The 3-Legged Stool: An Approach to Retirement Confidence

Most American workers believe they will have enough money to live comfortably after they retire, but do you share their retirement confidence?

As a NYSLRS member with a defined benefit pension plan, you have reason to be optimistic about retirement. But there is more to a financially secure retirement than having a pension. Think of retirement security as a three-legged stool, with three parts working together to provide financial stability when your working days are over. Understanding each of these sources of income will help you better plan for your future and boost your retirement confidence.

retirement confidence

Leg 1: Your NYSLRS Pension

At retirement, vested NYSLRS members are eligible for a pension based on their final average earnings and the number of years they’ve worked in public service. Your pension is a lifetime benefit, which means you’ll receive a monthly payment for the rest of your life, no matter how long you live. Unlike workers who rely on a 401(k)-style retirement plan, you won’t have to worry about your money running out.

Most members can use Retirement Online to estimate how much their pension will be. But if you’re a long way from retirement, it may be better to think in terms of earnings replacement. Financial advisers estimate you’ll need to replace 70 to 80 percent of your income to retire with financial confidence. Your pension can help get you there. For example, if you retire with 30 years of service, your NYSLRS pension could replace more than half of your earnings. (Replacement percentages vary among retirement plans. You can find out more in your retirement plan booklet.)

Leg 2: Social Security

Less than half of Americans believe Social Security will be there for them when they retire, according to a recent poll, and younger workers are even more pessimistic about Social Security’s future. While there’s no denying that Social Security faces challenges, things aren’t as bleak as some people think.

Social Security trustees estimate that Social Security reserves will be depleted by 2035 and they will only be able to pay about 76 percent of scheduled retirement benefits. But consider this: Social Security now replaces about 36 percent of the wages of a typical worker who retires at full retirement age. In the future, even if it only replaces 25 to 30 percent of pre-retirement earnings, it would still be a significant source of retirement income.

But these are worse case scenarios. The truth is that lawmakers have many policy options that could reduce or eliminate the long-term financing shortfalls in Social Security. It seems likely those options will be explored.

Leg 3: Retirement Savings

Having a secure, lifetime pension will be a substantial financial asset, but it’s still important to save money for retirement. A retirement nest egg can help in case of an emergency, act as a hedge against inflation and boost your retirement confidence.

Saving is the retirement factor you have the most control over. You decide when to start, how much to save and how your money will be invested. The key is to start saving early, so your money has time to grow, even if you can only afford to save a small amount in the beginning.

With the New York State Deferred Compensation Plan, you can start out by saving as little as $10 per pay period. That money would be automatically deducted from your paycheck, so you won’t even have to think about it. The money is tax-deferred, which means you don’t pay income taxes on your Plan account contributions or earnings until you begin to take payments from your account. This may lower your taxable income now and in retirement. The Deferred Compensation plan is not affiliated with NYSLRS, but New York State employees and some municipal employees can participate. If you’re a municipal employee, ask your employer if you’re eligible for the Deferred Compensation Plan or another retirement savings plan.

Make Sure You Receive Your Member Annual Statement

Member annual statements are distributed to NYSLRS members each spring (retiree statements are delivered by early March). It’s important that you make sure your contact information is correct to ensure you receive your Statement. (Note: Updating your contact information with your employer doesn’t update it with NYSLRS.)

Use Retirement Online to Check or Update Your Contact Information

The fastest way to check your contact information, and update it if needed, is through Retirement Online. Sign in to your Retirement Online account, go to the ‘My Profile Information’ area of your Account Homepage and click “Update” next to your mailing address or email address to make corrections.  

If you have trouble signing in to your account, please read our Retirement Online Tools and Tips blog post for help.

If you don’t have a Retirement Online account, it’s easy to create one. Visit our Retirement Online for Members page and click ‘Register Now’ under the Sign In button. When you create your account, you’ll be asked to provide the ZIP code of your home address. If it doesn’t recognize your current ZIP code, it’s likely we have an older address on file for you. Please use the older ZIP code to create your account — you can update your address after you register. If you need assistance with Retirement Online, please contact us.

