The bottom line:
As you're building up your retirement savings, there are many ways to stretch your money.
Fixed and variable annuities are two options that offer tax-deferred growth on your contributions—though they do it in different ways. You may consider a fixed annuity vs. variable annuity or both as you plot out your retirement income plan.
What is a fixed annuity?
What is a variable annuity?
It may guarantee you'll receive a series of payouts that start when you retire and can last the rest of your life, provided you annuitize (start taking payments). When you begin taking annuity payments, they will depend on the annuity value at that time. Higher gains likely will mean higher payouts. Market losses likely will result in smaller payouts.
Both fixed & variable annuities are tax-deferred
Any interest or other gains in either type of contract are sheltered from current-year taxation; your tax liability will come when withdrawals start.
Differences between a fixed & variable annuity
Let's look at the core features of these annuities so you can decide how one or both may fit with your overall retirement strategy.
The interest rate earned on a fixed annuity contract may be guaranteed for a specific amount of time or the annuity's life. A fixed annuity’s value will not decline due to market losses—it's consistent and stable. On the other hand, variable annuity values will fluctuate with the performance of the subaccounts you elect as the markets rise and fall.
Fixed annuities provide a low-risk, guaranteed interest rate
Earnings on your fixed annuity will highly depend upon its contracted rate when purchased. For example, payout on a fixed annuity purchased when interest rates are high will most likely pay out earnings at a higher rate. Conversely, payout on a fixed annuity purchased when interest rates are low are more likely to pay out earnings at a lower rate. If the interest rate is guaranteed for the length of the contract, earnings will remain constant regardless of the markets or rate activity.
A fixed rate does not mean that fixed annuities are risk-free.
Variable annuities let you tailor your risk level
While you can't land on a fixed rate with a variable annuity, you can choose to invest in conservative or aggressive funds tailored to your risk level. More conservative investment options, such as short-term bond funds, can help reduce volatility in your account. Since fixed annuities offer a set rate, dependent upon current interest rates, they don't offer that same flexibility.
Over time, interest earned in a fixed annuity may lag behind earnings in a variable annuity.
Fixed annuities offer guaranteed growth
Variable annuities may grow more if the market performs well
Because a variable annuity's value is tied to the performance of your investment choices, they offer more potential for growth over the long-term. Investing your variable annuity in equity funds will provide more potential for gains.
The fees associated with variable annuities may be higher than for other annuities. Investment options, death benefits, and optional benefit guarantees that might grow your assets, also add cost. It's essential to evaluate features and associated fees to ensure that you're not spending more than you need to.
The costs associated with a fixed annuity are generally lower than a variable annuity due to less risk and fewer administration fees.
Because your balance is invested in market-based accounts, your variable annuity is exposed to fluctuations and your principal is not guaranteed. It is possible to lose money with a variable annuity.
Fixed annuities are not exposed to market risk since the contract's interest rate is guaranteed in the contract and your principal is protected.
You may incur penalties if you withdraw from either a fixed or variable annuity too soon. The insurance company may impose surrender charges, and the IRS may levy an early withdrawal tax penalty.
- Surrender charges are outlined in the contract and can vary. They start at a certain percentage and then decline over time. For example, the surrender penalty may be 10% in the first year but 9% the next. Some annuities have separate surrender charge schedules for each contribution you make to the annuity.
- Annuity earnings are subject to a 10% early withdrawal tax penalty if taken before you reach age 59½ unless an exception applies. This is imposed by the IRS and applies to all annuities.
Guaranteed lifetime income
Both fixed and variable annuities provide options for annuitizing your balance and turning it into a guaranteed stream of lifetime income.
At-a-glance comparison of variable & fixed annuities
Fluctuates based on market performance
Fixed at a specific percentage
|Exposure to the market|
|Early withdrawal penalties|
Potential surrender charges and taxes
Potential surrender charges and taxes
How much predictability do you want in retirement?
Many types of annuities can help you grow your money into a steady stream of income payments in retirement. You may decide to use both fixed and variable annuities. But if you're choosing one over the other, the differences matter:
- A fixed annuity may be a better option than a variable annuity if you have a more conservative risk tolerance and you seek predictable interest and principal protection.
- A variable annuity may be a better option if you have a higher risk tolerance and want the potential for long-term market-based growth.
Fixed and variable annuities can offer you a degree of customization when building a diverse retirement strategy. Talk with a