Open season on a fixed income

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s open season time and you know what that means. For most of us it means not bothering to take the time to see if there is a better medical, dental or vision plan out there. And by “us” I definitely mean “me”, at least until this year. Although I retired in 2014, I was working for most of it so it was easy to go on autopilot in 2015.

This year though I am fully retired and living on perhaps seventy percent of my previous income. This year although our expenses have gone up, for some reason my fully indexed cost of living pension won’t be, a factor somehow of falling gas prices. I’m not alone. Lots of pensioners and social security recipients feel like they have been cheated. The problem is that the official cost of living index is bogus. While I might spend a couple of hundred dollars less in gasoline this year than I did last year, food prices have gone up and eating is not optional. If prices are holding steady, the word hasn’t gone out to my city. The real estate assessment was $15.80 per thousand dollars of assessed value this year. In 2016 it jumps to $16.16. Moreover I just bought a new house for about $486,000 but it’s been assessed at $500,000. This means we need to pay $401 more just in property taxes yet with no increase in income.

So value is becoming more important. We’ve been on Blue Cross for more than a decade, but Blue Cross too is tightening the screws. With no changes we would pay over $650 a year more in premiums. Copays have been increased as well, up $5 each for primary care and specialists. We (my wife in particular) see lots of doctors. It’s not hard to rack up a hundred visits between the two of us per year. We could easily spend another $1000 a year on health costs next year for no increase in services. We would have to do this with no cost of living raise.

Thus I felt I no longer had the luxury of inertia. As I started to examine my options, I quickly realized why I had punted all these years. It’s because while choice is good in theory when it comes to health insurance it is mind-numbingly exasperating and time consuming. It’s something of a crap shoot as to which plan offers you the best value, since you have no way of knowing how much care you will actually need. About all you can do is use past years as a benchmark, and that means analyzing all your health expenditures. (Note: if you are a federal employee, federal annuitant or survivor of either, Checkbook has a useful guide that costs less than $10 that can help a lot.)

Since I spent a day just analyzing health insurance options, it’s a good thing I am retired. I doubt I would have this sort of leisure if I were still working. I had to sift through the details of all the various plans and see if I could find some magic combination that is not overly expensive, rated reasonably well and with most of our doctors “in network”. I had to analyze premiums, deductibles, copays, limitations on types of services, and which of our doctors were on each plan. I’m still not entirely clear which plan offers the best value, but it’s pretty clear it’s no longer Blue Cross.

I can also change my dental insurance and add vision insurance during open season. I already have a long term care policy, but no insurer would insure my wife so when that time comes we’ll have to depend on savings. Which opens up another can of worms that retirees have to grapple with. If you have some major and unplanned costs, where do you get the money?

Since we recently settled on a house a lot of our reserves have gone to pay lawyers and other busybodies. We’re hardly without savings but if I had to put my hands on $75,000 or so in cash it would be a challenge. A 401-K or IRA is not like a faucet that you turn on and off at whim. You generally get just a one chance a year change to adjust the spigot – during open season.

We supplement my pension with a modest monthly withdrawal from my 401K. On the advice of my financial adviser, I’m limiting withdrawals to 3% of the portfolio. This will in theory keep our nest egg secure, not growing in value (over inflation) but not losing value either. I can up the withdrawals to say 4% and slowly build up cash reserves at the expense of paying more income taxes and a smaller portfolio. I can hope no major expenses like this happen. I can get another home equity loan and use that when needed, but that money certainly won’t be free. The other alternative is to get another job, something I’d prefer to avoid since leisure is the whole point of retirement.

Since when you are retired you can’t easily change your income and expenses are hard to control sober retirees have to look forward a lot. Our new house is nice but like every other house it will move toward decay. We’ll eventually need money to replace the air conditioner, roof and buy cars when the old ones expire. This didn’t used to be a problem. I had enough income where I could pay for most of these expenses out of pocket or from our savings account. Now I have to anticipate them.

Unable to think of a better strategy, I looked at what these expenses cost us before. I made some realistic estimate of when these expenses would hit and what they might cost then with inflation. So I’m setting aside some of our income to draw from for these expenses in the future. It’s not an exact science, but it’s a start. It’s also sobering. I’ve created a car replacement fund assuming we’ll buy two cars for $25,000 each in today’s dollars, one in 2019 and one in 2023. To reach the goal I must place $481 of our income monthly into an escrow account. Similarly for all these future house expenses, I’ve created a capital fund. If my numbers are accurate, $343 a month set aside for these expenses should cover them.

All this is well and good but it leaves less money to actually enjoy your retirement particularly when your expenses go up when the government says they haven’t. Which is why I’m reluctantly becoming value-driven in retirement. Every expense needs a second look, including our health care costs. So I need to shop around.

As for health insurance, since I am an ex-federal employee I’ll probably bid adieu to trusty but expensive Blue Cross and say hello to the National Association of Letter Carrier’s plan instead. Lower premiums, lower deductibles, similar services and a reasonably good choice of doctors will probably go a long way to keeping these expenses unchanged in 2016. We’ll see. If not I’ll be crunching the numbers again in a year at the next open season.

Health insurance in the United States is needlessly complex. If there must be competition then the government should require that all plans offer the same services so we could shop around more easily. Or perhaps we could do what every other first world country does: create a national health care system. Then instead of figuring out how much health you can afford you could simply get the care you need instead. Sign me up for that!