Why Banking on a Pension Can Be Dangerous

Written By Jeff Hindenach
Last updated November 11, 2017

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April 27, 2015

Simple. Thrifty. Living.

A pension is a retirement account for a worker that is maintained by the employing company or institution. Started in the private sector in the 1870s and heavily expanded throughout the first half of the 20th century, pensions have been a main source of retirement income for Americans for quite some time. Only Social Security surpasses pension plans as the major source of income for retirees in the United States. However, as the population of the country continues to age and there are growing concerns about the long-term solvency of the pension in the private and public fields, it may be time for you to take the initiative and start saving for retirement in different ways.

Currently, 34 states have government pension plans that are less than 80 percent funded. Though reforms in the system could help change that, it’s not wise for you to rely heavily on pension in retirement — especially when many states have or are considering cutting benefits.

In the private sector, the outlook is similar. If the pension plans of the largest 100 corporations in America are calculated, total pension deficits are an estimated $303 billion as of February 2015 (or only 83.3 percent funded). Though this is an improvement from the year before, pension liabilities for many companies can’t be instilling confidence in employers.

Pension plans are covered by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), a federal organization that covers certain things, like receipt of pension income annuity benefits for surviving family members. However, the following are not covered: health benefits, disabilities that happen to you after the company declares bankruptcy, severance packages, vacation pay and lump-sum death benefits when the plan is over. This means that if your company goes bankrupt, your pension plan will still be there, but it most likely won’t cover your medical expenses and other important benefits. Additionally, many large companies are freezing pension plans in an effort to deal with underfunding; names include the likes of American Airlines. Hence, a backup plan must be in place.

In the public sector, the situation is worse for many. Fierce debate is occurring, and everything from raising taxes to fund the system to cutting it altogether are being considered. Workers are obviously entitled to what they’ve earned in their pension plan already, but both those young and old working for the government should not be banking on the pension payments they believed they would receive when they started working.

If you want to be financially secure in retirement, you should count on pensions as just one part of several income sources. Employee-sponsored 401(k)s and IRAs (Individual Retirement Account) put all the risk on you, but also they mean that the money earned will get to you at the end of the day, and you don’t have to worry about company bankruptcy or an insolvent pension system. Additionally, opening a Roth IRA on your own can help build substantial income over many years. Investing in the stock market, which has seen positive growth for years, is another option, as is the recovering housing market. The point is this: diversify. Don’t put all your financial eggs in that pension basket because your retirement may not turn out as you imagined.

About the Author

Jeff Hindenach

Jeff Hindenach is the co-founder of Simple. Thrifty. Living. He graduated from Bowling Green State University with a Bachelor's Degree in Journalism. He has a long history of financial journalism, with a background writing for newspapers such as the San Jose Mercury News and San Francisco Examiner, as well as writing on personal finance for The Huffington Post, New York Times, Business Insider, CNBC, Newsday and The Street. He believes in giving readers the tools they need to get out of debt.

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