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Smart Money Podcast: Sudden Retirement and Finding Lost Money

Oct. 19, 2020
Personal Finance
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Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions.

This week’s episode starts with a discussion of “sudden retirements,” or older people getting pushed out of the job market during the pandemic, and whether radical downsizing might be an option to cope.

Then we pivot to this week’s question from Denali. They write, “I got a letter stating that I had a 401(k) that was still with an employer that I worked for about 10 months over 20 years ago. I’ve tried searching in lost money sites, and tried to contact the company itself with no luck. Would you know of a way for me to locate this lost money?”

Have a money question? Text or call us at 901-730-6373. Or you can email us at [email protected]. To hear previous episodes, return to the podcast homepage.

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Our take

Finding a lost retirement account can be a little trickier than finding other unclaimed property, such as forgotten security deposits, uncashed paychecks or old bank accounts. While companies are required to turn most unclaimed assets over to the states, money in 401(k)s isn’t necessarily relinquished in the same way.

If you’ve lost track of an old 401(k) retirement account, your first step should be to contact your previous employer or the company that administered the plan. Next, check Unclaimedretirementbenefits.com, or the Labor Department’s abandoned plans database.

If that doesn’t work, or if you’re looking for other funds that might have gone astray, check out the two sites that connect you with state unclaimed property offices: Unclaimed.org and MissingMoney.com. Both are sponsored by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators’ website. Unclaimed.org links to agencies in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and other territories. MissingMoney.com lets users search multiple states at once, but not every state participates.

There are companies that comb these sites and send notices to people, hoping to collect a fee. But you don’t need to pay someone to reconnect you with your missing money if you use one of these sites.

Our tips

Contact your employer or plan administrator to find lost 401(k)s. If that doesn’t work, you can check Unclaimedretirementbenefits.com, or the Labor Department’s abandoned plans database.

Check out Unclaimed.org and Missingmoney.com. These sites connect you to a state’s unclaimed property office.

You don’t need to pay someone to find your missing money. These sites are all free.

Sean Pyles: Welcome to another episode of the NerdWallet Smart Money Podcast, where we answer your money questions. I’m Sean Pyles.

Liz Weston: And I’m Liz Weston. You know what to do: send us your money questions and we might just answer them on a future episode. Call or text us on the Nerd hotline at (901) 730-6373, that’s (901) 730-NERD. Or email us at [email protected]

Sean: And as we mentioned last week, Liz and I are working on a special episode, but we need your help to make it happen. We want to know what money lessons you’ve learned over the past year. Send us your thoughts over email, text message, voicemail, whatever. We’ve already received some really interesting responses. So please keep them coming.

Liz: Let’s get onto the episode. This week we’re talking with banking Nerd Margarette Burnette about how to find lost money. Spoiler alert: You might just have some forgotten money waiting to be claimed.

Sean: First though, in our This Week in Your Money segment, Liz and I are talking about retiring early. More Americans are dropping out of the job market and considering themselves retired. This isn’t just because of the FIRE movement — the Financial Independence Retire Early movement. It’s also driven by pandemic layoffs. So, we’re going to talk about how people can retire early the right way and what folks who might want to retire early should keep in mind. And Liz, this is the subject of one of your recent columns. So you are just the person to talk with about this. Retiring early sounds like an impossible fantasy to me. So how can people know if they are financially prepared to do so?

Liz: Well, the core question is, do you have enough guaranteed income to cover your guaranteed expenses, your fixed expenses? And so that’s going to be things like Social Security, a pension if you still have one, annuity income, something like that, and then supplemented with a certain part of your savings. The problem that a lot of people get into is if they do have some savings, they think, wow, that’s a fair amount that’s going to last a long while. What they don’t realize is they’re probably going to go through that money faster than they think. So one sort of baseline is taking 4%, no more than 4%, of your savings to live on each year. And if you can do that with your other guaranteed sources of income and cover your guaranteed expenses, you might have a shot at making this early retirement thing work.

Sean: It seems like it would also be an exercise in expert budgeting and understanding how much you might need to live off of. Because in order to understand how much you’ll need to have saved up, you need to understand, like you said, how much you’re going to be spending annually. And so that requires digging into your monthly budget, getting an understanding of the bare minimum that you’ll have to spend and maybe actually adding some cushion in there so you can have fun in your retirement. Multiplying that times 12, multiplying that times however long you think you might want to live. It just seems very speculative. So what do you think people are doing? Are they doing that the right way? Are they maybe going to end up living a much more minimalist lifestyle than they ever anticipated? What’s going on?

