Posts Tagged "Social Security"

Social Security Mistakes Can be Costly

Karen Dobson

Kay Dobson is 68, and it’s time to retire from her job as the jack of all trades at the Augusta Circle Elementary School in Greenville, South Carolina.

But she isn’t quite as ready for her June retirement as she could’ve been. She recently learned that an admitted unfamiliarity with Social Security’s arcane rules cost her about $31,000 for two years of foregone spousal benefits based on her husband’s earnings.

“I had not the vaguest idea that I would be eligible for that,” she said.

Dobson is hardly the first person to make a painful mistake like this. People have all kinds of misconceptions about Social Security, or they lack a basic understanding of how it works – that the government calculates benefits using their 35 highest years of earnings, that the size of the monthly checks depends on the age the benefits start, and that working women, like Dobson, are often entitled to a spousal benefit based on their husband’s work record and earnings.

Two years ago, Dobson could have applied for this benefit, because she’d reached her full retirement age – 66.  But since she didn’t know this at the time, Social Security recently sent her a check for $7,800 for only six months retroactively – typically the maximum period for retroactive spousal benefits.

Her $1,300 monthly checks are starting to come in now too.  When she turns 70, she’ll start collecting a larger benefit based on her own earnings from a long-time career in the school system.

This particular strategy – file for spousal benefits and delay your own – is now available only to people who turned 62 prior to Jan 2, 2016.  The unintended loophole was eliminated, because it subverted the original intent of the spousal benefit, which was designed with an eye to retired households with a low-earning or non-working spouse. (The spousal benefit, in and of itself, remains intact and can be a big help to older households in which a working wife earned less than her husband. If that’s the case, her Social Security benefit would be increased until it is equal to half of his full retirement benefit if she claims at or above her own full retirement age.)

The central point here is that ignorance of program rules can mean substantial losses for retirees.  For low- or middle-income retirees, the consequences can be especially dire since they’re already scraping by. …
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Timing of Social Security Checks is Key

It’s a simple concept. Deposit retirees’ Social Security checks right before their big-ticket bills come, especially rent.

The U.S. Social Security Administration’s current schedule for depositing pension checks in bank accounts is based on each retiree’s birth date– it can be the second, third, or fourth Wednesday of each month.

The problem is that cash-strapped, low-income seniors receiving the earlier checks, on the second or third Wednesdays, can fall into a common behavioral trap: they spend the money soon after it comes in and then can’t cover the rent, mortgages or credit cards due at the beginning of the following month.

According to a clever new study, people who get these early monthly checks are at greater risk of resorting to desperate measures like payday loans than are seniors receiving them on the fourth Wednesday.

Such measures of financial distress are occurring “even though the pay schedule is known in advance,” write researchers Brian Baugh and Jialan Wang.

The advantage of Social Security deposits made on the fourth Wednesday is that retirees can get the big expenses out of the way first, forcing them to make do for the rest of the month with the money they have left. Indeed, people with fourth-Wednesday deposits had fewer bounced checks, account overdrafts, and payday loans, the researchers found. …Learn More

Dependence on Social Security is Striking

Social Security chartA retiree’s sources of money are often described as a three-legged stool: Social Security, pension, and savings.

But many seniors’ financial support looks more like a single, sturdy pillar: Social Security.

This is shown dramatically in new U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) estimates of just how critical the federal program is to millions of older Americans.  The data speak for themselves:

  • One in two retired households counts on Social Security for at least 50 percent of their total income.
  • One in four gets virtually all income – 90 percent – from the program.

The differences among myriad demographic groups also follow the usual socioeconomic patterns, according to the SSA researchers, Irena Dushi, Howard M. Iams, and Brad Trenkamp. …Learn More

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Creating Paths to Latino-owned Business

Rank-and-file workers’ wages have barely gone up since the 2008-09 recession, despite a U.S. job market firing on all cylinders for several years.

Latinos struggle more than most. Take restaurant workers. They are overrepresented in an industry that expanded rapidly post-recession, putting hundreds of thousands of cooks, waiters, and busboys to work. But “those are some of the worst jobs” says Carmen Rojas, who heads The Workers Lab in Oakland, which supports small entrepreneurs.

Food-service and other low-paying jobs not only lack benefits and security but typically don’t invest heavily in training and don’t provide upward mobility, “proving what it means to debase the promise of work away from opportunity and toward survival,” said Marie Mora of the University of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley.

