What the Heck are Fixed Index Annuities? (And are they a good idea for retirement?)

One of the ways I fall asleep at night is by reading nonfiction books. I like these books, don’t get me wrong, but they still don’t totally suck me in and keep me awake like fiction books sometimes do. Usually, as I’m in bed reading my nonfiction book of choice for a few minutes, my eyelids get heavy and I drift off. It’s a very effective, as well as instructive, bedtime routine.

For quite awhile, my nightly book of choice has been Tony Robbins’ Money, Master the Game. I’m a big Tony Robbins fan, as I enjoy his motivational talks and writings, and was extremely excited to see that he’d written a book on finance- one of my favorite topics.

I devoured a lot of the beginning of the book (which got me through quite a lot of bedtimes as the book is 638 pages long). I really enjoyed most of the way Tony Robbins was trying to make finance information accessible to everyone, and he even included interviews with finance experts I loved such as Jack Bogle from Vanguard. A bulk section of the book was concerned with savings accounts and starting a retirement account, as well as the magic of compound interest- I love these subjects. These are some basic money topics to me, but I enjoy being reminded, and many people don’t understand concepts such as compound interest, which Robbins makes easy.

However, somewhere in the last third of the book, I got lost. The subject of Fixed Index Annuities came up and stayed prominent for many, many pages. Robbins was touting how great annuities are, and how the right annuity would bring you retirement income for life. I was extremely confused and started thinking “how have I not heard anything about any kind of annuity from any finance blogger or writer or podcaster ever before?” I was baffled. For years, I’ve listened to the podcasts and read a few of the blogs and books of some quite entertaining and well-known finance professionals including Suze Orman, Dave Ramsey, Farnoosh Tohlrabi, J. Money, Shannon McLay, Ramit Sethi, Paula Pant, J.D Roth, and more. I couldn’t remember any of them ever suggesting, or even bringing up, annuities.

I actually reread the entire 638 page book (it’s a break from my other favorite bedtime book, The Elegant Universe), and once again attempted to understand Robbins’ take on fixed annuities, but to no avail.

In the back of my mind, I associate annuities with scams. But Tony Robbins was so convincing in his book, even talking about how variable annuities are the actual scams, and fixed annuities are the good ones. So I thought maybe I had missed something. And, in the interest of this blog, and for my own personal pleasure (I have some weird pleasures), I looked everything up, paying special attention to my favorite finance experts and finance news sites, including Forbes and Suze Orman, to see what they had to say.

Basically, without going into the extremely complex and intense detail, my hunch was right. Unbiased (i.e non-commission-based) finance professionals almost never recommend annuities- unless they’re still somehow trying to sell you something…like an annuity. There are very rare circumstances in which SOME annuities would kind of make sense, but those circumstances generally affect people in one of two categories:

  1. If you have an extremely high income and have maxed out both your 401k and IRA and want to try putting tax deferred money elsewhere.
  2. If you are extremely, incredibly risk averse and would rather have complete peace of mind that you will have some money while alive than a good rate of return. Because the odds are against you that you’ll have more money for yourself and for your beneficiaries (spouse, kids, etc) with an annuity than with any other retirement strategies (401ks, IRAs, Roth IRAs, etc).

Otherwise, low cost index funds in IRAs, Roth IRAs, and 401ks are significantly better retirement options, with much better rates of return and way lower fees.

Again, without going into numbingly complex details, the issues with most annuities include:

  • Most people selling them stand to make a major profit off of you, and may not inform you of the other retirement options you have. So there can be quite a bit of shadiness in the annuities business because of the high commissions paid out.
  • Your money is tied up for a very long time, and you will pay major fees if you try to take it out early! These fees can range from 10% up to 20%! So even if you purchase an annuity for $50,000 and in a month you change your mind, you can’t get that money back without getting hit with a ridiculous fee. About $5000 (10%) will already have been removed from your 50k as a commission fee to whoever sold you the annuity! Plus you’ll get hit with that major fee for early withdrawal, so your $50,000 can possibly become only $38,000 in the span of only one month!
  • If you die early, your beneficiaries can get absolutely nothing! The one major benefit of most annuities is a guaranteed monthly income for life, until you die. So if you live a VERY long time, you may somewhat benefit from an annuity. But an annuity is actually a life insurance product, and the companies are banking on you dying earlier rather than later- because if you die early, in most situations, the rest of your payout is their’s to keep! And even if you find an annuity that leaves your money to your beneficiaries (which will of course be pricier to begin with), the beneficiaries will have to pay taxes on all of the interest your money made! So if your original 50K grew to 150K, your beneficiaries will have to pay taxes on the difference- that means paying taxes on the 100K difference!! That’s a huge tax bill!

So, I’m sticking with my classic retirement strategy- the Roth IRA, filled with low cost index funds from Vanguard. I write about Roth IRAs and how to set one up here.  And although I enjoy Tony Robbins’ advice and greatly respect him, I’m not planning on taking any of his advice on annuities.

If you want more information on annuities, here are some of my sources for this article:

The Motley Fool annuity advice

Suze Orman explains annuities

Time Magazine’s advice about annuities

Forbes talks in detail about annuities

Get Rich Slowly shares annuity knowledge

As always, feel free to ask me any questions. I’m just learning about this topic myself, so I’d love to hear your thoughts! Thanks!

