Living well in retirement: ACL’s resource centers on what’s important, the biggest challenges, and resources to help

October 22, 2021

This week is National Retirement Security Week, a chance for people of all ages to join together and raise awareness about the importance of saving for retirement -- especially for those who at greatest risk of financial insecurity.

Four of ACL’s resource centers are working to address some of the issues that can jeopardize retirement security. Each has a different focus, but they all prioritize supporting older adults and people with disabilities from underserved communities and have historically focused on redressing inequities experienced by people of color and other marginalized communities.

For National Retirement Security Week, we asked experts at each center to share their thoughts about the most important things people should know as they plan for (and enter) retirement. We also asked about the retirement security challenges they hear about from the people and communities they serve and from their network partners. We also asked them to talk about how concepts of financial security have evolved over time – and how the COVID-19 pandemic, and commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion have influenced their thinking on this. Here’s what they told us:

National Resource Center on Women and Retirement

Housed at the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER), the National Resource Center on Women and Retirement is a one-stop gateway that integrates financial information, tools, and resources on retirement planning for women of all ages and families to improve their financial health and avoid financial exploitation. For more than twenty years, the Center has worked to reach women most at-risk for poverty in old age and help them achieve a more financially secure future.

The most important thing is to understand what your financial situation will be and whether you can cover your bills in retirement. It is important to figure out what income will be coming in before you have to draw down benefits in retirement, and to try to understand what your expenses may be.

This is particularly important for women. Most women don’t have margin for error, financially -- they can’t afford to risk any mistakes. Women also tend to live longer – and alone – in retirement. Right now, 67 percent of women over age 85 live alone. 

Projecting retirement income and expenses is also one of the biggest challenges we see. In 23 years, no retiree has ever told the National Resource Center on Women and Retirement “I did it all right – started saving at my first job; had great benefits during my work life and Social Security was just what I expected.” A recent GAO study commissioned by the US Senate’s Special Committee on Aging found that a significant majority of older women regretted not having been taught how to manage their finances and prepare for retirement. And too many pre-retirees and retirees don’t have opportunities to learn about the systems and programs that they’ll be relying on- especially Social Security and Medicare.

You can consult an expert, like a financial planner, to make sure you have enough to pay for what you need. Or you can use  a calculator, like   WISER’s “Your Future Paycheck” calculator that is easy to use. Keep in mind that housing, transportation, and medical expenses are often prominent expenses for those approaching retirement.

Living longer makes planning even more important

Increased longevity is the biggest game-changer in retirement planning.  For most of us, the idea that we will need less money in retirement than we did during our working years is no longer true. Many people need to plan for living to age 90, or beyond. And of course, the longer you live, the more income you will need to cover those extra years. A longevity calculator can help people determine the average number of years someone their age is expected to live, which can help you figure out whether you have enough saved.

If you are able to, you may decide to work another year. The Center for Retirement Research has found this is a key way to improve your savings if you fall short. Why? Because you will have one less year to finance and can save more.

Understanding Social Security and Medicare can help prevent an income shortfall

Here are a few things you should know about Medicare:

  • Signing up for Medicare can be complicated – find out the rules for your situation, and don’t miss deadlines. If you sign up after age 65 you may have to pay a penalty for life with a higher premium.
  • Retirees often discover late in the game that Medicare does not cover all their health-care costs and does not cover long-term care. It is important to understand the need to have a supplementary plan or a Medicare Savings Program (if you qualify), for covering out-of-pocket expenses and premium costs.
  • Your State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) can help you navigate Medicare. Your local SHIP will provide you in depth, one-on-one insurance counseling and assistance with Medicare. Find yours here.
  • Your Medicare premium will be subtracted from your Social Security benefit.

