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College Students and Recent Grads, Reviews

Sallie Mae Student Loans Review for 2020

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Most students who borrow money for their education should start with federal student loans. The federal loan programs offer borrowers a variety of repayment, forgiveness, cancellation and discharge programs that aren’t available from private lenders.

But if you reach your federal loan limits, or examine your options and find you might be better off with a private student loan, you can compare loan offerings from private student lenders. One of the largest private student loan companies, Sallie Mae, has more than a dozen education loan products you can consider.

What is Sallie Mae?

Started nearly 50 years ago, Sallie Mae has played a variety of roles in the student loan space, including lending federally guaranteed loans and private student loans, and servicing federal and private loans.

Sallie Mae spun off a portion of its student loan servicing business to form a new company, Navient, in 2014. And due to changes in the federal student loan programs, Sallie Mae no longer originates federally guaranteed loans. Now, Sallie Mae only offers and services private student loans, while also offering other banking products, such as savings accounts.

Types of student loans Sallie Mae offers

Whether you’re a parent of a grade school student or about to begin your doctorate, Sallie Mae may have a student loan that fits your needs. Its loans are designed for undergraduate students, graduate students and parents or sponsors of students. It also has loans to cover medical residency or bar exam costs.

  1. K-12: For a parent or sponsor of a child who wants to take out a loan to pay for a student’s private kindergarten-through-high school education
  2. Parent: For a parent or sponsor of a child who wants to take out a loan to pay for an undergraduate, graduate or certificate program
  3. Career training: For students at eligible non-degree granting schools
  4. Undergraduate: For students at degree-granting schools who are earning an associate or bachelor’s degree
  5. Graduate: For students at degree-granting schools who are earning a master’s, doctorate or law degree
  6. MBA: For business school students
  7. Health professions graduate: For graduate health profession students, including those in allied health, nursing, pharmacy, and other graduate-level health degrees.
  8. Dental school: For graduate dental degree students, including those in dentistry, endodontics and orthodontics programs
  9. Medical school: For graduate medical degree students, including those in allopathic, osteopathic and podiatric programs
  10. Medical residency and relocation: For medical residency students to help pay for board examinations and residency-related travel and moving expenses
  11. Dental residency and relocation: For dental residency students to help pay for board examinations and residency-related travel and moving expenses
  12. Bar study: For law students and recent graduates to help pay for bar review courses, registration and living expenses while you study
  13. Law school: For students studying for their law degree

Sallie Mae student loans in a nutshell

Most of Sallie Mae’s loans are identical when it comes to fees, cosigner release options and discounts.

Fees

  • Aside from the K-12 loan’s 3% disbursement fee, none of the loans have application, origination, disbursement or prepayment fees.
  • Late payments result in a fee that’s 5% of the amount due (capped at $25).
  • Returned checks carry a $20 fee.

Cosigner release

  • You can apply to release a cosigner after making 12 consecutive, on-time, full interest and principal payments. However, parent loans don’t offer a cosigner release option.

Discounts

  • With all but the K-12 loans, you can receive a 0.25% interest rate discount if you sign up for automatic payments.
 K-12 loansParent loansCareer trainingUndergraduate loansGraduate loansMBA loans
Fixed APR range*Not available5.49% -
13.87%
Not available4.25% -
12.35%
5.50% -
10.23%
5.50% -
10.23%
Variable APR range*7.24% - 13.87%3.50% -
13.12%**
4.25% - 11.64%**1.25% -
11.15%**
2.25% -
7.96%**
2.25% -
7.96%**
Loan termsThree years10 yearsFive to 15 yearsFive to 15 yearsFive to 15 yearsFive to 15 years
Loan amount$1,000 minimum

Borrow up to the school-certified cost of tuition
$1,000 minimum

Borrow up to the school-certified cost of attendance
$1,000 minimum

Borrow up to the school-certified cost of attendance
$1,000 minimum

Borrow up to the school-certified cost of attendance
$1,000 minimum

Borrow up to the school-certified cost of attendance
$1,000 minimum

Borrow up to the school-certified cost of attendance
Repayment plans (both in-school and post-school)Full interest and principal paymentsFull interest and principal payments

Interest-only payments
$25 a month

Interest-only payments


12-month interest-only repayment that begins after your separation or grace period ends
Deferment