Liz: I think most are going about it wrong. I mean, if you look at the anecdotal evidence, it looks like a lot of people are simply winging it. They think, well, I’ll figure out some way to make this happen because that’s how they figured out the rest of their finances and somehow it came together.

Sean: Right.

Liz: I mean, it’s scary because the risk that you have when you switch from earning money to spending it down is that if you’ve got your money invested and the market goes south, then you’re pulling money out of an ever-shrinking pool. And the money you pull out doesn’t have a chance to participate in the recovery. And so there’s something called a sequence of returns risk, which basically boils down to, you hit a bear market early in your retirement, and you are sunk. You are going to run out of money much, much faster than you thought. So, not to terrify people, but it really is important to get a second pair of eyes on your plan, whatever it is.

And right now there are a lot of financial planners, because of the pandemic, that are offering free financial help. They’ll at least do an initial consultation. So you can get somebody who’s helped a lot of people through retirement, get them to take a look at your plan and see if it makes sense. So you only get one shot really at retirement. And if you mess it up, it’s pretty much impossible to recover from that. So, it really is important to have somebody else in on this. Who’s helped a lot of people go through it, who can help you make sure that your plan actually makes sense.

Sean: And to me, because this seems impossible and as a millennial, I’ve just been given a pretty hard hand financially. A lot of us have. It seems like a hybrid model of retiring might be the way to go for a lot of people. Where maybe they’re working a job that would offer them insurance, which is a big factor, a big expense when people are retired, but that way they can live the life that they want. They can go on long bike rides or pick up oil painting, whatever they may want to do in their years. But that way they’re not entirely dependent upon what they have saved up.

Liz: Yeah. The part-time job is going to be, I think, an increasingly popular way to do retirement. Just because, well, there’s a number of reasons. One is that any money you earn is taking the pressure off your portfolio, and your savings. It’s money that you don’t have to pull out of that savings. So that’s really helpful. It also keeps you engaged and in the labor market. It’s a lot easier to go — if it turns out that you’ve miscalculated — it’s a lot easier to go from a part-time job to a more full-time job, than it is to go from completely retired completely back into the job market. I mean, that latter possibility is pretty rare. It’s really hard to do that. So just keeping one foot in the labor market can be super-helpful. Even if it’s a job that doesn’t pay you as much as your old one did, or as you said, if you need the health insurance, and that’s another huge part of this.

Sean: Right.

Liz: Because people are not eligible for Medicare until age 65, at least as things stand now. So you’ve got to do something to cover that gap in the meantime. You really don’t want to go bare. This is a dangerous time to not have health insurance. And, in general, your later years are the time when you really do need health insurance. So all of those factors are part of it.

Sean: I want to talk now about ways to cut your expenses when you’re in retirement, like downsizing radically, which is something that you mentioned in your article, what are some options that people have for that?

Liz: Well, one of the things is to kick the kids off the dole. Seriously, if you’re still supporting children, which a lot of people are, or helping out the kids, you got to get the focus back on taking care of yourself. Otherwise, you are going to wind up moving in with them, and that’s what it comes down to. So that’s something to consider. If you have a house, if you are lucky enough to own a house, you probably have some equity there, and that can supplement your retirement in a number of different ways. If you are 62 or older, you could get a reverse mortgage and actually turn that equity into a monthly payment that’s tax-free. That debt is going to grow over time. So if this is a house you wanted to pass on, that’s going to interfere with those plans, but it is a way to supplement your income. Or, you can do another approach, which is, either rent out rooms or sell the house and downsize now.

If that was your plan, sometime in the future that you were thinking of selling the house and moving to something smaller, do it now, while you still have the energy to deal with all that, get that money freed up so that it’s going to be available to supplement your retirement.

Sean: Well, one really interesting thing that caught my eye in your article is that you quote a CFP who mentioned that a few of their clients discover that they can move abroad for a few years and really cut their expenses. And this to me seems like the dream route to go. As scary as it may be to do something like that in your later years, how fantastic would that be?

Liz: And hundreds of thousands of people, at the very least, are doing this, there’s I think something like half a million Social Security checks are going overseas, and that may undercount or overcount, we’re not quite sure, but a lot of retirees have their Social Security checks deposited in a U.S. bank and they access it from outside the country. So, it may sound radical if you don’t know anybody who’s doing this, but there are a lot of people doing this. And what they found is if you pick the right place, there’s going to be other ex-pats there, there’s going to be access to affordable health care, and it can be quite an adventure on top of it. So, there’s certain places that seem to attract a lot of ex-pats, U.S. ex-pats, there’s communities in Mexico that do, Mexico has terrific health care.

