Affording health care in retirement

Posted by on June 13, 2011 @ 8:54 am in Retirement

In my last post, I asked if you have a specific number in mind when it comes to saving for retirement, how you arrived at that number, whether you’re on track to reaching it—and, if not, what it would take to get you there.

Your response was tremendous, with more than 300 of you writing in. As Philip Moeller wrote in his blog, “the responses to Rinaldi’s blog post are uniformly thoughtful and heartfelt. Rinaldi learned a lot from them. So did I. So can you. Enormous amount of information, wise counsel, and guidance shared.”

Phil is right. There was an amazing amount of information shared, and I did learn a lot. You willingly offered the strategies, approaches, and philosophies that have helped you navigate your way to a financially secure retirement, and I’m very grateful. Your stories describing your experiences, successes, and challenges brought home a number of lessons.

First, be ready early. Retirement can happen to you unexpectedly due to a layoff or health issue, so if you’re planning to retire at 65, try to be ready by 60 or 62. Many of you described how flexible you’ve become in working within your financial resources and managing not to exceed your budget. Yes, it is possible, as many of you pointed out, to live in retirement on less than 80% of your pre-retirement income. It’s also possible to get a bit out of control and spend too much in the early retirement years if you’re not careful. Many of you reinforced the value of entering retirement with no debt—not even a mortgage—and of regularly “running the numbers” to be sure that your expenses and returns are not too far off expectations. One reader suggested that writing out a budget and tracking expenses carefully can help reduce expenses immediately. And if you’re still working, take any raise and put half in savings and the rest to paying down debt.

Something that struck me loud and clear in your comments was the specter of health care costs in retirement. This distressing shadow was enough to give me real pause. We hear about it in the press, but to read your comments on the uncertainty this burden adds to your personal situations and your financial lives made it very real. As many of you said, it’s not the basics that are the real threat—it’s the unknowns around issues like nursing home care costs that upset the apple cart.

In a March 2010 paper from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, researchers indicated that the present total of lifetime uninsured health care costs for a married couple at age 65 is about $197,000 (including insurance premiums, co-pays, and home health services). Add to that nursing home care costs, and the number balloons to an estimated $260,000. Using these numbers, one-third of all Americans turning 65 in 2010 will eventually need at least three months of nursing home care.

More reading revealed that out-of-pocket expenses can be a rude awakening for retirees. Another source indicated that Medicare beneficiaries between ages 65 and 74 spend an average of $2,920 a year on out-of-pocket expenses, including Part B premiums and prescription costs. After age 85 this nearly doubles, to an average of $4,615.

There’s already enough blame and discussion regarding the causes of these high costs, who is responsible for them, and how much higher they will continue to climb. What I’d like to know is, were escalating health costs a surprise that snuck up on you when you retired? Did you plan for them? And how do you handle them?

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