$25 a month

Interest-only payments

12-month interest-only repayment that begins after your separation or grace period ends
Deferment

$25 a month

Interest-only payments

12-month interest-only repayment that begins after your separation or grace period ends
Deferment

$25 a month

Interest-only payments

12-month interest-only repayment that begins after your separation or grace period ends

**Variable rates are capped at 25%.

 Health professionsDental schoolMedical schoolMedical residencyDental residencyLaw school
Fixed APR range*5.50% - 10.23%5.50% - 9.99%5.49% -
9.98%
6.52% - 12.00%6.52% - 12.00%5.50% -
9.99%
Variable APR range*2.25% - 7.96%**2.25% - 7.66%**2.25% -
7.62%**
3.03% - 9.62%3.03% - 9.62%2.25% -
7.79%
Loan termsFive to 15 years20 years20 yearsUp to 20 yearsUp to 20 yearsUp to 15 years
Loan amount$1,000 minimum

Borrow up to the school-certified cost of attendance
$1,000 minimum

Borrow up to the school-certified cost of attendance
$1,000 minimum

Borrow up to the school-certified cost of attendance
$1,000 minimum

Borrow up to $20,000
$1,000 minimum

Borrow up to $20,000
$1,000 minimum

Borrow up to the school-certified cost of attendance
Repayment plans (both in-school and post-school)Deferment

$25 a month

Interest-only payments

12-month interest-only repayment that begins after your separation or grace period ends
Deferment

$25 a month

Interest-only payments

12-month interest-only repayment that begins after your separation or grace period ends
Deferment

$25 a month

Interest-only payments

12-month interest-only repayment that begins after your separation or grace period ends
Full interest and principal payments

Two- or four-year interest-only repayment
Full interest and principal payments

Two- or four-year interest-only repayment
Deferment

$25 a month

Interest-only payments

12-month interest-only repayment that begins after your separation or grace period ends

**Variable-rate loans have a 25% APR cap.

How Sallie Mae compares with other lenders

Sallie Mae finished first among MagnifyMoney’s top five private student lenders for 2019. We compared undergraduate student loan products and began with the nation’s 10 largest national lenders. The ranking focused on loans’ APR ranges, discounts, fees and repayment terms, as well as lenders’ policies for releasing a cosigner, deferring loan payments and their online applications.

In addition to having a top-rated undergraduate loan, Sallie Mae differentiates itself by offering its wide variety of different student loans. Many of these other loans share characteristics with the undergraduate loan, including the 12-payment cosigner release requirement, lack of a specific maximum loan amount and a 0.25% interest rate discount for auto debit.

However, as with any lender, there are pros and cons to consider before taking out a loan from Sallie Mae.

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Advantages of Sallie Mae Student Loans

You may be able to choose a repayment plan. Depending on the loan product, you may be able to choose from up to three different repayment plans. A plan that requires you make payments while you’re in school could help you save money in the long run; however, deferring your full payments can give you more money to cover education and living expenses now.

12-month payment requirement for cosigner release. With most Sallie Mae student loans, you can apply to release your cosigner once you make 12 consecutive, full, on-time payments. Other lenders may let you apply for cosigner release, but it could take longer to qualify, in some cases requiring 48 full monthly payments before you can apply.

In addition to the payments, you’ll need to pass a credit check and meet Sallie Mae’s requirements for releasing a cosigner.

Discharge due to death or permanent and total disability. Similar to the federal student loan guidelines, Sallie Mae will waive a borrower’s current balance if he or she dies or becomes permanently and totally disabled. The benefit may be especially important to borrowers who have a cosigner or dependents, such as a spouse or child(ren), who could be affected if the debt isn’t waived.

No preset loan limit. While some federal student loans and private student loans set dollar-amount limits on how much you can borrow, most Sallie Mae student loans allow you to borrow up to your school’s certified cost of attendance.

Loans for less-than-half-time students. Some private school lenders require borrowers to have at least a half-time course load to qualify for a student loan. Sallie Mae’s loans for students don’t have this requirement.

Forbearance and deferment options. Putting your loans into forbearance or deferment lets you temporarily stop making payments without getting charged late fees or hurting your credit. Forbearance is generally for when you have trouble making payments, perhaps due to losing a job or a medical emergency. Deferment, meanwhile, may apply to other circumstances, such as returning to school.

