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  • Writer's pictureHarry N. Stout

243- The Rickety Three-Legged Stool of Retirement Savings

In the FinancialVerse, you need to accumulate savings and income benefits during your Striving Stage years in order to generate the cash inflow you will need in the Fulfilling Stage or non-working years of your financial life. Remember, once you stop working, you will likely live on in this Fulfilling Stage for twenty to thirty years. For younger adults, I believe thirty years should be your minimum planning horizon. In today’s world, however, most households have saved less than $100,000 for when they stop work. There need to more private savings.

These Fulfilling Stage savings and benefits will likely come from three major sources: government programs, employer programs such as 401(k) plans and defined benefit pension plans, and private savings (including annuities and cash value life insurance). Many licensed financial professionals refer to these sources as “the three-legged stool of retirement savings.” Let’s briefly look at each leg of the stool.

Leg 1: Government Programs

Government programs include Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. These programs were designed to provide retirement, disability and health cost benefits at certain ages or if certain events take place. A key understanding you must have is that these programs cannot be relied on to provide the full amount of retirement, health or long-term care benefits you will need. When looking at retirement, Social Security retirement payouts are designed to replace 40 percent of pre-retirement earnings for the average wage earner, no more. Not 100 percent, but 40 percent. For higher earning individuals, this replacement percentage continues to drop as income earned increases. The average 2021 Social Security monthly benefit was just $1,543 for individuals claiming benefits per a recent AARP post (or $18,516 per year). Could you live on this amount?

Medicare provides basic medical coverage for people aged sixty-five and older but currently does not cover vision, dental, hearing or long-term care benefits. Medicaid provides health coverage for low-income individuals, children, and the disabled, but the insured has little if any say in where the care takes place. Remember, for the most part, the government dictates the specifics of coverage when it is responsible for paying the bill.

These programs are primarily funded and managed by the US government and the states. The current problem with these plans is that they appear to be substantially underfunded and will need to be modified in the near future. The annual Social Security trustees report, which was recently released, found that Social Security benefits could be paid in full until 2034 and will need to be reduced after that date. The report stated that Social Security’s trust fund will be able to pay full retirement benefits until 2033, one year earlier than predicted in 2020’s report.

At that time, the reserves for the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund, which pays survivor and retirement benefits, will run out and tax revenues will be able to cover 76% of scheduled benefits, according to a summary of the trustee’s report.

In reality, Social Security and Medicare have begun to run deficits—cash outflows are exceeding current contribution inflows. Medicaid programs run by the states were making up in excess of 28.7 percent of state expenditures for fiscal year 2016 according to the website This large percentage is requiring cash-strapped state budgets to carefully manage all payments for Medicaid patients.

To get the programs back on a firm financial footing, upcoming modifications to these programs will be needed and will likely include a mix of higher contribution rates, some cutback in benefits, lengthening of retirement ages and some new form of income means testing. These changes are needed in order to assure that all people get the necessary level of benefits from these plans.

I know that many younger adults believe these programs will not exist when they get to the ages to qualify for benefits. My belief is that these entitlement programs are too much of a political issue to be eliminated, but I do believe they could be significantly modified in the future as noted above. I believe you can count on them in your planning for the Fulfilling Stage of the FinancialVerse, but that you should build in consideration that their payouts will likely be less than originally promised by the government. This reduction in what these programs offer will place increased pressure on private savings and employer-provided benefits.

Leg 2: Personal Savings — What, When and How Much?

Personal savings are what income, cash, and investments you can accumulate in bank accounts, investments, 401(k) plans, IRAs, cash value life insurance, annuities and income-generating assets from your earning activities, inheritances, pension plans or other sources as you go through life. As you focus on private savings, it is my belief that you will need to save as much as you can to supplement the future cash you will receive from government and employer programs. As such, you should purchase income protection products, if available and cost effective, with the objective of accumulating cash in these products for use in later life or during financial emergencies.

The key guideline that many financial experts discuss is to save at least 10 percent to 15 percent of your pre-tax annual income. I believe given today’s environment that you should save more if you can. The reason is that there may be years when you cannot put away 10 percent to 15 percent, and you need to plan for that contingency. You will need all the resources you can accumulate to pay for daily living costs, create an emergency fund, protect against your inability to earn an income, and prepare for the Fulfilling Stage or later years of your journey.

You need to consider all the available product options and expense savings techniques to maximize your personal savings. Permanent life insurance coverage can accumulate cash on a tax-advantaged basis to pay for life’s emergencies and to supplement income later in life.

Leg 3: Employer Plans

In the 1970s and 1980s, it was normal for the majority of companies to provide what are called defined benefit or pension plans for their employees. For as long as the employee lived after retirement, these plans were designed to pay an annual cash income benefit that was a percentage of the employee’s salary. Individuals used to receive 50 percent to 60 percent of their pre-retirement earnings in pension income.

Today, the number of companies providing these types of defined benefit plans has continued to decline dramatically to the point where according to an article from March 2018 on the website, only 16 percent of the Fortune 500 companies offered a defined benefit plan to new hires in 2017, down from 59 percent in 1998. Most all employers have replaced these defined benefit plans with what are called defined contribution or 401k defined contribution plans.

Participating in available employer plans is an essential element of accumulating funds for the Fulfilling Stage of your journey and must become a part of your planning. Taking full advantage of any funds that your employer will provide to you to assist in paying for later life is a must do.

If you are self-employed, there are tax-licensed retirement programs in which you can participate and contribute to save for your later years. These plans vary, and you will need to consult a tax preparer, investment professional, life insurance professional or other licensed financial professional to assist you in establishing the plan that is best for you. As more and more people work as independent contractors or only part time, these plans will gain favor.


The established three-legged stool of retirement savings is showing signs of stress and needs repair. It is more than a little wobbly. The government leg needs reform and financial changes made. The employer provided leg is cracking for most people as fewer and fewer people are retiring without any source of guaranteed pension income but rather with whatever income their accumulated 401k plans can produce.

In most cases, the income generated falls precipitously short of prior generations and of expectations. Lastly, as the first two legs show stress more emphasis is being placed on private savings. In reality, individuals are going to need more personal savings to be able to generate the income needed to fund their lifestyles for their ever-lengthening life expectancy.


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