Why You May Be Overly Optimistic About Your Social Security Benefits

Frank and Joan Shortland

As humans, we tend to be overoptimistic on everything from our driving ability to investment prowess. It’s perennial problem when it comes to money and retirement management.

A recent study found that people routinely over-estimate their Social Security benefits. Two researchers from the University of Michigan found that “Americans face the challenges of retirement with varying degrees of preparation. Evidence indicates that that many individuals may not be making the best possible choices with respect to their Social Security and retirement savings.”

Why do people expect more than what they actually receive in benefits? Here’s what the researchers found:

  • Most retirees find that the amount of Social Security retirement benefits they receive is lower than what they had expected before claiming.
  • Not appropriately adjusting for early or delayed claiming could contribute to expectation biases about retirement benefits. In particular, this would be most relevant for those with lower levels of education.
  • Current workers recognize that they do not have a good idea of what their future retirement benefits will be. Forty-nine percent of our survey respondents declare having no knowledge about their benefit amount.
  • The average expectation bias for monthly retirement benefits in our sample is $307, which equals 27% of the average forecasted benefit for this sample (in current dollars).
  • Men display lower expectation bias and are less likely to overestimate their retirement benefits.

How to avoid these misconceptions? You need to estimate benefits based on the age you intend to claim them and your earnings record. A good place to start is Social Security’s benefits estimator tool.

Since people are living longer and are generally healthier in older age, the Social Security Administration raised the full retirement age to 67 for people born in 1960 or later, up from 65. You can apply for benefits as early at 62, although your benefit would be reduced by 30%. On the other hand, if you can wait until age 70, you will get 124% of the monthly benefit because you delayed getting benefits for 36 months.

Consider how each scenario might impact your retirement planning. Preparing for different outcomes now is the best way to help protect your savings – and peace of mind – down the line.

Planning today can make a big difference in your retirement lifestyle tomorrow. Once you leave the workforce, the years that follow can be all that you want them to be—if you pave the way with a comprehensive financial plan that includes your Social Security income.

Your plan should be based on what you know today and flexible enough to adapt to any changes—like unforeseen personal circumstances or developments that come out of Washington.

Social Security can be a valuable tool to help bridge any gap you may have between your expected sources of income and your expenses.

POINTS TO KNOW

  • Social Security has features for retirees that other retirement savings plans don’t have.
  • When creating your retirement plan, be sure to include your Social Security benefits as an income source.
  • It’s important to have a retirement budget: Itemize your income sources and expected expenses.

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Source: Why You May Be Overly Optimistic About Your Social Security Benefits

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Citations: 

 1, 5, 7, 8 AARP: “How is Social Security funded?” February 11, 2021 https://www.aarp.org/retirement/social-security/questions-answers/how-is-social-security-funded/

2 SSA: “Your Retirement Benefit: How It’s Figured” by Social Security Agency, January 2021 https://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10070.pdf

3 SocialSecurity.gov: “My Account” information collected from www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount

4 AARP: “How much longer will Social Security be around?” September 22, 2020 https://www.aarp.org/retirement/social-security/questions-answers/how-much-longer-will-social-security-be-around/

6 Statista: “Number of retired workers receiving Social Security in the United States from 2010 to 2020” by Statista Research Department, January 19, 2021 https://www.statista.com/statistics/194295/number-of-us-retired-workers-who-receive-social-security/

9 SSA: “Retirement Benefits: Retirement Age Calculator” by Social Security Agency https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/retirement/planner/ageincrease.html

10 SSA: “Retirement Benefits: Starting Your Retirement Benefits Early” by Social Security Agency https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/retirement/planner/agereduction.html

11 SSA: “Retirement Benefits: How Delayed Retirement Affects Your Social Security Benefits” by Social Security Agency https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/retirement/planner/1960-delay.html

12 IRS.gov: “Are Social Security Benefits Taxable?” February 13, 2017 https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/are-social-security-benefits-taxable

13, 14 SSA: “Retirement Benefits: Income Taxes And Your Social Security Benefit” by Social Security Agency https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/retirement/planner/taxes.html 

15 Investopedia: “Do Earnings from a Roth IRA Count Toward Income?” By Denise Appleby, April 8, 2021 https://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/05/iraearningsmagi.asp

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