Sallie Mae could approve up to 12 months of forbearance in three-month increments and up to 60 months of deferment in 12-month increments. Interest continues to accumulate, and your long-term costs may increase, but forbearance or deferment are still better options than missing a payment or letting a loan go into default.

Extra perks. Many of Sallie Mae’s student loans also come with the Study Smarter benefit. With it, borrowers can get four months of free study tools or 30 minutes of live online tutoring through Chegg Tutors® or a combination of the two.

All of Sallie Mae’s loans also give borrowers and cosigners quarterly access to a FICO® credit score.

Drawbacks of Sallie Mae Student Loans

No additional interest rate discount. Sallie Mae’s 0.25% interest rate discount for auto debit is standard for most federal and private student loans. But other private lenders offer borrowers opportunities to get an additional 0.25% to 0.50% interest rate discount by having other financial products from the same lender or making auto debits from an account with the same lender.

Sallie Mae assigns loan terms. Many Sallie Mae student loans have a repayment term that ranges from five to 15 years. Most other lenders that offer a range of terms let borrowers choose their term, along with the corresponding monthly payment and interest rate. Sallie Mae, however, will assign you a term.

No loan pre-approval. Private student loans require a credit check. Some lenders will do a soft credit pull, which doesn’t hurt your score, to determine if you can qualify for a loan or need a cosigner and to show you estimated interest rates if you qualify. Sallie Mae will only show you rates after a hard credit inquiry, which could hurt your score slightly.

What it takes to qualify with Sallie Mae

All Sallie Mae student loans have the same basic requirements:

Minimum credit score: Sallie Mae doesn’t disclose a minimum credit score requirement. In 2016, applicants that were approved for a Sallie Mae student loan had, on average, a 748 FICO score at the time of approval.
Minimum age for borrowers: Borrowers must be the age of majority in their state (often 18 years old). Younger applicants will need an eligible and creditworthy cosigner.
State residency requirements: Sallie Mae student loans are available in every state.
Eligible schools: Sallie Mae doesn’t publish a list of eligible schools, but you can search for the name of a school at the beginning of the loan application to see if your school qualifies.

 K-12 loansParent loansCareer trainingUndergraduate loansGraduate loansMBA loans
Additional requirementsThe student you’re taking the loan out for has to be enrolled in a private school.The student you’re taking the loan out for has to be pursuing a certificate or an associate, bachelor’s or graduate degree at a degree-granting school.You must be enrolled at a non-degree-granting school and pursuing professional training or a certification.You must be a enrolled at a degree-granting school and pursuing a certification or an associate or bachelor’s degree.You must be enrolled at a degree-granting school and pursuing a master’s, doctorate or law degree.You must be enrolled at a degree-granting school and pursuing a masters of business administration degree.
 Health professionsDental schoolMedical schoolMedical residencyDental residencyBar studyLaw school
Additional requirementsYou must be enrolled at a degree-granting school and pursuing a degree in one of the eligible areas of study.You must be enrolled at a degree-granting school and pursuing a degree in one of the eligible areas of study.You must be enrolled at a degree-granting school and pursuing a degree in one of the eligible areas of study.You must either have a half-time course load and be in your last year at an eligible school, or graduated from an eligible school in the previous 12 months.

If you didn’t already earn your medical degree, you must expect to earn the degree in the current academic program year.
You must either have a half-time course load and be in your last year at an eligible school, or graduated from an eligible school in the previous 12 months.

If you didn’t already earn your dental degree, you must expect to earn the degree in the current academic program year.
You must either have a half-time course load and be in your last year at an eligible school, or graduated from an eligible school in the previous 12 months.

You must take the bar exam within 12 months of graduating.
You must be enrolled at a degree-granting school and pursuing a J.D. degree.

What borrower is Sallie Mae best for?

Sallie Mae offers a variety of student loan products that could be a good fit for parents or students. If you, or a student you’re supporting, can’t take out additional federal student loans but need more money for school, Sallie Mae’s lack of a predefined loan limit could make it a good option.

The medical and dental residency programs and the bar study loan do have a loan limit. But even then, it’s higher than the limit of some competitors who offer similar types of loans.

You also may want to consider Sallie Mae if you think you’ll need a cosigner and would like to release the cosigner later. Although you still may not qualify, depending on your creditworthiness, the 12 months of consecutive full payments is shorter than what some other lenders require.

