Why We Believe Social Security Will Endure

In planning for retirement, one topic is often top of mind: whether or not Social Security will still be around when we retire.

As we covered in a related post, When Should You Take Your Social Security, most of us have been paying into the program our entire working life. We’re counting on receiving some of that money back in retirement. 

But then there are those headlines, warning us that the Social Security trust fund is set to run dry around 2034. 

Does this mean you should grab what you can, as soon as you’re able? Let’s explain why we agree with Social Security specialist Mary Beth Franklin, who suggests the following: 

“While there may be good reasons to file for reduced Social Security benefits early, claiming Social Security prematurely out of fear is a bit like selling stocks in a down market: All you’ve guaranteed is that you’ve locked in a loss. And if future benefit cuts did materialize, the benefits of those who claimed as soon as possible would be reduced even further.” 

— Mary Beth Franklin, InvestmentNews

Still, Social Security Will Likely Change 

While we don’t expect Social Security to go bust, we do expect it will need to change in the years ahead. As its trustees have reported:

“Social Security is not sustainable over the long term at current benefit and tax rates … [and] trust fund reserves will be depleted by 2034.”

But let’s unpack this statement. First, “depleted” does not mean the Social Security Administration is going to turn out the lights and go home. It means it could run out of trust fund reserves by then, which are used to top off the total amount spent on Social Security benefits. There are still payroll taxes and other sources to cover more than 77% of the program’s payouts. So, worst case, if we did nothing but wait for the reserves to run out, we’d be forced to make hard choices about an approximate 23% shortfall starting around 2034.  

Admittedly, Social Security is between a rock and a hard place. Nobody wants to lose benefits they’ve been counting on or spend significantly more to maintain the status quo. But if we don’t do something to shore up the program’s reserves, our options will likely only worsen. 

In this context, the political will to reform Social Security seems strong, and bipartisan. As Buckingham Strategic Partners retirement planning specialist Jeffrey Levine has observed

“My gut sense is that practically no politician in America would ultimately be happy having to explain to voters why they let Social Security collapse on their watch … That’s not a great message to have to bring to voters, especially older voters who show up at the polls in the greatest numbers.”

As members of Congress wrangle over the “best” (or least abhorrent) solutions for their constituents, they have been submitting proposals behind the scenes, and the Social Security Administration has been weighing in on the estimated effect for each. 

Time will tell which proposals become legislated action, but the range of possibilities essentially falls into two broad categories: We can pay more in, or we can take less out. Most likely, we’ll need to do a bit of both. 

Possible Ways to Pay More In

To name a few ways to replenish Social Security’s reserves, Congress could: 

  1. Raise the cap on wages subject to Social Security tax: As of 2023, earnings beyond $160,200 per year are not subject to Social Security tax. There’s been talk of increasing this cap, eliminating it entirely, or reinstating it for income beyond certain high-water marks.
  1. Increase the Social Security tax rate for some or all workers: Currently, employers and employees each pay in 6.2% of their wages, for a total 12.4% up to the aforementioned wage cap. (This does not include an additional Medicare tax, which is not subject to the wage cap.) As cited in a September 2022 University of Maryland School of Public Policy report, “73% (Republicans 70%, Democrats 78%) favored increasing the payroll tax from 6.2 to 6.5%.” 
  1. Increase the tax on Social Security payouts, and direct those funds back into the program: Currently, if your “combined income” exceeds $44,000 on a joint return ($34,000 on an individual return), up to 85% of your Social Security benefit is taxable, as described here. Anything is possible, but taxing retirees more heavily seems less politically palatable than some of the other options. 
  1. Identify new funding sources: For example, one recent bipartisan proposal would establish a dedicated “sovereign-wealth fund,” seeded with government loans. Presumably, it would be structured like an endowment fund, with an investment time horizon of forever. In theory, its returns could augment more conservatively invested Social Security trust fund reserves. Other proposals have explored a range of potential new taxes aimed at filling the gap. 

