If you’re looking for guaranteed income during retirement, one obvious option is an annuity. The problem is, while this product can provide you with a guaranteed income stream, it is a considerably more expensive strategy than managing your retirement portfolio yourself.

Here's a look at the different types of annuities, their pros and cons, and the lowest-cost options if you decide an annuity makes sense for your retirement.

Buying an Annuity

There are two different ways to purchase an annuity. One option is an immediate payment annuity, a product you buy with a lump-sum payment, such as the funds you’ll be able to roll over from a 401(k) when you retire. In this case, the payments start immediately. Or you can choose a deferred payment annuity, which is funded using periodic deposits over time and starts paying out at a specified future date. Both types of annuities come in three different varieties – fixed, variable and equity-index. Each offers its own combination of certainty, risk and fees.

Annuity Types

Fixed annuities: These annuities have a guaranteed rate of return that is fixed at the time of purchase. When you buy a fixed annuity, you will be told the guaranteed income stream. The risk is that the rate of return is fixed and your income stream may not be enough as inflation increases the cost of living.

Variable annuities: These annuities provide investment accounts called “subaccounts,” which are similar to mutual funds and let you take some advantage of growth in the market. Variables have become the most popular type of annuity because there is less risk of your income stream being eroded by a fixed rate of return. Many financial advisors dislike them for their often high management fees. Here's how Suze Orman puts it: “I think variable annuities were created for one reason and one reason only – to make the advisor selling those variable annuities money.”  Your income stream from a variable annuity will rise and fall depending on the success of the investments in your “subaccounts.” See below for low-cost options that minimize the costs of a variable annuity.

Equity-Index Annuity: A relatively recent creation of the insurance industry, this is a fixed annuity with a portion tied to a stock index that supposedly offsets some of the inflation risk. Insurance companies use something called a “participation rate” to figure how much of your stock market gain they will keep to offset  their risk – they need to keep paying you if the market turns bad. The one advantage over a variable annuity is that there is less downward risk to you. For more on this, read Are Equity-Indexed Annuities Right For You? and How Good A Deal Is An Indexed Annuity?

The Big Pro

The primary reason people choose annuities is to get a guaranteed income stream. With an annuity – especially a fixed annuity – they know what their monthly income will be and can budget accordingly. This saves them the task of managing their retirement portfolio, a plus for those who worry they wouldn't do a good job of it. In addition, a guaranteed income protects you if the economy turns bad and other investments tank. That’s really the only pro for choosing an annuity.

The List of Cons

There are many cons. Here are the top four reasons to avoid an annuity:

1. They are not a liquid investment. If you need the money more quickly for an emergency you will pay stiff penalties – generally 5% to 7%. Surrender charges are reduced the longer you own the annuity, but can be a factor for as long as 15 years. Always ask about surrender charges before you buy an annuity.

2. You will pay more in taxes than on other investment types, especially if you choose a variable annuity. Earnings from an annuity are taxed as ordinary income. That’s very different from what you'd pay on gains from the sale of a long-term stock or mutual fund. Long-term capital gains are taxed at 0% to 15% depending on your tax bracket under current tax laws.

3. Your heirs will pay higher taxes on any money left in the annuity at your death. Their tax bill will be based on the cost of the initial purchase of the annuity. All the gains will be taxed at ordinary income rates and they will need to pay them immediately after taking possession. If your portfolio had been in stocks or mutual funds, the tax basis would be “stepped up,” which means that the taxes they will need to pay upon sale of these assets will be the market value at the time of your death. They will not have to pay taxes on the years of gains prior to your death.

4. Fees are high and many are not clearly disclosed at the time of purchase. For example, a “mortality and expense" fee can be as high as 1% to 2 % per year. You can hire a professional portfolio manager for the same cost and not have to pay the other fees tacked on to an annuity. These additional costs can include administrative fees and subaccount expenses (unique to variable annuities). Some annuities have rider fees, depending on the options you select.

Lowest-Cost Options for Variable Annuities

If you value the security of a guaranteed payout and think the security is worth paying some fees, consider low-cost options available through mutual-fund groups rather than through an insurance company.  Two excellent options you should explore include the mutual fund companies Vanguard and Fidelity. TIAA-CREF, a financial service company that specializes in the needs of nonprofit employees, also sells its annuities to the general public.

Vanguard’s fees range from 0.46% to 0.77%, depending on the investment allocation. Fidelity’s fees start at 0.10% for a $1 million initial purchase, plus fees based on the mutual funds chosen. TIAA-CREF’s fees range from 0.45% to 0.80%, depending on the options chosen. All three companies offer annuities below the 1% or more you would likely pay for an investment advisor through a brokerage house. The additional income guarantees make all three options a good alternative for people who want to roll their retirement savings into one place and let someone else worry about providing them with a lifetime income stream.

The Bottom Line

Annuities are an option if you are not sure you have the skills to manage your retirement portfolio and want to be certain you won’t run out of funds during your lifetime. But do your research and be sure you understand all the fees and taxes you will have to pay for the income-stream guarantee.

Compare what the annuity salespeople would provide to what you are offered by other financial advisors. Think about a one-time consultation with a fee-based personal financial advisor who does not make money on the option you choose. He or she will help you understand the annuity contracts you are considering and show you other options to help you decide what makes more financial sense.

Annuities are sold by insurance companies, financial services companies and through some charitable organizations (these are called charitable gift annuities). Be sure you purchase an annuity from a financially stable company and ask what would happen to your money if the issuer goes out of business. See Are You Protected If Your Insurance Company Goes Belly Up?

You can research planners at the Certified Financial Planner website. Commission-based financial advisors tend to steer you to companies from which they will make a commission, so always ask how your financial advisor will be compensated before you meet. For a detailed history and description of annuities, read our annuity tutorial, beginning with Introduction To Annuities.