And here are a few things you need to know about Social Security retirement benefits:

  • If you begin taking Social Security benefits before your full retirement age (which is age 66, for those born between 1943 and 1954), the benefits will be permanently reduced, by up to 30 percent.
  • It is important to understand the survivor rules for Social Security. A surviving spouse can only receive one benefit, so if you and your spouse both receive benefits, you will likely experience a reduction in monthly income if your spouse dies, unless you have life insurance.
  • Another important thing for many women to know is that divorced women might be able to collect a larger Social Security benefit, based on an ex-spouse’s work record, rather than their own.
  • You can register for a My Social Security account, to get an estimate of what you future benefits will be, and to get a statement to verify you annual earnings. 

The pandemic’s effect on retirement planning

There have been a lot of stories in the media about how women were disproportionally affected by the economics of the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions have lost or had to leave, their jobs, accumulated debt, and worsened their financial situations. This has made it even more difficult to pay monthly bills or cover unexpected expenses. As a result, too many have had to tap into savings accounts, or cash out retirement savings to pay bills or avoid eviction.

The recent financial hardships of the COVID -19 economy have highlighted the importance of trying to have a cash cushion to get through times of unemployment or reduced hours. But for so many, it can be hard to save emergency funds. The places that under-resourced women so often work in—including the hospitality, healthcare, and service industries--rarely offer retirement savings benefits.

It’s no surprise that research last year revealed that one out of four women were even less confident than they had been before COVID-19 that they would be financially secure after they retired.

Education and advocacy make a difference

Not surprisingly, women from historically marginalized populations are most likely to face financial insecurity in retirement.  An important part of our work has been making sure that different communities know what they are up against – and working with them to change the statistics. For instance, Latina women have one of the highest life expectancies, but many Latinas retire near or at the poverty level. Increased awareness of those facts has galvanized many Latina communities to promote the importance of planning and of retirement issues – and to get involved and educate their families. 

WISER’s booklets and guides provide clear, easy-to-understand financial and retirement planning information to help women master the basics and take the next steps towards a financially secure future.

National Pension Assistance Resource Center

The National Pension Assistance Resource Center provides legal training and day-to-day legal and operational advice to the regional Pension Information and Counseling Projects that provide hands-on assistance to individuals who have questions about their pensions. These services are also offered to State and Area Agencies on Aging, legal services for older Americans, and to other legal resources, including private attorneys as appropriate.

Here’s what we see as important to know heading into retirement: While Social Security provides a critical foundation of income to virtually all older Americans, it only averages about $18,000 a year for the typical retiree. To make ends meet in retirement, people also need pensions or retirement savings.

People should start thinking about retirement well before retirement age and figure out what they need to know to protect themselves and secure a comfortable retirement. If you’re not sure if you have a retirement benefit, here are basic questions to ask: Am I participating in a plan? Have I earned the right to receive retirement benefits and, if so, what are they worth?

Over the past three decades, we’ve seen dramatic changes in the private sector retirement system. Increasingly, companies have abandoned or cut back their guaranteed pension plans – which pay lifetime monthly benefits, in favor of insecure 401(k)-type plans which require individuals to save on their own, shoulder the risks, and try to make the money last a lifetime. This shift is leaving millions of people with inadequate income in retirement.

We hear every day from people who are concerned they won’t have money to make it through retirement. Some may have found out their benefits were reduced or miscalculated. Others are afraid because they lost a share of their spouse’s benefits as a result of a divorce that they did not anticipate. Others tell us they are unable to find their pension or 401(k) plan because their company moved or changed names – and they don’t know how or where to apply for benefits. Our pension counseling program counselors can provide expert and unbiased help with these kinds of questions and issues.

COVID-19 and longstanding inequities

The pandemic has only made the situation worse. Millions of people have lost their jobs and, with them, their workplace retirement plans. Also, many have had to withdraw 401(k) money to survive – endangering both their own and their spouses’ future retirement security.

Even before the pandemic, there were widespread inequities in the pension system for Blacks, Latinos, and women – since the benefits and tax benefits of private plans tend to favor high-earners. These inequities have only been amplified by the pandemic.

