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Updated: February 22, 2021 Focus on Wealth Management / Retirement

Retirement planning in the pandemic: Advisors counsel education, communication

Financial advisors recommend retirement planning from day one on the job. But the pandemic, business shutdowns and soaring unemployment have raised worrying questions for employees – especially those in vulnerable industries such as hospitality. Some employees could no longer save for retirement through employer plans. Older workers close to retirement have less time to recover from market losses.

On the other hand, the federal CARES Act and Paycheck Protection Program helped get employees back on payroll and allowed people to start saving again and to withdraw money from their retirement plans as a stopgap to strained financial situations.

We asked several financial advisors for their take on the pandemic’s impact on retirement planning and how to move forward without letting stress control what should be a reasoned decision-making process able to weather turbulent times.

David Hanson: Managing partner, financial advisor, IIS Financial Services, South Portland

Photo / Tim Greenway
David Hanson

Mainebiz: Has the pandemic affected people’s ability to plan for retirement?

David Hanson: I believe that answer depends on who you spoke to and what part of the pandemic you asked this question. There’s a big difference between where we sit today and where we were 10 or 11 months ago. Early on, people were worried as many businesses were shutting down, unemployment claims increased, and the market was extremely volatile. As the government rolled out programs and the markets came back, more and more people felt optimistic about the recovery and economy.

Other people who work in the tourism/retail and hospitality industry were impacted by COVID a lot more and have suspended their retirement contributions or put off their plans for retirement.

MB: To what extent were people affected?

DH: At the beginning of the pandemic, some businesses were shutting down, and employees couldn’t save for retirement through their employer plans, with some employers suspending their 401(k) employer matches. Markets were dropping, and people wanted to make changes within their portfolios. The CARES Act and the Paycheck Protection Program helped get employees back on payroll and allowed people to start saving again. This also allowed people to withdraw money from their retirement plans without penalties [based on specific criteria] if COVID impacted them or their family.

I think the pandemic put everything in perspective. We had many inquiries about life insurance and people reviewing their beneficiaries on their accounts.

MB: Have you seen an effect on older workers?

DH: Yes, as it varied with each person’s situation. Employees within a few years of retirement were concerned with job security and market volatility. They have less time to recover from market losses; however, we emphasize still having some money invested in the market, as it should last throughout retirement while keeping up with inflation.

Some employees did decide to retire early. Reasons included working from home, not feeling safe in the workplace, new technology, or updated procedures that were put in place. Others are postponing their retirement, not because of their financial situation but more for personal and lifestyle reasons. They can’t travel, and enjoy their jobs more when working from home and not commuting. I spoke with a couple of people who said they’re going to work longer because they can work from out of state, such as Florida, in the winter and still be with their spouses.

MB: Is there a rule of thumb for having cash on hand for crisis situations?

DH: Keep around six months of living expenses in liquid savings, but it depends on each person’s situation. Factors include how safe your job is, large purchases coming up, do you have kids, debt, disability insurance, etc. If you have more savings than that, you can invest the extra money, and when the market is down, you can buy more shares at lower prices.

MB: Any tips for employers to help employees?

DH: We always suggest sending out a survey or speaking with employees and asking them what their financial goals and problems are. Once you know what employees are looking for, partner with a local advisor or firm and create a program that involves education and communication, making them available to your employees.

Zachary Means: CEO, Means Wealth Management, Bangor

Photo / Courtesy Means Wealth Management
Zachary Means

Mainebiz: Has the pandemic affected people’s ability to plan for retirement?

Zachary Means: In some industries, sure. Hospitality has been particularly hit hard. But the coronavirus hasn’t had the impact one would have thought it would when it comes to retirement planning. The market was down substantially in 2020 but it has recovered. The federal government rescued the market with continual low rates, accommodative policy and PPP loans, which helped a lot of small businesses and kept the market afloat. For most of the clients and companies we work with, their current financial situation is strong and they have solid financial plans in place. They’ve been able to adapt and make tweaks to their plans where necessary.

MB: What makes a solid financial plan?