Taking a closer look at the online platform

You can learn a lot of details about Sallie Mae’s student loans on its website. There are specific pages for each loan product that have a lot of the basic information you’ll want to know. And there are pages with generally helpful information, such as how to make a loan payment or options if you’re having trouble making payments.

Some of the informational pages, such as on the one about interest rates and interest capitalization, also have quick video explainers to help you understand the topic and why it’s important to student loan borrowers.

The actual loan application doesn’t have quite as nice of a design as the other parts of the Sallie Mae website, but it’s still relatively easy to navigate and fill out.

The fine print

The Sallie Mae product and informational pages give you a lot of the basic information you’ll want if you’re comparing student loans from several lenders. There are also loan application and solicitation disclosure forms for many of the loans online. In these, you can see fine-print items like the variable-rate loans’ interest-rate cap and late payment fees.

It’s more difficult to find fine-print information on some of the loans, though. The K-12, residency and bar loans don’t have application and disclosure forms on their pages, for example. We were only able to confirm these loans’ fees and interest rate caps by reaching out to a representative from Sallie Mae.

While you would have a chance to review your loan details after agreeing to a credit check but before signing the loan agreement, it would be nice to have that information up front.

We were also disappointed in how difficult it is to understand how loan terms work with Sallie Mae student loans.

Some private lenders only offer one term. Others offer a variety of terms and let borrowers choose their loan term. Most of Sallie Mae’s undergraduate and graduate student loans have a five- to 15-year term, but Sallie Mae chooses which term to offer you.

The loan-term range and the fact that Sallie Mae chooses the term rather than the borrower aren’t clearly disclosed on the loan’s main page.

What to expect during the application process

Sallie Mae has an online loan application system that makes the process fairly uniform for all its student loans. A few questions may differ, but you can expect the process to be similar to the following steps. Applicants with cosigners may need the cosigner’s personal information, including his or her Social Security number and date of birth.

Basic information

General information. Basic information about the student and borrower:

  • Your name, email address and phone number.
  • Your date of birth, citizenship status and Social Security number.
  • Your relationship to the student, if you’re taking out a loan for someone else.

Address. Your permanent address and a previous address if you moved in the last year. If you have a different mailing address you’ll have to fill that in, too.

Student and school information. If you’re taking out the loan for a student, you’ll need the student’s name, date of birth, citizenship status and Social Security number.

Enter the name of the school and your (or the student’s) academic information:

  • Degree type or certificate of study
  • Major or specialty
  • Enrollment status
  • Grade level
  • Academic period that the loan will cover
  • Anticipated graduation or certification graduate date

Loan application

Loan amount. The cost of attendance, which the application can help you estimate, as well as your estimated financial assistance.

You’ll automatically have a loan amount for the difference between your cost of attendance and financial assistance. You can choose to request less money, and even if you’re approved, Sallie Mae could offer you less than what you requested.

Employment info: Fill in information about your work, including:

  • Employment status
  • Employer’s name
  • Your occupation
  • Work phone number
  • Years with the current employer
  • Gross annual income

Financial info: You can list additional income and assets you have, such as:

  • Income from alimony, child support or a rental property
  • Investments
  • Disability
  • Social Security
  • Income from a household member, such as a spouse
  • Your current assets that could be in checking, savings, CD or money market accounts

You’ll also be asked about your expenses, including monthly housing payments (when applicable).

Personal contacts: Unless you’re taking out a loan for someone else, you’ll have to share two personal contacts that Sallie Mae can use as references. These could be a relative or family friends, and you’ll have to have their full name and phone number.

Submit application: Choose to apply on your own or add a cosigner. You’ll be prompted to read and agree to an electronic delivery consent form, and may then get a copy of the loan’s disclosure form and Sallie Mae’s privacy policy.

You’ll have to agree to let Sallie Mae review your credit history to submit your application.

Finalize the loan

Once you’ve completed an application, you may need to send verification information (such as pay stubs or tax returns). But generally, Sallie Mae will offer a quick response based on your credit.

If you’re approved, you can choose your type of interest rate and repayment plan before accepting the loan. Once you accept the loan offer, Sallie Mae will contact your school to verify that you’re eligible for the loan and loan amount.

