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Milestone Birthdays Bring Some Financial Benefits

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Good news for the over-50 crowd

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Even if the candles don't all fit on the cake, there's extra reason to celebrate some key older birthdays in the post-meltdown economy.

Hitting certain milestones can provide financial and health-related security that those with their eye on retirement long took for granted but don't any more.

Since the bottom fell out of retirement portfolios in 2008 and early 2009, government entitlements and other protections earned with age have become more essential for the over-50 crowd.

For a simple breakdown of benefits that come with age, see Financial Birthday Presents for 50+.

Social Security and Medicare were almost an afterthought in the retirement planning process for many people a couple of years ago, according to Paul Lebouef, a Houston-based financial consultant for Charles Schwab & Co. Inc. With the stock market booming, his clients weren't concerned with when they qualified for either program. They felt they had saved and planned sufficiently enough that they wouldn't need to rely on government money.

Since then, attitudes have changed because of the increased uncertainty and the entitlements are an underpinning of many retirement plans. Many of his clients are now thankful for the programs and even excited about becoming eligible, Leboeuf says.

"That's not to say that everyone is living off Social Security, but from a right-brain emotional state it's a security blanket," he says. "They often sleep better knowing it's there."

Harry Lutz, 64, an actuary from Dunwoody, Ga., remembers long ago dreading the time when he would be in his senior years. But he is looking forward to his birthday in June for one reason in particular: becoming eligible for Medicare.

"I'm not necessarily eager to turn 65, but I'll enjoy it when it happens," he says. "My out-of-pocket expenditures for health care will go down."

That used to be his target age for retirement, too, like a lot of other people. But now he'd like to work until he's 69, the year his wife, Rosanne, also is old enough to get into Medicare.

Financial benefits from getting older are first triggered at age 50. That's when workers who are behind in their retirement savings become eligible to make catch-up contributions to their workplace savings plans, such as a 401(k) or 403(b), or individual retirement accounts. In 2010, that's as much as $5,500 extra. Added to a base contribution limit of $16,500, that's a maximum $22,000.

That's only noteworthy if you can afford to set aside the extra income. Just 13 percent of those eligible to make catch-up contributions in 2008 actually did so, based on a Vanguard study of more than 2,200 qualified retirement plans.

At 55, you can take money out of your 401(k) without being socked with the 10 percent penalty for early withdrawal. Though there's a big asterisk attached to that qualification. You have to quit, retire or be fired.

It's really 60-somethings who have the biggest cause for celebration when they hit breakthrough ages. The ones that people get most excited about are when they become eligible for Medicare and, especially, hit full retirement age as defined by Social Security.

"It's always a great day for people when they can turn in that application and get the full benefits," says Leboeuf.
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