Working in government for New York State, I am fortunate to have very good benefits. One of the benefits is having a pension plan (defined benefit plan). All of my co-workers talk about their retirement date in terms of how old they are and how many years they have in the “system.” It has nothing to do with how much they’ve saved and many save very little if anything for retirement. They are solely relying on the pension program. Some don’t retire even when they have enough time in the “system” and are old enough, because they live above their means and cannot live on anything less than their current income.
Many who don’t have pensions are understandably envious of those who do have it. I am very fortunate to have one and I don’t want to seem like I’m complaining about this wonderful benefit, but there are a few downsides of the pension for me.
With a 401k plan, the money is often portable. You save money in it. Your employer makes matching contributions. It might take a year or a few years to vest, but the money your employer contributes is yours to keep. The gold plated pension of older employees has been watered down for younger employees. For new employees, the pension plan doesn’t vest until you’ve worked for the employer for 10 years. So if you leave before then, you get no pension. They’ve also increased the retirement age from 55 years old to 62 years old. I don’t like someone else deciding when I can or cannot retire. I’d rather make that determination based on how much I’ve saved and how much I will need, not some arbitrary thing like how many years I’ve got in the system.
Another issue with pensions is that if the company goes bankrupt, it’s very likely retirees will lose the pension or get a amount that is a lot less than they were expecting. I work in government which has a slightly lower chance of bankruptcy, though you can never discount it. Some states’ pensions are in better shape than others. If you work for the State of Illinois, well then, I think you might want to worry a little more. Currently, the state constitution in New York explicitly protects pension payments. However, that doesn’t mean there will never be an amendment to the state constitution.
Having that pension also makes it hard to pull the trigger on other job opportunities currently. I can’t say that I’ve really been wowed by another job which tempted me to leave or that I’m actively looking. However, when I’ve checked out prospective jobs elsewhere, a part of me does think, “if I leave, I won’t get that pension!”
As someone aspiring to become financially independent and possibly retire early at age 45 , the pension makes the decision to leave a lot harder. So what will my pension pay? If I stay until I am 55 years old, after having worked 30 years, I will get a pension which pays a yearly benefit of about 60% of your highest three-year average salary. Let’s say my highest three-year average salary is $100,000, I will get a yearly benefit of about $60,000. Yea, I know I know…I am very lucky to have this pension. However, if I decide to FIRE at age 45 with 20 years of service and let’s just assume the same three-year average salary of $100,000, the pension would only pay $29,200 based on the online calculator. Note: I would have to wait until age 55 to collect the pension. If I decided to leave at age 50 with 25 years of service, based on the same salary, I would collect $36,500. If I waited until age 54 with 29 years of service, I would get $42,300. Obviously, if I stayed until 54, I would just go one more year to get the full amount! Yes, having a pension is a wonderful benefit, but it can also be a handcuff, albeit a golden one.
Is there a golden handcuff holding you back from leaving your job? Do you have a pension and would you take the penalty to retire early?