Annuities can be purchased directly from an insurance company or from other financial institutions (including banks) that act on behalf of the insurance company. In exchange for your investment, the insurer agrees to make periodic payments for a set time period. It’s important to remember that some annuities may lose value. These products are not insured by the FDIC or the FDIC-insured bank or savings institution that may offer them.
There are different types of annuities. A “fixed annuity” provides a fixed payment, often monthly, until the investor dies. It typically guarantees no loss of principal (the amount invested). A “variable annuity” also guarantees payment for a set period, but the payment amounts will fluctuate based on the market performance of the investment option you choose. With a variable annuity, you also risk losing principal as well as earnings, although some variable annuities guarantee the return of your initial investment for an additional fee.
If the income payments are deferred to some later date, the annuity is typically described as a “deferred annuity.” If the payments begin immediately and continue for life, the annuity may be referred to as an “immediate life annuity.”
On the plus side, annuities provide another investment option if you’ve reached your contribution limit on your other retirement accounts, such as 401(k) plans. And, at retirement, the guaranteed payments can provide extra income. But, as with any investment, be aware of the potential pitfalls and make an informed decision.
Know the key features and costs of the product and make sure they fit your needs. Read the literature to understand the most important facts and risks, including the potential for loss, if any.
“A sales representative who talks to you about purchasing an annuity is required by federal law to ask you questions about your investment goals, current finances and future retirement plans,” said Kara Ritchie, an FDIC Policy Analyst who specializes in consumer issues. “If the representative doesn’t discuss whether the product is suitable for your needs and goals, take your business elsewhere.”
Experts generally say that annuities with guaranteed principal and income are more suitable for older investors than annuities that may, through market performance, lose value. The latter include variable-rate, deferred-payment annuities and equity-indexed annuities (those tied to the stock market), which might not make sense for many investors close to or in retirement.