The school certification process may take several weeks, and it could even be put on hold until about a month before your term begins. As long as everything checks out, Sallie Mae will send the loan to you or your school, depending on the type of loan.

Already have student loans and looking to refinance? Check out one of our top refinance lenders below.

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2.98% To 5.79%

Variable APR

1.99% To 5.64%

Terms

Up to 20

Years

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Banking

What Is an Immediate Annuity and How Does it Work?

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It may not have been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

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An immediate annuity, also known as an income annuity, is a type of annuity that begins paying out right away. With an annuity, you enter into a contract with an insurance company. In exchange for your payments, the insurance company will send you disbursements for a predetermined term — sometimes for the rest of your life.

Immediate annuities are distinct from deferred annuities, which have an initial accumulation phase during which the pool of money grows, followed by a later payout phase. Both immediate and deferred annuities are good tools for funding your retirement, though they serve different purposes. A deferred annuity allows your money grow tax-deferred so you’ll have income at a future date, while an immediate annuity is useful if you need regular income right away.

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What is an immediate annuity?

If you’re already in retirement or plan on retiring soon, an immediate annuity might make more sense than a deferred annuity because you may have an immediate need for steady income. If you live a long time, an immediate annuity could pay out more than it initially cost. On the other hand, the insurance company may keep the money that’s left in accounts when a contract-holder passes.

Here are some considerations to keep in mind to determine if immediate annuities are right for you:

  • Payments: With an immediate annuity, you’ll receive payments on a regular schedule, such as monthly or annually. The first payment will begin with your next scheduled payment. Immediate annuities can have either a fixed payment period, such as 10 or 20 years, or your annuity could pay out for your lifetime, or your lifetime plus the lifetime of a beneficiary (such as a spouse).
  • Interest: The principal balance in your annuity will grow at a predetermined rate (i.e., it’s a fixed annuity), based on underlying investments (a variable annuity) or based on the growth in an index, such as the S&P 500 (an indexed annuity). Your payments may either be fixed or they could go up and down depending on whether you buy a variable or indexed annuity.
  • Costs: A variety of fees can impact the growth of your annuity and your payments. Costs may include administrative fees, underlying fund fees, commissions and mortality and expense risk fees. Additionally, you’ll pay extra for riders, which are different types of add-ons that you can purchase for your annuity. For example, a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) rider will increase your payments to keep up with inflation. Compare annuities to one another, and to other retirement options, before signing a contract.

Qualified immediate annuity vs. non-qualified: What’s the difference?

Depending on how you pay for your immediate annuity, it could be classified as either qualified or non-qualified.

“Qualified annuities refers to when the source of the funds comes from a tax-deferred account,” said Ray Caucci, chairman and CEO of Vantis Life Insurance Company. In other words, if you have money in an IRA, 401(k) or another type of tax-advantaged retirement account, and then use the money to buy an annuity, the annuity is considered qualified.

By contrast, if you use after-tax dollars (i.e., you don’t receive a deduction from putting your money into an account) to purchase an annuity, then it will be a non-qualified annuity.

In other words, the main difference between qualified and non-qualified immediate annuities is the taxes on your payments.

Immediate annuity taxation issues

Unlike when you contribute to a tax-deferred retirement account, the premiums you pay when you purchase an annuity aren’t tax deductible. But the payments you receive can be taxable.

If you have a qualified annuity — meaning you bought the annuity with money that was inside a tax-advantaged account — then the entire annuity payment is fully taxable as income. Unlike with investment distributions, the principal and interest or gains portions of your annuity payments are taxed as ordinary income rather than capital gains. And, similarly to tax-advantaged accounts, you may need to pay a 10% penalty fee if you withdraw money before you are 59½ years old.

Taxation is a bit trickier with a non-qualified annuity. “The benefit is split between a return of the principal and interest,” Caucci said. The interest or gains portion is subject to ordinary income taxes, while the principal portion isn’t taxed (because you already paid taxes on the money before you bought the annuity.)

“That’s done through the means of an exclusion ratio that’s determined by the insurance company,” Caucci said. The ratio, which depends on your life expectancy, is often shared as a percentage and indicates how much of each payment is non-taxable income from the principal. If you live beyond your life expectancy, your remaining payments will become completely taxable.

Who should invest in immediate annuities?

