When to Take Social Security Benefits

Once upon a time, I promised a blog post on when you should take Social Security. Procrastination pays off because The Motley Fool just ran a post that did it for me. The short version: take your benefit as soon as you can (i.e., age 62). The trade-off is to wait and increase your monthly benefit at the expense of lower overall payout from Social Security.

Your “full” retirement age is between 65 and 67, depending on your year of birth. For younger generations, that age will probably increase as the system becomes insolvent. Currently, your monthly benefit increases about 8% for each year you delay your benefits. That could be the right decision if you don’t have enough savings to supplement your benefits. You will need your own savings because the current average Social Security benefit is only $1,372 per month. That’s $16,646 per year, barely above the poverty line for a two-person household. The maximum benefit at “full” retirement age is $2,687 per month ($32,244 per year).

Of course, all this Social Security talk only applies to those lucky enough to reach age 62 while Social Security is still solvent. According to the Board of Trustees, Social Security will pay more in benefits than it collects in taxes, starting in 2034. So if you’re under age 45, you’d better start saving to fund your own retirement. The earlier you start, the better, because of the power of compound interest. Learn more in Basic Personal Finance.

Bubbling Assets Are Not Good Investments

A recent column by Gail MarksJarvis in the Chicago Tribune warned that “Investors Should Be Wary of Bitcoin.” She warns that while Bitcoin has seen 358% gain this year, it’s probably approaching the peak of its asset bubble, and newer investors will get caught holding the hot potato when the bubble pops. They’ll be just like the losers from the 2008 housing crash, the 2000 tech bubble crash, and the Nikkei crash in the 1980s.

I’d like to add a separate warning that also applies to many other alternative investments, like gold or real estate. Often, the rationale for these investments is that they have “real” value or they’re more stable because they don’t rely on the financial system. Really? NOTHING has inherent value unless it can feed you, clothe you, or provide shelter for you. Everything else only has value because people agree on its value.

Take gold, for example. It’s a nice, non-corroding, malleable metal that’s also a good conductor of electricity. What good is it when the economy crashes and the zombie apocalypse starts? You’ll have hunks of metal. That won’t help you grow food or even buy food if there’s none available. It only has value if you find people willing to accept it in exchange for whatever they’re willing to sell.

One of the arguments people use for Bitcoin is that it’s independent of governments and central banks, so it’s more stable than fiat currencies and will survive the pending banking collapse from all the debt problems. Sorry, but nothing that grows at 300% per year is stable. Again, consider the worst case zombie-apocalypse scenario: if the “system” goes and there’s no power generation, what good is cryptocurrency when no one can use a computer to verify you have any?

If you’re really concerned about doomsday economic scenarios, build up a stockpile of food, water, and essential living supplies. If you’re looking for solid financial investments, jumping on an asset bubble is not a long-term strategy.

Financial Discipline Begins with Personal Discipline

You’ve heard the saying, you can’t love others until you first love yourself. The same can be said of your personal finance: You can’t have financial discipline if you don’t have personal discipline.

A new study by CareerBuilder shows that 78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Their survey of 3,462 full-time workers and 2,369 full-time employers showed people struggle to make ends meet even at higher wages. People earning over $100,000 (9%) were living paycheck to paycheck; 28% of those making $50K to $99K do too.

The big problem is behaviors that lead to debt. 71% of those surveyed had some kind of debt and 56% said they would never pay off their debts. The same percentage (56%) save less than $100 per month.

Brittany Jones-Cooper at Yahoo Finance reported on the survey and interviewed a financial planner. He said the first step is to look at non-monetary factors like shopping and drinking in bars to “relieve stress.” The Yahoo story offers a bulleted list of ideas to consider, but it boils down to take personal responsibility. For the most part people don’t live paycheck to paycheck because someone else is not paying them enough. It’s because they are spending too much.

The solution is to create a budget to understand where your money is going. Then develop a plan to cut back the bad habits. You need to have personal discipline to stick to that plan. In time, you’ll learn to live within your means and save at least 10% of your income for the future. It’s all covered in Chapter 3 of Basic Personal Finance.

College Earnings

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce has a bunch of reports “to better articulate links between education, career preparation, and workplace demands.” That means they attempt to determine the value of various college degrees and majors based on employment opportunities and wages.

My last post talked about AA degrees that earn more than BA degrees (based on a Chicago Tribune column that referenced a Georgetown study). The Cashlorette.com also used Georgetown data to rank 173 majors based on median income and unemployment rates.

