When you retire, there's likely a good two to three decades of living to look forward to. But the amount your dollar buys in the first year of retirement will shrink over the next years due to inflation. The annual inflation rate in the U.S. has averaged 3.22% since 1913. However, that figure masks a lot of variance. Baby Boomers might remember the 1970s, when inflation rates hit double digit rates. In general, beating inflation requires a return on investment of at least 4% to 6% per year, in addition to whatever income is generated or saved for.
Accordingly, here are some strategies for investors, as well as financial advisors, might want to adopt.
Rent Your House
If you own your house, renting part of it out can be a nice inflation hedge because rental prices reflect local inflation. If the location is good, raising rents over time won't impact getting a tenant. More senior citizens are renting out space out of necessity. If you're retired, the double whammy of inflation and interest makes renting out that spare bedroom a more attractive option. (See also: How to Rent Your Home so You Can Pay Your Mortgage.)
Can you use your house to save for retirement? Probably not. There is a huge difference between monetizing real estate that you own and investing for retirement. In order to turn a profit on a property, it's necessary that its value increases faster than inflation and the interest rate on the loan, which might be an additional 3% to 5% at least. So one's real estate would have to gain value at rates approaching 6% every year at a minimum, and more likely double digits. Outside of a real estate bubble, that isn't likely. There are many good reasons to buy a home—building equity is one—but investing for retirement is probably not one of them. (See also: The Complete Guide to Becoming a Landlord.)
Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities, or TIPS, are a kind of government-backed bond introduced in 1997. Unlike conventional treasury bills, TIPS have an adjustable principal, linked to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), and a fixed coupon rate. That means that as inflation rises (or falls) the amount of money that goes to the holder varies with it.
On the plus side, there's no danger that inflation will get high enough to make them money losers, unlike conventional bonds. A coupon rate of 3.5% does no good if inflation reaches 4%. The risk, though, is when inflation is negative or extremely low. Deflation doesn't happen often—the last major deflationary period in the U.S. was the Great Depression. The Great Recession managed to record one negative rate when CPI registered -0.4% in 2009. A very low inflation rate can, however, push treasury yields into negative territory as investors panic and rush to the relative security of T-bills. (See also: Shield Your Portfolio from Inflation.)
Annuities can offer inflation protection, depending on the type. An annuity is basically "retirement insurance." You pay a premium, and at the end of a certain term, you get a fixed monthly payment. (See also: An Overview of Annuities.)
Fixed annuities generally win out here. The combination of lower fees and the security that comes with not having to worry about the value of the underlying assets makes them better for most people. Variable annuities are annuities that offer higher returns if the market does well. One can continue to make contributions after retirement, and they enjoy some tax benefits. They have higher fees, though, and are complex investments. (See also: Inflation-Protected Annuities: Part of a Solid Financial Plan.)
SECURE Act and Annuities
With the introduction of the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act, employees may discover more annuity options offered by their employers in their 401(k) or other retirement plans. This is because there are several provisions in the act that make it easier to incorporate annuity options in employer-sponsored retirement plans.
For example, annuities in a 401(k) plan are now portable, meaning employees can transfer them without surrender charges or fees to another plan or IRA should they change jobs or should their employer discontinue offering the annuity option. The SECURE Act also creates a "fiduciary safe harbor," which means employers are protected from liability should the insurer they choose fail to make annuity payments.
Mutual Funds, Stocks, ETFs
Of course, there's always just traditional investing for income: putting money into mutual funds, stocks or exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and living off the returns. Funds, stocks and ETFs are all very liquid, and even if one accounts for capital gains, the tax rate is considerably less (about 20% at the high end). Dividends are taxed at the ordinary rate, but long-term capital gains—which is anything held for a year or more—are not.
In retirement, though, the concern is usually providing a stream of income, rather than growing the assets. Timing is everything. Anyone who put money into the S&P 500 in 2003, when the stock market found its low after the bursting of the dot-com bubble, would have lost money by the time the Great Depression hit in 2008. Had they pulled out in late 2007 they'd have nearly doubled their investment. The difference is only a few months. Many soon-to-be-retirees had to keep working in the wake of the financial crisis because so much of their wealth was tied up in stocks.
Then we have the old standbys: defined-benefit plans and Social Security. Social Security is a fixed income but it has a cost-of-living adjustments. And delaying retirement can go a long way too. Those who wait until age 70 to collect Social Security can boost their monthly payments by 8%. Social Security by itself isn't much, of course, but in combination with savings and a 401(k) plan, it can help a lot.
Defined-benefit plans (if you're lucky enough to have one) often structure benefits according to the last few years of salary. Delaying retirement can boost the monthly amount, providing a further hedge against inflation even if the check is a fixed number.
The Bottom Line
There are several strategies for managing inflation in your or a client's retirement savings. Most likely, a combination of the above strategies will be employed to ensure that purchasing power is protected and savings drawdown doesn't happen too fast.