COVID-19 has complicated life for people planning their retirements as well as those who have recently retired.

Wildly fluctuating stock markets have wreaked havoc on 401(k) plans and other retirement accounts. Safer-at-home orders, business closings, layoffs and furloughs have left 26.5 million Americans unemployed over just five weeks as of April 23, according to a report from Bloomberg News.

Financial experts say it’s not time to panic, but to carefully consider your situation and revisit your investment strategies.

“As long as you’ve got money to cover your basic expenses, through either Social Security or other guaranteed income, maybe you’ve got some time to stay the course and hopefully get back on track,” Steve Rohrig, associate director of training in the Financial Planning Division at Nebraska-based Senior Market Sales, told RetireGuide.com.

How COVID-19 Could Impact Retirement Plans

older man standing in empty restaurant

More than 18 million people were expected to retire in the next five years, according to the Pew Center for Research. But the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be driving millions of American workers into early retirement — a decision that could permanently lower their retirement income.

I fear that many people were probably in the riskiest positions imaginable considering most people didn't likely think the stock market could go down after going up so much in the last 12 years.
Christopher Magnussen Financial advisor with Insuractive

On any typical day in 2019, around 10,000 American workers retired. The days since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States have not been typical.

An April 2020 study from the Becker Freidman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago found millions of Americans are retiring early, potentially putting their long-term financial security at risk. Researchers found that the number of people who left the labor market during the first wave of COVID-19-related layoffs ticked up 8 percentage points.

“Early retirement almost fully explains the drop in labor force participation both for those survey participants previously employed and those previously looking for work,” the researchers wrote.

That would have been about 13 million workers opting to retire early based on the study’s findings in just the first weeks of the pandemic.

How COVID-19 Is Affecting Retirement Plans
  • Many employers, as well as workers, have quit contributing to 401(k) plans.
  • Local Social Security offices have closed.
  • 401(k) retirement accounts have lost value.
  • Conventional savings accounts will pay lower interest rates.
  • People are dipping into their savings, IRAs and 401(k) plans.

At the same time, other people who had planned to retire this year may decide to continue working to rebuild their savings.

Chris Magnussen, a financial advisor with Insuractive, saw people successfully recover losses after the 2008 financial collapse that led to the Great Recession.

“I saw within a couple of years after the financial crisis, there were quite a few account holders back to where they were before the downturn,” Magnussen told RetireGuide.com.

Ask an Expert: What to Do?

Christopher Magnussen, expert on investing
Christopher Magnussen Expert on Investing

Christopher Magnussen is a financial services expert with more than 20 years of investment experience at TD Ameritrade and other institutions. He is currently with Insuractive.

Magnussen says trying to change investment strategies in a rapidly changing financial crisis can be confusing for most people. He recommends working with a professional to navigate the crisis.

What should people close to retirement keep in mind during the COVID-19 financial crisis?

First of all, I would hope they are in a well-designed portfolio that was extremely diversified before all this happened.

That said, I would say the thing that would be the most helpful would be to not make decisions based on emotion but instead be sure you're doing a lot of research or working with a financial professional who can help you navigate through this crazy economic time.

What are the main things retirees should keep in mind?

People that are living off income from their retirement savings or investments should be working with a financial professional. Right now, it's a really bad time to be making decisions about your portfolio. But if you're set for the long-term, your portfolio will likely weather the storm. A professional can help you navigate these times.

What is your advice to investors who have the urge to sell off their investments?

There are other ways to generate income from investments prior to liquidating them. And if people are not aware of those options, they should be talking to a financial professional.

Investment Strategies During the COVID-19 Financial Crisis

Man using investment app on tablet

Perhaps the most common investment strategy financial professionals advise people to follow during any financial crisis is to not panic.

But people may need to reassess their savings and investment strategies during the COVID-19 financial crisis.

“We’re seeing people moving to safer alternatives,” Rohrig said. “I know we do a lot of indexed annuities that protects that downside.”

Indexed annuities charge you a premium and promise a guaranteed return along with one based on a market index such as the S&P 500.

Investment Strategies to Discuss with a Financial Advisor
Taking Advantage of a Down Market
Purchasing stocks while prices are low may mean increased value for your portfolio when the market recovers.
Purchasing an Annuity
Annuities will give you a fixed return when you retire.
Roth 401(k) Conversion
Not every plan will allow you to do this, but in some cases you can convert your pre-tax 401(k) funds into post-tax dollars and let you pay the taxes on that money now. While share prices are low, the conversion will reduce the amount of taxes you owe.

Tapping into Retirement Savings: Is Now the Time?

Older woman studying documents

Withdrawing money from your retirement savings should only be a last resort. Whittling down your savings will cost you more in the long run.

“We call it the sequence of returns risk,” Rohrig said.

This risk applies to the order in which your investment payouts occur and how it affects your long-term financial health. Putting in or taking out money from your investments in the wrong way can mean you’ll have a much lower rate of return over the life of those investments.

“It really hits people who are near retirement or just started retirement,” Rohrig said. “It hits them probably worse than people who were down the road into retirement.”

