Archives for May 2019

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2019 Edition: Social Security Made Simple | Adding a Fund to Improve Diversification

Quick announcement: the 2019 edition of Social Security Made Simple is now available on Amazon. To be clear, there haven’t been any major changes to Social Security since the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, so as with last year’s edition, the updates are relatively minor.

For anybody who has not read the book, the outline is as follows:

Part One: Social Security Basics
1. Qualifying for Retirement Benefits
2. How Retirement Benefits Are Calculated
3. Spousal Benefits
4. Widow(er) Benefits
Part Two: Rules for Less Common Situations
5. Social Security for Divorced Spouses
6. Child Benefits
7. Social Security with a Pension
8. The Earnings Test
Part Three: Social Security Planning (When to Claim Benefits)
9. The Claiming Decision for Single People
10. When to Claim for Married Couples
11. The Restricted Application Strategy
12. Age Differences Between Spouses
13. Accounting for Investment Returns
Part Four: Other Related Planning Topics
14. Social Security and Asset Allocation
15. Checking Your Earnings Record
16. How Is Social Security Taxed?
17. Do-Over Options
Conclusion: Six Social Security Rules of Thumb
Appendix A: Widow(er) Benefit Math Details
Appendix B: The File and Suspend Strategy
Appendix C: Restricted Applications with Widow(er) Benefits

You can find the print edition here and the Kindle edition here.

A reader writes in, asking:

“I started a Roth IRA last year, and I currently own the Vanguard Target Retirement 2060 fund. I am planning to add a second fund this year to improve diversification. What would your suggestion be?”

Short answer: I probably wouldn’t add a second fund.

When the entire portfolio is allocated to an all-in-one fund (such as a target date fund or a Vanguard LifeStrategy fund), you don’t have to do any rebalancing, because the fund does it for you automatically. Once you add a second fund to the mix, you will have to rebalance. And once you’ve decided that you don’t mind rebalancing periodically, you might as well just go with a DIY allocation of individual index funds/ETFs anyway, so that you can get the lower expense ratios relative to an all-in-one fund.

Second, adding a new fund would probably not improve diversification in the sense of spreading your money out over a greater number of underlying securities. With a Vanguard Target Retirement fund, you already own four different “total market” funds (U.S. stocks, international stocks, U.S. bonds, and international bonds). For example, adding an allocation to the Vanguard Value Index Fund or the Vanguard Small-Cap Index Fund wouldn’t add any more stocks to the portfolio, because the stocks owned by those funds are already owned by the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund (and therefore owned by your Target Retirement fund).

That said, some people have allocation preferences that are different from “total market” weightings (e.g., they prefer to overweight small-cap stocks relative to their market weighting). And some people have different allocation preferences among the four “total market” components (e.g., they prefer a larger or smaller allocation to international stocks or bonds than what you’d have in your Target Retirement fund).

But target retirement funds are explicitly designed with the goal of being suitable for the “typical” investor. If you can’t articulate something that would make your needs/preferences different from most other people — if you can’t already articulate a particular reason for you to stray from a simple total market allocation such as the one in your Target Retirement fund — then there’s generally no need to do so.

Social Security: It Is an Asset, But Not a Bond

A reader writes in, asking:

“At our local Bogleheads chapter meeting, there was a heated discussion about Social Security, specifically, whether it should be counted as a bond in your asset allocation. My view is that it’s not really an asset because you can’t sell it. But one of the more experienced people in our group was emphatic that it’s a mistake to leave Social Security out of an asset allocation analysis and that it should be counted as a bond because it provides predictable payments.”

This question comes up over and over, year after year — both in my email inbox as well as on the Bogleheads forum.

Social Security is an asset. It’s true that it is not a liquid asset (i.e., you cannot sell it). But even illiquid assets show up on balance sheets. Same goes for lifetime annuities. They are assets, even if they are not liquid.

And yes, Social Security is a fixed-income asset. So it’s more bond-like than stock-like.

But it’s definitely not a bond.

There are a lot of differences between a) having a $2,000 monthly Social Security benefit at full retirement age (i.e., a stream of income with a present value of about $350,000) and b) having $350,000 of bonds in your brokerage account.

Social Security is what it is — and it isn’t what it isn’t.

The desire to classify everything as either a stock or a bond is completely bananas.

For example, do you classify your house as a stock, because its value goes up and down considerably over time? Or do you classify it as a bond, because it pays you “interest” in the sense that you do not have to pay rent each month? (I hope the answer is obvious: it’s neither a stock nor a bond, because it is a house.)

The distinctions between different types of assets are real and useful.

Social Security:

  • Is inflation-adjusted,
  • Will last your entire lifetime,
  • Will not extend beyond your lifetime (or beyond you and your spouse’s lifetimes if married, child benefits notwithstanding),
  • Is absolutely illiquid (i.e., it’s not just hard to sell; it cannot be sold at all), and
  • Is subject to political risk.

By shoehorning that into the “bond” category, you are ignoring some or all of those unique characteristics. You are ignoring useful information.

Relatedly, if you have decided, for example, that you want 40% of your portfolio in bonds, but you haven’t yet decided what will count as a bond, how did you decide that 40% was the right number? Perhaps the line of reasoning that went into that decision had some flaws.

Rather than counting Social Security income as part of your bond allocation, I’d suggest using this method for fitting it into your overall retirement plan:

  1. Determine how much money you plan to spend each year during retirement.
  2. From that, subtract any part-time job or business income you expect to earn.
  3. From the remaining amount, subtract your Social Security/pension income to determine how much you will need to spend from your portfolio each year.
  4. Then make any portfolio-related decisions (including asset allocation) with that net required-spending-from-portfolio figure in mind.

Want to Learn More about Social Security? Pick Up a Copy of My Book:

Social Security cover Social Security Made Simple: Social Security Retirement Benefits and Related Planning Topics Explained in 100 Pages or Less
Topics Covered in the Book:
  • How retirement benefits, spousal benefits, and widow(er) benefits are calculated,
  • How to decide the best age to claim your benefit,
  • How Social Security benefits are taxed and how that affects tax planning,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A Testimonial from a Reader on Amazon:

"An excellent review of various facts and decision-making components associated with the Social Security benefits. The book provides a lot of very useful information within small space."
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