The top 5:
1. Petroleum Engineering
2. Pharmacy Pharmaceutical Sciences/Administration
3. Geological/Geophysical Engineering
4. Mining/Mineral Engineering
5. Naval Architecture/Marine Engineering

The bottom 5:
169. Studio Arts
170. Human Services/Community Organization
171. Composition/Rhetoric
172. Miscellaneous Fine Arts
173. Clinical Psychology

For perspective, number 1 earns more than three times more than last place: $135K vs. $43K. (Remember those are median incomes.)

Think about the future earnings and jobs potential of your academic major, not just how entertaining (or easy) it might be just to get a diploma. The more you earn, the more you can save.

Car Buying vs. Leasing

Are you looking to buy or lease a car and wondering what the best decision is from a financial perspective? Car and Driver just posted an article based on an interview with Daniel Blinn, a Connecticut lawyer who specializes in automotive financing. Of course, the best way to get a car is to have someone else buy it for you. If that doesn’t work, the next best way (from a financial perspective) is to get a reliable used car that’s as cheap as possible… as long as it’s also a good track car, but that’s for a different blog.

If you must have new car smell, read the C/D post to help decide on buying versus leasing.

How’s Your Financial Wisdom?

After my last post on baby boomers failing their retirement planning, you might have some smug thoughts that you’re doing much better than them. Here’s a little test, thanks to The Atlantic:

  1. Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2 percent per year. After five years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow? A) more than $102; B) exactly $102; C) less than $102; D) do not know; refuse to answer.
  2. Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account is 1 percent per year and inflation is 2 percent per year. After one year, would you be able to buy A) more than, B) exactly the same as, or C) less than today with the money in this account?; D) do not know; refuse to answer.
  3. Do you think that the following statement is true or false? “Buying a single company stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.” A) true; B) false; C) do not know; refuse to answer.

The correct answers are 1-A; 2-C; and 3-B.

Based on a survey by economists Annamaria Lusardi and Olivia Mitchell, only 30 percent of Americans answered all three questions correctly. Their findings are published by American Economic Association (subscription required).

The Atlantic author warns that financial ignorance becomes more devastating in a modern economy. Fortunately, the study authors found that basic financial education can boost someone’s economic situation (by 82% of initial wealth for people with low levels of formal education and 56% for college graduates).

If you’re reading a personal finance blog (or read my book), you probably did pretty well on the test. Try to share your financial knowledge with someone you know who needs the help. They might not even know it. Start with the quiz.

Learn From Boomer Mistakes

A MarketWatch article over the weekend pointed out some important facts about baby boomers being unprepared for retirement. The article claims baby boomers will need $658K in their retirement funds, but the average employer-sponsored defined-contribution plan for boomers only has $263K.

The article goes into specifics on asset allocation, but that’s not important. Let’s look at the numbers to put them in context. Let’s assume these retirees will live 20 years beyond age 65. A $658K nest egg, growing at a conservative 3% real return, will provide $44,228 per year, or $3686 per month. Add the average monthly Social Security benefit of $1,341, and you’re looking at living on about $5K a month. That’s just below the BLS average income for all households, which would give you a fairly comfortable retirement.

The boomers who only have $263K saved up will be living on $2,814 a month (including Social Security). Can you handle living on $2,800?

It’s an important lesson to the rest of us. I’ve never met a retiree who said, “You know what? I wish I’d spent more when I was younger because I have too much money now.”

The article warns that “the typical middle-aged American couple only has $5,000 saved for the future.”

Use this article to learn from the mistakes of others. Plan for your future now. If you’re not saving at least 10% of your income now, you’ll be the example used as a warning to others in the future.

Retirement Mistakes Before Retirement

Here’s an article from Yahoo! Finance that points out retirement mistakes many people make well before they get to retirement:

  1. Not starting early
  2. Not having a Roth IRA
  3. Raiding your retirement account
  4. Cashing out your 401(k)

The article quotes a lot from CPA and “retirement expert” Ed Slott. He points out that starting early and maximizing your Roth IRA every year (age 25 to 65) is basically all you need to do to have a million dollar nest egg. If you wait and start 5 years later, you’ll have $200K less in your nest egg.

Mistake #4 is a big one for people who switch jobs. If your next employer doesn’t have a 401(k) plan, or you prefer to manage the money yourself, you can open a 401(k) rollover account. Simply cashing out your 401(k) will incur a 10% penalty, plus a one-time bill for all the taxes owed. Worse, you’ll be giving up the benefit of future tax-deferred earnings.

If you’re unsure what this all means, check out Basic Personal Finance. You can read the first chapter, which lists the 10 rules of thumb for financial success, for free on Amazon. Chapter 6 shows an example of how tax-deferred investments outperform similar investments in taxable accounts.