Immediate annuities are generally best for those who are already in retirement, or who are about to retire, and are looking for a low-risk option to boost their income. Particularly if you’re worried about outliving your savings, an annuity with a lifetime payout could ease that concern.

“It could be a foundational income source that doesn’t change,” Caucci said. “You can decide how you want to distribute your other savings and investments, but you always have a foundation of the income.”

One of the downsides is that the guarantee also means you might have to keep your money locked up in the annuity. “People who want more control over their retirement income won’t be as enamored with an immediate annuity,” Caucci said.

Immediate annuity pros and cons

While an immediate annuity could offer a secure and steady source of income during retirement, it’s not the right fit for everyone. Here are some of the pros and cons to consider:

Pros

Cons

  • You can start receiving income almost right away.
  • There’s the potential to receive a steady income stream for the rest of your life.
  • You may receive a higher interest rate than you would with other low-risk options, such as a certificate of deposit (CD) or a bond.
  • Market fluctuations generally won’t impact your payments.
  • Many immediate annuities won’t let you withdraw any of your principal once your payments start.
  • The fees associated with an annuity could make it a more costly option than other types of retirement accounts or investments.
  • If the insurance company goes under, state guaranty funds may only cover a portion of your annuity’s balance, typically $250,000.
  • Depending on the type of annuity and the riders you choose, your remaining account balance might not pass on to your estate or heirs.

The bottom line

If you’re in or nearing retirement and worried about outliving your savings, an immediate annuity could offer a solution. You can also customize annuities in many ways, to provide payment increases that keep up with inflation or payments to a spouse after you pass, for example. Before you buy a contract, learn more about the potential fees, features and annuity providers, and consider the different types of annuities that are available if you don’t need the immediate income.

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Understanding the Three Types of Annuities

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Understanding how annuities work is an important first step in determining whether they fit into your retirement plans. Annuities can be customized in many ways, although they fall into three broad categories: fixed, indexed and variable.

An annuity is a contract between you and an insurance company. In exchange for giving the company money today, you receive a lump-sum payment or series of payouts in the future. For example, you could purchase an annuity with a single payment when you retire and then receive monthly payouts for the rest of your life.

Annuities offer long-term, tax-deferred savings, making them a potentially helpful tool for retirement. But because there’s such a wide-range customization available, it can be confusing to understand all your options. Our guide covers the basics on the different types of annuities: fixed, indexed and variable.

What is a fixed annuity?

A fixed annuity is one of the simplest types of annuities — it’s somewhat similar to a certificate of deposit (CD) account. You fund a fixed annuity with a single payment or a series of payments. The insurance company guarantees this principal amount, a minimum interest rate and a number of payments in the future.

The interest rate applies to your principal balance, and your account grows tax-deferred during the accumulation phase. At the end of the accumulation phase, your payout period begins. You’ll then receive a single lump-sum payout or periodic payouts, such as monthly or annually.

“When you first buy a contract for a fixed annuity, the payout amount will be specified,” according to Ken Tumin, founder of LendingTree-owed company DepositAccounts.com, so you’ll know how much income to expect later. Also, depending on your contract, the periodic payouts could be guaranteed for a certain number of years, until you die or until you and a beneficiary (such as a spouse) die.

Fixed annuity pros and cons

Fixed annuity pros

  • This type of annuity is relatively easy to understand.
  • You’ll receive a guaranteed interest rate and payouts.
  • You’ll know the payout amount and payout period when you first buy the contract.
  • There’s little risk of losing your savings.

Fixed annuity cons

  • The interest rate may be lower than what you could receive from other savings or investment products.
  • The interest rate could be lower than inflation in the future.
  • Fees may eat into your savings and decreases your payout amount.
  • You might not be able to take money out of the annuity without paying additional taxes and fees.

Who should invest in fixed annuities?

A fixed annuity may be the most attractive type of annuity if you’re looking for stability and guarantees. However, think carefully about when and why you’re buying the contract, as the interest rate you lock-in during the purchase will influence your payouts.

“If the interest rates start to bottom, it might not be the best time to get a fixed annuity,” said Tumin. “If you think rates are going up, wait for a few years until there’s a better interest rate environment.”

What is a variable annuity?

A variable annuity may feel more like a 401(k) or individual retirement account (IRA) than a certificate of deposit. When you buy a variable annuity, you can choose to invest your money in different financial products, such as mutual funds.

