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Money Advice for Retirees on Fixed Incomes When Inflation Is Soaring

What three financial advisers suggest and how the U.S. government could help low- and moderate-income retired Americans

By Kerry Hannon

Inflation rocketed by 6.2% in the 12 months through October 2021, the fastest pace since 1990, and retirees on fixed incomes are feeling the painful pinch. They're seeing prices soaring for everything from rent to gasoline to Medicare prescription drug premiums, and low rates on bank savings accounts aren't helping.

A woman standing in front of a city skyline smiling. Next Avenue, inflation, fixed income retirees
Financial planner Marguerita Cheng recommends a 'liquidity basket' in high-inflation times  |  Credit: Courtesy of Marguerita Cheng

The nonpartisan Senior Citizens League received more than 200 emails recently "with many retired and disabled senders describing the dire situations they face as rapidly rising inflation makes it impossible to pay the bills," the group said in a statement.

"This is a tough time to be on a fixed income."

"This is a tough time to be on a fixed income," said Lisa A.K. Kirchenbauer, a Certified Financial Planner and founder of Omega Wealth Management in Arlington, Va.

But Kirchenbauer and two other financial advisers I interviewed have a few useful ideas for low- and moderate-income retirees during this time of spiking inflation. I'll share them below, along with some tips of my own.

The Grim Inflation Outlook Ahead

Sadly, the outlook is getting grimmer for prices to settle back down anytime soon.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development now expects inflation in the U.S. to average 4.4% in 2022. And an Allianz Life survey found that 78% of Americans expect inflation to get worse over the next year; 70% worry inflation will keep them from affording the lifestyle they want in retirement.

This winter, the U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts, U.S. households will spend 54% more for propane, 43% more for heating oil, 30% more for natural gas and 6% more for electric heating.

Gasoline is already up by more than 50% from a year ago; the Zillow Observed Rent Index rose a record 14.3% year-over-year in October and Medicare prescription drug premiums will increase almost 5% next year, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Yes, Social Security will offer a 5.9% cost of living adjustment (COLA) increase in 2022; the highest in 40 years. The 2022 COLA will increase an average monthly retirement benefit of $1,565 to roughly $1,657. "This would be the highest COLA that most beneficiaries living today have ever seen," said Mary Johnson, Social Security and Medicare policy analyst for The Senior Citizens League.

Inflation Forecast for 2022

A line chart showing the past, current and predicted rates of inflation in the U.S. Next Avenue, fixed income, inflation, retirees
Credit: OECD

But there will also be a 14.5% increase in Medicare Part B premiums for 2022, which will push the standard monthly premium from $148.50 this year to $170.10. (Medicare Part B covers doctors' appointments, outpatient hospital services and some medical services not covered by Medicare Part A.)

To assist retirees on fixed incomes grappling with higher expenses, the Senior Citizens League is urging Congress and the Biden administration to issue $1,400 stimulus checks to Social Security recipients.

Kirchenbauer's view: "I think a fourteen-hundred-dollar stimulus check is a great idea, but that's only going to go so far. My guess is that we will be dealing with higher prices for at least a year. So, lawmakers need to be thinking about what other support they can give to seniors in terms of tax breaks and stimulus, as we are doing for families with children."

Zaneilia Harris, a Certified Financial Planner and president of Harris Wealth Management Group in Upper Marlboro, Md., told me: "I think the true strength of a nation is how it helps those less fortunate, the young, and its non-wealthy retired population."

But how can retirees on fixed incomes weather inflation right now?

Advice From 3 Money Pros

Here's what Harris, Kirchenbauer and Marguerita M. Cheng, a Certified Financial Planner and CEO at Blue Ocean Global Wealth, in Gathersburg, Md., suggest, followed by my recommendations:


Zaneilia Harris:

"It really comes to evaluating your household expenses and the necessities. Use portable heaters in the main rooms to reduce using natural gas; heat only the rooms that you occupy during the day.  Also, use [credit card] points toward reducing the price at the pump.  

"Seek help from local nonprofits or churches. In my hometown, a local church has a pantry that offers free food weekly; my aunts help with setting up the pantry and say people in the town can be too proud to access the food. Sometimes pride has to be set aside to receive assistance." 

"Use the AARP card to get discounts on items and services as much as possible, whether that's cell phones and cell phone plans or home- and car insurance coverage." 

Lisa A.K. Kirchenbauer:

"This year, it's especially important to reassess your medication costs through your Medicare Part D coverage. It's also important to look carefully at your monthly expenses to see where you can cut costs. Call your utility, cable and wireless providers to see if you can get a better deal.

"Look into local programs in your city or county that might be able to help senior residents with support and services."

"Make sure that you have money for the here and now and the liquidity access to pay your bills."

Marguerita M. Cheng:

"The first thing is do your budget. Look at how much you have coming in and your predictable expenses. You will need a liquidity basket to pay those regular bills. That will be a mix of cash and maybe funds held in an online savings account, money market account or shorter-term CDs, if that's appropriate.

"Make sure that you have money for the here and now and the liquidity access to pay your bills.

"One of the best ways which we can combat inflation is with stocks or stock mutual funds. The stock market's average annual gain outpaces inflation over the long run, but you don't want to put all your money there. The amount of money you should have in stocks, bonds and cash is a function of your time horizon, your risk tolerance and your cash flow need for expenses.

"For many people, the easiest way to stay invested is through a target-date fund. You can pick a fund with a year, such as 2027, in its name. The fund manager then divides up investor's cash among stocks and bonds, shifting that allocation to a more conservative mix as the target date approaches or soon after."

My Advice to You

Now for my advice:

If you're between 62 and 70 and haven't started taking your Social Security benefit, wait if you can. Social Security's rules essentially give you an 8% bigger benefit for each year you postpone claiming benefits after your Full Retirement Age (currently 66 to 67), until age 70. Put another way, if you're now 66 and wait until 70 to start claiming, you'll see 32% larger benefits than if you filed at your Full Retirement Age.

Consider investing in Treasury inflation-protected securities (TIPS) or U.S. savings bonds known as I bonds. TIPS are government-backed bonds specially designed to protect you from inflation because their return is tied to the Consumer Price Index. They pay interest every six months, and the interest is exempt from state and local taxes. You can buy TIPS with no fee from the U.S. Treasury in increments of $100. Alternatively, you can buy a mutual fund that purchases TIPS for its investors.

As Next Avenue explained in "How to Earn More Money on Your Savings Safely: I Bonds," the government offers savings bonds whose interest rate is tied to the inflation rate. That's why they're currently paying 7.2%. You can buy them in denominations of $25, $50, $100, $250, $500 and $1,000.

If possible, work with a fee-only financial adviser who is also a fiduciary — a money pro required to put your interests first. This kind of an adviser will take a holistic approach to your financial life and that can be extremely helpful in times like this.

Photogtaph of Kerry Hannon
Kerry Hannon is the author of Great Pajama Jobs: Your Complete Guide to Working From Home. She has covered personal finance, retirement and careers for The New York Times, Forbes, Money, U.S. News & World Report and USA Today, among others. She is the author of more than a dozen books including Never Too Old to Get Rich: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Starting a Business Mid-Life, Money Confidence: Really Smart Financial Moves for Newly Single Women and What's Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties and Beyond. Her website is Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon. Read More
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