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To Annuity or Not to Annuity….

October 5, 2010 · 29 comments

in Personal Finance

The first time I learned the word ‘annuity’, I was a co-op employee, working payroll for our local school district. Teachers would sign up for their regular benefits every year, including an annuity, if desired. I learned at a young age that an annuity was a financial tool used to provide income during retirement, but I never really thought about it again until years later.

For those unfamiliar with annuities, the general rundown is this: the purchaser gives a sum of money to an annuity, which is issued by an insurance company. In return, the purchaser will get either a fixed or variable stream of income for a set number of years, or for the remainder of the Purchaser’s life. There are deferred annuities, where you invest money and receive payout in the future; there are also immediate annuities, where you invest a lump sum of money, and receive a monthly payout from that point forward.

There are a lot of different considerations when evaluating annuities, and that is outside the scope of this post. However, here are some GENERAL pros and cons:

Pros:

1. Flexibility: There are a lot of different options. Fixed vs. variable, term length, etc.
2. Tax benefits (Deferred Annuities): Contributions grow tax-free, until you access them.
3. Unlimited contributions: There are no limitations on the amount you can invest in an annuity, unlike 401k plans
4. Lifetime income:   You never have to worry that you will outlive your income stream, assuming you do not choose a fixed term annuity
5. Hedge against inflation: Certain annuity plans have a ‘cost of living’ component, which means your payout will adjust for inflation.
6. Anyone can contribute, regardless of income (unlike Roth IRAs).

Cons:

1. If the stock market has a banner year, your investment will miss out on those gains as your payout will be the same. However, the opposite is also true; if the stock market tanks, your income is protected.
2. For the amount of flexibility that is offered, there is also inflexibility/lack of liquidity. Once you give up that money, you cannot access it and have no control over it. Therefore, make sure you have other sources of income and investments before you invest in an annuity. (In other words, you do not want an annuity to be your ONLY retirement resource.)
3. There are early withdrawal penalties (before age 59 1/2).
4. You have to live a long time to gain the rewards of an annuity. (Could be a long payback time. Say you invest $100,000 and receive income of $500.00/month. It would take 20 years for you to ‘earn’ your own money back.  In other words, if you die young, your investment return is abysmal.  The longer you live, the great the return on your investment.)
5. Fees can be very high.
6. Taxed at ordinary income rate, as opposed to the capital gains rate that is assessed to stock investments.

I personally have not contributed any money at all to an annuity. However, I will say a set income does have its appeal. I definitely would not take out an annuity in lieu of a 401k, but I may consider it as a supplement if I have a ton of money laying around when I am at retirement age.

So, what are your opinions on annuities? Is an annuity a part of your retirement portfolio?

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

DIY Investor October 5, 2010 at 6:55 am

The only annuity I recommend is a single premium immediate pay annuity. It is a great product for those who are fearful of running out of money. Many retirees should consider putting enough in to cover basic expenses. Shop around and pay attention to health of insurance company and state guarantees.

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Kris October 5, 2010 at 9:57 am

DIY – I am personally not a fan of the variable annuity. However, I do admit the annuity you mentioned does have its allure. That is assuming I have a giant lump of money that I am wondering what to do with when I am older.

From what I know, it can be very hard to know a ‘good’ annuity from a ‘bad’ one. I would probably need some advice on that one because it isn’t as easy as picking a mutual fund. (in my opinion)

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Andrew October 5, 2010 at 7:15 am

Hello Kris… good post of laying out the pros and cons. We haven’t considered an annuity, only because of the relatively high fees, and the long payback period. I wonder how the inflation protection works in case of periods of high inflation such as what we had in the 70’s.

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Kris October 5, 2010 at 9:58 am

Hi Andrew – Well, there is the annuity option you can choose that fluctuates based on inflation. So, if you were worried about inflation, that would probably be the way to go.

I too think about the long payback period. It is like social security in that way, except you never had a choice to contribute to social security…

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The Biz of Life October 5, 2010 at 7:49 am

So far I’ve elected not to go the annuity route. DIY Investor knows what he is talking about in this area.

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Kris October 5, 2010 at 9:59 am

Biz – I haven’t yet either, but I am not ruling it out for when I am older. (I have no interest in contributing to one now, but I may consider the immediate annuity if I have money lying around when I am hitting retirement age.)

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Nicole October 5, 2010 at 7:57 am

In theory annuities are a really good idea. They’re insurance against outliving your assets. Social Security is a great annuity.

In practice, the annuity market isn’t functioning as well as we would hope and private annuities tend to be overpriced. Economists don’t know why– it is still a mystery and an area of open research. There’s a large subset of researchers that believe the prices will even out as annuitizing 401(K) plans becomes more common.

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Kris October 5, 2010 at 10:01 am

Nicole – I think the fees make annuities somewhat unattractive, in addition to the difficulty in finding a ‘good’ one.

