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Here are some easy, low-cost ways small businesses can help employees save more

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This article is reprinted by permission from NerdWallet.

Donna Skemp of Bend, Oregon, struggled to save before she signed up for an automatic savings plan offered by her employer’s payroll services company. Now, some of her pay goes into a federally insured, interest-paying savings account that she can access any time with a debit card.

“It’s painless, and it’s so easy,” says Skemp, accounting and office manager for the nonprofit Every Kid Sports, which pays sports registration fees for children from low-income families.

Skemp is lucky — more than one-third of private-sector workers don’t have access to workplace savings plans via payroll deduction. Many small-business owners may think such plans are too expensive or complicated to administer. But that’s not necessarily so.

Payroll deduction makes a difference

Americans don’t save nearly enough for emergencies or retirement, but we’re more likely to save if the money is automatically deducted from our paychecks. People are much more likely to contribute to a retirement plan, for example, if they’re offered payroll deductions, according to AARP’s Public Policy Institute. In addition, 7 of 10 working adults say they probably would participate in an emergency savings program via payroll deduction if their employer offered it.

Read: 7 advantages a late starter has over the FIRE world in saving for retirement

Unfortunately, the smaller the business, the less likely it is to offer a workplace savings plan. In the past, that made sense, because the cost of setting up and administering these plans could be high. Technology and competition have lowered costs in recent years, however. Some startups and robo advisers have been targeting the small-business 401(k) market, as have some large investment companies. Costs vary, but they don’t have to be exorbitant: JPMorgan Chase, for example, recently announced a workplace plan for small businesses with monthly charges that start at $75 a month plus $5 per participant.

Looking beyond 401(k)s

Small-business owners who want an even lower-cost option could set up payroll deductions deposited into SIMPLE (Savings Incentive Match PLan for Employees) IRAs, says Mackey McNeill, a certified public accountant and personal finance specialist in Bellevue, Kentucky, who works with small businesses.

Workers can’t save as much in these as they can in a 401(k), McNeill notes. The regular contribution limit for SIMPLE IRAs was $13,500 this year, compared to $19,500 for a 401(k). But SIMPLE IRAs typically have few fees and regulatory requirements, with only one IRS form to fill out annually, McNeill says.

Those lower fees open up a way for employers to help workers save. Instead of paying $1,500 to $2,500 a year in administrative costs for a 401(k), which McNeil says is typical for her clients, small employers could use that money to help match their employees’ contributions in the SIMPLE IRA.

Another potential option is state-sponsored retirement accounts, which typically use payroll deductions to deposit money into Roth IRAs for employees. Three states — Oregon, Illinois and California — currently offer programs that are or will eventually become mandatory for most employers that don’t have retirement plans. Several other states are setting up these plans or considering it.

Adding an emergency savings plan

A big problem with retirement accounts is that they can be costly to access in an emergency because of taxes and penalties. Skemp, 60, learned that during the 2007-09 recession more than a decade ago, when she lost her job and had to raid her retirement account to pay her mortgage.

Also read: Here are the average retirement savings by age: Is it enough?

Emergency savings accounts, either as a stand-alone benefit or one that’s connected to a retirement plan, can help prevent such costly withdrawals and improve workers’ financial stability. Several large companies now offer such accounts, while benefits companies including Gusto, the one Skemp’s employer used, and Businessolver offer the option to smaller businesses.

Even if small-business owners aren’t ready to set up a formal emergency savings program, they can encourage workers to save through split direct deposit. Any employer that offers direct deposit can offer split deposit, which allows people to automatically divide paychecks between checking and savings accounts or among accounts at different banks.

Skemp says she wishes she’d known years how important a regular, automated savings habit could be.

“I would be so far ahead of the game right now,” she says.

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‘I could live on my Social Security and still save money’: This 66-year-old left Chicago for ‘calming’ Costa Rica — where he now plans to live indefinitely

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Editor’s note: This article was first published in September 2019.

A school break changed 66-year-old Martin Farber’s life forever.

In 2007, his daughter — who at the time was attending Illinois State University — decided she wanted to spend a college holiday volunteering in Costa Rica and staying with a local family, he explains. She came home raving about the experience, so, in 2008, Farber — who at the time was living in Evanston, Ill., just outside Chicago, and selling cars — took his first trip there.

“It was a big surprise to me — bumpy roads, dogs barking in the streets,” he says. “I wasn’t enamored at first.”

But as his daughter began traveling there more and eventually moved there for a year, he took additional trips to Costa Rica. It quickly grew on him — in particular, the people. “The Costa Rican people are warm, open and friendly. I felt less invisible in a strange country in a strange town where I didn’t speak the language than I did in Evanston.”