Resources to help

On our website, we have fact sheets and statistics pages that provide consumer-friendly information for individuals who want to know more about retirement and their rights. For individuals needing free legal assistance with their pension, we recommend visiting our help page to find a pension counseling project or calling us at 1-888-420-6550.

National Center on Law and Elder Rights

The National Center on Law and Elder Rights (NCLER) provides the legal services and aging and disability communities with the tools and resources they need to serve older adults with the greatest economic and social needs.

It is important to understand the range of public entitlement benefits like Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, Medicare, Medicaid, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) that can support a secure retirement.

Getting help from an expert can help individuals understand the benefits and retirement income for which they may qualify and gain a picture of what their income and benefits can really look like in retirement. Particularly for low-income adults, it is important to uncover all of the benefits they are entitled to, as it can enable independent living and an improved quality of life.

There are trustworthy and reliable resources available for consumers through federally-funded resource centers, such as Benefits Enrollment Centers, Pension Counseling and Information Centers, State Health Insurance Assistance Programs, and others. NCLER recently provided a training on Title II Auxiliary Benefits: Social Security Benefits You’ve Never Heard of and Who is Eligible for Them, and the team at NCLER learned a lot!

One of the biggest challenges we hear about from elder and disability rights networks is that people often face burdensome administrative documentation requests and other barriers, such as lack of internet access, when trying to apply for, or maintain, retirement benefits. Individuals facing these challenges benefit from collaborative approaches across professions such as legal assistance, aging services, and elder rights programs. NCLER provides training and technical assistance for these professionals who are helping people navigate these issues and develop partnership efforts. This training is just one example of the extensive library of resources for professionals on our website, which includes past webinar recordings, practice tips, and issue briefs. Legal professionals can also reach us at ConsultNCLER@acl.hhs.gov to get more information.

The gender wage gap, discrimination, and unpaid labor

We are seeing more acknowledgement of the impact that unpaid caregiving and gender discrimination has had on the financial security of individuals, particularly women. Women of color, who face both gender discrimination and discrimination as a result of systemic racism, are even more likely to face economic insecurity. Justice in Aging’s report on Older Women and Poverty discusses these challenges and offers recommendations. We have also seen more women exit the workforce in the COVID-19 pandemic in order to take care of family members, which will further exacerbate this issue.

This recognition of the gender wage gap, discrimination, and unpaid labor should guide us in thinking about bolstering possible solutions, such as paid leave, caregiver credits, and paid person-chosen caregivers. Additionally, understanding who is most impacted by these inequities can help advocates guide their outreach efforts to communities who need financial security information and assistance the most. 

National Center on Elder Abuse

The National Center on Elder Abuse provides professionals and the public with the latest information regarding research, training, best practices, news, and resources related to elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation.

Communication is important! It is not always easy to talk about money matters, but it is good to have these conversations early, while we have the ability to make plans.

Begin with a health care directive conversation – everyone needs a health care directive! Exploring what means the most to you and your trusted others when it comes to planning for serious illness and end of life decision-making can often segue into conversations concerning a broad range of decision supports such as powers of attorney,  and other important ways to support you in living your life in accordance with your values  and wishes.

Planning for financial security also entails building in protections against fraud and abuse, which is a significant focus for our organization. Financial elder abuse is a universal social justice issue -- we hear from partner agencies all over the globe that they also deal with exploitation of older adults by both trusted others and strangers.

NCEA has a number of resources on our website to help individuals and organizations prevent and address financial abuse and exploitation. All of our materials are accessible to people who use assistive technology. Being culturally aware has always been the goal of the NCEA, and we have partnered with many organizations to get it right. Some of our partners include the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging (NAPCA), the National Elder Indigenous Elder Justice Initiative (NIEJI), and the Esperanza United (formerly known as the National Latin@ Network).

Editor’s note: The above should not be considered financial advice. Because the issues can be very complex, and everyone’s circumstances are unique, readers are advised to consult experts and/or use available tools when planning for retirement to make sure that their individual needs are met.


Last modified on 10/22/2021


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