You can also update your contact information using our secure contact form, as long as your new mailing address is not a PO Box. Be sure to complete all fields and include your old and new contact information.

contact information

Get Your Statement Faster

You’ll receive your Statement faster if you choose the email option in Retirement Online. If you choose this option, you’ll receive an email that directs you to Retirement Online to see your Statement as soon as it’s ready. To choose your Statement delivery preference, go to the ‘My Profile Information’ area of your Retirement Online Account Homepage and click “Update” next to ‘Member Annual Statement by.’

You can also receive other correspondence from us by email by clicking “Update” next to ‘Contact by.’ If you choose ‘Mail’ or don’t select a preference, you will receive letters through the US Postal Service.

Note: For security purposes, certain correspondence (like tax forms) will only be sent by mail.

Questions about Your Statement?

Visit our Member Annual Statement page for answers to common questions. Remember that your Statement provides information as of March 31, 2021 — the end of the State fiscal year. However, you can sign in to Retirement Online throughout the year to view current account information.

Please share this post with friends, family or coworkers who are NYSLRS members so they can also check their contact information.

Celebrating 100 Years of NYSLRS

NYSLRS 100

On January 3, 1921, NYSLRS began helping New York’s public employees achieve financial security in retirement. Now – 100 years later – we continue to fulfill that promise.

NYSLRS’ Origins

Governor Alfred Smith
In 1920, Governor Al Smith signed legislation establishing the New York State Employees’ Retirement System.

In 1920, the State Commission on Pensions presented Governor Al Smith a report they’d been working on for two years. The report showed that though there were already pension plans covering 8,300 banking department employees, teachers, State hospital workers, Supreme Court and other certain judiciary employees and prison employees, 10,175 State employees were not covered. To help ensure the financial security of public employees during their retirement years, the Commission recommended that a system be established to pay benefits to State employees – and the Commission wanted a system that would always have enough money on hand to pay benefits.

On May 11, 1920, Governor Smith signed legislation creating the New York State Employees’ Retirement System. By June 30 1921, 43 retirees were drawing pensions. The total amount of their annual pensions was $17,420.16. The first disability pension benefit of $256 per year was also paid.

Still Fulfilling Our Promise After 100 Years

Today, there are more than one million members, retirees and beneficiaries in our system, and NYSLRS is one of the strongest and best funded retirement systems in the country. Last fiscal year, NYSLRS paid out $13.25 billion in retirement and death benefits.

Members of the Employees' Retirement System, 1921
Members of the Employees’ Retirement System gather on the steps of the State Education Department building in Albany, NY in 1921.

Our core mission for the last 100 years has been to provide our retirees with a secure pension through prudent asset management. This has been our promise since 1921 and will continue far into the future.

Sources: Report of the New York State Commission on Pensions, March 30, 1920; Chapter 741 of the Laws of 1920; and Report of the Actuary on the First Valuation of the Assets and Liabilities of the New York State Retirement System as of June 30, 1921.

NYSLRS retirees

Where in New York are NYSLRS Retirees?

NYSLRS retirees tend to stay in New York, where their pensions are exempt from State and local income taxes. In fact, 79 percent of NYSLRS 487,407 retirees and beneficiaries lived in the State as of March 31, 2020. And half of them lived in just ten of New York’s 62 counties.

So where in New York do these retirees call home? Well, there are a lot of NYSLRS retirees and beneficiaries on Long Island. Suffolk and Nassau counties are home to more than 61,000 recipients of NYSLRS retirement benefits, with annual pension payments exceeding $2 billion. But that shouldn’t be surprising. Suffolk and Nassau counties are the largest and third largest counties in the State outside of New York City by population. (The City, which has its own retirement systems for municipal employees, police and firefighters, had 23,700 NYSLRS retirees and beneficiaries.)

