One of the big decisions Americans must make as they plant their retirement is when to start collecting Social Security benefits. The popular wisdom is that each year you delay collecting Social Security translates into an 8% increase in annual benefits. The Social Security Administration can afford to goose the payout because (1) it pays you one year less than it would have otherwise, and (2) it collects the interest on the money.
Now comes Sita N. Slavov, a George Mason University economics professor, and four colleagues with a paper, “The Power of Working Longer,” that compares the monetary rewards of working longer versus saving. The bottom line:
Delaying retirement by 3-6 months has the same impact on the retirement standard of living as saving an additional one-percentage point of labor earnings for 30 years.
I’m not smart enough to follow their methodology, so I’ll just assume that they’re right. But they’re making one critical assumption — that Social Security payouts remain the same, even though the Social Security Trust Fund is scheduled to run out in 2033. At that point, payroll taxes will cover only 75% of promised payouts.
For readers of Bacon’s Rebellion, who from my observation are more affluent than the average American, the news gets worse. When the Social Security Trust Fund runs out of money — as seems inevitable, given the bipartisan refusal of presidents and Congress since George W. Bush to touch the issue — you won’t even get 75% of what you were promised. Too many senior Americans rely upon Social Security as their sole source of income, and a cut of 25% would prove devastating. Inevitably, Congress will tweak the program to soften the blow. Thanks to the chronic budget deficits and the massive national debt that will prevail 15 years from now, the United States will be in no position to bail out the program entirely through borrowing.
There is no way to know what a future Congress will do, but I expect it will resort to some combination of borrowing, higher payroll taxes, and redistribution of Social Security benefits from higher-income Americans to lower-income Americans. There’s no way around it: The middle-class will get hosed.
I’ll qualify for Social Security benefits next year. Even though I plan to continue working and earning income, I’m going to start cashing in on the program while I’m still entitled to 100% of my benefits. I fully expect the Trust Fund to run out by the time I’m 80, and I’m arranging my financial affairs to accommodate a 25% to 30% cut in my Social Security benefits by then. In the meantime, I’m making sure I get what I’ve been promised.
I’m also telling my Millennial kids both to start saving now and to plan to work well into their late 60s. Hopefully, modern medicine will help them remain healthy, active and vigorous a bit longer than our generation, so a few extra years of work won’t prove too burdensome.
Nobody should trust the American political class to live up to its promises — especially when the consequences are 15 years down the road.