France is another place that has amazing health care — probably the best in the world. That tends to be a little bit more on the expensive side, but still there are places in France that aren’t that hugely expensive, and Portugal seems to be . . .

Sean: Yes, yes, yes.

Liz: Man that seems to be the rising star right now. People really love Portugal.

Sean: So it seems like the answer is go somewhere that is less expensive and doesn’t have as horrible a social safety net as the United States currently has.

Liz: Well, and that wants you to come — that’s the other thing. Some countries really put up pretty, pretty tremendous barriers and others don’t; others are very happy to welcome ex-pats. And that’s, you know, do a little research on that — International Living, and Live and Invest Overseas are two sites where you can start the process. Definitely talk to somebody who lives there. So you get the better idea and maybe rent for a while once you get there, rather than buying property right away, just to make sure it’s a good fit. And you do need to be flexible and be a little bit adventurous. This is going to be quite different from moving to Sun City or someplace like that.

Sean: Yeah. It’s probably not as relaxing a retirement as some people might envision for themselves. At least at the beginning.

Liz: On the other hand, you can live quite well in a lot of these places. There’s people I’ve talked to who, on very modest budgets, have weekly house cleaning. They have a much bigger place than they ever could have afforded in the States. So there are compensations. But yeah, it does take a bit of adventure, a bit of flexibility, a bit of willingness to do things a little differently than you’re accustomed to.

Sean: I mean, I’m pretty sold on this route already. So. . .

Liz: I know. We’ve been talking about it as well.

Sean: Where would you go?

Liz: I think France. My husband teaches overseas and there’ve been a lot of places that we’ve discovered that just, it really seems rather nice and a rather nice lifestyle. It’s [that] neither one of us is huge at languages. My husband’s probably worse than I am. So we’d probably want to find a place where we could at least get some help in navigating the local bureaucracy.

Sean: Is there anything else that folks who are retired early, either willingly or otherwise, should keep in mind about how they should be financially sound for the coming years, decades, whatever they may have?

Liz: I just come back to the idea that even if you are a lifelong do-it-yourselfer, you really do need to consult someone else. You’ve never done this before. There’s lots of mistakes you can make. The consequences can be irreversible. So, just invest a little time and perhaps a little money in getting that second opinion.

Sean: Well, with that, I think we can move on to this week’s money question.

Liz: This week’s money question comes from Denali. They write, “Wondering if you could help me find something. Couple years ago, I got a letter stating that I had a 401(k) that was still with an employer that I worked for about 10 months over 20 years ago. I’ve tried searching in lost money sites, and tried to contact the company itself with no luck. Would you know of a way for me to locate this lost money?"

Sean: Hmmm. Denali, that is a really interesting question. And it sounds like a treasure hunt. It’s like “The Smart Money Podcast and the Search for the Two-Decade-Old Missing Retirement Account." I do not know where to start with that, but fortunately, to help answer Denali’s question on this episode of the pod, we’re talking with Margarette Burnette, a Nerd who actually recently wrote about how to find lost money.

Liz: All right, let’s do this.

Sean: Hey Margarette, welcome to the show.

Margarette Burnette: Hey Sean. Hey Liz. Thank you for having me.

Liz: Hey, it’s our pleasure. So how can someone retrieve a long-gone 401(k) account? We have a reader who’s lost track. And they said that they had worked for company for only 10 months, 20 years ago. And now they’re trying to find the 401(k). So what would you suggest they do?

Margarette: The treasure hunt.

Liz: Yes.

Margarette: It looks like Denali did the right first step in trying to contact the company. But if that didn’t work, the next step I would take is to try to locate the bank, the administrator of the retirement plan, maybe a Fidelity or another financial institution, the administrator of the retirement plan. Maybe they might be able to help shed some light.

Liz: OK.

Sean: Mm-hmm.

Margarette: And if that doesn’t work, then there are some websites that are out there that round up abandoned 401(k) or abandoned retirement accounts. The first one I would suggest is with the Department of Labor, they have an abandoned plans website, and also there is a national registry of unclaimed retirement benefits.

Liz: Oh, good. OK. So there’s a couple places to look after you’ve exhausted the usual, contacting the employer and trying to remember who the administrator was. Which, I got to say, if it’s been 20 years, that’s probably a distant memory, but we will have links to those two sites in our show notes. So that if you are in this situation, you can track down your money. And just as a public service announcement, this is the reason why you want to keep track of those old 401(k) accounts. I like to put them in my current employer’s account or roll them over into an IRA, whatever you need to do to keep track of them because they can be hard to track down.

