By Sheryl Smolkin
A recently retired actuary I once met at a conference told me that retirees worry primarily about their health and their money. Even retirement savings that seemed perfectly adequate when you hand in your office keycard for the last time seem to be eroded by the unrelenting drip, drip of inflation.
That’s why the lucky few who have indexed or partially indexed defined benefit pensions (most common in the public sector) are the subject of “pension envy” by the 80%-85% Canadians who do not have access to any form of workplace pension.
But according to a new C.D. Howe research paper by actuary Fred Vettese, retirees actually spend less on personal consumption as they age. He says, “This decline in real spending, which typically starts at about age 70 and accelerates at later ages, cannot be attributed to insufficient financial resources because older retirees save a high percentage of their income and, in fact, save more than people who are still working.”
Vettese cites evidence showing that compared to a household where the head is age 54, the average Canadian household headed by a 77-year-old spends 40% less. None of this drop in spending is attributable to the elimination of mortgage payments because they are not considered consumption. Much of the fall in spending at older ages was traced to reduced spending on non-essential items such as eating out, recreation and holidays.
The author focuses on public sector pension plans, which are fully indexed to inflation. His findings show that these plans could move to partial indexation, generating significant savings. “Given that more than 3.1 million active members are contributing to public-sector pension plans, the total annual savings could add up to billions of dollars, he says.” At the individual level, he suggests these savings would allow public-sector employees to increase current consumption or to reduce debt.
Given this phenomenon, cost-of-living indexation of workplace pension benefits could be reduced without sacrificing consumption later in life, Vettese concludes. He also notes that, “Reduced pension contributions would free up money to be spent today when families struggle to raise children and pay down mortgages on houses, thereby raising plan members’ collective economic welfare over their lifetimes.”
The average resulting reduction in required total employer/employee contributions to public-sector plans is of the order of $2,000 a year per active member. There are over three million active members in Canada’s public-sector DB pension plans, most of which provide full inflation protection or strive to do so to the extent that funding is available.
Nevertheless, Vettese says Pillar 1 (OAS/GIS) and 2 (CPP) pensions should not be subject to any reduction in benefits or contributions because these plans are generally designed to cover basic necessities, such as food and shelter. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, he believes it is reasonable to assume that spending on such necessities does not decline very much, if at all.
I have heard the three phases of retirement described as “go-go”, “slow-go” and “no-go.” My mother at 88 no longer drives a car and can’t to get out to shop very often anymore, so I am prepared to concede that many of her expenses have been reduced. However, her memory isn’t what it used to be and she has had several bad falls, so paying for 24-hour care in her own condo is a huge drain on her assets. Also taxis to multiple doctor’s appointments and medical supplies are expensive.
While Vettese suggests partially eliminated or reducing inflation-protection for indexed pension plans could allow public-sector employees to enhance current consumption and reduce debt, I’m not sure that’s necessarily a laudable or desirable objective. Mom saved and scrimped all her life and because my Dad was a disabled WW2 veteran she gets a tax-free, indexed pension for life. She also collects CPP and OAS.
I’m glad she has the additional disposable income so she can stay in her own apartment with the necessary support system as long as possible. Even though older retirees may no longer go on extended vacations or eat in fancy restaurants, they still have other equally compelling expenses in order to live out their remaining days in dignity and comfort.
Now if we could only figure out a way to help raise the bar for all seniors to be able to afford the same well-earned privilege.