I agree, the premise is a good one. Income until you die is always a good thing. I am not so worried about leaving an inheritence to anyone, so if I don’t get ‘full payback’, I won’t be too worried about it. However, I am still not sold on annuities yet. I will evaluate it further as I get older I am sure.

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Roshawn @ Watson Inc October 5, 2010 at 8:58 am

Presently, annuities aren’t part of our portfolio either (due to the fees). If someone runs out of places to stash money, it could be a consideration (although I still favor investing in the open market or in a business).

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Kris October 5, 2010 at 10:03 am

Roshawn – I would love if I had so much money at retirement age that I invested in annuity because I could. However, I would need to have a lot of ‘backup money’ in order to invest in one.

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Evan October 5, 2010 at 10:51 am

Everyone attacks the fees, but often forget what they are getting for those fees. If the market plunges 20% a la 2008 your withdrawal account doesn’t depending on the riders/product purchased.

I don’t own any annuities, but to write them off because of “fees” just sounds like someone is listening to Suze Orman too much without actually getting some info on actual products available.

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Kris October 5, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Evan – fees can definitely be a bummer and can be a part of financial decisions. However, fees (like taxes) can’t be the only factor when deciding on a financial vehicle (like you said). However, I guess they can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

With the way rules change so much, who knows what annuities will look like in 20 years when I would consider one.

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Sandy L @ first gen american October 5, 2010 at 12:30 pm

They aren’t part of my portfolio, or my mom’s.

When she retired 18 years ago, she was offered either a $33K lump sum or a $133/month annuity. After 18 years of collecting, she would be up to about $28K, but her lump sum has grown to about $60K all in guaranteed low risk CDs…plus she had access to the principle all along if needed.

Based on the above example, and my 50/50 chance of living beyond my 50’s, I prefer having the money.

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DIY Investor October 5, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Your mother made the right decision. That works out to a yield of 4.84%! At the time the yield on the 10 year Treasury was between 6 and 8% so I don’t know why she was offered such a horrible rate! Today of course the 10 year Treasury yield is below 2.50% and I’m seeing insurance companies offer much better yields than your mother was offered.
I would suggest single premium immediate pay annuities only to people who are fearful of running out of money and only for a portion of their assets. Many seniors today don’t have enough income to eat properly and pay for their medicine because their assets have been depleted by a rough 10 year period in the stock market and a sharp drop in yields. They had figured they would do all right putting their retirement assets in 3 year CDs and rolling them over.

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Sandy L @ first gen american October 5, 2010 at 2:59 pm

Yup, it did seem like a no brainer at the time. CD’s did get pretty good rates for a long time..plus with compound interest, it was the right decision. Dunno. I thought her pension lump sum was pretty crappy too given that she had worked at this place almost 25 years, but I remember when she got the check and declaring “I’m rich!” because it’s the most she’s ever had in the bank, ever.

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Kris October 5, 2010 at 3:27 pm

It does sound like your mom made the right decision.

I don’t like your prediction of only having a 50/50 chance of making it beyond your 50s though!

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Crystal @ BFS October 5, 2010 at 3:48 pm

I thought about annuities for a little while, but i didn’t like the fact that they don’t adjust for inflation. I rather just save up my own huge chunk of change and live off of whatever I can get in interest…

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Nicole October 5, 2010 at 5:04 pm

You can buy inflation adjusted annuities!

I only vaguely remember the “these are not the reasons people don’t buy annuities” lecture in graduate school, but I do remember that part. It also isn’t adverse selection, because even though people who are long-lived are more likely to buy (driving up the prices), it’s not enough of a problem empirically with conservative assumptions on risk aversion.

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Kris October 5, 2010 at 9:10 pm

Nicole is right, you can buy annuities that adjust for inflation.

I don’t know, I am thinking one may be a good idea to have as a stream of income if I have enough ‘other’ investments. I won’t make that decision for many years though.

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Money Reasons October 5, 2010 at 9:17 pm

This is on area that I just don’t have an interest in now. To me, they are very unattractive. But perhaps when I’m ready to cash in my chips and retire, they will become more attractive.

In the mean time, I’m banking on my 401k…

Nicely put together article! 🙂

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Barb Friedberg October 5, 2010 at 10:48 pm

Fortunately, Some of the hubby’s and my retirement accounts can be annuitized. That way, we’ll have several income streams during retirement. Still, I hate the idea that if you die, you lose.

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Invest It Wisely October 8, 2010 at 2:59 pm

I prefer creating my own annuity, known as the “infinite portfolio”. When I looked at the numbers, many of the annuities I looked at returned barely more than the principal adjusted for inflation.

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Financial Samurai October 9, 2010 at 10:32 am

Is an annuity taxable or tax free? Tax free right?

I wonder if it’s just a means of protecting yourself from yourself?

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Kris October 9, 2010 at 4:11 pm

Sam, A deferred annuity grows tax free. However, gains are taxed as ordinary income at distribution.

It is kind of a roll of the dice. You live a long time- you get a really great return. You die young, you end up with a negative return. Kind of like social security, except you chose this investment vehicle.

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