A variable annuity is another type of investment that you can make and add to your retirement account. When we talk about variable annuities, it’s important to fully understand what an annuity is and what they offer to your retirement account.
If you want to implement an annuity into your account, it’s important to know the three main types of annuities available.
Types of Annuities
1. Immediate annuity
The most common form of an annuity is the immediate annuity where you provide an insurer a lump sum of money. In exchange for your lump sum, you receive a certain amount of guaranteed income every month or year (your choice) for the rest of your life.
You’re giving up your cash, so you don’t have access to this liquidity any longer. Need a new roof? You’ll need to save your income from the annuity or use funds from another account to pay for it.
2. Fixed annuity
A fixed annuity means that you receive a fixed interest rate. Your principal will never fall below a certain amount, and you’re guaranteed a certain amount of interest. The only time your principal goes down is when you withdraw money from the account.
You can have two main kinds of fixed annuities:
- Declared rate. A declared rate annuity means that you’ll have a fixed interest rate for certain numbers of years and then can choose to keep money in the annuity or walk away.
- Fixed index rate. When you choose this type of fixed annuity, the interest rate is based on an index similar to the way a stock index works. But you cannot lose money with this type of annuity. You can earn 0% interest, but you can never go into negative territory.
You can always draw an income from a fixed annuity.
3. Variable annuity
What is a variable annuity? Basically, this is a type of annuity that has its interest rate vary based on the type of investment that this annuity is in. For example, you may invest in a certain type of financial instrument.
When you invest in a variable annuity, you can lose money if the financial instrument performs poorly similar to how the stock market works.
How Do Variable Annuities Work?
All annuities have their limitations, but a lot of people are intrigued by the variable annuity because they feel more in control. It’s important to remember that this is also the riskiest annuity because there’s no guarantee of:
- Interest rate
- Principal in the account
And you’ll also need to know how to invest using a variable annuity. Since your money is going into investments, this is one of the areas that you really need to sit down and learn about before deciding which type of annuity is best for you.
Making, or potentially losing, money all comes down to your investments.
It works out like this:
- Put a lump sum into a variable annuity
- Choose investments in the annuity, called sub accounts
You may be able to invest in mutual funds, ETFs, etc. All of these investments are considered sub accounts.
When you invest in a variable annuity, your investments are limited to what the insurance company offers. The insurance company will allow certain types of investments, and you lose a lot of your control over your money in the process.
Insurance often structures the fund around their own company. For example, the insurer may have their own mutual fund, and you may only be able to invest in these funds that the insurer created.
You may have just 20 or 30 total options with a variable annuity rather than investing freely.
Once you choose a fund, you’re hands-off and are subject to the market risk. You may gain a lot of return, or you may lose out on your investment. The protection that’s offered with the fixed and immediate annuities is completely lost with a variable annuity.
Losing Beyond the Market Dip
For full disclosure, it’s important that we look at how you may lose money with a variable annuity. Let’s assume that you’re able to heavily invest in the S&P 500, and the market falls 30%.
You put $100,000 into the sub account, so now you’ve lost $30,000.
But then there are also other potential losses, which come from fees. You may lose $30,000, but then the fee can be 1.5% to 3% (1) or more (we’re seeing 3% to 5% in total), causing you even more losses. Fees are not based on gains or losses, so your account can go down to $50,000 and fees are still going to be charged.
There are a lot of fees, including:
- Admin fees. Cost for the insurance company.
- Mortality expense. Essentially a death benefit.
- Investment expenses. Costs of about 1% annually for investing.
- Rider charges. Protection or income protection that can be added on to the annuity. Fees typically range from 1% to 2%.
It’s important that you’re aware of these fees. A lot of these insurers also have surrender charges.
When Would It Be Smart to Use a Variable Annuity?
When you really start understanding a variable annuity and all of the fees involved, you’re going to think “why would I ever choose a variable annuity?” We agree. For most people, a variable annuity doesn’t make much sense because you’re taking on more risks for higher fees.
There is one instance that we can think of where we may recommend a variable annuity.
When does this type of annuity benefit you? All of the annuities are tax deferred, but if you have a variable annuity, you’re likely to also put money into an IRA.
If you have a lot of money that’s not in an IRA and want to leverage a variable annuity for tax purposes, this is really the only time when you may want to put your money into a variable annuity.
What a Variable Annuity Might Look Like for Tax Purposes
Let’s say that you have $100,000 in a variable annuity and $100,000 in a brokerage account. When your brokerage account goes up or down, you’re going to pay taxes and capital gains. In the variability annuity, you wouldn’t be paying taxes because the account is tax deferred.
But when you do take money from the annuity, all of your gains are fully taxable.
You’re paying out taxes later on, which is a nice perk, but these taxes are still going to come out of the account. Keep in mind that the withdrawal from the account will be seen as income, so it’s not taken out as capital gains.
Taxes are not taken out of your original investment – just on the gains.
A variable annuity is beneficial when you don’t have a surrender charge and low fees and prefer tax deferral on your money.
While we don’t recommend a variable annuity to many of our clients, it’s still a viable investment option that you need to consider carefully. You may find that the tax deferment is great for your circumstances because you would rather be taxed at once rather than every year.