NYSLRS retirees

Erie County, which includes Buffalo, ranks number two among counties in the number of NYSLRS retirees, with more than 32,000. Albany County, home to the State capital, ranked fourth with close to 20,000. Monroe, Westchester, Onondaga, Saratoga, Oneida and Dutchess counties round out the top ten.

All told, NYSLRS retirees received $5.9 billion in retirement benefits in the top ten counties, and $10.8 billion statewide.

Hamilton County had the fewest NYSLRS benefit recipients. But in this sparsely populated county in the heart of the Adirondacks, those 499 retirees represent nearly 11 percent of the county population. During fiscal year 2019-2020, $10.8 million in NYSLRS retirement benefits was paid to Hamilton County residents.

Outside of New York, Florida remained the top choice for NYSLRS retirees, with more than 38,000 benefit recipients. North Carolina (9,413), New Jersey (7,893) and South Carolina (6,457) were also popular. There were 639 NYSLRS recipients living outside the United States as of March 31, 2020.

A Snapshot of NYSLRS Retirees

NYSLRS’ Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR), published each fall, has a wealth of information about the Retirement System. Much of it is technical, and it crunches a lot of numbers, but it’s also a good place to learn about NYSLRS retirees.

Here are a few tidbits from the latest edition, which includes data from the State fiscal year that ended March 31, 2020.

NYSLRS Retirees by the Numbers

NYSLRS was providing pension benefits to 487,407 retirees and beneficiaries as of the end of the fiscal year.

Nearly 79 percent of NYSLRS retirees and beneficiaries — some 384,286 — live right here in New York State, and they can be found in every county. Long Island is home to more than 60,000 retirees and beneficiaries, while more than 50,000 live in the Capital District.

Our retirees can also be found in every state. Florida, not surprisingly, is the number two choice — more than 38,000 call the Sunshine State home. North Dakota has the least, with only 21 retirees and beneficiaries. Another 639 live outside the United States.

Where NYSLRS Retirees Reside

NYSLRS Pensions at Work

In the last fiscal year, NYSLRS paid out $13.4 billion in benefits to retirees and beneficiaries, including $10.8 billion in New York State.

These retirees live in our communities, and their pension money flows right back into our neighborhoods. Retirees in New York pay local property and sales taxes, and their spending supports local businesses, stimulates the economy and generates thousands of jobs. Learn more.

An Award-Winning Publication

NYSLRS has received a Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting for the CAFR for the last 16 years. It’s a national award recognizing excellence in the preparation of state and local government financial reports.

To find out more about retirees, members and NYSLRS’ investments, check out the latest CAFR on our website.

Popular Blog Posts from 2020

Here are some of our most popular blog posts from the past year. Not surprisingly, during 2020 members and retirees were interested in information about doing business with NYSLRS online. Fortunately, new Retirement Online features made that a lot easier during a challenging time.

most popular blog posts of 2020
  1. Retirement Online Makes Retirement Fast, Easy
    You can now file your service retirement application in Retirement Online. This convenient new feature can reduce paperwork and save you a trip to the post office.

  2. What to Know About ERS Tier 6
    Employees’ Retirement System (ERS) Tier 6 includes members who have joined NYSLRS since April 1, 2012. It now accounts for 45 percent of all ERS membership. This is a basic overview of retirement benefits for ERS Tier 6 members.

  3. Do We Have Your Correct Contact Information?
    Keeping your mailing address and other contact information up to date ensures that you receive important information from NYSLRS about your benefits. Once again, Retirement Online makes the task easy to accomplish.

  4. Doing Business With NYSLRS
    Retirement Online is a secure, easy way to check your benefit information and conduct transactions in real time. Here’s a rundown of the many features it offers.

  5. Estimate Your Pension in Retirement Online
    How much will your pension be? Most NYSLRS members can use the pension calculator in Retirement Online to get a benefit estimate based on information we have on file for them. You can enter different retirement dates to compare potential benefits.

