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I never thought I'd be interested in an annuity. But I've become fascinated with this financial product and its potential for dealing with longevity risk. Certain types of fixed annuities can provide a stream of income for as long as I live, even if I live to be 90 or 100 or even older.
One of the reasons I hadn't yet delved into annuities is my desire to make an informed decision without interference from a sales representative. I like to analyze a product, define as many of its benefits and risks as possible, do my own calculations to determine whether a purchase is worth the price compared to alternatives, and then, decide whether to make a purchase. But I wasn't aware of how to take these steps without pressure, so I avoided them.
When Lauren Minches, vice president of Product and Marketing at Blueprint Income, contacted me and asked me to look at the personal pension and annuity products offered through the company's platform, I immediately said “yes.”
Blueprint Income offers a quick, easy, and pressure-free way to get a quote on an annuity offering fixed income for life. Schwab offers a similar tool to get an estimate as does Fidelity. Using their tools, I can find out how much monthly income could be generated by buying one big annuity, say for $100,000; alternatively, I can specify a monthly amount desired, then discover the size of a one-time payment to generate this level of income.
A fixed annuity may help manage longevity risk, the risk of living a long time and running out of money.
How to Get Annuity Estimates
It's easy to use Blueprint Income to get annuity quotes. One reason for this ease: the platform yields results for fixed annuities only, not ones that deal with market risk like variable annuities or fixed-indexed annuities. As a result, you can make apples-to-apples comparisons of annuities and determine whether an annuity makes sense for you.
You can also get estimates from Schwab using its Annuity Income Estimator. This estimator gives you information on guaranteed retirement income using an income annuity.
Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Quotes
It's a quick and painless to determine the income value of an annuity for use in your retirement planning.
Using Blueprint Income, start on the quotes page and respond to the questions asked and/or blanks to be filled in:
- How you'll fund the purchase of the annuity:
- personal investments and savings
- 401(k), IRA, or another tax-deferred plan
- another way
- When you want your income to start:
- Your birthday including your birth year
- Male or female
- State of residence
- The age at which you want to start collecting income (generally up to age 85)
- Who you want to generate income for:
- you only
- you and your spouse
- Amounts of money
- the one-time purchase amount, which will yield a result of monthly income OR
- the amount of monthly income you want to generate, which will tell you the cost of an annuity to produce the specified level of income
To see the results, you may need to sign up for an account or sign in if you've already created an account. Setting up the account and getting quotes are free. You’ll receive your quotes online, accessible via the Blueprint Income platform.
You'll answer just a few questions to get an estimate via Schwab's online tool. Here are the items you'll need to specify:
- how long you'll want to receive income
- your lifetime
- your and your spouse's lifetime
- a specific period of time
- what dollar amount do you want to use for the estimate
- the amount designated to purchase the annuity
- the monthly income you want to generate with the annuity
- when do you want payments to start (date)
- your information for actuarial purposes
- date of birth
- state of residence
You'll receive results immediately online without entering your email address or creating an account. If you entered an investment amount, you'll receive a monthly income amount. If you entered the monthly income you'd like, you'll receive the price of the annuity.
Key Features of Annuities
It makes sense to possess a working knowledge of annuity definitions and product designs, though it may be impossible to stay on top of the entire universe of annuities. Rather than develop an encyclopedic knowledge of annuities and industry terms, I've set a goal of understanding the features of an annuity I might buy.
Here are the key design features I'll consider:
- whether periodic payments are guaranteed (and how they're guaranteed)
- how much fluctuation, if any, could occur in periodic payments
- whether I can access the principal after I purchase the annuity
- when payments begin and end
- whether payments increase when the cost of living increases
- how payments are taxed when I receive them
Before buying this type of product, I'd want to know how the various features affect the cost and payouts. These resources can help you uncover answers to questions you may have.
Factors that Affect the Price of an Annuity
There are many factors that affect pricing: some can be controlled while others are more difficult (or impossible) to change.
For example, women pay more for annuities because they have longer life expectancy, which means that the insurance company will pay more over time to women. Similarly, an annuity that starts issuing monthly income in your 80s costs less than a similar one that begins in your 70s because chances are the insurance company will pay fewer dollars over your lifetime.
