The special and significant retirement risks of upper middle class and affluent Americans often are overlooked.
The “retirement crisis” in America frequently is discussed and studied, but those discussions focus on the risks for lower- and middle-income Americans, such as not saving enough and investing too conservatively. Households with higher incomes have different retirement risks, and those don’t receive as much study or discussion.
The main problems for the moderately-affluent and affluent are that they don’t properly identify or estimate the most significant risks to their financial security and independent in retirement.
When surveyed, most in the group believe the main risks to their retirement financial security are the stock market, inflation, and changes in government policies.
Those are real risks, but they aren’t the risks that should most concern the moderately-affluent and those who are wealthier.
The main risk to this group is longevity. Upper-income people tend to live longer than average, and that makes them more likely to outlive their resources or be hurt by inflation over the long term.
The affluent are at higher risk from longevity because they receive a lower portion of their total retirement income from Social Security than people with lower incomes and net worths. The affluent are more likely to depend on savings that are invested in the markets and that are vulnerable to market declines or even years of below-average returns.
Social Security income continues for life and is indexed for inflation. But over a long life a moderately-affluent retiree or couple can spend down a portfolio, especially if inflation is above average. The affluent tend to have higher fixed expenses. The cost of maintaining their standard of living increases over the years, and they can have limited flexibility to reduce expenses.
Longevity is an especially important risk for the surviving spouse in a married couple. The household income declines after one spouse passes away, on average by about one third. Some expenses will decline, but generally not as much as income declines, while other expenses will increase. Income taxes are likely to increase, because the surviving spouse will have to file taxes as an individual instead of a married couple filing jointly.
Inflation also is more of a risk to the moderately-affluent than to those with fewer financial resources. Most of the income of the moderately-affluent isn’t indexed for inflation. The retirees must depend on increases in their portfolio values to maintain their purchasing power.
Even a moderate inflation rate of 2% or so eats away purchasing power. After 15 years or so, the decline in purchasing power is significant. If inflation is higher than 2%, the purchasing power declines rapidly.
The combination of inflation and a long life can be damaging to the financial security of the moderately affluent. The damage can be especially significant to the surviving spouse of a married couple. The retirement plans of the moderately affluent and the wealthy need to focus on the probability of living beyond average life expectancy and the financial consequences that could flow from that.