Options for Taking Less Out

We could also cut back on Social Security spending. Some of the possibilities here include:

  1. Reducing benefits: Payouts could be cut across the board, or current bipartisan conversations seem focused on curtailing wealthier retirees’ benefits. 
  1. Extending the full retirement age: There are proposals to extend the full retirement age for everyone, or at least for younger workers. This would effectively reduce lifetime payouts received, no matter when you start drawing benefits. 
  1. Tinkering with COLAs: There are also bipartisan conversations about replacing the benchmark used to calculate the Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA), which might lower these annual adjustments in some years. 

These are just a few of the possibilities. Some would impact everyone. Others are aimed at higher earners and/or more affluent Americans. It’s anybody’s guess which proposals make it through the political gamut, or what form they will take if they do. 

Should You Take Your Social Security Early? 

So, given the uncertainties of the day, should you start drawing benefits sooner than you otherwise would? An objective risk/reward analysis helps guide the way. 

Many investors feel “safer” taking their Social Security as soon as possible, to avoid losing what seems like a bird in the hand. However, the appeal of this approach is often fueled by deep-seated loss aversion. Academic insights suggest we dislike the thought of losing money about twice as much as we enjoy the prospect of receiving more of it. Thus, we tend to cringe more over a potential loss of promised benefits than we factor in the substantial rewards we stand to gain by waiting. Put another way: 

You’re not reducing your financial risks by taking Social Security early. You’re only changing which risks you’re taking. In exchange for an earlier and more assured payout, you’re also accepting a permanent, cumulative cut to your ongoing benefits. 

If this still seems like a fair trade-off, consider that Social Security is one of the few sources of retirement income ideally structured to offset three of retirement’s greatest risks: 

  1. Life expectancy risk: In an annuity-like fashion, Social Security is structured to continue paying out, no matter how long you and your spouse live. 
  2. Inflation risk: The payouts are adjusted annually to keep pace with inflation. 
  3. Market risk: Even in bear markets, Social Security keeps paying, with no drop in benefits.  

In short, if you are willing and able to wait a few extra years to receive a permanently higher payout, you can expect to better manage all three of these very real retirement risks over time. 

This is not to say everyone should wait until their Full Retirement Age or longer to start taking Social Security. When is the best time for you and your spouse to start drawing benefits? Rather than hinging the decision on uncontrollable unknowns, we recommend using your personal circumstances as your greatest guide. Consider the retirement risks that most directly apply to you and yours, and chart your course accordingly. 

But you don’t have to go it alone. Please be in touch if we can assist you with your Social Security planning, or with any other questions you may have as you prepare for your ideal retirement.

Emily Balmages, CFP®

Director of Financial Planning, Warren Street Wealth Advisors

Investment Advisor Representative, Warren Street Wealth Advisors, LLC., a Registered Investment Advisor

The information presented here represents opinions and is not meant as personal or actionable advice to any individual, corporation, or other entity. Any investments discussed carry unique risks and should be carefully considered and reviewed by you and your financial professional. Nothing in this document is a solicitation to buy or sell any securities, or an attempt to furnish personal investment advice. Warren Street Wealth Advisors may own securities referenced in this document. Due to the static nature of content, securities held may change over time and current trades may be contrary to outdated publications. Form ADV available upon request 714-876-6200.

When Should You Take Your Social Security?

Ever since President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the 1935 Social Security Act, most Americans have pondered this critical question as they approach retirement: 

“When should I (or we) start taking my (or our) Social Security?”

And yet, the “right” answer to this common query remains as elusive as ever. It depends on a wide array of personal variables, including how the unknowable future plays out. 

No wonder many families find themselves in a quandary when it comes to taking their Social Security benefits. Let’s take a closer look at how to find the right balance for you.

Social Security Planning: A Balancing Act

For Social Security planning purposes, you reach full retirement age (FRA) between ages 66–67, depending on the year you were born. However, you can generally begin drawing Social Security benefits as early as age 62 (with the lowest available monthly starting payments) or as late as age 70 (for the highest available monthly starting payments). 

Retirees are often advised to wait at least until their full retirement age, if not until age 70 to begin taking Social Security. In raw dollars, waiting to take your Social Security often works out to be the best deal for many families. Plus, these days, many of us choose to work well into our 60s, 70s, and beyond. Some analyses have even factored in the cost of spending down other assets while you wait, rather than using them for continued investment growth. The conclusion is the same. 