Margarette: Yes.

Sean: I did have one question about these, and Liz, you might be able to answer it. So I’m wondering if this money is still compounding in the way that a typical retirement account would be, or is something happening because it’s so far gone that it maybe isn’t working as hard as it should.

Liz: Oh, that’s a good question. I have no idea. Margarette, do you?

Margarette: I don’t. I can say that from the general accounts, obviously, if they’re turned over to the state that there wouldn’t be the same interest rate or that same type of contract. From a 401(k) account, if it’s still held with the administrator under the same plan, I would think that it would.

Liz: Yeah.

Margarette: I know the escheatment rules are different, but if they’ve somehow been turned over to some entity, I just don’t see how it would earn the same.

Liz: OK. So on top of the risk of losing track of it for 20 years, it could have just been sitting in cash all that time.

Sean: Right. Or the flip side is that Denali might really have some treasure waiting for them, whenever they find this money.

Liz: Let’s hope for that.

Sean: Yeah, truly. All right. So it seems like those are some pretty good resources for people to find lost retirement accounts, but I want to touch on something else that Denali mentioned, which was those lost money websites, which, Margarette, is what you recently wrote about. So can you give us a rundown of what these sites are and how you can find this “lost money"?

Margarette: Yes, absolutely. So outside of 401(k) accounts, there are obviously many other types of bank accounts, there are checking accounts, there are savings accounts. And then, in general, there may be money that you might’ve paid for a security deposit, or something where some kind of funds are owed to you, but maybe you forgot about them. Or maybe whoever the entity was that owed you the money just did not know how to contact you. So that’s where a lot of the missing money usually comes up when you see them on these sites. And one that I recommend is Unclaimed.org. It is a site that’s from the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators. So, usually each state has some type of department where they collect this money from old accounts. Obviously the companies that held them can’t hold them forever. And so they are required to send them to whatever their state entity is. It may be the state’s Treasury Department. But these property administrators then put information about this unclaimed property on a website.

You can go to Unclaimed.org and look at all 50 states. There are even some territories. And then a couple of other countries outside of the United States, where this information is there. You select your state and you can put in your name, you could put in perhaps your last name, and maybe the first initial of your first name and just see if there is a match. The match may be by last known address. And it might even say what the business was that held your money. Perhaps it was an old bank of yours where you had a savings account that was maybe somehow closed and then forgotten about, but still had some funds in there.

Or there was funds from a security deposit, from an old apartment complex that maybe you lived in years ago. And, when it came time to return your security deposit to you, perhaps your old landlord did not know how to reach you. So, they sent the money to the state and that money made its way into the Unclaimed Property Administrators database.

Liz: OK, now true confessions time. Did you find any money there?

Margarette: I have found money there in the past. So, yes. So it’s definitely easy. I lived in another state from where I live now and I was in college, and I worked at a restaurant and right when I graduated, I moved out of state and apparently forgot to get my last paycheck.

Liz: Which sounds like something you do in your 20s. Absolutely.

Margarette: Exactly. Yes. And . . .

Liz: How much was it?

Margarette: It was, if I recall correctly, it was about $80.

Liz: Woo hoo.

Sean: Hey, that’s something.

Margarette: Yes.

Sean: I have to say. I went on to one of those sites before this call because I’ve lived in four different states over the past 10 years and I figured something could have slipped through the cracks. And sure enough, I found money. I found a whopping $5.35 from an overpayment on a credit card. So I am going to claim that, but in doing the search through the four different states I’ve lived in, I found money for a family member too, from exactly, one of the things you mentioned, Margarette, was a security deposit for an old apartment. So I emailed them and said, “Hey, you have some money just waiting for you. Here’s how you can get it." And we were surprised even talking about this at NerdWallet, how many people do have money hanging out in these weird databases.

Margarette: Yes. And Sean, you bring up a good point. I know you said you were in four different states, so perhaps you looked in four different places on this website. The same association also operates a site called Missingmoney.com and you can combine your search. So you could just do one search and look up several states together. So it makes it a little bit . . .

Sean: OK.

Margarette: Yes, it makes it a little bit easier, but I will say not every single state in the United States participates on that website for whatever reason. So it’s always good to come back to Unclaimed.org just to see if there’s something out there that maybe you didn’t see on Missing Money.

Sean: Yeah. And right at the top of the website for the National Association for Unclaimed Property Administrators, they say that one in 10 people have unclaimed money, which seems like a lot of people, if you think about it.