She and Rojas were panelists at a recent Aspen Institute event to discuss Latino economic challenges and solutions. The focus was on new avenues to increasing their presence among small businesses, which are a good fit for their particular interests, needs, and culture.

There are, of course, extraordinary models of success in the Latino community. Maria Rios emigrated from El Salvador as a teenager and has the gumption of a character in a 19th century Horatio Alger novel. In the early years of her multi-million-dollar recycling and waste company in Houston, she drummed up commercial clients by showing up and pointing out their overflowing dumpsters.  “When I see trash, I see opportunity!” she says on Nation Waste Inc.’s website.

“I feel that if I did it, anybody can do it,” she told the other panelists and audience. …Learn More

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Baker’s Dozen: Popular Retirement Blogs

Appropriately, the most popular blogs over the past six months were about retirement, among both the young adults looking ahead to it and the later baby boomers heading toward it.

Based on page view counts, here were the most-read blogs on Squared Away during the last six months of 2017:

Retirement Calculators: 3 Good Options

Why Many Retirees Choose Medigap

Reverse Mortgage: Yes or No?

Why Most Elderly Pay No Federal Tax

The 411 on Roth vs Regular 401ks

Medicare Advantage Shopping: 10 RulesLearn More

How Social Security Gets Fixed Matters

Line chart showing who's spending is reduced: workers or retirees? As more baby boomers retire, Social Security’s impending financial shortfall will become more pressing.

To restore solvency, Congress can either cut Social Security’s pension benefits or increase the payroll taxes deducted from workers’ pay.

Both policies would impact how much is available for households to spend. Researchers at the Center for Retirement Research find that the benefit reductions would have an appreciably larger annual impact on retirees than would the higher taxes on workers. But the taxes would be spread over a longer time period.

The new study looks at four specific policies, two that cut retirement benefits and two that raise taxes.  Each policy analyzed would equally benefit Social Security’s finances.

Gauging their separate effects required using a model to predict workers’ behavior. This was necessary because some workers might feel they should retire earlier if more taxes are being taken out of their paychecks. On the other hand, if their future pension benefits will be trimmed, they might decide to work a few more years to increase the size of their monthly checks.

One option for reducing Social Security payouts would be to delay the full retirement age (FRA) at which retirees are eligible to collect their “full” benefits. A second option is trimming Social Security’s annual cost-of-living (COLA) increases.

A two-year increase in the FRA, to 69, would reduce annual consumption in retirement by 5.6 percent for low-income, 4 percent for middle-income, and 2.2 percent for high-income retirees. …Learn More

Social Security’s Legacy to Ex-Wives, Kids

Social Security Administration poster, 1956

Many women are fuzzy on how Social Security benefits for widows work and even more unclear about the program’s spousal benefits.

I know two of these women. Their situations nicely illustrate how this federal program promotes the well-being of older women and families.

One is my divorced aunt. She was surprised to learn, after my uncle died a few years ago, that her widow’s – or survivor’s – benefit, based on his decades of work as a housing developer, would be double the spousal benefit she’d received while he was alive. Divorced spouses are eligible for the same spousal and survivor’s benefits as still-married spouses, though only if the marriage lasted more than 10 years.

For a more complex experience involving Social Security’s child, spousal and survivor benefits, consider a friend of mine, who married an older man with whom she adopted two baby girls from China.

The couple divorced after 12 years, but John remained a loving older father. He showered his little girls with attention and, as they grew up, spoiled them with shopping excursions to the mall. But one of his best gifts came after he retired: Social Security benefits that provided financial security to his daughters and their mother.

John, like many older men, had difficulty finding steady work, but earlier in his career, he’d been a well-paid executive. On the strength of this earnings history, John signed up for his Social Security pension when he reached his full retirement age. His initial benefit was $2,209. In addition to this benefit, $828 per month went to each of his daughters, who were in elementary and middle school at the time.

Under Social Security’s rules, benefits go to children under age 16 when a parent is collecting a Social Security pension. This continues until the child reaches age 18 (or 19, if they’re still in high school). Each child’s benefit is precisely half of the parent’s pension, but John’s daughters received less than half because they bumped up against Social Security’s family maximum.

When John died a year ago, at age 73, his Social Security legacy continued. …Learn More

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