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Some Awesome New Finance Experts I’ve Been Following

After Suze Orman ended her amazing finance show (which I always listened to as a podcast) about a year and a half ago, I realized that almost everything I knew about finance I’d learned from Suze Orman. And I didn’t know what to do without her.

I still had Dave Ramsey’s podcast, which always amused and humbled me (he sometimes speaks to really down and out (aka completely broke) people who call in…and he always has pretty sound advice, even when I don’t consistently completely agree with him (he can get very religious). However, one of his best quotes is “you can’t fix stupid,” which I absolutely agree with). Another podcast I listened to was (and is) NPR’s Planet Money– which is a great podcast about money topics- but is more an exploration of economics in our lives than a ‘money advice’ show the way Suze Orman’s was.

In the past few months I’ve discovered some cool new finance advice podcasts (as well as bloggers…many of the podcasts are from bloggers that have decided to start podcasts). Nothing replaces Suze Orman, who had a distinct voice, but a lot of these are very good. If anyone wants some good and relatable finance podcasts and blogs for complete novices, here are some awesome recommendations:

http://www.budgetsaresexy.com –  J.Money’s refreshingly honest and totally down to earth financial blog. I’ve never read a finance blog that’s as open and genuine- J. Money tracks every dollars he has and he will give you exact numbers including his net worth, his retirement savings, his mortgage paid, and much more. He writes articles with titles like ‘What I’d Like to Teach My Dumb-Ass Tenants About Money.’ This blog is fantastic for anyone who doesn’t come from a finance background and just wants to understand all the basics a more, from someone who’s ‘just like you.’

http://affordanything.com/  – The Afford Anything podcast (which used to be called the Money Podcast) got me turned on to budgetsaresexy.com because J.Money (of budgetsaresexy) used to be the co-podcaster. However, he has since left the podcast, and his co-podcaster Paula Pant has renamed the show after her website: affordanything.com. Both the podcast and the website are really inspiring and useful – Paula Pant is in her early thirties and is completely financially independent and never really has to work again. She still works, though, and explains why in both her podcast and on the blog. Listen to the podcast from the beginning to listen to her and J.Money co-host together. They’re a great pair. Paula talks a lot about real estate and has made her fortune from it, so if that interests you, this is an extra good one (but it’s a good podcast even if you’re not into real estate- I’m not.)

Optimal Finance Daily – This is a cool podcast because each episode is a part of a different well known finance blogger’s blog- read aloud by the podcaster Dan Warren. It’s a great way to get familiar with lots of different finance bloggers – plus each episode is only around 8 minutes- so super easy to listen to!

So Money with Farnoosh Torabi – Farnoosh’s podcast is superbly edited and makes the listener feel taken care of (the way Suze Orman’s show always was). Farnoosh’s podcast is great to listen to because she’s a money expert interviewing other money experts! Super clear financial advice, and a very inspiring show as well.

Hope you enjoy some of these. As always, let me know what you think!

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The Connection Between Scary Movies and Credit Cards

Let me just start by saying that I actually really like credit cards and that they don’t scare me. But horror movies do- and even scary, or semi-scary, TV shows can keep me up at night. Hell, just a trailer for a scary movie makes me immediately plug my ears and avert my eyes.

People may laugh at me when I scream in fear during the first episode of Stranger Things, or The Walking Dead, and turn away from the shows for good, deciding to probably never watch them again. But I know myself. I know how scary movies and books and TV shows might seem fun to me at first but can give me terrible nightmares, especially when I’m alone at an old hotel in the middle of Oklahoma City.

And since I know myself, I also know that I’m as good with money as I am bad with horror films. I was that kid who would look for money hidden in the coin returns at arcades and collect it, as opposed to using the coins to actually play the games. I know that credit cards will never tempt me into spending more than I have because I’m just a cautious type of person.

 

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Yikes!

However this isn’t true for lots of people- and if you’re one of them, don’t be ashamed. Be glad that you know yourself. The amazing finance blogger J. Money, on his fantastic blog Budgets Are Sexy (I only very recently discovered this extremely relatable and super fun-to-read blog, and I highly recommend it), writes about how he was solicited by TD Bank to create a credit card article targeted to millennials. Instead he describes how millennials are actually doing great things for themselves by avoiding getting into credit card debt. The reason TD Bank, and many other banks, are especially targeting millennials for credit cards is because millennials have been shying away from the cards due to worries about ending up in debt. According to the Budgets are Sexy article, almost half of all millenials- 44% – aren’t using credit cards at all. After all, many millennials-including myself- grew up and/or spent their early twenties during the recession of 2008 and are already saddled with insanely high student loan debt and a degree of worry about incurring any more bills.

TD Bank was trying to get Budgets Are Sexy to write about the benefits of credit cards and how millennials should establish credit so that they could borrow money later to acquire a car or a house. Yet J. Money, although he likes credit cards for their various perks and benefits, thinks that avoiding debt is way more important than your credit score. And I completely agree. Although I love credit cards personally because they’ve enabled me to take many a free flight somewhere, and to pass the credit check to rent my apartment, I disagree with telling millennials they should establish credit in order to take on lots of debt down the line… especially when millenials are already worried they’ll take advantage of “free money” credit cards and take on debt from unnecessary things!

I think it’s important to know yourself, and if you know you can’t handle the temptation of credit cards, stay away from them! I’ve cut scary movies out of my life because I know I can’t handle them, and I’ll never look back!

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This creepy image scares me a lot. It’s actually from a protest against credit card debt, that I found in a How Stuff Works article

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