For those in the earlier stages of retirement planning, it’s best to avoid withdrawing from retirement savings early. Doing so gives you less of a foundation to build on and can stretch investments thin over the course of a lifetime.

“If you can avoid tapping your retirement savings at all costs, that’d be great,” Magnussen said. “If you have other assets that you can use before turning to the retirement account, that would be a whole lot better.”

Alternatives to Tapping into Retirement Savings
Borrow
A professional financial advisor can tell you if it's a better idea to borrow from your 401(k) plan or take out a home equity loan. If the crisis ends soon, you may have only a few months of loan expenses.
Unemployment Benefits
Take into account an additional $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits on top of state benefits under the CARES Act.
Consider Credit
Budget in how much you can put on credit cards while the crisis lasts.

Tapping your savings during the COVID-19 financial crisis means you’re selling investments at a loss. In addition, a lot of people could get hit with higher taxes.

Did You Know?
If you take money out of your retirement account, you're going to get taxed on that money and you may get hit with a tax penalty, unless you're older than 59 and a half.

If all else fails and you have to tap into your savings, the CARES Act passed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic makes it easier for you to dip into your retirement accounts.

In certain hardship cases, you may be able to withdraw up to $100,000 from your IRA, 401(k) or other retirement account without the usual 10 percent penalty. The act also doubles the amount you can take in loans from your 401(k) account to $100,000 or 100 percent of your balance, whichever is less.

To qualify for a CARES Act hardship distribution, you must meet one of the following:
  • Be diagnosed with COVID-19.
  • Have a spouse or dependents diagnosed with COVID-19.
  • Suffer a financial hardship because of quarantine, layoff, furlough, reduced work hours or loss of child care as a result of the pandemic.
  • Have other hardships that the U.S. Treasury Department determines to be related to COVID-19.

Claiming Social Security Earlier than Planned

Generally speaking, claiming Social Security benefits early should only be a last resort. Claiming benefits earlier than your full retirement age would cost you $8,952 a year in 2020. If you’d planned on waiting until 70 to file for Social Security, then you’re looking at giving up $18,300 a year.

The question you have to ask yourself is, do you take the cash now or can you delay it and get long-term increases on that monthly income.
Steve Rohrig Associate director of training at Senior Market Sales

“For those transitioning toward retirement, and thinking about doing it early, they’ve got a tough decision right now,” Rohrig said. “They may be asking themselves, ‘Do I go ahead and take Social Security before my retirement age at a discounted amount?’”

He said people need to think about the long-term ramifications. The longer you wait to apply, the higher your maximum monthly benefits will be.

“People need to consider the impact to their Social Security payments over the long-term,” Magnussen said. “Hopefully, that’s not the largest part of their retirement income, but it will certainly be impacted for the rest of their life.”

2020 Maximum Monthly Social Security Benefits by Retirement Age
Early filing for Social Security at age 62$2,265
Filing at the full retirement age (66 and 2 months for those born after 1955 and 67 for those born after 1960)$3,011
Filing at age 70$3,790

Taking an Early Retirement Package

Older man shaking hands with advisor

There are several things you need to consider before you accept a buyout or early retirement package from your employer during the COVID-19 financial crisis.

  1. You need to know exactly what is in the package.
  2. You need to know what you’ll be giving up.

“I would evaluate whether it’s a lump sum or a more annuity-based option,” Rohrig said. “You’d want to think about your immediate needs compared to your long-term needs.”

The type of buyout can have a serious impact on your long-term retirement income as well as your current situation.

What to Consider Before Accepting an Early Retirement Package
Health Care
Does the buyout allow you to stay in your employer’s health insurance or do you qualify for Medicare?
Finances
How long will the buyout let you pay your bills without tapping retirement savings?
Social Security
How will retiring now affect your Social Security benefits? If you retire at the minimum age of 62, you will receive lower monthly payments.
Room to Negotiate
Make sure the buyout is worth what you’re being asked to give up.

The math to determine if an early retirement package is right for you can be complicated.

“I would definitely work with a professional that could help with some analysis to determine whether it’s worthwhile to take that company buyout,” Rohrig said.

Ask an Expert: Strategies

Steve Rohrig
Steve Rohrig Expert on Retirement Planning

Steve Rohrig’s professional credentials include Certified Life Underwriter, Chartered Financial Consultant, Retirement Income Certified Professional and Chartered Advisor for Senior Living.

Rohrig says staying the course as best you can is key to minimizing the impact of the COVID-19 financial crisis on your retirement planning.

What important steps should people planning retirement take during the pandemic?

I would encourage those people to look at their spending right now. Do they have any discretionary expenses they could put to the side? And really focus on those day-to-day, core expenses of food, shelter, transportation and health care. Then maybe let their asset base recover before returning to lifestyle-based spending.

What are the risks of digging into your retirement savings now?

Taking money out now could be a problem. A sudden shock to their portfolio could impact them for a long time. You're taking out income on that depressed portfolio and when the economy comes back, you've got less of an asset base to build on.

