement planning a priority for all Americans.  You can sign up online here.

[1] Organizations interested in building/reinforcing a workplace savings campaign can also find a variety of free resources there, courtesy of ASEC.  Choose to Save® is sponsored by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute Education and Research Fund (EBRI-ERF) and one of its programs, the American Savings Education Council (ASEC). The website and materials development have been underwritten through generous grants and additional support from EBRI Members and ASEC Partner institutions.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Believe Able

In that holiday classic “Miracle on 34th Street,” a man named Kris Kringle (who claims to be “the one and only” Santa Claus) winds up having his sanity challenged in court. Ultimately, the judge dismisses charges that would have resulted in Kringle’s institutionalization—not because he actually is persuaded to believe by the evidence that Kris is the REAL Santa Claus, but because he finds it convenient to demur to the determinations of a higher authority (in this case, the US Postal Service).

While belief may not always be a portent of reality, it can be a powerful force, as any parent who has ever nurtured Santa’s existence well knows.

The 2013 EBRI/Greenwald & Associates Health and Voluntary Workplace Benefits Survey¹ (WBS) reveals that most workers believe their employers or unions will continue to provide health care insurance— although there have been employer surveys indicating that, at some point in the future, some may not. Not that workers fail to appreciate future uncertainties: While 46 percent of worker respondents to the WBS indicate they are extremely or very confident about their ability to get the treatments they need today, only 28 percent are confident about their ability to get needed treatments during the next 10 years.

Similarly, when it comes to retirement, the Retirement Confidence Survey² has, for nearly a quarter century now, shown a remarkable resilience in worker confidence regarding their financial future in retirement, belying the aggregate savings levels indicated in that same survey. Over the course of that survey, we’ve seen confidence wax stronger and then wane―and while we’ve seen distressingly low levels of preparation, more recently we’ve also seen a growing awareness of the need for those preparations. The RCS has also documented a consistent trend in workers believing they will be able to work, and to work for pay, longer than the experience of retiree respondents suggests will be a viable option.

Next month we’ll field the 24th annual version of that Retirement Confidence Survey, where we will (among other things) seek to gain a sense of American workers’ preparation for (and confidence about) retirement, as well as some idea as to how those already retired view the adequacy of their own preparations. Is a lack of worker confidence about retirement finances a troubling indicator? Or does it suggest that they have a greater appreciation for the need to prepare?

Later in the year the WBS will, as it has since 1998, probe sentiments about health care and voluntary benefits: Will workers sense a continued commitment by their employers and unions to provide health care coverage? If not, how might that affect their commitment to their work and their workplace? How might concerns about health coverage affect and influence retirement preparations?

In the cinematic “Miracle,” there seems to be a connection between believing something will happen and its reality. Little Susan Walker goes so far as to intone “I believe… I believe… It’s silly, but I believe!” even as she stumbles upon the home of her dreams.

In the real world, the linkage between belief and reality isn’t generally so convenient. And employers, providers, and policy makers alike, know that being able to anticipate those potential gaps between belief and a future reality can be critical.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

In addition to providing financial support to two of the industry’s most highly regarded employee benefit surveys, underwriters of the RCS and WBS have access to special early briefings on the findings, in addition to a number of other benefits. If you’d like to know more, email Nevin Adams at

You can find additional information about the RCS online here and information about the WBS (previously called the Health Confidence Survey) online here.

¹ See “2013 Health and Voluntary Workplace Benefits Survey: Nearly 90% of Workers Satisfied With Their Own Health Plan, But 55% Give Low Ratings to Health Care System,” online here.

² See “The 2013 Retirement Confidence Survey: Perceived Savings Needs Outpace Reality for Many,” online here.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

"Keep" Sakes

Ask any benefits manager why their organization offers benefits to their workers, and my experience suggests that the reliably consistent answer is “to attract and retain the best workers.”

Indeed, as the 2013 Health and Voluntary Workplace Benefits Survey (WBS)¹ bears out, the benefits package that an employer offers prospective employees is an important factor in their decision to accept or reject a job. In fact, a full third of employees say the benefits package is extremely important, and another 45 percent say it is very important. Moreover, a quarter of employees report they have accepted, quit, or changed jobs because of the benefits—other than salary or wage level—that an employer offered or failed to offer.²

However, the WBS also found that many workers are not especially satisfied with the benefits package offered by their employer: 31 percent are only somewhat satisfied, and one-quarter are not too satisfied (12 percent) or not at all satisfied (14 percent).

It is, of course, entirely possible that these workers are genuinely dissatisfied with the options provided by their employer. On the other hand, the WBS found that a substantial minority of employees may be confused about the benefits their employer offers and who pays for them—a level of ignorance that belies the time and expense often undertaken by employers in making those offerings available.

Employers increasingly look not only to attracting and retaining a qualified workforce, but (at an appropriate time and place), to helping an aging workforce migrate into retirement—a process that can be assisted by a well-crafted benefit program. And it’s not surprising that workers see value in offering additional voluntary benefits to those nearing retirement age.

In fact, the WBS finds that large majorities of workers say they think the following products and services would be extremely or very valuable to workers nearing retirement age:
  • An annuity product that makes guaranteed monthly lifetime payments (83 percent).
  • Life insurance that pays benefits to the surviving spouse, helping to replace income from Social Security or other sources that is discontinued when a worker dies (77 percent).
  • Retirement planning that includes assistance with deciding when to retire, when to claim Social Security benefits, what Medicare option to choose, and how to set up a stream of income for retirement (76 percent).
  • Long-term care insurance (71 percent).
During my working life, there have been times when I didn’t care much about certain aspects of the benefits package. As a young, single individual, I focused primarily on salary and vacation—cared less about health care insurance than I should have, while retirement benefits, even for someone who worked with them every day, were distant prospects. As my family grew, my priorities (and those that I assigned to various benefits) shifted. It was still presented as a package, of course, but the various components mattered more or less depending on my personal situation.