Here are some pricing factors that aren’t controlled simply:
- state of residence
- date of birth (age)
Here are elements that can be specified or controlled:
- age at which you'll start receiving income
- time between now and when periodic payments begin
- if married, whether both spouses receive lifetime income
- contributions (annuity purchase amounts)
- inflation protection
- death benefit rider
- return of premium rider
The quotes offered by Blueprint Income are typically for life (with and without the return of premium). However, insurance companies also offer annuities that pay income for a specific period, such as 20 years only.
If you are looking simply to protect yourself, you may not want to pay extra for a death benefit or return of premium (riders that pay your family if you die early). However, if you'd like an annuity that benefits your family in multiple scenarios, then these riders may be worth the cost.
In general, the fewer demands you make on the insurance company, the less you'll pay for a specific monthly income. The more that's required, such as income for a spouse or a cash payment if you die before the monthly checks start, the higher the cost of the annuity.
The quotes I received through Blueprint Income showed me the features being offered, such as inflation protection or a death benefit. Using its platform, I could change key features and receive updated annuity quotes within seconds. This capability allowed me to understand how my choices impacted the proposed annuity payments.
How to Use the Annuity Quotes
The quotes I received from Blueprint Income were estimates with the offer to apply for an annuity, not ready-to-sign contracts. The initial estimate and the actual contract may differ due to factors such as 1) varying actuarial tables and 2) state-specific requirements and limitations.
What I loved about this process of getting quotes from Blueprint Income was that I could review the information in my leisure, studying the material without being pressured. I didn’t receive a call from an insurance sales representative asking for an appointment to discuss the results. Instead, I received an email with a phone number and email address that I could use to ask questions or find out how to purchase an annuity contract.
The estimates from Schwab were similarly sweet in that I could review them in my leisure. I didn't receive a call or email about my online entries.
I’m using this information to consider how an income annuity fits within my overall retirement planning. I can also determine what features and riders I’d like to include in an annuity contract to generate income for myself and my family.
Why Consider a Fixed Annuity
My plan all along was to develop a portfolio to generate cash in perpetuity, not one that I spent down over 30 years or so in retirement. There are a growing number of centenarians so my idea of living off the principal of my investments, rather than depleting them, seems smart. The challenge is building and managing a portfolio to accomplish this goal.
I've been investing in stocks for over 30 years now, so I have an idea of how to handle the equity portion of my portfolio. The fixed-income piece hasn't been as clear to me, especially as I've watched interest rates on savings accounts dwindle to nearly nothing.
So, as I've planned for retirement, I've been considering my choices and now see how an annuity fills this void.
I felt validated about this approach when I read in the April 2018 edition of the HumbleDollar newsletter published by Jonathan Clements, longtime personal finance columnist at The Wall Street Journal:
“In the end, what we need is a strategy that’ll work even if markets are miserable and even if we live an extraordinarily long life. My personal plan: Delay claiming Social Security until age 70, use a portion of my bond-market money to purchase an immediate fixed annuity that pays lifetime income, and each year withdraw 5% of my portfolio’s beginning-of-year value. With this last strategy, I’ll be compelled to spend less if markets perform poorly—and I’ll never run out of money, because I will always be withdrawing a percentage of whatever remains.”
Likewise, if you're nearing retirement or already retired, you may be interested in trading cash for a promise of a steady monthly income by purchasing an annuity. This arrangement fills a need for fixed income, complementing Social Security retirement benefits and a company or government pension. Combined, these streams of income could cover basic living expenses, such as groceries, property taxes, and utilities.
If you're younger and don’t have an employer-sponsored pension, you may be interested in buying more than one annuity contract. By purchasing multiple contracts over time and adding to various contracts, you can build multiple streams of fixed income for retirement. Using Blueprint Income, you can create your own “personal pension” that’s funded by you, not an employer.
Background on Annuities
Let's talk about what an annuity is: a contract with an insurance company. It's like a life insurance policy. But instead of buying a policy to receive a cash payment upon your death, you receive a series of cash payments while you're living.
Just as there are many ways to structure a life insurance policy, there are many ways to design an annuity. Prices are based on actuarial tables as well as policy riders and other factors. Like a life insurance policy, an annuity is only as good as the insurance company that guarantees payments. An annuity is not insured by the FDIC or regulated by the SEC.
