PERA Transition Year (aka, 93/93 or 110/110)

Summary: For many public school employees, a transition year is a fantastic benefit that can make a huge difference in your retirement finances. It’s definitely worth finding out if your school district offers it, under what conditions, and then investigating whether it might be right for you.

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The working after retirement rules for PERA specify that retires can work up to 110 days in a calendar year for a PERA-covered employer after they retire (there’s no limit on non-PERA covered employment). While any PERA-covered employee can possibly take advantage of this, it works especially well for public school employees because our contract year naturally occurs half in one calendar year and half in the next, meaning you won’t exceed the 110-day limit in either year. Some – but not all – school districts offer this transition year benefit (sometimes referred to as 93/93 or 110/110), but often with special conditions. For example, in Littleton Public Schools you must have been continuously employed by the district for the previous 10 years in order to qualify, and the district does not pay benefits during the transition year. Check with your district to see if it’s offered and what conditions there may be. (In Douglas County Public Schools it is also working in the district the previous 10 years plus the permission of your supervisor.)

Despite this being around for a while, lots of folks are a bit unclear on the details (or unaware of it altogether), so I thought I’d use my experience as an example. I officially retired on June 1, 2017 and am now working a transition year with LPS. I currently have 29 years of teaching experience under PERA, plus I purchased 6 years of service credit, giving me 35 years of service credit that my retirement benefit is based on. Thirty-five years translates to 87.5% of my Highest Average Salary (HAS) if I choose option 1 under PERA (full benefit comes to me, but when I die the benefit stops). Since I chose option 3 (I get a reduced benefit, but when I die my spouse gets the exact same benefit until she dies), I’m getting about 91.5% of that which comes out to about 80.1% of my HAS. It’s important to understand that the factor that determines that reduction percentage changes, both according to your age and your spouse’s age and due to PERA’s current actuarial assumptions, but the changes are relatively small from year to year.

What this means is that during this transition year, I’m effectively getting 180% of the pay I would normally get, minus the amount I have to pay for my own insurance coverage. I’m adding on to my wife’s insurance (as is our daughter) so that comes out to approximately 5% of my salary, so I’m making about 175% of what I normally would. (Also, in LPS your pay for the transition year is “frozen” at what you made the previous year, so I do not receive the small cost-of-living raise I would’ve normally received.)

The other thing to keep in mind is that in addition to losing benefits, I’m “giving up” the service credit I would earn with PERA by working this transition year. I (and LPS) still contribute to PERA during this year, but I do not earn any service credit, which is effectively giving up 2.5% of my HAS. Because I’m 75% “ahead” from getting the benefit during my transition year, that’s equivalent to roughly 30 years of retirement. (Not exactly because of the time-weighted value of money, it is actually much longer than that because I can earn money by investing that 75% over those thirty years, but good enough for our purposes). So, with that back-of-the-envelope calculation, the “break-even” point is 30 years. If I live longer than that (which I have decent chance of), then theoretically not taking the transition year would work out better. In reality, because of the compounded investment returns that I can make on that 75%, it’s likely to be 40 years to break-even or perhaps a lot more, so for me the (financial) decision was pretty easy. (The fewer years of service credit you have, however, the closer you need to look at that calculation.)

There are other things to consider in addition to the “break-even” point when looking at the transition year option.

  • Because you have to retire from PERA and keep working for your employer, you have to know you are going to retire (and commit to it) about 16 months before you will actually stop working for your current employer. For some folks, that’s difficult to do.
  • As mentioned above, in many districts you’ll lose your benefits, which includes not only health, dental and vision, but things like life insurance and sick days (in LPS you get 5 sicks days for use during the transition year). So you have to figure out where you are going to get coverage (from a spouse, from LPS via COBRA where you pay the full premium, from PERACare, or on the individual market).
  • During the two calendar years that the transition year affects, your taxable income will increase (both your regular income and your PERA distribution are taxable), and there’s a decent chance it will move you into a higher tax bracket. (In LPS you get two “paychecks” – one from LPS, one from PERA – for a total of 14 months, 7 in each calendar year.) This is especially true in LPS if you have a lot of accrued sick days, as LPS gives you a payout on those as well, for me that’s over $9000 additional taxable dollars for 2017 (this is not PERA-includable salary). This is why many folks increase their contributions to 401k/403b/457 plans during these two years.
  • And it depends a lot, of course, on your personal financial circumstances and needs. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to retirement planning.

