Friday, July 27, 2012

Delaying the Start of Social Security Benefits

I was one of the youngest in my 1968 high school graduating class, which means I’m one of the last of those who have already retired to face the decision of starting Social Security payments at our earliest eligibility, age 62. This decision involves many considerations; I advise talking with an experienced financial advisor to help make sure you understand all the ramifications of early retirement.

I was an actuary and understand the mathematics involved in determining the exact retirement age to maximize the present value of Social Security payments. However, that calculation does not include a crucial perspective: reflecting your risk profile relating to outliving your money.

Unfortunately, because you are a single individual the actuarial mathematics of optimizing when to start Social Security doesn’t apply. It relies on the law of large numbers to provide rational results. You and I are single numbers. We only get to die once (reincarnation is not reflected in Social Security earnings records) and you will either die before or after the actuarially expected time—throwing off the results.

A factor people who have significant retirement assets other than Social Security should give significant weight to is the financial effect if you die “too early” compared to the results if you live much longer than anticipated.

Unless you are already living month-to-month (in which case you probably didn’t have significant retirement assets), if you die “too early” you probably didn’t spend all the money you had available. Your beneficiaries will get more than you hoped they would (you hoped you would spend it not your children or church or whatever). You could have lived a bit higher off the hog. That’s your loss.

If you live “too long,” at some point your standard of living takes a rapid decline. In determining how much you can spend each year, you include Social Security, retirement plan payments and dipping into savings based on a reasonable expectation of how long your savings must last. Unless you are lucky enough to have retired from government, your defined benefit plan payments (if any) are not linked to inflation so over time their purchasing power decreases in value. With good planning, you took that into consideration when you determined how much you could pull out of savings each year.

All of which works fine until you live longer than your plan allowed. Savings can no longer hold up its end of the bargain; the pension plan payments buy less and less each year. Only Social Security keeps up with living costs.

By deferring the Social Security payment start until normal retirement age (66-67 depending on your year of birth) you maximize the portion of your assets indexed to inflation. Let’s say your Social Security normal retirement benefit starting at age 66 is $1,000 a month. If you begin payments at age 62, you will receive only $750 a month. Assume inflation runs at 3% every year (that won’t happen, but it could average out to about that). Here’s what you would get at various ages:

With Age 62 Retirement
With Age 66 Retirement

With Age 62 Retirement
With Age 66 Retirement






During the first four years you are unambiguously better off if you start your Social Security benefits at age 62. Over those four years you will receive around $37,500 in benefits. Assuming a risk-free return equal to the inflation rate, those payments would have an accumulated value of approximately $39,000. You’ll need that money to reimburse yourself for the greater normal retirement benefits you could have been receiving had you delayed your Social Security retirement. Your accumulated pot of money (continuing to grow with interest but shrinking with the make-up payouts) runs out around age 77. From then on you are less well off compared to deferring Social Security retirement.

From a risk standpoint, these later years are just the time you’ll need the extra money because your chances of outliving your life expectancy are now much greater.

For me the choice is easy. I can afford to die “too early” and I won’t be living to regret my decision. However, if I live longer than expected, I’ll have to suffer (or not) the consequences of that decision. Having a larger guaranteed income will be a welcome cushion.

I’m not sure most baby boomers will agree with my logic. The majority of my generation has preferred purchasing perishable consumer goods over saving for retirement. I suspect these people will start collecting Social Security as soon as they can. Many will rue their decision after they’ve run out of money and all they have left are their toys that no longer work.

~ Jim

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