Your Retirement vs. Inflation

Rejoice! You’re going to live longer. That’s not a guarantee, but it's what the odds say. A 65-year-old male now has a 50% chance of living to 85 and a 25% chance of living to 92. A 65-year-old woman now has a 50% chance of living to 88 and a 25% chance of living to 94. If you’re a couple, there’s at least a 25% chance that one of you lives to 97.

That’s supposed to be good news, but it's not if you outlive your money. At least you will have Social Security benefits, which provides protection against inflation, but the average Social Security payment is $1,294 per month. Can you live off this alone? Let’s find out. (For more, see: Is Your Mortgage Robbing Your Retirement?)

Healthcare's Going to Cost You

According to Fidelity, in 2014, the average retired couple would need $220,000 to cover healthcare costs for the remainder of their lives. If both people collected $1,294 from Social Security on a monthly basis, that would total $2,588 per month, which would then total $31,056 per year. When combined with living expenses in general, as well as other miscellaneous expenses, this wouldn’t be nearly enough to cover healthcare costs, unless you’re living rent-free in your child’s garage.

Also consider the possibility of needing long-term care service. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 65% of people 65 years or older will require such services at some point in their lives. And if it’s a nursing home, the average private-pay cost will be $90,000 per year, according to MetLife (MET). Even if it’s assisted living, the average cost per year is $41,724. (For more, see: Can Retirement Damage Your Health?)

Advancements in healthcare have led to people living longer, which means more out-of-pocket costs for assistance. This is the biggest concern for most retirees in regards to savings, but there’s another big concern that not as many people pay attention to. Inflation

Deflation First

If you live longer, then inflation will have more of an opportunity to eat away at your savings. Even if the inflation rate were 2%, $50,000 today would be worth $30,477 in 25 years. That total gets considerably worse if inflation is higher: 3% inflation = $23,880; 4% inflation = $18,756.

The irony is that there’s good news on the inflation side, but it’s not often seen as good news. And it won’t be good news for your investments. From 1966-1995, inflation was 5.44%. Inflation was at its highest in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Now consider the following statement from usinflationcalculator.com: “The latest inflation rate for the United States is 0.0% through the 12 months ended May 2015 as published by the U.S. government on June 18, 2015.”

Part of the reason for high inflation in the late 1970s and early 1980s was the 1979 Oil Crisis, which was caused by the Iranian Revolution. But look at the big picture. The reason inflation was healthy from 1966 to 1995 was because the Baby Boomer generation was driving the economy with consumer spending. Now those Baby Boomers are retiring at a clip of 10,000 per day. This decreases income levels for 76.4 million Americans. When discretionary income levels decline, so does consumer spending. When consumer spending declines, products for goods and services come down, which is deflationary. When consumers see prices for goods and services go down, they assume they will continue to go down, and therefore stop spending to wait for even cheaper prices. It’s a vicious cycle. Remember, inflation is healthy as long as it’s not too high. The Federal Reserve has been fighting against deflation for years and has been successful in doing so, but reality always wins in the end. (For more, see: How Inflation Affects Your Cost of Living.)

The good news is that in a deflationary environment, you don’t have to worry about beating inflation. The problem is that there’s almost nowhere to hide from an investment standpoint. But almost is the key word. You can buy short-term Treasuries, which should be safe because many investors will rush to safety, and there is the added bonus of not having to worry as much about interest rate risk. Other safe options are CDs and traditional savings accounts. These aren’t bad options in a deflationary environment because your dollars will go further. Plus, capital preservation should be your No. 1 priority. But here’s where it gets interesting.

The Millennials might not spend as much as Baby Boomers, but they’re an even bigger generation. As they age, they will be forced to spend because they will have families. This will also be at a time where the world finds ways to reduce carbon emissions via innovative technologies. Put simply, alternative energy should provide a lot of job opportunities down the road. This is in addition to jobs in other industries that will need to be filled, which will likely relate to healthcare, cyber security, and technology in general. Translation: Expect growth after a difficult stretch of deflation and deleveraging. When that growth returns, inflation will be rampant. This should happen approximately 10-15 years from now. And if you’re reading this, chances are you will be at retirement age at that time. If that’s the case, how do you protect your finances against inflation? (For more, see: Curbing the Impact of Inflation.)

A Real Inflation Threat

The best solution is to invest in TIPS, or Treasury Inflation Protected Securities. This vehicle is as secure as Treasury bills, and you’re guaranteed to get your original investment back. Interest is paid two times per year, with each interest payment based on the Consumer Price Index. There’s just one problem.

The longest maturity available is 30 years. What if you live longer than 30 years? If you expect to live that long, one solution is to use a bond ladder, where you can buy one per year, so the first will mature in 30 years, the next will mature in 31 years, and so on. 

When inflation returns, stocks and commodities will also present opportunities. In this environment, stocks won’t climb as fast as they have from 2009 to 2015, with the Federal Reserve helping to fuel the rally. But when inflation comes back you'll know that most investment opportunities will be real as opposed to being fueled by debt given record-low interest rates. Then you should also consider investing in blue chip, dividend-paying stocks. Those dividends can act as a form of income. If you take this approach, look for companies that have raised their dividend for decades, which proves they have weathered the worst of storms and should continue to raise those dividends. (For more, see: Blue-Chip Stocks vs. Mutual Funds vs. ETFs.

Also look into an immediate annuity, which adjusts its fixed and guaranteed payments at a rate of inflation of up to 4%.

Lastly, it’s highly recommended that you work until 70 in order to maximize your Social Security benefits. Those benefits will go up 8% per year. Plus, you will be increasing your future savings by working.

The Bottom Line

You don’t need to protect against inflation immediately due to current economic circumstances, but inflation will eventually make a big comeback. You'll need to be prepared for it. Consider the strategies above, but also consult your financial advisor. (For more, see: How to Prosper in a Bear Market.)