What should people definitely not do right now?

I don't have a crystal ball, but at the same time I'm optimistic in terms of the economy getting back to where we once were. I don't know how long that'll be, but if you have the time ahead of you to just stay the course, I'd recommend that. But a lot of that depends your own goals, your own outlook and your own perspective.

How Will the Pandemic Reshape Social Security?

It’s not clear yet how the COVID-19 financial crisis will affect Social Security in the long run. Even before the pandemic, Social Security trustees predicted that 2020 would be the first year that the program paid out more money than it took in.

Social Security benefits that paid out come from people paying payroll taxes right now. With more than 26 million people out of work because of the pandemic, that’s a lot of money not going into Social Security’s trust fund to make payments.

The program has cash reserves, so it can absorb short-term shortfalls.

“For those who are already retired, Social Security should be solvent for at least the next 15 or 16 years ahead,” Rohrig said.

In addition to less money coming in, a wave of early retirements would mean more money going out of the system, further eating into the trust fund’s reserves.

The program’s trustees have warned for years about a day of reckoning for Social Security as the program depletes its savings. Congress has delayed solving Social Security’s looming financial crisis because any solution is politically charged and few if any are popular with all voters.

Possible plans to shore up Social Security include:
  • Raising taxes on wealthy earners.
  • Raising Social Security payroll taxes on all workers.
  • Raising the retirement age for claiming Social Security benefits.
  • Cutting the amount of Social Security benefits.

The COVID-19 financial crisis may highlight the threat of Social Security and make lawmakers more willing to compromise or make unpopular decisions that address the program’s long-term issues.

In the meantime, Social Security provides relief to people who may be reconsidering their retirement plans as well as a tool that you may be able to use to rebuild your investments.

“Having Social Security is going to bring in some much needed cash flow to people who have retired,” Rohrig said. “That’s money to pay some bills and build that foundation for tier one expenses like food and housing, transportation and health care — the things you need day-to-day.”

Impact of COVID-19 on Medicare

Older woman meeting with doctor

Medicare is already changing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But long-term changes may lead to higher out-of-pocket costs for Medicare beneficiaries.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) rolled out expanded telehealth services March 1, paying doctors the same for telehealth calls as in-person services. It applied to all diagnoses, not just COVID-19 cases.

Outside of Medicare, telehealth services, where doctors and patients have a virtual visit over the phone or through computer screens, have exploded since the start of the pandemic.

Medicare’s telehealth expansion may stick around beyond the crisis if it works well and proves cost effective. CMS has created fact sheets, rules and regulations and an online training website to get the service up and running.

CMS has taken other steps that are designed to meet immediate needs during the national emergency.

Steps Medicare has taken during the COVID-19 pandemic include:
  • Paying for COVID-19 tests for Medicare beneficiaries, though hospitalization and prescription costs are still subject to deductibles and copayments or coinsurance.
  • Easing regulatory burdens for doctors, hospitals and other health care providers.
  • Expanding advance medical payments.
  • Distributing $30 billion in emergency grants to hospitals and practicing doctors to cover expanded health care related expenses and lost revenue because of COVID-19.
  • Paying for COVID-19 tests for those enrolled in Medicare.
  • Releasing guidelines for elective procedures that should be delayed during the pandemic.

Most of these are temporary measures during the pandemic, but they are expensive.

Medicare spending related to COVID-19 is estimated to range anywhere from $38.5 billion to $115.4 billion for the 12 months ending in March 2021, according to the National Association of Accountable Care Organizations.

Like Social Security, Medicare is funded through payroll taxes. Before the pandemic, Medicare’s trustees estimated its fund for hospital coverage would be depleted by 2026. But COVID-19 costs may move that date up.

Fewer people working means less revenue from payroll taxes.

That could translate into possible increases for Medicare premiums, deductibles and coinsurance, according to a brief from Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker.

However, the same brief suggests that since Medicare is requiring health care providers to delay many elective procedures during the pandemic, the savings may be able to offset the need for raising out-of-pocket expenses.

How COVID-19 Could Affect Hospitals and Senior Health Care

There may be fewer hospitals after the pandemic and people in rural areas may have less access to a hospital.

hospital icon
At least 170 rural hospitals have closed since 2005, with the rate rapidly increasing since 2013.

With elective surgeries delayed, hospitals have lost a major source of revenue. Hospitals are also treating COVID-19 cases at a loss — losing an average of $1,200 for every patient they treat according to an analysis by Strata Decision Technology.

For some hospital systems, the loss is as high as $6,000 to $8,000 per patient. The Strata analysis estimated that some hospitals may not be able to survive 60 to 90 days.

Rural hospitals were already in financial trouble prior to the pandemic, with 128 closing in the past 10 years, according to the University of North Carolina Rural Health Research Program.

A February 2020 study from the Chartis Center for Rural Health identified 453 rural hospitals that were “vulnerable” to closure before the pandemic kicked into full gear.

Additional Resources

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Last Modified: June 2, 2020

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