The Sunday Times
Goh Eng Yeow
Many of my friends in their 50s are facing a major concern - whether they have saved enough to last them through retirement.
For my parents' generation, the norm for a married couple was to raise a large family which would, in turn, look after them when they grow old. But times have changed, and many of us either have small families or stay single so we have to be financially secure to ensure our money does not run out.
But getting to our objective of financial wellness needs a careful strategy.
The cornerstone of any retirement planning should start with the savings we are accumulating in our Central Provident Fund (CPF) accounts. That at least ensures that we can still pay our monthly grocery and electricity bills when we are old and not working, if we have already paid for the roof over our heads.
Then how comfortable we want to make our retirement will depend on the other aspects of our financial planning such as squirrelling money away into a Supplementary Retirement Scheme (SRS) account or even buying a house for investment in the hope that property prices will keep going up.
Take a Singaporean who reaches 55. As a CPF member, he must set aside a Minimum Sum in his Retirement account from money in his CPF Ordinary and Special accounts. From next month, the Minimum Sum will be $155,000. Currently, about half of them meet this requirement.
Once he reaches 65, he will get a fixed monthly payout for about 20 years from the savings set aside in his CPF Retirement account. Between 55 and 65, the money in his Retirement account will enjoy an interest rate of up to 5 per cent per annum - which is far higher than what the banks are offering for fixed deposits.
But what happens if our Singaporean lives past 85 and the money runs out? It is not a hypothetical question as people are living longer. My parents are in their 80s and I have a 104-year-old aunt in Hong Kong.
Since last year, it has been compulsory for Singaporeans and permanent residents who turn 55 to be part of the CPF Lifelong Income for the Elderly (Life). Yet most of them are ignorant about its details. CPF Life offers two plans - Standard and Basic.
The Standard plan is essentially a traditional annuity scheme. People taking up this option will use the entire sum in their Retirement accounts to buy the annuity. They will get a monthly payout for the rest of their lives once they reach 65.
Wage-earners may like to opt for this plan since they are used to getting their salaries credited into their bank accounts every month. This ensures that when they retire and hit 65, the salaries they are used to getting will be partly replaced by the monthly CPF Life payout.
Calculations from the CPF Life Payout estimator show that a male Singaporean who turns 55 from next month and has the CPF Minimum Sum of $155,000 will get a monthly payout ranging between $1,200 and $1,350 if he opts for the Standard plan. For a woman, the monthly payout will roughly vary from $1,100 to $1,250 as she is expected to live longer.
Indeed, the norm for most of the 400,000 people who retire in Britain every year is to buy an annuity similar to CPF Life Standard.
One merit about CPF Life is that it is run by the Government. That removes the big worry of retirees as to whether their insurer is financially strong enough to withstand the next global financial crisis in order to keep making the monthly payouts.
But buying an annuity is a relatively new concept here and there are people who gripe about why they should have to buy one when it takes Herculean efforts to live past the age of 85.
One issue raised by a friend is the possibility of "mortality cross subsidy", whereby those unfortunate enough to die early effectively subsidise those who live longer than the average.
My reply is that the purpose of buying an annuity is to achieve some income certainty when we are old. Trusting our investments entirely to achieve that goal is too much like relying on the roll of the dice, given the regularity with which financial crises have been occurring.
Still, I am glad that CPF Life has another choice - the Basic plan - which gives a lower monthly payout and a higher bequest. Essentially, it works like a deferred annuity - an insurance product that is very popular in the United States.
Under this plan, a CPF member will have premiums deducted from his Retirement account to pay for the deferred annuity whose payouts will only start when he reaches 90. After he turns 65, what he gets is a monthly payout from his CPF Retirement account.
In essence, the CPF Life Basic works like an insurance plan for those with longevity concerns but who may have other sources of income. If he lives past 90, he will get a payout - and he does not have to worry about subsidising people who live longer than the average.
I believe that the Basic plan will appeal to the financially literate and to the self-employed who may not have much CPF savings.
That, in a nutshell, sums up CPF Life: The Stan-dard plan offers an annuity scheme similar to what retirees in Britain opt for. The Basic plan is commonly adopted by US retirees. Choose wisely.
The cornerstone of any retirement planning should start with the savings we are accumulating in our CPF accounts. That at least ensures that we can still pay our monthly grocery and electricity bills when we are old and not working, if we have already paid for the roof over our heads.