Types of Annuities
There are many types of annuities. Here's how the SEC describes them:
- fixed (the insurance company agrees to pay a specified rate of interest or more during the time the account is growing; it also agrees that periodic payments will be a specific amount per dollar in the account for a defined period)
- variable (annuity payments are invested among a menu of investment options; the periodic payments received vary based on the performance of the investments)
- indexed (periodic payments meet a specified minimum but could earn more depending on changes in a market index)
Another way to categorize annuities is based on the starting time frame of payments:
- immediate (periodic payments start immediately or within the year)
- deferred (paychecks start later)
- longevity (payments start much later, such as age 85, and are designed specifically to manage longevity risk)
Further, there are special types of fixed annuities, such as:
- MYGA (multi-year guaranteed annuity, which offers a fixed rate of interest during the accumulation phase)
- QLAC (qualified longevity annuity contract, which enables the deferment of required minimum distributions or RMDs when purchased through a qualified retirement plan)
Annuities could be segmented in more ways, but these categories seem most relevant to me.
Key Terms to Understand
If you're wanting to dig more into annuities, here's a link to a list of terms (scroll to “Key Annuity Definitions” at the bottom of the page).
Here are a few terms to know:
- Annuitant: the person who receives income from the annuity and upon whose life expectancy rates are calculated, generally the contract owner
- Joint annuitant: co-owners of an insurance contract (husband and wife, for example)
- Period Certain: a payout that's for a certain period, such as 10 years or 15 years
I've noticed that terms aren't consistent among industry experts, insurance companies, and financial journalists. Slight differences in wording can mean big differences in meaning. For example, a fixed-rate annuity, which accumulates interest like a bank CD, is very different than a fixed-indexed annuity that accumulates value based on market performance. Be sure to understand these terms before buying.
The type that I'd consider are the guaranteed income annuities only in which payments are not based on market performance.
Tax Benefits, Fees, and More
There can be tax benefits associated with certain types of annuities. For example, interest accrued in an MYGA is deferred until paid out. A similar financial product, such as a bank CD, is taxed in the year interest is credited to your account.
As mentioned earlier, QLACs allow you to defer RMDs. These annuities are purchased with funds held in a qualified retirement account, such as an IRA or 401(k). You might choose this path if 1) funds available to purchase an annuity are held inside your retirement accounts and only there and 2) you like the idea of delaying part of your RMDs through the purchase of an annuity (see expert opinion on this topic).
More things to know … fees associated with annuities may include:
- sales commissions
- surrender charges (fees charged if you change your mind about the annuity and ask for cash back)
- annual fees, which are typically associated with variable (not fixed) annuities
Other noteworthy aspects of annuities is their role in qualifying for Medicaid. In some cases, annuities are purchased as a way to reduce countable assets to qualify for Medicaid.
In general, there's no limit specified by the IRS regarding the size of an annuity, unless you're buying a QLAC.
Calculating the Return on an Annuity
After I developed an understanding of how annuities work, I decided to run some numbers to compare this product to possible alternatives.
First, I wanted to get an idea about the rate of return on an annuity. The return of a lifetime annuity can't be pinpointed because the longer an annuitant lives, the better the return. Here’s a well-thought-out illustration of the rate of return, showing how the internal rate of return (IRR) increases as you live longer.
I can also use IRR function in Excel to model the cash flows associated with paying for an annuity and then receiving income over time. For example, a $100,000 purchase of an annuity at age 60 with payouts of $18,000 per year generates a return of more than 4% if I live to 96. I'd have to give up my rights to the $100,000 to get this return, though I could add a rider offering a cash benefit to my family if I died before collecting payments.
A wildcard in calculating IRR and determining the spending value of an annuity is inflation. If inflation is nil, then the money I receive in my 90s will help pay my bills satisfactorily. If inflation runs high, the spending power of this stream of income isn’t as valuable. To deal with the problem of inflation, I can add inflation protection to my annuity purchase — though this move comes at a cost. Again, there are trade-offs in annuity features that need to be considered.
Fortunately, Blueprint Income offers transparency in its annuity tools, allowing you to get pricing with and without inflation protection via its quotes tool, which helps you make an informed decision.
Further, I remind myself that the purpose of a longevity annuity is to provide a source of income in my 90s and 100s, not to deliver a strong return.
Are you considering an annuity to generate income in retirement? Have you purchased an annuity? How did you decide your best course of action?