Ultimately, employers looking to keep the best workers committed and engaged know that benefits, like workers, have a life cycle, and that programs designed to keep the best workers are not only well-designed for those various life stages, but (as the WBS reinforces) are well-communicated and reinforced throughout a worker’s career.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

¹ The 2013 Health and Voluntary Workplace Benefits Survey (WBS) was conducted by EBRI and Greenwald & Associates. Additional information can be found online here.  If you’d like to become an underwriter of this important survey, please contact Nevin Adams at, or Paul Fronstin at

² “Views on the Value of Voluntary Workplace Benefits: Findings from the 2013 Health and Voluntary Workplace Benefits Survey,”, can be found in the November 2013 EBRI Notes article online here.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

"Half" Measures

People are often grouped into one of two camps: the optimists, who generally see the glass as half-full, and the pessimists, and who are said to view the glass as half-empty.

One of the most commonly cited data points about retirement is that “only about half of working Americans are covered by a workplace retirement plan.” Drawn from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS), it’s cited by both those who see the current system as inadequate (or worse), as well as its most ardent champions—in other words, both by those who see the glass as half-full, and those who are inclined to see it as half-empty.

This is a data point that we’ve written about before, and one that was acknowledged in a recent EBRI Issue Brief[1] that explored various demographic and economic factors that affect retirement plan participation. The data point is relatively simple math: the number of workers who say they participated in a workplace retirement plan divided by the total number of workers. But when you take a closer look at the numbers, it’s not really that straightforward—especially since there are various types of workers, and that makes a huge difference in retirement coverage.

Consider that, according to that CPS data, in 2012, a total of 80.5 million workers worked for an employer/union that did not sponsor a retirement plan. However, the EBRI analysis reveals that of the wage and salary workers in this group:
  • 8.9 million were self-employed—and thus ostensibly could have started a plan on their own without the action of an employer.
  • 6.4 million were under age 21—below ERISA’s minimum-age coverage limit.
  • 4.3 million were age 65 or older—beyond what many (and most retirement plans) still consider ”normal” retirement age.
  • 32.6 million were not full-time, full-year workers—also not required to be covered by a workplace retirement plan under ERISA.
  • 17.0 million had annual earnings of less than $10,000.
Now, many of these workers fell into several of these categories simultaneously, such as being under age 21, having less than $10,000 in annual earnings, and not being full-time, full-year workers. So, as the EBRI analysis explains, once you apply certain commonsense filters for age, annual earnings, work status, and/or employer size, you can get a more realistic perspective.

If you consider the population of wage and salary workers ages 21–64 who work full-year, make $5,000 or more in annual earnings, and work for employers with 10 or more employees, 32.5 million—or 36.4 percent of this population—worked for an employer that did not sponsor a retirement plan in 2012.

Said another way, nearly two-thirds of workers with those characteristics worked for an employer that DID sponsor a retirement plan in 2012. Either way, the population of workers who don’t have access to a workplace retirement plan who might reasonably be expected to participate is considerably different than the simplistic assessment offered by the commonly cited “less than half” data point.

Different people can look at the same data and draw different conclusions: some are inclined to see the glass as “half full,” others look at the same results and say it’s “half empty.”

But none of that matters if you’re looking at the wrong size glass.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

[1] The November EBRI Issue Brief, “Employment-Based Retirement Plan Participation: Geographic Differences and Trends, 2012” is available online here.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Hind "Sleights?"

In recent days, we have commemorated both the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, and the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. Occasions such as these are natural opportunities for us to look back and reflect on the past—to consider what has happened since—and to consider what might have been.

As imperfect as our perception of current events can be, so-called 20/20 hindsight isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, either. Even for those who were “there,” memories can be shaped or influenced by the passage of time, the perspectives of others, media coverage, and the like.

In the world of employee benefits, if you’ve ever said (or intimated) that traditional pension plans in the private sector were once widespread,¹ that health care insurance exchanges are a new concept,² or that 401(k)s were a legislative “accident” discovered (and promoted) by a single “father”—well then, you’re likely contributing to the confusion about the realities of the past that can obscure an appreciation of the present, and a clearer vision for the future.

Next month we’ll be commemorating EBRI’s 35th anniversary,³ and on Dec. 12 we’ll also be conducting our 73rd policy forum. A series of expert panels will be considering the state of employee benefits—as it was, as it is, and as it is likely to be. We’ll have the perspectives of those who have been directly involved in the development and execution of policies at the dawn of ERISA, who have both negotiated and navigated the subsequent regulatory, operational, and legislative shifts, and futurists who are helping anticipate (and perhaps shape) the next generation of employee benefit plan designs.

Hindsight—insights—foresight. It’s a unique combination. You’ll want to be “there.”

Join us.

The agenda for EBRI’s 73rd policy forum (and registration details) are online here. You can view the recorded webcast HERE

Nevin E. Adams, JD

¹ See “The Good Old Days,” online here.

² See “Private Health Insurance Exchanges and Defined Contribution Health Plans: Is It Déjà Vu All Over Again?” online here.

³ For additional insights, see the Fall 2013 EBRI President’s Report from Dallas Salisbury, online here.