Retirement Plan Math

A few days ago, I posted the two basic steps of retirement planning.

Step 1: Figure out what quality of life you want during retirement (i.e., how much you want to live on each year). This will determine the size of the nest egg you need to have ready when you retire.

Step 2: Figure out how much you need to start saving now to get there.

Of course, those makes sense to me, but my inner math teacher feels compelled to elaborate for those who need it (even if they won’t ask for it). The calculation for step 1 is a present value formula for an annuity payment. In this case, the payment (PMT) is the amount you want to draw from your portfolio each year in retirement. The present value (PV) is the amount of the portfolio when you retire. (That could be confusing because it’s a present value, but we’re talking about future money; we’ll deal with that later.) You have to specify a real return for the portfolio (r) and the number of years you want to draw this benefit (n). So, if you start with PV in your portfolio at retirement, you can draw PMT from the portfolio each year for n years until you run out of money. You can solve this with the following formula:


If you’re scared of math, you can solve it in Excel: =PV(rate, nper, -pmt). Because Excel looks at time-value-of-money equations as cash flows, enter your PMT value as a negative number. If you don’t, you’ll get the same absolute value, but PV will be negative… no big deal.

For Step 2, you set that present value to a future value (FV), because that’s what you want your portfolio to be in the future. Now use the future value annuity formula and solve for the payment (PMT), which is the amount you need to invest each year (at a real return, r, for n years) to reach that FV. The formula is:


Again, Excel makes it easy: =PMT(rate, nper, pv, -fv). In this case, add a present value (pv) if you already have some savings started.

Note that the second r and n are not the same as the previous formula. This time n is the number of years you have to save for retirement. The previous n was the number of years you plan to draw on your savings during retirement. Similarly, the r in the PMT formula is the real return you expect to earn while you save for retirement. The r in the PV formula is the real return you expect to earn during retirement (which will probably be lower, assuming safer investments).

This (and lots more financial math) is covered in Basic Personal Finance, but now you have the two most important formulas. You can complicate this by simulating returns to add some realism, or you can simply pad your numbers by using a smaller r in either or both formulas. You can also use a larger n and/or larger PMT in the first formula to pad your nest egg.

Retirement Planning Includes Plans During Retirement

CNBC ran a story last week pointing out an obvious part of retirement planning that they think people don’t consider: “make sure you don’t run out of money.”

They start with the 4 percent rule recommended by “many investors”-only draw 4% of your total portfolio value in any given year. That way, you’re basically living on the gains, and your portfolio remains intact (assuming a 4% real return). Research by Wade Pfau suggests that the 4% rule may be optimistic if people transition their portfolios to safer investments after retirement, hence earning less than a 4% return.

The story then quotes certified financial planners who state more obvious points, that you should consider three things when planning your retirement spending goals:

  • Life expectancy
  • Social Security benefits
  • Taxes

I’ll start with the last one. You have to consider the required minimum distributions from your retirement plans. Try to balance your tax-deferred (traditional IRA & 401(k)s) and tax-free (Roth) distributions to minimize your taxes. Avoid unnecessary portfolio reallocations, which could increase your tax burden for taxable accounts (i.e., don’t use actively managed mutual funds).

When looking at Social Security benefits (for those retired or retiring soon who will actually have them), consider your objectives. Do you want to maximize your total benefits, or do you want to maximize your monthly benefit? For the former, take your benefits as early as possible. If quality of life is more important, and you don’t need the money right away, waiting to draw social security will increase your monthly payments. (I’ll follow up with a post on this soon.)

Life expectancy is a somber topic, but you really do have to consider how long you might be around to make sure you have enough to support yourself in retirement. If you don’t want to put a specific number to it, pick something far into the future (say 100 years old… or 40 years of retirement). Use that number when planning your nest egg requirement. Other alternatives are to plan on smaller returns than you think you’ll get and/or using random returns and simulating your retirement, as shown in my book and discussed in a previous post.

One thing the article didn’t point out is that all the “help” these professional financial advisors give you will cost you 2-3% of your portfolio value every year. That’s the real reason you won’t be able to draw 4% for yourself. It doesn’t take a PhD in finance, or even a CFP, to plan for your retirement. It’s fairly basic:

  1. Figure out what quality of life you want during retirement (i.e., how much you want to live on each year). This will determine the size of the nest egg you need to have ready when you retire.
  2. Figure out how much you need to start saving now to get there.

Take the time to study the basics and make a plan. You can enjoy spending/saving that 2-3% fee on yourself instead of paying for advice you can easily get on your own.