Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Happy New Year 2015

A few thoughts to wrap up 2014 and then on to what I hope is a happy and prosperous New Year for us all.

My last post on Game Theory and Social Security Benefits, in which I showed that there is no dominant strategy across the board for claiming benefits, ironically grew into a discussion of which strategies people feel certain are dominant. It was a fun discussion, nonetheless, and your participation is greatly appreciated. I'm happy to keep the discussion of that post open as long as you have questions or opinions. I will tie up the topic (Social Security, not game theory) for now with a couple of thoughts.

First, since most Americans have under-saved for retirement, most will need to claim benefits right away. If you have the luxury of choice, consider yourself very fortunate and then be advised that the rules are quite complex. Unless you’re willing to spend a lot of time studying the subject, buy some software like Maximize My Social Security or find a professional adviser you can trust. I’d do both. This is one of the most important financial decisions you will make and it is, for all practical purposes, a permanent decision. You need to get it right.

Second, be cautious of analyses you read that are based on life expectancy. About half of the population of any age will live longer than their life expectancy and our goal in retirement is to be able to pay for even a very long retirement, not just until our life expectancy.

It is correct to say that if you don’t live beyond your life expectancy there is little to be gained by delaying your benefits in terms of total lifetime payments. You will receive about the same total payments if you claim at 62 and live to your life expectancy that you would receive if you claimed at 66 and lived to the life expectancy of a 66-year old. As retirees, however, we need to protect against the risk that we will live well beyond our life expectancy and that’s when delaying benefits pays off.

Planning on living to your life expectancy is like forgoing homeowner’s insurance because your house probably won’t burn down.

But there are implications of early claiming beyond total lifetime payments. If you claim retirement benefits before your full retirement age (66 for most of us Boomers), you cannot take advantage of a higher retirement benefit that might become available later, for instance. Your benefit is locked in. If you are the higher earner of a married couple and claim early, your spouse’s survivor benefit is also locked in.

If you claim at 62 and live to 70 but your widow lives to 95, your legacy might also be at risk. Imagine her picking up a smallish benefit check at 90, shaking her head and saying, “My poor departed Harry was such a sweet man, but he royally screwed my benefits.”

If any of this is news to you, get some help before claiming.

Next topic, for those of you who showed interest in Moshe Milevsky’s probability of ruin formula, remember to use real (after inflation) returns when running the model. Long term historical real stock returns, for example, should be in the 6%-ish range. Also, the results are not directly comparable to other studies, such as those by William Bengen, that use the SWR model. Those studies assume different fixed life expectancies, like 15, 20 or 30 years. Milevsky uses a life expectancy probability. While Bengen assume a life expectancy of exactly 30 years, for example, Milevsky assumes that the length of retirement is a random variable with a mean of 30 years. They’re not the same thing.

I thank everyone for reading this past year. I especially thank the reader who sent a surprise Christmas gift – it made my holiday season. I hope to see all of you in 2015 when we can continue to try to figure this thing out together.

Our goal is to make sure we can feel secure and be happy in retirement. Make sure you don't forget the “happy” part.

Happy New Year!


  1. It it is a tough decision. A few years ago, my mother decided to take hers early and my dad took his late. Now I have to think about it and my husband just reached the age and decided to take it early. I will probably take mine later but agree it makes sense to consult with a pro. And Happy New Year!

    1. Assuming your father was the higher earner, that was probably a wise decision. The mortality tables tell us your mother will probably live longer and her survivors benefit will then be equal to your father's retirement benefit. Since he delayed claiming his own retirement benefit and increased it, he probably increased your mother's income late in her life.