The financial perks of being 50-plus
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If you've made it past your 50th birthday, you have some rewards points to cash in.
Financial perks don't end with the discounts touted in that AARP membership invitation that arrived in the mail well before your "big-five-O" birthday cards. There are dozens of ways to save money -- including some programs that aren't widely advertised -- if you're not too modest to boast about your chronological credentials.
David Smidt, president of SeniorDiscounts.com, advises his website's readers to be assertive about sleuthing out those hidden rewards.
"Always ask," Smidt says. "That's the No. 1 tip we try to get through."
While you might expect to start seeing fewer discounts as the population of boomers and older consumers soars, Smidt says that for the most part, the deals are sticking around.
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"The one area where we've seen pullback is in travel-related sectors," he says. "That's largely due to the takeover of online booking for car rentals, airlines and hotels."
Read on to discover some of the categories in which you can still enjoy a seniority advantage.
Discounts on your cellphone, cable, trash pickup, utilities and property taxes aren't likely to be boldly announced on your statement. But if you can find them, even modest reductions on your recurring bills can pay off big.
"If you are getting a regular bill in the mail, it never hurts to call customer service and ask if there are any discounts that might be available to you as a senior," Smidt says.
One caveat is that some of the discount programs for municipal services impose income eligibility rules.
Occasionally, a cable service provider entering a new market will have a contract requirement to offer a senior discount, according to Smidt.
"There are not many of those around, but we have found them in medium to large cities," he says. "You can find these types of discounts by calling your cable provider. Sometimes they'll post it online, but you may have to do some digging."
Property tax discounts are another perk that varies greatly by location. But considering that the benefit is retroactive in many of the places where it's available, it's worth looking into, Smidt says.
Need to take care of some household repairs? AARP offers a 45% discount on new membership in Angie's List, the popular contractor-review service, says Clay Buckley, AARP's vice president for lifestyle.
Starting at age 50, you can make extra tax-deferred contributions to your retirement plan above the ordinary Internal Revenue Service annual limits. That's a perk that helps you both now and later.
In 2013, the regular contribution limit for a 401(k) is $17,500. If your employer allows the extra so-called catch-up contributions, you can defer an additional $5,500 once you reach 50.
"If you are 50 years old … and you do that for 15 years and you earn 8% on your money ... you'll accumulate $624,499," says CFP professional Karl Byrd, vice president of Security Ballew Wealth Management in Jackson, Miss.
Traditional and Roth individual retirement account owners can put away an additional $1,000 above the $5,500 limit for 2013.
It's up to you and your financial adviser to decide whether catch-up contributions will help you reach your retirement goals.
"Each client's financial circumstances are different with respect to income, assets, liabilities and taxes," says CFP professional John Towles, senior vice president and client development officer at Paragon Commercial Bank in Raleigh, N.C. "I think a good approach is to consider the client's whole financial picture first, including when they plan to retire and how much income they will need during retirement."
While many car insurers apply an automatic discount for customers who have reached a certain age, it's a good idea to check in with your agent every year just to make sure you're not missing any discounts you're entitled to.
You can also save on your car insurance by brushing up on your safety skills. In many states, insurance companies voluntarily offer discounts to those who take a safety course.
AARP's Driver Safety program offers both classroom and online courses -- $15.95 for members, $19.95 for nonmembers. Residents of New York pay an additional $8 fee to the state Department of Motor Vehicles. AARP recommends checking with your insurance company about the availability of discounts and how they are determined before enrolling in a course.
In addition, SeniorDiscounts.com has partnered with I Drive Safely, a provider of driving-safety courses, to offer an online course for $19.95 that qualifies drivers older than 55 for discounts of 5% to 15% on their insurance premiums at participating companies.
In the transportation services trio of planes, trains and automobiles, discounts have all but vanished in the first category, but you can still find plenty of deals on the other two.
Smidt notes that Southwest Airlines seems to be the only airline actively promoting a senior discount program.
"The benefit with the senior discount at airlines is that the tickets are usually fully refundable, and there may not be change fees," Smidt says. "So while the discounts may not be substantial, they provide some flexibility."
Amtrak offers a 15% senior discount on the lowest available fare for passengers 62 and older on most trains. For travelers going across the Canadian border on trains operated jointly by Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada, a 10% discount applies to those 60 and older.
SeniorDiscounts.com and AARP have partnerships with various car rental companies to offer discounts. The AARP website, for example, lists discounts of up to 30%. In July, AARP began offering a free upgrade on car rentals with Avis, in addition to its regular discount, Buckley says.
To make sure you're getting the most savings, check travel websites, and compare their best rates with the ones you get when you call the car rental companies and ask for their senior discounts.
If you've always dreamed of exploring the spectacular scenery of America's national parks, now's your chance to do it for next to nothing.
The National Park Service makes a $10 senior pass available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents who are 62 or older. The pass is good for a lifetime of access to more than 2,000 federal recreational sites -- including the national parks -- plus discounts on such amenities as camping, swimming, boat launching and guided tours.
You can purchase a senior pass at participating federal recreation sites and offices or by mail. Mail orders include an additional $10 document processing fee.
Seniors can also score huge savings on ski vacations. "You can save up to 90% off lift-ticket rates or season passes, depending on the ski area and age requirement," Smidt says.
When shopping for lodging bargains, Smidt recommends you check the lowest rates on the travel sites before inquiring about senior discounts at individual hotels.
"I would say that 50% of the time, you're probably going to get a better discount with the senior discount, and the other (times), there is going to be some special out there where you will get a better rate," he says.
Shopping, dining and entertainment
Senior discounts from retail shops and restaurants are typically added on to any other special deals, according to Smidt. So you can pile on the savings if your timing is right.
Museum and live-entertainment theaters offer discounts of up to 50%, and seniors get in free at some state-owned theaters, Smidt says. With your AARP membership, you can get up to 20% off tickets to Cirque du Soleil performances.
Or how about dinner and a movie? If you take your AARP card to one of the more than 530 Regal Entertainment Group theaters, you can get up to 49% off your popcorn and soda combo. Add that savings to the discount for AARP members at many participating restaurants.
Several major movie theater companies have their own senior savings programs. For example, AMC Theatres gives discounts every Tuesday at select theaters for those 60 and older; Cinemark gives discounts every Monday for those 62 and older; and Landmark Theatres gives senior discounts that vary by locale.