Is an annuity right for you?

Grandpa’s fixed pension, that sweet and steady stream of income that started on the day he retired, is nearing extinction. Most Americans today will retire not on company checks, but on personal savings and Social Security. With interest rates low, the stock market jumpy and Congress pinching pennies, it is no surprise that 87 percent of Americans, according to one recent survey, worry about running out of money. 

That concern explains the popularity of annuities—financial products designed to generate steady cash flow, sort of like Grandpa enjoyed. But today’s annuities are different from yesterday’s pensions, says Christopher Jones, CFP, president of Las Vegas-based Sparrow Wealth Management. “Commercial annuities can certainly help some meet their retirement income needs, but these products can also be very expensive and complicated,” he said. “They certainly are not for everyone, and choosing the right one is crucial.”

Whether an annuity is right for you, and if so, what kind of annuity, can in itself be a complicated matter. Here are few guidelines to help you decide:

You are probably a good candidate for an annuity if you’ve determined that to pay your basic expenses in retirement—food, shelter—you’re going to need more money than you’ll get from Social Security, and more than you can take comfortably from savings. Say you crunched the numbers and calculated that you’ll need to tap $1,000 every month from personal savings, but that’s a bit more than your savings can handle.

“To ensure that your basic needs are covered, the annuity may be a good option,” Jones said. When you fork your money over to an annuity company, you guarantee yourself a steady cash flow. Bonds can do that, too. But you’ll get more cash from the annuity. That’s in part because of something called the ‘mortality premium,’ which is a polite way of saying that annuity providers will pay you more today because when you die, they, not your heirs, will grab your principal. The mortality premium gets larger for every candle on your birthday cake. The very best candidates for an annuity are 65 and older, and have expectations of living a long life. 

You are probably a bad candidate for an annuity if you have a good-size nest egg, are in little danger of running out of money and can stomach a bit of market risk.

“The return you’ll get on a diversified portfolio will very likely be much greater than what you’ll get on an annuity,” Jones said.

In addition, your heirs, not the annuity company, will get your money when you pass. The very worst candidates for an annuity are those who have lots of money, but suffer from health conditions that may lead to an early death. 

What kind of annuity to choose?

The fixed-income annuity is, by annuity standards, a fairly simple contract. You fork over a certain sum to an annuity company, and the company then agrees to give you X dollars a month for the rest of your life. For a guaranteed $1,000 a month, a fixed annuity today would cost a 65-year-old man roughly $165,000 (about $175,000 for a woman, because women usually live longer). You may choose to purchase various perks, such as a “joint-and-survivor” benefit, which allows your spouse to continue collecting if you die. Those perks reduce the cash flow.

The other kind of annuity is called a variable annuity. The variable annuity, unlike the fixed annuity, ties your cash payments to some underlying investments. It promises you both security and performance. But Jones warns that variable annuities, often pushed by aggressive salespeople, can be incredibly complex and expensive, and often don’t deliver as they promise. If you are considering a variable annuity, use “non-qualified,” rather than “qualified” money. In other words, use money you have in your taxable account to take advantage of the tax-deferral benefits of the annuity; don’t use money from an already tax-advantaged account, such as an IRA. 

How to annuity-shop wisely

Kerry Pechter, publisher of the online newsletter Retirement Income Journal, and author of “Annuities for Dummies” (Wiley, 2008), offers the following tips for buying any annuity:

  • Buy only from a strong company
  • You may be around for another several decades; you want a company that will be around, too. Choose only companies with the very highest credit ratings. The online shopping sources in the sidebar list company ratings. You can also find them on Web sites of the providers.


  • Comparison shop
  • Immediate annuity issuers change their prices frequently, and during any given month, the best deal might shift from one carrier to another.

    If you are worried about inflation (and you should be), don’t put all of your money into an annuity. Leave enough for a side fund to invest in stocks. Or buy an annuity with inflation protection. Or both.

    Since annuities pay you based on current interest rates, and interest rates are now very low, you might want to buy into your annuities over time. Put some money into an annuity today and consider another in a few more years. 

    You can start shopping annuities by looking on the Web. If you feel a bit lost, get an unbiased expert to help. Consider a fee-only financial planner. You can find one at

    Russell Wild, MBA, is a NAPFA-registered financial advisor who has written nearly two dozen books on finance, including “Index Investing for Dummies.”