Final Average Earnings

As a NYSLRS member, you have a defined benefit retirement plan that provides a lifetime pension when you retire. The formula used to calculate these benefits is based on two main factors: service credit and final average earnings. You’re probably familiar with service credit — it’s generally the years you’ve spent working for a participating employer. But what are final average earnings (FAE)?

When we calculate your pension, we find the set of consecutive years (one, three or five, depending on your tier and retirement plan) when your earnings were highest. The average of these earnings is your FAE. Usually your FAE is based on the years right before retirement, but they can come anytime in your career. The years used in determining your FAE do not necessarily correspond to a calendar year. For FAE purposes, a “year” is any period when you earned one full-time year of service credit.

Types of Final Average Earnings

Your tier and plan determine how your final average earnings is calculated:

  • Three-year FAE: Members in Tier 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.
  • Five-year FAE: Members in Tier 6.
  • One-year FAE: Members in the Police and Fire Retirement System (PFRS). Your employer must choose to offer this benefit. It’s not available to PFRS members covered by Article 14 and generally not available to PFRS Tier 6 members.

If you are not sure what retirement plan you are in, you may want to read our recent blog post.

Exclusions and Limits

The law limits the final average earnings of all members who joined on or after June 17, 1971. For example, for most members, if your earnings increase significantly through the years used in your FAE, some of those earnings may not be used toward your pension. The specific limits vary by tier; check your retirement plan booklet on our Publications page for details.

final average earnings

Since 2010, with the creation of Tiers 5 and 6, the Legislature and the Governor have introduced additional limits to the earnings that can be used toward the FAE:

Tier 5

  • Overtime pay is capped — For Employees’ Retirement System (ERS), $20,763.51 in 2021. For PFRS, the cap is 15 percent of earnings.

Tier 6

  • Overtime pay is capped – For ERS, $17,301 in 2021. For PFRS, the cap is 15 percent of earnings.
  • Lump sum vacation pay and wages from more than two employers are no longer included in your FAE.
  • Any earnings above the Governor’s salary cannot be included in your FAE.

Calculating Your Final Average Earnings

Your final average earnings is based on money earned during the period used to calculate your pension. This may include payments you receive after you retire, such as retroactive pay from a contract negotiation or pay for unused vacation days.

Calculating your FAE at retirement can take time because we must collect salary information from your employer(s) and factor in items such as retroactive payments and earnings you receive after your date of retirement. This is necessary to ensure that your pension calculation is accurate and that you receive all the benefits you are entitled to.

Find out more about how FAE is calculated on our website.

NYSLRS Retirement Online Routine System Maintenance

Retirement Online will be unavailable for a few days while we complete routine year-end maintenance. Retirement Online will be offline from 3:00 pm on Tuesday, December 29 until 7:00 am on Friday, January 1.

Using the NYSLRS Automated Phone System During the Maintenance Period

Another way you can get information about your NYSLRS benefits is through our automated phone system, which allows you to get personal account information, order forms and conduct other retirement transactions without having to speak with a customer service representative. The automated phone system is generally available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so you can conduct business with NYSLRS on your schedule.

Retirees can use the automated phone system to:

  • Request that NYSLRS forms be mailed to them,
  • Report a lost, stolen or late pension check,
  • Get tax information,
  • Get information about cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs), and
  • Request a direct deposit form.

Members can use the automated phone system to:

  • Request that NYSLRS forms be mailed to them,
  • Find out if they are eligible for a loan or get their current loan balance,
  • Request that a benefit projection be mailed to them, and
  • Get personalized information about purchasing credit for previous service.

Here are the retiree menu options for the phone system:

automated phone system for retirees

Here are the member menu options for the phone system:

automated phone system for members

Other Ways to Get Information

If you are looking for general information about NYSLRS benefits, you can: