In its latest update, Fidelity recently estimated that the average 65-year-old couple will need a whopping $280,000 just to cover their health care costs in retirement, between Medicare Part B and Part D premiums, and additional out-of-pocket costs (or the Medigap supplemental insurance plan to mitigate them). Not including the potential cost of long-term care needs as well. As a result, one recent study of prospective retirees found that more Baby Boomers are actually less afraid of running out of money in retirement than they are specifically fearful of handling health care costs in retirement.
Yet the reality is that health care costs in retirement aren’t needed as a “lump sum” on the day of retirement, and the Medicare system actually makes health care costs a remarkably stable annual cost that can be planned for. And in fact, looking at health care expense in retirement as a lump sum masks a number of more direct and substantive planning issues, from the fact that unhealthy retirees may face fewer years of costs but much higher annual costs, to the challenges (and additional costs) of navigating health insurance as an early retiree via state health insurance exchanges.
Accordingly, a recent joint study by Vanguard and Mercer Health and Benefits analyzed the typical (and potentially unexpected) costs of health care in retirement, and showed that the ‘scary’ lump sum cost of retiree health care is actually little more than spending a few hundred dollars per month, per person… for the better part of 2-3 decades in retirement, with the average female spending just $5,200/year throughout her retired years including all health care-related costs (albeit excluding long-term care needs).
Of course, individual health care costs may still vary… but it turns out they vary in rather predictable and plannable ways, from the increase in health care costs for those entering retirement with one or several chronic health conditions, to those who must plan for the additional costs of health insurance via state marketplaces for early retirement, and the additional layer of costs for high-income individuals due to the Medicare income-related surcharges.
Which means in the end, while health care costs may cumulatively add up to a lot over a multi-decade time horizon, they do so in ways that can be largely planned for in advance, saved for with both retirement savings itself or using Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) as a supplemental retirement savings vehicle, managed by making good Medicare enrollment choices, and adjusted for (typically-known-by-retirement) chronic health conditions. Or simply funded by Social Security payments, which for a married 65-year-old couple earning merely “average” benefits, amounts to a lump sum equivalent of more than $600,000 anyway (for those who prefer to convert ongoing retirement cash flows to lump sum equivalents)!