ZM: A solid financial plan should help relieve stress and provide insight into what your future can look like if you do the right things financially. Having short-term, mid-term and long-term goals help align your emotions and decisions. People with no or poor plans tend to react by emotion instead of reason. For those who haven’t started the planning process, we encourage them to do it sooner than later. The earlier you start the planning process, the more secure you will feel and more understanding of the process you will become.

MB: How are clients tweaking their plans?

ZM: 2020 is a perfect example. We have people who had travel budgets but weren’t traveling. That allowed them to maybe do some additional philanthropy or accelerate gifting to their children. Travel is just one example of realized savings during the pandemic that has afforded people the ability to make decisions, relative to other parts of their financial plans, which very well could help their families long-term.

MB: What kind of decisions are people making?

ZM: They may be making decisions about whether they’ll even contribute or not to their retirement account, about whether or nor not they’re able to help their kids with college or do the philanthropic giving that they typically do. All those things are components of a financial plan that are important to people.

We believe in the value of a strong financial plan and that your financial plan should dictate your investments, goals and time horizon — one should not let those things be held captive by a pullback, correction or even a pandemic. Market pullbacks and corrections are inevitable and people should plan for them, not be surprised by them.

MB: Can employees catch up on their retirement plans?

ZM: Given that the market has been strong, most people shouldn’t have seen a major negative impact on their retirement portfolios so they shouldn’t need to catch up. Hopefully, when the market dropped in March or April, they either invested more aggressively or just stayed the course. Making changes during turbulent times can have a drastic impact on long-term planning which is exactly what we want to help people avoid.

If someone was laid off during the pandemic and now is unable to contribute to their employer’s retirement plan, they may have the ability to contribute to an IRA or Roth IRA. There is no match with these investments, but they do provide opportunities for tax savings and deferrals. They should seek advice from their advisor or accountant before going at this alone.

MB: What are some tips for employees and employers?

ZM: A basic rule of thumb is for people and businesses to have six to eight months of basic expenses in cash. After this pandemic, we think that goal should be closer to 12 months. For employees that need to build their emergency fund, we recognize it may be helpful to temporarily reduce retirement contributions; however, those contributions should never be reduced to the point where the employee is unable to maximize any matching contributions from their employer. For employers, there are a number of stimulus options available to help bridge the gap through the pandemic. Working with your banking institution and/or accountant can be key.

While it may seem like a difficult time to consider investing, historically, in times of pullbacks or corrections, one should not run from the market but to the market.

MB: Is there an emotional element to the situation?

ZM: Absolutely. Any time money is involved, there can be stress and anxiety. We’ve found that how well you deal with this stress and anxiety ultimately either worsens or improves your financial situation. Staying calm and levelheaded in times of stress and uncertainty can pay off in spades.

Susan John: Managing director, head of financial planning, F.L.Putnam Investment Management Co., Wolfeboro, N.H. (serving Maine clients)

Photo / Courtesy F.L.Putnam
Susan John

Mainebiz: Has the pandemic affected people’s ability to plan for retirement?

Susan John: COVID-19 layoffs have had a significant impact on employee retirement savings rates. But the shift to work from home has been financially challenging for many employees, and many of our clients, due to the increase in childcare and work-related expenses. Retirement savings rates have declined as a result as there is simply less money to contribute every month. We believe retirement savings rates will improve over time, but this is a real issue for many clients today.

MB: What’s the effect on older workers?

SJ: We have many clients who are contemplating an early retirement. For example, we work with a number of teachers who find it difficult to keep kids engaged and learning as a result of the pandemic. Some of our clients have relocated to different schools that offer a more flexible work environment, but many have made the difficult decision to retire. Our discussions have been focused on how soon they can retire and what can they do now to improve their odds of retirement success.

MB: What are some tips for employees and employers?

SJ: Employees are incurring a larger number of expenses because of the pandemic. A formal work from home expense program would help offset the increased cost burden for these individuals, especially for cell phone and office equipment expenses. Not all companies are reimbursing their employees for these expenses.

Student loan debt is a significant issue for younger employees. Any form of company sponsored student loan reduction program would be well received. The CARES Act allows an employer to make a non-taxable payment of up to $5,250 for qualified education debt and the employer gets to deduct the expense. A win-win for both.

This may be a simple one, but routines are important, regardless of your age. Routines set the tone for your entire day and keep you focused and productive.

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