However, you’re not “many families.” You’re your family. Your personal and practical circumstances may mean this general rule of thumb won’t point to your best choice. Following are some of the most common factors that may influence whether to start taking Social Security sooner or later. 

  • Alternative Income Sources: First, and perhaps most obviously, if you have few or no alternative income sources once your paychecks stop, you may not have the luxury of waiting. You may need to start taking Social Security as soon as possible. 
  • Life Expectancy: If you’re considering the benefits of waiting until age 70 to take Social Security, remember that this strategy assumes you live to at least the average age someone your age and gender is likely to reach. Even if you can afford to wait, you’ll want to factor in whether your health, lifestyle, and family history justify doing so. 
  • Estate Planning: Have you placed a high or low priority on leaving as much as possible to your heirs and/or favorite charities after you pass? Your preferences here may influence how, and from where you’ll spend down your inheritable estate, which in turn may influence the timing of your Social Security enrollment. 
  • Employment: How likely is it you’ll keep working until your FRA? Once you reach it, you can collect full Social Security benefits, even if you’re still working. But until then, your earnings may reduce your Social Security benefits.
  • Marital Status: If you’re married, one of you has probably paid in more to Social Security. One is likely to live longer. You may retire at different times, and your ages probably differ. All these factors can complicate the equation. You’ll want to consider the timing, rules, and outcomes under various scenarios—such as when and whether to take Social Security as an earner, the spouse of an earner, the widow or widower of an earner, or an ex-spouse of an earner—while also factoring in whether you and/or your spouse are still working prior to your FRAs, as described above. Ideal start dates for one scenario may not be ideal for another. 
  • Other Circumstances: Beyond your marital status, there are other factors that may influence your timing decisions if they apply to you—such as if you’re a business owner, you live abroad, you qualify for Social Security Disability, or your children qualify for Social Security benefits under your account. 
  • Income Taxes: We find many pre-retirees don’t realize that up to 85% of their Social Security income may be taxable. Your annual Social Security income also figures into your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI), which can push you past thresholds for incurring Medicare surcharges (beginning at age 65, based on your MAGI from two years prior). Bottom line, broad tax planning may influence your timing as well. 

Degrees of Control 

Clearly, there’s a lot to think about when deciding when to start taking Social Security. Whether you’re going it alone or with a financial planner, here’s one piece of advice that should help: 

Control what you can. Let go of what you can’t.

What do we mean by that? There are many known factors you can include in your Social Security planning. You know your marital status. You can access your Social Security account and/or use a calculator to estimate your benefits. You can make educated guesses about your life expectancy, how long you’ll work, and so on. Also, if you’ve delayed taking Social Security past your FRA, you may be able to change your mind … to a point. You can file to collect up to six months of retroactive benefits if you end up needing the income sooner than planned. 

You can use all of this planning information and more to make reasonable assumptions and timely decisions about when to take your Social Security. 

After that, we recommend going easy on yourself if (or more realistically, when) some of your plans don’t go as planned. Come what may, you’ve done your best. Instead of channeling energy into regretting good decisions, use it to make judicious adjustments whenever new assumptions arise. By consistently focusing on what we know rather than what we hope or fear, we remain best positioned to shift course as warranted in the face of adversity. 

Whether you’re planning to file for Social Security or you’re already drawing it, we appreciate the opportunity to help you and your family make good choices about when, and how to manage your available options. We hope you’ll contact us today to learn more.

Cary Facer

Partner Emeritus, Warren Street Wealth Advisors

Investment Advisor Representative, Warren Street Wealth Advisors, LLC., a Registered Investment Advisor

The information presented here represents opinions and is not meant as personal or actionable advice to any individual, corporation, or other entity. Any investments discussed carry unique risks and should be carefully considered and reviewed by you and your financial professional. Nothing in this document is a solicitation to buy or sell any securities, or an attempt to furnish personal investment advice. Warren Street Wealth Advisors may own securities referenced in this document. Due to the static nature of content, securities held may change over time and current trades may be contrary to outdated publications. Form ADV available upon request 714-876-6200.