Your earnings during the accumulation phase depend on how well your investments do, which will impact your future payouts. The insurance company may offer optional riders that limit how low your account’s value can drop and guarantee you a minimum payout.

You may also be able to choose to receive the payout as a lump sum, over a fixed number of payouts or until you die. If you choose periodic payouts, the payout amount could either be pre-set or it may vary with your investment returns.

Variable annuity pros and cons

Variable annuity pros

  • You could earn higher returns and have larger payouts than you would with a fixed annuity.
  • Earnings are tax-deferred.
  • The SEC generally regulates variable annuities.

Variable annuity cons

  • You may have to pay higher fees than you would with other tax-deferred accounts.
  • Your payouts count as ordinary income rather than capital gains and may be taxed at a higher rate.
  • You could lose the money you put into the annuity.

Who should invest in variable annuities?

A variable annuity can offer tax-deferred investment growth and an additional source of income during retirement. “But a lot of the best variable annuities are basically a wrapper around investment options like mutual funds,” says Tumin. The wrapper analogy can apply to other tax-deferred accounts, such as 401(k)s and IRAs, although those may offer more investment options and fewer fees.

“For those who’ve maxed out their 401(k)s and IRAs, a variable annuity can be a reasonable option,” says Tumin. Until that point, you may want to focus on investing in other, lower-cost accounts instead.

What is an indexed annuity?

Indexed annuities often offer a minimum interest rate on your money, but are also tied to an investment index, such as the S&P 500. Depending on how the index performs, you may receive more interest earnings than the minimum rate. However, there are also often caps on how much you earn.

For example, if the S&P increases by 8%, you might only receive 3% of the gains — your cap — and the insurance company keeps the remainder. On the other hand, if the S&P decreases in value in a year, you might still receive a minimum interest rate gain rather than losing money.

The specifics of your annuity can also impact your earnings because the contract will dictate the cap, how much of the index’s gains your receive, the fees you’ll pay and how often the insurer reviews the index to calculate gains.

Indexed annuity pros and cons

Indexed annuity pros

  • Offers a mix of guaranteed and investment-based tax-deferred earnings.
  • Limits the potential for losses compared to variable annuities and other investments.

Indexed annuity cons

  • Although your money gets invested, the SEC and FINRA might not regulate indexed annuities.
  • Your gains are limited by the insurance company’s fees and caps.
  • Can be particularly hard to understand and compare to other savings and investment options.
  • Although there could be minimums, you might lose money on your investment.

Who should invest in indexed annuities?

Index annuities can seem like the best of both worlds — protection against investment losses with the potential to earn more than you would with a fixed annuity. But it’s not all good news, as the fees and caps can eat into your potential investment returns, particularly during high-growth periods.

“For those that are very conservative, the indexed annuity could give you a better return than a fixed annuity,” says Tumin. However, as with variable annuities, he suggested looking into other tax-deferred investment accounts, such as 401(ks) and IRAs, before an indexed annuity.

Deferred annuity vs. immediate annuity: What’s the difference?

You can purchase these three types of annuities as either deferred or immediate annuities.

With a deferred annuity, your contract begins with an accumulation phase. During this phase, the interest or investment earnings get added to your account balance, and you may be able to make additional contributions to increase your account’s value. At the end of the accumulation phase, you’ll start to receive payouts (either in a lump sum or periodically) based on the account balance and the terms of your contract.

Immediate annuities start to pay immediately based on your payment schedule. So, if you receive payments monthly, your first payment will start a month later. But if you receive annual payments, you’ll wait a year for your first payment.

Deferred annuities can be a better option if you’re planning ahead for retirement, or are in retirement but have other sources of income. An immediate annuity may be a better option if you’re in retirement and want to lock-in an income stream.

Conclusion

There are different types of annuities, payout structures and a wide range of riders that can make comparison shopping extremely difficult. Add on the fees, brokers’ commission-based sales arrangement and the possibility of losing your “guaranteed” income stream if the insurance company goes under and annuities look much less appealing.

Still, that’s not to say annuities are all bad. An annuity can offer a steady income stream during retirement, with an option to continue the income stream as long as you’re alive (or even beyond).

However, if you’re considering purchasing one, continue doing your due diligence and learning about the differences between annuity providers and contracts.

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