And the more time he spent there, the more it impacted him: “On one of my trips there, I thought: My daughter’s life makes more sense than mine,” he says. “There was nothing wrong with my life, but I felt that my life was out of context with who I’d become. … I would have bills and make money to pay them, but that had ceased to be satisfying,” he recalls. “I knew I needed to change my life — there was no more joy in what I was doing.”

What’s more, when he’d return from his Costa Rica trips, people noticed. “I would come back, and my friends and therapist would say: You seem better after you go,” he says with a laugh.

A view from the hot springs near Martin Farber’s home in Costa Rica.


Martin Farber

So in 2014, he packed up and moved to Orosi — a picturesque, lush small town with waterfalls and hot springs a little over an hour’s drive from San Jose — promising himself he’d stay for two years. It’s been five, and he now plans to stay in Costa Rica indefinitely. (Though Farber notes that, to him, “it’s not a retirement; it’s a chance to lead a new and different life.”)

Here’s what his life is like, from costs to health care to residency to everyday life:

The cost: While many expats spend way more living in Costa Rica, Farber says: “I could live on my Social Security and still save money.” He says “a person can live on $1,200 per month, two people on $2,000.” The key, he says, is to live more like he does and as the Costa Ricans do — in a modest home, eating local food and purchasing local goods.

Indeed, Farber himself spends just $300 a month for rent (he rents a home from a friend who moved recently and gave him a good deal), roughly $225 a month on groceries and just $50 a month total on water and electricity (the temperate climate in Orosi means you rarely need heat or air conditioning). The veteran Volkswagen
VOW,
+0.96%

 
VLKAF,
+0.98%

salesman saves money by not owning a car (those over 65 ride municipal buses for free), which can be a significant expense in Costa Rica; for his cellphone, “I pay as I go … roughly $10 may last me a couple weeks or more,” he says, adding that “many people handle there their cellphones this way. You can get them recharged anywhere.”

His major expense is travel: He goes back to the U.S. to visit his mother in Florida several times a year and lately has spent part of the summer in Chicago helping out a friend with a dealership there. He also spends a good amount of money on health care. He says that while flights can be had for as little as $350 roundtrip during offseasons, the cost can be much higher the rest of the year.

In the saddle.


Martin Farber

Health care: Farber, who has permanent resident status in Costa Rica, says he pays about $90 per month to participate in the country’s health-care system — adding that the health care he’s received has been very good. (A 2018 study of health-care quality and access in more than 190 nations ranked Costa Rica No. 62.)

When he developed a detached retina, though, he paid for the procedure out of pocket so that he didn’t have to wait for the required surgery, he says — adding that the entire procedure cost him about $5,000. “I would have had to have waited four days,” he says, if he had not paid to expedite matters. “That might have been fine, but it might not.” And he adds that the quality of care depends on where you get it in the country.

Lifestyle: Though Farber says that he “moved here with no goals and no agenda,” he’s found plenty to do. “I take Spanish lessons two days a week for two hours a day. It’s been great. I never thought I would acquire a usable language in my 60s,” he says. He also rides his bike all around the area, does some writing and belongs to a community group that undertakes projects to improve the area.

And he often simply takes in nature, which he says has been an essential part of why he feels calmer and more relaxed in Costa Rica than in the U.S. “I live at 3,000 feet but in a valley surrounded by coffee fields and lime trees and water. At night, if I open the windows, I can hear the river rushing by,” he says. “It is very calming … hundreds of trees everywhere … you know the Earth is alive.”

The historic Iglesia de San José de Orosi.


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Cons: “I don’t want to overglorify. It’s not without its problems,” Farber says of Costa Rica. “There are social problems and downsides.” He notes that crime and petty theft can be a problem (“I am cautious,” he says of his approach) and seem to have increased since he moved there, and adds that he misses out on some cultural things because of where he lives. And, he says with a laugh, “I can’t order Thai food at 9 at night.” But, he adds: “These are trade-offs — in the afternoon, I get to walk in the coffee fields and see flocks of parrots.”

Residency: To qualify for Costa Rica’s pensionado visa, expats must prove that they have a pension of at least $1,000 coming in each month. (Here are the details of that program.) Once you have lived in Costa Rica for three years, you can apply for permanent residency. Farber used a lawyer to help him figure out the ins and outs of residency options; his entire path to permanent residency took about a year, he says.

The bottom line: “After five years I am still amazed and surprised that I made the decision to lead a life I never thought I would,” he says. And while he may not stay in Orosi forever — “the town doesn’t have an ambulance, [and] I don’t know what it will be like to be 80 there,” he says — he does plan to stay in Costa Rica in no small part because of the people and sense of community. “I have the feeling that life is good here,” he says. “It’s hard sometimes, but we are all in it together.”



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Mutual Funds Weekly: These money and investing tips can help you read the market’s signs and stay on your path

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