So, should you take a transition year (assuming your district offers it and you’re eligible)? It depends, and if you choose to work with me we will look at this very carefully, but it’s definitely something to know about, investigate, and perhaps even make some financial decisions prior to retiring based on the knowledge that you will be receiving this benefit.

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Focus On: LPS Retirement Plans (401k/403b/457 Plans)

Summary: Choose the PERA 401k plan and invest as much as you can.

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The idea of retirement is a fairly new one. It wasn’t until early in the 20th century that the concept of retiring from work and “living a life of leisure” was even a concept. Many employers started offering pension plans and then Social Security came along in 1937. Then in 1978, the idea of a tax-deferred savings plan (401k) was created, although it’s original intent was not the way we’ve ended up using it.

Social Security was really designed to be part of a “3-legged stool” concept of retirement, that retirees would draw from their company pension, from social security and from their personal savings. As pension plans have gone out of favor and 401ks have taken their place (particularly in the private sector), it has really become a two-legged stool (which is somewhat problematic). For public school employees in Colorado, PERA is a social security replacement plan, so basically covers those two legs, leaving the personal savings leg for you to figure out on your own. That’s where employer-offered tax-deferred savings plans come in.

All PERA employers offer the PERA 401k plan to their employees, and some employers also offer access to the PERA 457 and the newly created PERA Roth 401k/457 plans. Many school districts also offer additional, non-PERA options for tax-deferred accounts. This post will focus on what’s offered in Littleton Public Schools, but you should check with your employer to see what options they offer.

LPS allows you to choose between PERA and TIAA for retirement savings vehicles, offering the PERA 401k, 457, Roth 401k and Roth 457 plans, and the TIAA 403b, 457, Roth 403b and Roth 457 plans. There are subtle differences between 401k, 403b and 457 plans that can be important but, for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll treat them as roughly the same, with the important exception that you have separate contribution limits for 401k/403b and 457 plans which gives you the ability to save more if you have the cash flow to do that.

This post is not intended to be an in-depth explanation of 401k/403b/457 plans (or their Roth versions), but let me try to briefly describe them (if you decide to work with me we can dive deeper if need be). The idea behind 401k/403b/457 plans is to save money in a tax-deferred account, which means that you are not taxed on your income that you place into those accounts now, nor are you taxed on the earnings in those accounts as they accumulate, but you are only taxed when you make withdrawals which will hopefully be when you are retired. The traditional thinking is that most folks will be in a lower tax bracket when they are retired, so not only do you reap the benefits of saving “extra” all those years by not paying taxes up front, but when you do pay taxes upon withdrawal you will pay a smaller amount.

More recently Roth 401k/403b/457 plans have been created (along with Roth IRAs, which don’t flow through your employer) that take a different approach. For these plans you do pay taxes on any income you invest, but the earnings grow tax free and all withdrawals in retirement are tax free as well. In other words, pay the tax up front, never have to worry about taxes on this money again. For folks who think their tax bracket might actually be higher in retirement, this is a better option.

The obvious conundrum is how do you know for sure whether your tax bracket will be higher or lower in retirement? You don’t, which is why many folks choose to put money into both types of accounts to hedge their bets and give themselves more flexibility in retirement by giving them the option to withdraw from whichever account makes the most sense based on their current tax situation. (There are also some really nice benefits of a Roth if you are trying to leave an inheritance.)

Many employees, especially younger ones, kind of throw up their hands at all this. Retirement seems like a long way off, the choices can be complicated, and of course choosing not to spend money right now can be difficult for some folks. But the beauty and power of investing is compound interest, and it’s most effective the more time you give your money to grow, so the sooner you start, the better (and easier) it is to generate the retirement savings you want.

Many folks thinking about 401k/403b/457 plans also don’t take into account the effect on the tax-deferral on their current income. They think about putting say $100 a month into a 401k, but then worry they can’t do without that $100 a month. But they’re missing that their actual paycheck won’t go down by $100, but more like $70 (if you are in the 25% federal bracket, plus 4.65% for Colorado taxes). The government is basically saying, “invest $70 and we’ll give you $30” (always remembering that eventually they are going to tax you on that when you withdraw it). If you choose the Roth options, you don’t get that tax break up front, so your paycheck will decrease by $100 (but the potential for tax-free growth over time is tremendous).