The Retirement Handbook: El Segundo Refinery Edition

The Retirement Handbook: El Segundo Refinery Edition

Retirement is just around the corner, and you should be excited. But some of us have many questions and concerns about retirement causing us to feel more nervous than anything else.

We understand these feelings.

At Warren Street Wealth Advisors, we’ve helped many El Segundo Refinery employees navigate this crucial and confusing time, so we put together our Retirement Handbook: El Segundo Refinery Edition.

1. Have a Plan

Nothing else on this list matters if you don’t have a personalized financial plan.

A personalized financial plan is the roadmap to your comfortable retirement. You can know your benefits inside-out and be clever about taxes and investments, but if you don’t have a roadmap for navigating your retirement, you’ll never feel confident along the way.

2. Seriously, Have a Plan

Having a plan is essential for any major life transition, and navigating your retirement with wisdom and confidence is certainly part of a major life transition!

OK, let’s move on…

3. Make Sure Your Retirement Timing is Correct

Eligibility for annual bonuses, vacation days, or vacation payouts should all be considered as you decide when to retire from the company.

Properly timing your retirement date could give you access to more vacation days or eligibility for an annual company bonus. This could all add up to a healthy sum and this should be looked at prior to deciding upon a firm retirement date.

4. Want to Retire Early?

We see it all the time. You’re 57, you want to retire. You don’t want to wait until you’re 59½ to do it, but you know that there’s penalties if you take the money out early. So are you stuck?

Some companies have provisions in their plans that allow flexibility around taking withdrawals which help getting around penalties.

At WSWA, we use these rules to help our clients avoid penalties.

5. Budget for Medical Expenses

Make sure you are budgeting for medical coverage in retirement. A quick call to your benefits department can give you a projection of what your retirement medical benefit would cost in retirement.

A spouse may have a better or more affordable medical plan if they are still working. Be sure to examine all of your options.  

6. Say “Goodbye” to Credit Card Debt

If you have credit card debt, then it’s time for a plan, a budget, and some hard work.

Debt can be intimidating, but you can pay it off! One of our favorite things is a client freeing themselves from the stress of mounting credit card debt. You may just need some help and a plan.

7. Build Up 6-Months Worth of Emergency Savings

We’re always optimistic about the future, but sometimes life takes surprising and difficult turns. Wise financial planning means being prepared for those situations.

We recommend that you save at least 6-months worth of living expenses in case of an emergency. Need $4,000/month to live? Then have around $24,000 in savings & checking. Now, you’re prepared for the ups and downs that life can throw at us at any age

8. Build and Keep a Budget

We get it: it’s no fun to build a budget, but it’s the first step to knowing what retirement looks like.

Get rid of the stuff you don’t use and keep what makes you happy! Not sure where to start? No problem, use our Retirement Tool Kit to make it easy.

9. Weigh All Your Options on Social Security

There is a lot of information out there about what to do with Social Security. Let me boil it all down: you don’t have to take it at 62! When we build a financial plan for a client, we calculate all options for optimizing Social Security.

It’s ultimately your decision, we suggest weighing your options before committing to collecting the 25-30% reduced benefit at age 62.

10. Invest for Retirement

Max out your 401(k). Diversify your investments. Consider hiring a pro.

Make sure your investments are retirement ready. Do you have too much cash? Too much of a single stock? If you have ESOP shares, are you getting the most tax efficiency with them?

If you’re unsure, then having a team on your side can help you get the most out of your plan and make sure your investments match your goals and objectives.

11. Have a Plan

You didn’t think this was going to end without one more reminder, did you? If you’re not sure where to start with your financial plan, that’s OK: we can help.

Contact Us

Schedule a free consultation to talk through your finances and take the first step toward building a confident retirement.

Warren Street Wealth Advisors LLC. is a Registered Investment Advisor. The information posted here represents opinions and is not meant as personal or actionable advice to any  individual, corporation, or other entity. Any investments discussed carry unique risks and should be carefully considered and reviewed by you and your financial professional. Nothing in this commentary is a solicitation to buy, or sell, any securities, or an attempt to furnish personal investment advice. We may hold securities referenced in the blog and due to the static nature of content, those securities held may change over time and trades may be contrary to outdated posts.