Margarette: Yes, it definitely is. And usually if you are looking on there, you may find somebody that you know. This information is free. So you can put in your name, you can put in the names of friends or relatives. And, I’ve got to say, when I’ve searched, I’ve usually found someone that I know who has money that’s owed to them.

Liz: Now, life insurance is kind of a special situation. I know that it can be turned over to the states if they know that somebody has died, but there has been an issue with the insurance companies just hanging onto the money. So people who think that they may be owed life insurance, a loved one died and they think they might be the beneficiary, it really helps to know which life insurance company. And especially if you have the policy number, that can really help you track that down. And again, this can be a substantial amount. So it might be worth checking into.

Margarette: Yes, absolutely. You could start by sites like Missing Money, Unclaimed.org. But if you really believe that there is a policy out there, then it may be worth to hire an attorney or someone who’s familiar with tracking down some of these more complicated types of accounts.

Liz: Yeah. We were kind of lucky. We came across, after my father died, we came across a policy from the 1930s. That his father had bought him and of course there’s been mergers, acquisitions . . . I thought, oh, this is going to be a nightmare. But I found out what the company was called now. I mean, with a Google search, you can figure out the trail. I called them up. I gave them the policy number and I swear, three minutes later, they came back and said, “Yes, we’ve got your money." So, it was extraordinary. Now the bad news was if he had had that money to invest, rather than put it in life insurance, it would’ve been worth a whole lot more, but computer systems are amazing. They can track it down eventually if you have enough information.

Margarette: That’s a great story. Yes.

Liz: So what’s the average of what people claim? What can you get from these sites?

Margarette: Well, I don’t have a figure on the average amount that each person has, but I can tell you that states returned more than $3 billion to their rightful owners each year.

Liz: OK. So it’s a chunk of change.

Margarette: Yes, it is.

Sean: That brings me to another question I had, which was any potential risk for fraud around trying to get your lost money, or how possible it could be for someone to claim your lost money?

Margarette: Well, the states do a pretty good job of verifying ID. You’re asked for a couple of different forms of ID. If it was money from a previous address, you may be asked to provide proof that you lived at that address such as an old utility bill. So, I believe in that sense that it’s very secure. You’re going to a state site, that’s held by the state where you had the funds. So it’s not kind of a fly-by-night type of website or shady-looking web page. So that should be good. What I would recommend to look out for are companies that might want to charge you to do the same thing that we’re just talking about. Look online. Yes, look online, see if there’s money that’s owed to you because of the fact that anyone can kind of look and see. If someone contacts you and says, “Hey, I can find this lost money for you, but pay me," I would step back and check out one of these websites first, which are for free. And you could look and you can claim it on your own. I’m not saying that that’s a fraud, another company, if they want to charge you for that, I’m not saying that it’s necessarily fraud. But for them to claim the money, they’re going to have to have the same proof of ID and documentation that only you could provide anyway. So you might as well just provide it directly to the Unclaimed Property Administrator than to a third party. I guess the bottom line is make sure that you’re tracking it down. Don’t be afraid to ask a couple of questions or dig in. And like you said, it really doesn’t take long. Once you find the right entity that has the account.

Sean: And it’s your money. So you might as well claim it and then put it to work in something like a high-yield savings account or a CD.

Liz: Yes. Or put it in the stock market. Woo-hoo.

Sean: Yeah.

Margarette: Absolutely.

Sean: Anywhere you can put it, it pretty much is doing more work than sitting in one of these online databases.

Margarette: Yes.

Sean: So. All right. Well, Margarette, thank you so much for talking with us. I really appreciate your insights.

Margarette: Thank you both, Sean and Liz. Thank you both for having me.

Liz: And with that, let’s get to our takeaway tips. First start your 401(k) search by contacting your employer or the plan administrator. If that doesn’t work, you can check Unclaimedretirementbenefits.com, or the Labor Department’s Abandoned Plans.

Sean: Next step, check out Unclaimed.org and Missingmoney.com to see if you have any missing money out there.

Liz: Finally, you don’t need to pay someone to find your missing money. These sites are free. And that’s all we have for this episode. Do you have a money question of your own? Turn to the Nerds, and call or text us your questions at (901) 730-6373 that’s (901) 730-NERD. You can also email us at [email protected] Also visit NerdWallet.com/podcast for more information on this episode, and remember to subscribe, rate and review us wherever you’re getting this podcast.

Sean: And here is our brief disclaimer, thoughtfully crafted by NerdWallet’s legal team. Your questions are answered by knowledgeable and talented finance writers. We are not financial or investment advisors. This Nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes, and may not apply to your specific circumstances.

Liz: And with that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.

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