So, with that overview, if you are an LPS employee, should you choose PERA or TIAA? Well, again, that depends on your individual circumstances and I’d be happy to discuss those with you, but for most people PERA is the better choice because of lower fees.

PERA offers a choice of several funds or a self-directed brokerage account if you want more control. For most folks, the funds are the better choice. In 2011 PERA chose to go with a “white-label” approach to investments. Research has shown that many folks make poor investment choices when given too many choices so, instead, a “white-label” approach has you choose among asset allocation choices instead of picking individual funds.

whitelabel

I’ll write more in future posts, but there are basically three things you can control when saving for retirement:

  1. How much you save.
  2. What asset allocation you choose.
  3. How much in fees you pay.

By going with a white-label approach and trying to keep fees low, PERA has tried to simplify the second and third choices for you. For each of their asset classes, PERA has typically gone with a combination of a passive (index) approach and an active (managed) approach. This combination gives you lower fees than a fully active approach, but higher fees than a strictly indexed approach. PERA thinks that they can achieve higher returns than the index this way. I’m a big fan of index funds, so I’m not totally convinced of this approach but, so far in their short lifespan (since 2011), they have mostly achieved this to  a small extent.

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PERA does also give you a self-directed brokerage option (for an additional fee), which allows you almost unlimited choices in investments. For most folks, the additional complication of choices and fees make this sub-optimal, but it’s there if you want it.

selfdirected

TIAA is more like the self-directed brokerage option, which is one of the reasons the fees tend to be a bit higher (although still not bad compared to many other companies, 0.42% plus the underlying fund fees). Here’s a comparison of fees for a large-cap investment in the PERA white-label fund, the PERA self-directed brokerage option invested in a large-cap index fund (they require you to keep $500 in PERAdvantage funds), and the TIAA option invested in the same index fund. (You can view comparisons for other asset classes here.)

401kfees

If you look carefully, you’ll notice that the cheapest option is the PERA self-directed brokerage option (as soon as you pass about $20,000 in your account), with the PERAdvantage funds coming in second, and TIAA coming in last. Since the middle and third columns are essentially the same choice in terms of what you’re investing in, there’s no reason to choose the higher fee TIAA option over the PERA option. If you are investing a lot, you can save in fees by going the self-directed brokerage option, but this is where PERA would argue that they think they will outperform the index and make up those fee differences. The differences are small enough between the first two columns that, for most folks, it’s probably best to stick with the PERAdvantage options.

In future posts I’ll write more regarding possible asset allocations (which fund(s) should you choose), contribution limits (and the fact that you get separate limits for 401k/403b vs. 457, allowing you to save much more if you can), and the power of compounding. But, for now, this gives you an idea of where to start. The key thing is to start now and put as much as you can into one or more of these vehicles so that your “stool” will be sturdy enough to support you in retirement.

PERA: It’s Even Better Than You Think

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Most Colorado (public school) educators know that Colorado PERA is a “good” retirement program, especially compared to Social Security, but often they don’t know just how good it is. Fully exploring this topic is beyond the scope of this blog post, but let me briefly hit some of the highlights.

As part of SB 14-214, the the state of Colorado commissioned three independent studies of Colorado PERA, two of which are particularly relevant to this discussion. The Milliman Retirement Benefits Study, released in January of 2015, looked at how Colorado PERA’s benefits fit into the larger picture of total compensation, and was designed to evaluate the value of PERA compared to other retirement packages offered by other states and by private companies. The executive summary states,

The state’s total retirement compensation package is equivalent to 15.7% of pay (15.4% defined benefit and 0.3% retiree health), relative to the market median of 14.7% (combined sources: defined contribution, defined benefit, social security, and retiree health)

Basically, this says that as part of a total compensation package, Colorado PERA is just above the median benefit paid by states and private companies.

The second study, the Gabriel, Roeder, Smith & Company Plan Design Study is a bit more in-depth and relevant to this discussion. The purpose of this study was to compare Colorado PERA’s plan design and, specifically, the costs and effectiveness of PERA, as compared to other retirement plans offered in the public and private sectors (including the one that affects the most people, Social Security). Again, from the executive summary,

This study found that the current PERA Hybrid Plan is more efficient and uses dollars more effectively than the other types of plans in use today.

When the study was presented to the State of Colorado’s Legislative Audit Committee, GRS officials told members,

Colorado’s largest public employee pension system is the most efficient and effective a state could have.

Those are important pieces of background to know, especially when the legislature is in session and various bills are offered regarding PERA. But I want to point out some specific features of Colorado PERA that are particularly relevant to you from an investment and financial planning perspective.

Colorado PERA represents over 500,000 members which provides some significant advantages to you in terms of economies of scale and in terms of investment returns. Because PERA is so large, it is able to both invest at low cost and to invest in areas that are not available to you as an individual investor. Because they are a large, institutional investor, they are able to negotiate investment fees that are lower than what you can typically achieve on your own. They can also invest in areas such as real estate and private equity that are not available to you as an individual investor. Both of these help PERA achieve higher returns (at the same level of risk) than most individual investors.

Perhaps even more importantly, however, is the fact that PERA is the ultimate long-term investor. As an individual, you have a “life-cycle” to your investments. Typically as you get older and then eventually when you are retired, conventional wisdom indicates that you should get more conservative with your investments because you don’t have time to “recover” from a market downturn. But because PERA pools money from over 500,000 members, and because they are essentially investing in perpetuity, in many ways PERA can invest like each one of those investors is an unchanging 35-year old.

While PERA does have to deal with cash flow issues in order to pay benefits, and they certainly have to manage risk and particularly be concerned with sequence-of-returns risk, overall they can truly invest for the long term. Which means that even as you get older, PERA doesn’t have to adjust its investments based on your age, they continue to invest as if you were 35. This allows them to stay fully invested for the long-term at an appropriate level of risk that will generate good long-term returns.

In addition, once you do retire and start drawing your PERA benefits, those benefits are guaranteed for life, including a 2% annual increase to help cover inflation. (Note: that 2% applies to those hired before 2007, and can temporarily decrease following calendar years that PERA investments lose money, which does happen, but not that frequently. For those hired after 2007, it could also be 2%, but it’s a bit more complicated.) Let’s use a specific example to put that into perspective.

The median PERA retiree earns about $35,000 per year in benefits. There’s a rule-of-thumb in financial planning circles called the 4% rule which says that, based on historical results, people can typically withdraw 4% of their investment balance each year to live on and still expect their money to last until they die. While not perfect, the 4% rule is pretty robust, which means that the $35,000 per year in our example equates to about $875,000 in savings. Many career educators will likely qualify for a much higher benefit, maybe $55,000 a year or more, which equates to $1.375 million in savings.

Now, this is a very rough equivalency, as an investment balance using the 4% withdrawal rule has a decent chance of actually growing over time, which means you could leave a healthy inheritance, while your pension income ends when you die (or when your beneficiary dies if you take Option 2 or 3). But I think it still gives you a rough idea of the incredible value of your PERA pension. It really does allow teachers to become millionaires by the time they retire (and multi-millionaires if you invest your own savings wisely).

There’s one other important aspect of this that I think many Colorado educators may not notice. Because this pension income is guaranteed, in many ways you can think of your PERA pension as the fixed income (bonds) portion of your portfolio. This means you can invest your other retirement savings (401k/403b/457 – I’ll write a post soon on retirement savings plans) more aggressively than folks who don’t have a pension plan like PERA, which can ultimately generate a lot of increased wealth and therefore financial security. (I will write a post soon on investment “risk” and how “aggressive” investments are not necessarily more risky for the long-term investor.)

This is one of the main reasons why I think it’s unfortunate that many Colorado educators don’t really start thinking about PERA until they are close to retirement. In reality, the fact that you have PERA as your retirement plan should affect your financial planning from the first day you begin PERA-covered employment. (This is also one of the reasons I decided to start Fisch Financial – after talking with colleagues over the years about PERA, I realized how little many of them have thought about how PERA should affect their financial planning.)

So, how good is PERA? It’s great in-and-of-itself, but it also allows you to be more successful with the rest of your investments as well. Please consider incorporating the affordances that your PERA benefit allows you in the rest of your financial planning.